When most people think of Cambodia, they tend to think of one of the most beautiful and iconic symbols of the country – Angkor Wat. A world famous UNESCO World Heritage site, Angkor Wat, which literally translates to “Temple City” in Khmer, is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world (along with being one of the largest religious complexes in the world) spanning nearly 402 acres just to the north of Siem Reap. The massive temple was built in the first half of the 12th century, initially dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but by the end of the 12th century it became a Buddhist temple and remained so for many centuries. It was designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the gods in both Hindu and Buddhist faith, with the five iconic representing the five peaks of Mount Meru.
Thanks to our hotel Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor (read about our stay here), they helped us arrange a private, half-day tour with a driver and a tour guide who would take us around Angkor Wat. While there are other group tours available, we wanted to be able to move at our own pace and enjoy some quieter parts of the temple where crowds were not particularly heavy. Angkor Wat is very popular with tourists when they come to Siem Reap, as it is one of the many main attractions in the city. The temple is only a 15 minute drive from our hotel, so after stopping to get our special passes (and a few extra bottles of water), the four of us made our way to Angkor Wat.
Our tour guide chose to have us enter the property from the back instead of the usually busy front entrance, since it was less crowded. He also mentioned that the back entrance was the royal entrance, and since he was in the presence of “royalty” he thought it would be appropriate. We entered through the Gate of Taku, right next to a 1000-year old former library for monks. Covered in moss, the impressive structure is not off limits so we were able to climb the steps and walk inside. Centuries of fungi and bacteria on the building have turned the original beige sandstone into a dark rosy color, with vines and other greenery growing around it. The building is preserved and looked after very carefully so that it still stands today.
As we walked down a short pathway in between some trees, we could see it staring back at us from a distance – Angkor Wat. After years of seeing photographs online and in travel books, here she was, such a majestic, historical structure, in all her beauty. The sun disappeared behind some dark, heavy clouds, so we knew a big summer afternoon rainstorm was imminent. We continued to make our way to the back entrance of the temple, where only a handful of other people had also chosen to enter. This entrance was much more calm and private, unlike the popular main front entrance filled with hundreds of tourists. We crossed across the grass and climbed the steep steps up into the outer walls of the temple.
Before stepping inside, our guide pointed out some spectacular details I would have probably missed had I visited on my own. He showed us that the entirety of Angkor Wat’s outer walls within the inner corridors are filled with thousands of minutely detailed engravings, with the engravings depicting the story of a battle between a king and a demon, with the king’s army of monkey soldiers and the demon’s army taking up most of the battle depictions. It’s a bonus if you can try to find the king and the head demon.
After walking around the perimeter walls, we then stepped inside the inner courtyard, where the dominating towers and high temple towered over us. Where we stood in the large, expansive inner courtyard is where citizens would come to pray at the temple. The daunting 40m climb up the steep steps to the high towers was reserved for dignitaries only. Separate sturdy wooden steps were built on top of one side of the old steps, so that tourists can safely climb up. It’s still a steep climb, and you need at least one hand on the railing to ascend.
As soon as we reached the top step, the dark skies opened up and rain began to pour down on the temple. The stairs were cordoned off, since the rain had made the steps too slippery while the afternoon storm raged on. You could neither ascend or descend from the top. This meant we were stuck up in the high temple until the rain dissipated. Our tour guide remained down below and signaled to us he would wait for us once we were allowed to climb back down. For now, he encouraged us to explore the temple.
The view from up top was incredible. Even with the rain coming down in buckets outside, we could see the entirety of the complex from the corner towers. In fact, we could see for miles from where we were. Nearby, we could hear an active Buddhist temple holding a service, with the sounds of prayer and the summer rain making such a poetic melody. The courtyards surrounding the towers were now empty, with most tourists taking refuge within the temple’s many corridors. Inside the high temple, we spotted several tourists taking a moment to light incense sticks and offer a prayer.
