Angkor Wat? Skip it.

Cambodia is raw, undeveloped, wild and real. Its rural villages and the small towns it calls cities hum along undisturbed alongside its far more modern neighbors of Thailand and Vietnam. It seems odd to me that this Asian jungle country’s most famous attraction is not simply the land itself, in which three million people were recently murdered by an insane leader, but an old complex of scattered, crumbling, not so special temples.

Some people will spend three days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat, located just outside the northern town of Siem Reap. Three days. After reading about Angkor Wat, I decided if this amount of time was necessary for some people, two days would suffice for me. Then, at the last minute, I decided to downgrade to one. Because I was getting over a pretty bad spell of sickness, I ended up taking a tuk-tuk rather than cycling the grounds. The speed with which I was whipped from structure to structure allowed me to realize that half a day is completely sufficient at Angkor Wat. At nine hundred years of age, it is understandably crumbling. But the structures which remain from its heyday are really, in my opinion, not worthy of the awe inspired by its mention. I suggest if you’re going to visit Cambodia, you can give Angkor Wat a pass entirely.

The sight that comes to mind when you think Angkor Wat are the much-photographed spires of its main temple. I found that these are not very impressive in real life. If you want to see the classic view, you need to be elevated, close up and at a certain angle. No means existed for climbing up high to capture the classic Angkor Wat view in all its glory, but from inside another temple I did get a pretty good shot.

Angkor Wat as seen through the stone window of another of the temples in the complex

I temporarily found a wedding party hanging out on the temple grounds more interesting than the temples themselves. Ladies whom I assume were bridesmaids were stunning in orange.

Bridesmaids in orange at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Since Angkor Wat is a temple and not just a tourist attraction, there are a few makeshift areas set up inside some of the buildings for Buddist worship. Unlike Muslims, Buddists don’t seem to mind being photographed while worshipping. I hope.

Two Buddhist girls worshiping at an alter in Angkor Wat

Much of the complex is currently being renovated, which actually wasn’t too distracting at all.

Ongoing renovation at Angkor Wat, outside Siem Reap in Cambodia

One very cool aspect of visiting Angkor Wat is a wooded area on the left side of the road that leads from the first to the second temple. Here, as we tuk-tuk’d past, I saw, for the first time in my life, wild monkeys! I’ve always wanted to frolic with monkeys, so on the way back from seeing each and every let-down of a building that is Angkor Wat, I stopped to play.

Little monkey staring directly into my camera at Angkor Wat

Truly, this Cambodian wonder is not worth the hype. I was actually more impressed with the Aztec ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico. This is not to say that Angkor Wat is a total dud, though. If you’re going to exist for 900 years, you’re probably going to end up somewhat ruined. Much of the site consists of ruins, and ruins are always interesting.

Fallen stone lying at Angkor Wat

I hate to say it but my very favorite aspect of Angkor Wat was watching six small children near the exit singing a little song while using cute little rolling hand motions. Of course, their strategically placed adorableness, at the end of a long, hot journey through the templex complex, was designed to catch you at your weakest so you’d place money in their little tray in the dirt. Local logic has it that you shouldn’t give them money because it encourages them to continue begging. So of course, I didn’t, right? I’m not telling.

Six children singing and begging for money at Angkor Wat

29 Comments Post a Comment
  1. John Hunter says:

    I must say I want to go to Angkor Wat very much. Your title worried me :-( The post though just reminds me that I do want to see it.

    Those kids do look great. And that type of begging beats the hordes of people trying to sell junk to tourists. I guess you are right that encouraging them to essentially have to work is not great in some ways. On the other hand you can see plenty of rich kids on you tube singing and being taped by their parents to put on youtube…

    I’m jealous of you – even if you are not jealous of your own chance to spend a day there.

  2. Gray says:

    I think when it comes to any famous site, whether or not you’re going to enjoy it totally depends on your personality and tastes. I think you make a good point though–it might be a good idea to be flexible, and just spend a day at Angkor Wat, and then if you really like it, have some flexibility of schedule to spend more time there, but otherwise, move on. It looks like the kind of thing I would not want to skip entirely, but how much time I spent there would be open to debate in the moment.

  3. Sophie says:

    I understand what you mean. Years ago, I visited the Great Zimbabwe, and like Angkor Wat, it’s mostly crumbling stones. When I was there, I had the place almost all to myself and that made it special. Easier to picture life, the people that must have been there – or passed by – in the past, when not disturbed by tons of people snapping photos and being loud.

