As I was exploring Angkor Wat, I exited through the eastern gate where there is hardly any traffic because this is the rear end of the temple complex and contains nothing but an entrance that was used by the servants of the king. I went there because I mistakenly went to Angkor Wat in the morning so the face of the temple was shaded and not very photogenic. Rear end, even though it’s the backside, looks just like the front but because nobody ever goes there, I had no people getting in the view so I could take pictures freely. And since the sun was illuminating this side of the structure, the pictures looked nice. Little did I know at the time that I was about to discover a well hidden Angkor Wat Secret Spot.
I was really hot so I walked down the dirt road still used by the locals to deliver supplies to the shops selling junk at Angkor Wat and as I got a bit further from the central temple I stumbled across a stand alone library that no guide book ever mentions. Angkor Wat is really busy in the morning hours because that’s where most organized tours start from so in my attempt to run away from excessive human traffic and heat, I found a secret spot that no foreigners get to see. I walked inside the library to enjoy the shelter from the sun and even though it was extremely hot in there, nobody was around so I could just walk it off with nobody minding my business.
Unfortunately, I know very little about this library. I have found no mention of it in any of the guide books I checked out, it is not shown on any floor plan or map of Angkor Wat, it is not mentioned in any on line guides – it is as if it didn’t exist yet it’s there and it’s larger than any of four libraries within the main complex of Angkor Wat. Make no mistake, though. This is not some other temple. This library is within the walls of Angkor Wat. It is part of Angkor Wat as encircled by the moat but it’s at the east end of the complex and hardly any tourists get that far when exploring Angkor Wat.
I asked my Cambodian friends about it yet most had no idea what I was talking about. The few who did, had no idea what exactly it was and why it was there. Since most stand alone structures have their own names, I thought there would be one for this library but none of the Cambodians I spoke with knew it. What a mysterious pile of rocks, this library!
After much hustle and bustle, with nothing else getting in the way, I was finally laying my first steps across the sandstone causeway that bridges the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. Vastly unhindered, I wiped the sweat off my face into a t-shirt and headed straight against the sun. The wait was over, I am here, exploring Angkor Wat.
Based on Hindu mythology, Angkor Wat represents the center of the universe with five peaks of Mount Maru in its center. Being world’s largest religious monument, the name of Angkor Wat justifies its meaning in Khmer language – city which became a temple. When you go exploring Angkor Wat, you will find yourself within the walls of what was once a magnificent city. Today, Angkor Wat remains an architectural masterpiece of Khmer construction graced by almost 2,000 carvings of Apsaras and 600 meters of narrative bas reliefs.
The sandstone bridge across the moat is said to have replaced the wooden bridge that once existed to connect the outside world with the temple but has decayed overtime. The bridge as it is right now doesn’t have any railings or other barrier to protect people from falling into the moat. The balustrade is a body of a seven-headed serpent but only exists at expanded areas of the bridge. Yet because this is Cambodia and not North America, there were no signs warning people of not coming too close to the edge or risking the danger of falling into the moat. However there was a sign protecting the balustrade from damage that sitting on it could cause. Good call.
Several young boys spent the morning jumping off the bridge and into the moat to cool their bodies off and protect themselves from scorching heat. Others sat on the edge with hand-made fishing rods looking to catch the fish to eat for supper. Even though Angkor Wat is a popular tourist destination, the life for villagers doesn’t stop so they continue doing what they used to prior to the temples of Angkor becoming as popular as they are now. The presence of thousands of tourists doesn’t seem to bother them at all (or maybe it serves as a way to show off).
Few steps lead to the west gopura – an entrance pavilion that serves as a main gateway to the hallways and passages within the exterior wall. Bunch of locals were sitting at the doorway steps making me the only who could not wait to get inside to hide from the sun that was frying me alive.
To the left and to the right of this central gopura there are additional entrances with doorways large enough to allow an elephant through. This gave them the name of “Elephant Gates”. It is quite likely that when Angkor Wat was constructed, there were bridges across the moat each leading to either of the Elephant Gates.
To the right of main gopura there is small shrine still within the outer enclosure which contains a statue of Vishnu. This statue with eight arms is believed to have once been located in Angkor Wat’s central sanctuary (while the temple was still dedicated to Hinduism).
As I continued exploring the insides of the exterior wall, I noticed that there were many, randomly placed statues of both Buddha and Vishnu (mostly Buddha) there. You could tell one was nearby by smelling the essence of burning sticks. There would usually be some locals knelt before the statue, praying to the deity it represents holding their own incense stick firmly clasped between their palms. On top of people praying though, there would also be scam artists, often involving old women with shaved heads (female version of a monk) who would hand you a burning stick and prompt you to put it with all others in a holder at the statue’s feet for good luck and fortune, but the catch is that they would insist on a donation which as they claim would go to the monks and to upkeep the temple. This is obviously a scam. None of the money will be used any way other than personally by the person who gets it from you. These people hang around the spots where tourists go and abuse the holy place and the divinity portrayed for their own enrichment. They work with the moment of surprise, appearing next to you out of nowhere, handing you the incense stick. Unaware what to do, it is a natural instinct of a foreigner to take what is offered to the, so as not to offend anyone and show respect for a deity that may be anticipating this action. Unfortunately, once you take hold of an incense stick, it will be difficult to talk your way out of handing the money over. If anything is handed to you, don’t ever take it or it instantly means that you have to pay for it.
