Our first day at Angkor was epic.
I had a highly researched plan, examined from every angle and committed to heart. But when our tuk tuk driver seemed to have a different idea, I adopted my new go-with-the-flow attitude and just trusted we’d get to everything on my list, albeit by a different route. We started out at the big one, Angkor Wat. I’ve read recommendations to do the opposite, as starting with the most impressive sight can make the rest a bit of a let down. I can see that point, but I think seeing it right at the start is a good overview and intro to the complex.
Angkor Wat deserves all the cliches. My Dad had brought over the July issue of National Geographic from the states, featuring a cover story on Angkor. The maps, photos and story had me more excited than ever to get my first glimpse of the place, and the real thing didn’t disappoint. According to Canby Publications guide, the best temple by temple resource I found:
Angkor Wat is visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking. It is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level… the centerpiece of any visit to the temples of Angkor. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an exterior wall measuring 1300 meters x 1500 meters.
Angkor Thom was next, a walled in complex that you can explore for hours. Though we walked around the whole thing, the highlight was really Bayon. Bayon is famous for the postcard worthy carved faces on its 37 standing towers. We had a lot of fun exploring this site and all the photo ops it had to offer. If you come to Angkor, you can’t miss Bayon.
Almost as fun as Bayon itself were the monkeys that hang around all day, to the delight of tourists and young entrepreneurs selling monkey snacks alike. When we stopped to have a look, one of the greatest photo ops of all time ensued, and I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves:
After an air conditioned lunch break we headed out to one of Angkor’s new tourist attractions, a hot air balloon ride. The tethered balloon goes straight up 200 meters for an aerial view of Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng (where we would go for sunset) and the surrounding jungle. While it was kind of the junior varsity as far as hot air ballooning experiences go, I had never been and found the whole thing to be a fun experience for only $10USD a person, a good alternative to the hundreds of dollars a helicopter ride for a similar aerial view would cost. Be warned that it will be near impossible to get impressive photographs without a zoom lens.
To finish off our first day of temple hopping we made our way to Phnom Bahkeng, the tourist go-to for sunset watching. According to Canby:
Bakheng is the first major temple to be constructed in the Angkor area. Its hilltop location makes it the most popular sunset location in the area, offering a view of the Tonle Sap Lake and a distant Angkor Wat in the jungle. The temple is usually overcrowded at sunset, sometimes even completely overrun by tourists.
We figured it must be crowded for a reason and embraced our camera-totting map-squinting sides as we made our way up the hill. On elephants. Yes, we handed over our $15USD a person, climbed onto the nifty wooden tree platform for getting onto the elephants, and made our lazy, bumpy way up the hill. (Note from the future: I’ve since learned a lot about elephant tourism and would not chose to ride an elephant again. Learn why, and what alternative exist, here.)
It was as crowded as everyone says, and due to cloudy weather and a lackluster sunset that meant lots of disappointed people. But we didn’t mind so much. I had checked off many firsts on my first full day in Cambodia: first sighting of Angkor Wat, first theft by monkey, first balloon ride, and now first elephant ride. An epic day indeed.