    When we go to Cambodia, we’ll have a look Angkor Wat, although I’m sure a morning will suffice. Just can’t skip it entirely.

    The picture of the children is lovely. Are you in the area for long? Have you been in Laos yet?

  4. Alouise says:

    I’ve never been to Angkor Wat, but I’ll admit I do want to go. I’m glad you’re honest with your opinion. I think many times when people see tourist site that doesn’t live up to their expectation there’s a tendency to sorta smooth it over. You know, “well it was ok.” I haven’t found a place I didn’t care for yet, but I suppose it’ll come eventually.

  5. Kieron says:

    Thanks for sharing such a blunt and honest opinion of Angkor Wat. If we go to Cambodia we’ll probably check it out, though I highly doubt we’ll spend more than a day there.

  6. Sabina says:

    Hi, John. Thanks a lot for commenting. You make excellent points. There are plenty of kids being exploited by their parents for money, just as the begging Cambodian children were. I know I sounded negative in this post, but I do actually appreciate every little thing I see and experience while traveling. I realize not everyone can or does travel so much, and I don’t take it for granted at all. I love it. I do hope you make it to Angkor Wat some day since you really want to go. :)

  7. Sabina says:

    I really do love ancient ruins, but this site just didn’t do it for me. Too much hype, perhaps. And if you want to be flexible, Angkor Wat is a totally flexible kind of place. They sell one, two and three days passes, you can walk, bike or take a tuk-tuk or any combination. So if you are not underwhelmed like I was you can spend endless hours covering the grounds. The place is massive.

  8. Sabina says:

    I’m glad you understand, Sophie. I’ve never even heard of Great Zimbabwe. Maybe I’ll skip it if I’m ever in the area, though ;)

  9. Sabina says:

    Then again, ask probably almost anyone else who’s been to Angkor Wat and they’ll likely rave about it. It really is a matter of taste. But no matter how you slice it, I can’t believe so many people will spend three days there!

  10. Sabina says:

    Hi, you guys! It is hard to imagine traveling all the way to Cambodia and not stopping by Angkor Wat. But once I was in Cambodia and realized the great distances in between towns and the unpleasantness of the journey from place, I kind of wished I hadn’t hauled myself 12 hours from Kampot up to Siem Reap just to see Angkor Wat.

  11. RyukyuMike says:

    Hah, an over-hyped travel location; they’re everywhere these days. Glad you enjoyed the monkeys and kids, anyway.
    Sophie brings up a good point about noisy tourits crowds and they’re common at all the other over-hyped locations.

    Now, I think, if you’d have done the slow travel thing, maybe, you’d have come away with a different story.

    If I were to visit, I’d have to plan on a few weeks or months so I could blow everybody away with photos at sunrise, sunset and from every possible angle. That’d give me time to check out some of the history and culture, make some friends, party with the locals, like a local and find out if the children are being forced to beg, by their parents or, just trying to survive.

    Understanding your schedule may not have permitted a long stay, I’m convinced, if I went, I’d come back with a much different view of the place. But, I’d travel much slower.

  12. Dina says:

    Hi Sabina, from your article, sounds like you are having fun in Angkor Wat :) Seeing people actually doing stuff in “real place” (not just tourist attraction) is precious. I like the wedding photos. The monkey looks funny, I haven’t seen monkey with a long snout like that.

  13. Sabina says:

    That is absolutely true, Mike. If I’d cycled and walked through Angkor Wat, it would have been entirely different. I never would have taken a tuk-tuk if I hadn’t been sick. However, I still think I wouldn’t have been impressed. You’re not that far away from Cambodia. If you’re interested in photo ops there, you you should try to go. It would probably be far more interesting for a photographer than it was for me.

  14. Sabina says:

    Hi, Dina. There were also several ladies sitting together and wearing white, whom I photographed. I assume they weren’t all brides, but who knows. Actually, maybe there was something going on other than a wedding, but I don’t think so. Getting married at Angkor Wat might be quite popular in Cambodia.

  15. Steve says:

    I’m surprised to hear you say this. I thought Angkor Wat was an amazing thing to see. I was very overwhelmed when I first saw it. I agree though that one day is all you really need to spend in order to see it. I can’t imagine how I would spend three days there. The same goes for Tikal. I kept hearing how you needed to spend at least three days there. I saw everything at a somewhat leisurely pace in one day.