Even though passages inside the walls provide shelter from the devastating rays of Cambodian sun, they won’t offer many opportunities to cool off. It’s as hot or hotter within those stone walls as it is outside on direct sun. The sun roasts the stones every day and that heat radiates back keeping the corridors at the boiling point. You basically have nowhere to hide from noncompromising heat and unless you keep well hydrated, Angkor Wat is gonna burn you out sooner than you’d care to admit.
There is no electricity in any of the temples hence no chance of stepping in an air-conditioned room or at least as little as a fan to wash the sweat off your brow. Exploring Angkor Wat is an extremely hot and sweaty effort. I’ve met several people who underestimated Cambodian heat, purchased three day passes to Angkor but only used their first day. They could not handle any more of that heat and let the rest of their entrance pass go to waste.
Since there is no electricity within Angkor Wat, the only source of light is through the windows which are evenly distributed throughout the walls. Windows are nicely decorated with lathe-turned balusters keeping the awe ongoing no matter which part of Angkor Wat you are exploring at any given moment.
As the name of the temple suggests, Angkor Wat was once a city. The scale of the city became evident after I exited the passages inside the exterior wall and stepped back down onto a causeway that follows through until it reaches the cruciform terrace staircase of the central temple 350 meters further. Only houses of Gods were built of stone, human dwellings were built of wood and have long since been claimed by the decay of time. Vast, open areas on both sides of the causeway once housed dwellings for people who resided in Angkor Wat. Even king Suryavarman II’s castle was made of wood and is believed to have been located just north of the central temple. People did not live within the structures we see at Angkor today. Human dwellings are all gone. What is left are mountain-temples built for the gods, such as Vishnu to whom Angkor Wat was dedicated.
Causeway is decorated on both sides with balustrades in the form of seven-headed serpents locally known as “nagas”. There are seven nagas on each side of the causeway. After about 50 meters, each of the nagas turns and that’s where an access point to the original city from the causeway is created. You can take the steps down to walk on the grass or to get to the libraries which are each on one side of the causeway further ahead.
Since it was an early morning and the temple ahead of me was not very photogenic due to strong backlight created by the rising sun, turning around to take pictures of the gapura behind me was awesome. There are some apsara carvings on the insides of the exterior wall which look great in the morning light and the whole wall also makes for some decent photos on its own.
Libraries are stand alone buildings with doorways on each cardinal point and are believed to have been shrines, rather than manuscript repositories. They are not that big on the inside, but the space gains on volume thanks to their height. They are otherwise empty and don’t attract that many people. Just as the rest of Angkor Wat, you will find temporary refuge from devastating sun rays, but no feeling of cooler air whatsoever. It’s as hot or hotter within the libraries as ancient stones bombarded by unceasing sunrays radiate heat of their own turning each of the libraries into a sauna.
Further ahead of the libraries are two ponds. The one on the left is where best pictures of Angkor Wat can be taken from. You can get the shape of the temple reflected by the waters of the pond and that simply can not be beat. There is no better spot to take pictures of Angkor Wat anywhere within the enclosure. Perhaps from the air, if you took a helicopter tour, then you could match the awesomeness of the pond picture, but unless you shell out for an option to get aerial shots, this is your best spot. Again though, it’s gonna look like crap in the morning because of strong backlight, however you do have to come back in the afternoon anyway so when you do, that’s where you’re gonna go to get your best shots of Angkor Wat.
It is said that the ponds have not been the part of the original design of Angkor Wat. The space they occupy was originally dedicated to the dwellings of city’s residents but after the city was abandoned and houses fell apart (16th century?), ponds were created in their place. The cruciform terrace that’s at the top of the staircase starting at the end of the causeway bears architectural elements that differ from the rest of the city making scholars believe that it was also added later.
Cruciform terrace contains a gopura that leads inside the central temple. Since the terrace is elevated, turning back and facing the sun illuminated area which was once a powerful and prosperous Khmer city offers yet better impression of its scale. Hidden under the line of trees along the northern exterior wall are stalls with beverages, snacks and souvenirs. You need to allow about (understand “at least”) two hours to properly explore Angkor Wat and take my word for it – 15 minutes under Cambodian sun is more than enough to handle at one time. By the time you have gotten to the cruciform terrace, it’s actually time to walk back down to hide under the trees and recharge bodily fluids with cold water or, better yet – fresh coconut. You’ll need more energy for the next step – exploring the Angkor Wat central temple.
While Angkor Archaeological Park is full of visually breathtaking temples, Angkor Wat is without doubt the most spectacular one. This photo gallery showcases Angkor Wat in the morning light. I have already offered an important Angkor Wat Photo Tip in a post suggesting the best itinerary for an Angkor Wat tour and this photo gallery will demonstrate with images why morning is NOT the best time to visit and/or photograph Angkor Wat.