When the rain finally decreased to a light drizzle, we were told we could descend the steps but we had to hold on to the railing with both hands. We carefully climbed down and met up with our tour guide, who had sought cover from the rain under an umbrella with the guide overseeing the safety of the stairs. The main inner courtyard was now mostly deserted, with many guests either still up in the high temple or having left the temple complex altogether due to the weather. We saw blue sky begin to chase the dark clouds away, so we knew we would get some sunlight shortly. With the lack of guests now, we were able to explore more parts of the inner courtyard and our guide even had fun acting as a sort of creative director in how to get some really cool photographs of the temple. We continued to wander through corridors and rooms within the complex as we made our way to the front entrance, which was also not as busy as it typically would be thanks to the rain. The sun had officially come back out to play, but the cooling rain had added a much needed refreshing break from the heat and humidity.
At this point in the tour, our guide explained to us some of the most recent history of Angkor Wat, including during the time of the Khmer Rouge control. The temple was in the middle of an extensive restoration at the time, which was halted by the Cambodian Civil War. Despite bullet holes that can still be seen within the temple, surprisingly Angkor Wat actually suffered little damage during the war. It was immediately after the war that the most damage occurred, when art thieves decapitated every statue and destroyed even newly reconstructed symbols throughout the temple. In 1992, it officially became a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as being a symbol for cultural heritage and great national pride for Cambodia. It is the most visited site in all of Cambodia, with over 500,000 people from around the world making the trek to visit the temple each year. With that said, it’s become a large part of Cambodian tourism.
After passing some more libraries, we finally emerged on to the Terrace of Honor, one of the most photographed spots in Angkor Wat. This is part of the main entrance that is very familiar to most who come to Siem Reap to explore the temple. We walked along the pathway towards the famous two reflecting ponds in front of Angkor Wat. Our guide escorted us to the southern pond where we got to see the most iconic view of the temple as it reflected in the water. Where we stood is actually a very popular spot for photographers to come and photograph the temple at sunrise. It was now nearing 1 pm, and we needed to get back to the hotel to change for dinner at Villa Chandara, so our tour guide escorted us over the moat surrounding the temple complex via the Sandstone Cause Way.
As we turned around one final time to look at the majestic Angkor Wat behind us, we felt even more connected to Cambodia. We learned a lot about architecture, history, religion, and art in our 3-hour private tour, and we wished we had more days scheduled on our trip to go and visit the nearby temples of Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple. For now, they are at the top of our list for when we return to Cambodia. Cambodia thrives on tourism, which unfortunately has taken a massive hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to international travel restrictions and Cambodia’s borders being closed to tourists for a year and a half, the usually popular Angkor Wat has been mostly deserted. Here’s hoping we can visit this incredible site very soon and bring tourism back to Cambodia.
So what do you wear to visit Angkor Wat?
Despite Angkor Wat no longer being an active temple, you should still show a sign of respect with your wardrobe. Like with any religious house, it is imperative that you keep your shoulders covered, even in 100 degree heat and 100% humidity. Your knees must be covered, so short skirts and short dresses are not acceptable. However, long skirts and long maxi dresses are fine as long as they cover your knees. The reason why I would avoid wearing a dress or a skirt is because of all the steep steps you’ll be climbing at Angkor Wat. In my opinion, pants are the better option. Keep in mind that Angkor Wat is several centuries old, so you’re very likely to get a little dusty and dirty while exploring.
My Recommended Outfit
My recommended outfit would be pants and a button down shirt with a crop top underneath (I do not recommend wearing a bra as the heat and humidity might make it uncomfortable to wear). I’d highly suggest looking for clothing made of linen when exploring Angkor Wat, especially in the summer months since linen keeps you cooler than cotton. My pants were made of linen and my button down shirt was made of cotton, but I found myself very comfortable while exploring. I also opted for sandals instead of sneakers, but it doesn’t really matter what footwear you wear as long as you avoid anything with any type of heel.
Button Down Shirts
Crop Tops (must be worn under blouse)