  16. Sabina says:

    Hi, Steve. When things receive a lot of hype, they’re often a letdown for me. I am sure this was the case with Angkor Wat. I was expecting too much. If I’d never heard of it, I probably would have been agog.

  17. Giulia says:

    Ouch, it looks overrated indeed. I really don’t know South East Asia at all… but I will keep your advice in mind for sure. Well, I won’t skip Angkor Wat but will pay a quick visit at least :) Thanks for the out of the line opinion which is always very welcome :)

  18. Rebecca says:

    Ooh, controversial!! ;-) I’ve not yet been (planning to in April) and despite hearing a mix of opinions, I would still love to go, it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.

  19. Sabina says:

    If you ever find yourself in SE Asia with limited time, though, seriously, I would give Angkor Wat a pass and move on to more interesting places.

  20. Sabina says:

    I’m sure you’ll love it. I seem to be the only one who was so disappointed. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think.

  21. Claudio says:

    Sabina, good to hear about your traveling experience in Cambodia.
    I am a little perplexed about you mentioning Chichen Itza as an Aztec enclave when that wonder of the world was the capital of the Mayan civilization. While this fact does not disqualify your opinions about other world wonders, it makes me think that you might not fully dive into the culture, history and meaning of the places you visit. Again, with all my respect, this could have been just a simple mistake albeit a civilization sized one.
    Claudio

  22. Sabina says:

    Claudio, that was a careless mistake. In my post on Chichen Itza, which you can find in the archives, I got it right, though :)

  23. Ben says:

    I’m about to go there late next month, and I’m wondering…did you go into the temples and explore? A half day you say? Really? Did you see Banteay Sray, which I hear is the most beautiful one (with a sort of pink hue). What about Ta Prohm or Bayon?

    You probably saw those, but from what I’ve heard, the great “experience” of Angkor Wat relies very much on seeing all the other good temples. I’ve heard those are the three best “other” temples.

  24. Sabina says:

    Yeah, I saw all the temples. Most of them are really not that big and don’t require much time, unless of course you’re really interested in ancient structures. I’m interested, but these just didn’t move me much. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

  25. Bluuma says:

    :D the monkey reminds me of Mount Popa in Myanmar. Extinct volcano with great view. I am sure you’ve been to Myanmar, haven’t u ? And thanks for sharing your experience as I was very hesitant about traveling solo as i was raised in Myanmar with all the stereotypical feminine and traditional values which is totally against traveling solo. Your blog and everything in it is totally a push for me.. I m backpacking this October.. Thankss

  26. F_Korambayil says:

    I posted my Angkor Wat review on Tripadvisor. Mine was 1 of 2 two-star reviews. Everyone was ranting about how great it was. It’s a bunch of crumbling rocks. My wife and I spent $1000 to divert to Cambodia from Thailand to see this because every review raved about how amazing it was. I failed to see it. They’re not particularly tall, just wide.

    Cambodia itself is not worth visiting at all. There are no attractions and everything is bleak. You get harassed left and right by souvenir sellers and if you even look American or European, everyone tries to take advantage of you. 20 cents for the locals – $5 for you. These people deserve the corruption in their government, they’re no different. Tour guide and driver conspired to try to squeeze out an extra $30 from me the second day, despite me hugely overtipping them the first day and treating them as friends by buying their lunch and eating with them. The official Cambodian ticket seller took my $40 for 2 tickets and asked me 15 seconds later if I gave her money!!!!!??? Tuk tuk drivers change their prices after taking you to your destination. I hate that nonsense.

  27. Dani says:

    Hi Sabina
    Just wondering what hotel you stayed at in Siem Reap and whether you were happy with it? Having a bit of trouble choosing one myself.

    Much appreciated,
    Dani

  28. [...] on the site, since they have their own media, but I can’t help wondering:¬†Are we becoming indifferent¬†cultural [...]

  29. emily says:

    I spent three days there and really enjoyed it. I think the key was the guidebook that we had that explained a lot of the architecture and carvings. It was especially useful for Angkor Wat and Bayon since it described what was depecited in the bas relief carvings. If I hadn’t read much on the temples beforehand, I probably would have been pretty bored too.

    P.s. You definitely didn’t see all the temples as you commented above. That’s impossible in 1 day.

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