One exception to the rule would be to come to Angkor Wat way early in the morning – before the sunrise. Since visiting hours start at 5am, if you are an early bird and can get up and get ready before 5 so you can get to Angkor Wat just before the sun breaks over the horizon, you would be able to capture the silhouettes of Angkor Wat against the colored morning sky without the sun creating strong backlight.
Obviously, you would have to be a truly dedicated photographer to undertake the pre-sunrise mission as it requires an extremely early get-up and once you got the pictures, you will have to move somewhere else as Angkor Wat will not be photogenic for the rest of the morning.
I could never do that which is why I don’t have any photos of Angkor Wat at the sunrise in the gallery. I’m a night owl, I go to bed at 4am. I can work till late, just don’t ask me to get up early. The best I can do it 8am but there better be a something worthwhile waiting there for me. Luckily Angkor Wat is definitely worth it and even though photos from the morning hours don’t do it justice and make it look flad, almost two-dimensional, it is still an architectual and artistic masterpiece with amazing carvings on the walls that can be photographed at any time of the day. Enjoy the gallery – pictures of Angkor taken during afternoon light when the sun illuminates the face, as well as during sun set and rain are in separate galleries:
Angkor Wat is not only the most famous of all the temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park, it is also the nearest to Siem Reap, from where you will be starting your tour so it’s expectedly the first ancient temple each first time visitor to Angkor area goes to see. The small circle tour – the most popular itinerary because it covers all of the biggest, most famous and most important temples has Angkor Wat as its first stop if you start the circle in the clockwise direction. This may seem like the best itinerary scenario because you naturally tend to want to start your tour with the nearest point of interest first and progress your way along with the next nearest, until you have covered the entire circle.
This is exactly what I was thinking when I took a closer look at the map of the Angkor Archaeological Park and this is also what every guide book recommends. Unfortunately, this is the worst way to take the small circle and I really can’t believe none of the guides tells you that. Let me say it again, when you start your tour of the Angkor Archaeological Park and do the small circle to cover all of the most impressive temples first, do it in the counter-clockwise direction, not clockwise, the way it would seem natural and the way all of the tourist guides would have you do it. The reasons are simple (just for some reason nobody considers them):
All of the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park face east, except from one – Angkor Wat. Because of that, if you start your itinerary by going to Angkor Wat in the morning, the sun will be illuminating the back side of the temple making for truly tough back-lighting, difficult photography conditions, detail lacking pictures even if you know how to set up your camera for difficult lighting and because Cambodian sun is extremely intense, you’re gonna have a hard time getting a decent capture no matter what.
But there is yet another important reason why you should go counter-clockwise – everybody else goes clockwise. Angkor Archaeological Park gets visited by thousands of people every day. Virtually all of them will go to Angkor Wat in the morning – at around the same time as you and will do the small circle by following the road in clockwise direction. You could spend hours upon hours waiting to get a picture of the temple without dozens of people in the view, yet you won’t get it. You will have hundreds of people to share the temple with and as you move from one temple to another, all of those people move in approximately the same time. The feeling of being in overcrowded spaces will follow you all along. But that’s still not as bad as the next reason why not to go clockwise:
All of local peddlers, touts, beggars, hustlers, scam artists and other obnoxious individuals preying on thousands of tourists visiting Angkor Archaeological Park know that virtually every visitor to the area starts with Angkor Wat and progresses on clockwise through other temples on the small circle so they move in approximately the same speed to ensure they are at the spot where the concentration of tourists is the highest. As such, you are guaranteed to get tons of them on every step of your way, harassing you all the time. They will move as you move and will be on your ass in vast numbers whole day. Whereas if you go counter-clockwise, you will only get the stationary peddlers who operate on the same spot all the time. This eliminates a lot of hassle and headache.
Don’t be silly like I was. If you start your journey with Angkor Wat, you will soon realize that the pictures don’t do the temple justice and will start planning for your next visit in the afternoon hours. The way Angkor Wat looks in the afternoon when sun is in the west and illuminates the front is way superior to the way it looks in the morning. Besides, going clockwise doesn’t merely screw your light for Angkor Wat.
Because Angkor Wat is the only temple facing west, if you take the clockwise itinerary, you will slowly progress your way to the temples on the eastern side of small circle, including magnificent Banteay Kdei and huge Sras Srang moat, and when you get to those, the light for them temples will be on the wrong side again.
You definitely want to start with Banteay Kdei in the morning to have it nicely illuminated by the morning sun, catch the sunrise as it emerges above Sras Srang and move along in the counter-clockwise direction until you make it to Angkor Wat, when sun is in the west and illuminates the front of it, making all fine details stand out and shine. This is the best itinerary you can arrange for when you are planning your Angkor Wat tour. Don’t start the tour by going to Angkor Wat first. You will miss out on wonderful sunrise over Sras Srang, will catch both Angkor Wat and Banteay Kdei in strong backlight and will have hundreds of other tourists around you to share the temples with. And that’s on top of dozens of hustlers who will follow you around. The best itinerary for the small circle Angkor Wat tour is by going counter clockwise, starting with Banteay Kdei and ending with Angkor Wat.