Angkor Wat: Believe the Hype

In Cambodia, Sights by Nick5 Comments

“No need mountain bike. Roads at Angkor Wat very flat, city bike OK!”

We’ll come back to that later, but that’s how my first day at the Angkor archaeological park began.

Angkor Wat isn’t a single structure—it’s a massive complex of Buddhist and Hindu temples and cities built at various points over hundreds of years. Angkor Wat is just the most famous one. I’m not going into all the history right now, since this post would be 10k words long.

For now, let’s talk about feelings.

I’ve never felt such anticipation as I did pedaling down Charles de Gaulle street to the park. With a late start (7 am waiting for the bike rental store to open), there was no fanfare at the ticket checkpoint.

Walk to the counter, snap your picture, here’s your pass, see ya. 5 minutes, no line. Strange for one of the most visited tourist sites in the world.

Angkor Wat's moat just after sunrise

Angkor Wat’s moat just after sunrise

Angkor Wat itself is the first temple you hit on your way into the park. You come to a T-intersection at the southern shore of the temple’s moat—left to the West Gate, right to the East Gate.

Online opinion is fiercely divided. One side swears by the West Gate to watch the sun rise behind the temple. Others think that’s bullshit because a billion people are at the West Gate for sunrise, and the East Gate is where it’s at. I tend to agree with the East Gate rebels.

Back to the moat. You know what a moat is. But it’s more than that—I almost wanted to get off my bike and swim across to the temple.

I’m fuzzy on the actual rules regarding vehicle use in and around the complex. It seems like local Khmer can drive wherever they want as long as they aren’t popping wheelies in the temple courtyards, but we had to leave our bikes well outside the gate.

East Gate at Angkor Wat

East Gate at Angkor Wat

When you don’t realize just how vast the complex is, you tend to do silly things like spend 45 minutes taking pictures of a single gatehouse to the first temple you visit. It would be like riding the tram at Disney World over and over because you didn’t think the park itself would be that exciting.

Eventually I wandered into the main attraction, and it put that stupid gatehouse to shame. The eastern entrance was almost devoid of people.

Blockbusters aren’t blockbusters because they’re good. They’re blockbusters because a lot of people go to see them.

-John Carlton, copywriter
Angkor Wat, inside the eastern entrance

Angkor Wat, inside the eastern entrance

As far as I could tell, the western approach didn’t exist. I was an explorer, and the only charted territory was this one side of the temple. Now that tower. And that one. Wandering the wat’s perimeter and lonely exterior halls in the weak morning sun was one of the most unique moments in my entire life.

At certain points, you could look left and right down a gaping corridor and see no one. You could imagine yourself rediscovering the temple for the first time in history.

All that changes as soon as you meander into the center of the temple, where the hordes of other tourists swell through the West Gate and shatter your sense of immersion.

Reliefs inside the temple

God damn foreigners

I’m selfish.

But Angkor Wat is one of a few sacrificial lambs in the park. It suffers wave after wave of hungry photographer, so that outlying temples may rest unmolested—those unworthy of a large icon on the official map, denoting their importance (popularity).

That was my train of thought when we left Angkor Wat for Phnom Bok, a temple so far on the outskirts of the map that time and space distorted when trying to find it.

Seriously. They had to shorten the road on the map to make it fit—which made Phnom Bok extremely difficult to find. Almost impossible, in fact.

Google Maps? Haha, go back to Vietnam, asshole! Google Maps made dirt trails look like highways and thought Phnom Bok was a form of Southeast Asian genital warts.

Something I can't pronounce

Something I can’t pronounce

We stopped for lunch where we thought was the halfway point (really about a quarter) and had lunch. The Internet will warn you that food and drinks are marked up to double or quadruple what they cost in Siem Reap, but I didn’t find that to be true. A bowl of noodles cost $1, and we even bought a hat for a quarter of the price the Night Market offered.


If you’ve never ridden a bicycle in Southeast Asia before, it’s like riding a motorcycle in SEA except you’re slower and more vulnerable. If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle in SEA before, it’s like running with a stampede of rhinos and gazelle to your left, and you’re hoping one of the rhinos isn’t using his cell phone or running late.

Also, there are other gazelle coming straight at you on the shoulder.

Water buffalo crossing

Water buffalo crossing

Also, there are literally cows and water buffalo in the streets, so be careful.

Anyway, we’re hauling ass on our tiny little bikes. They don’t have gears. There’s a little basket on the front for our supplies—a dwindling reserve of water, a paper map and a dream.

Right, so I said the maps weren’t helpful in any way. Phnom Bok was supposed to be on a bend in the road. But every bend looked like the bend, so we could never tell exactly where it was. One person says we passed it already, another says to keep going.

The whole time we’re inching closer to a mountain in the distance, and I remember thinking:

“Haha, I hope Phnom Bok isn’t on top of that mountain!”

Phnom Bok was on top of the mountain. That’s what you get when you don’t do your research.

It wasn’t Everest—in fact, it’s technically a hill—but when you’re in the tropical heat there’s no difference.

635 steps doesn’t even sound like that much. Christ of Vung Tau—which I climbed a few weeks ago—has roughly 900 steps. But the Jesus statue was central and heavily trafficked, meaning if you tripped and fell there would be someone to call an ambulance after they stole your wallet.

Phnom Bok was a red-headed stepchild of Angkor; one of the temples you might peruse if you have an extra day left on your pass. Besides a tourist lounging in a parked tuk tuk, we were alone on the stairs to the temple.

At one point, the forest floor was so thick with termites you could close your eyes and swear it was raining. Their miniature earthen Phnom Boks dotted the mountainside, impressive in their own right.

Hungry, hungry termites

Hungry, hungry termites

Near the end of the staircase the forest vanishes, and you’re left exposed once again in the scorching sun. Here I met the wife of the sleeping tuk tuk tourist, the only other person foolish enough to make the climb.

“It’s really not worth it. The temple, it’s small. There isn’t even a good view, there are too many trees.”

I just smiled and nodded.

“Don’t tell her that,” I gestured towards my climbing partner. She was clinging to the steps as if the Earth would flip upside-down at any moment.

At that point, I was certain that Phnom Bok would be my favorite temple of the day—even if I got to the top and found nothing but gravel and garbage.

View from the top of the stairs at Phnom Bok

View from the top of the stairs at Phnom Bok

Well, it was more than just trash. Phnom Bok is a Hindu temple that predates Angkor Wat by about 200 years. Much of the structure is in disrepair or completely collapsed. A group of children ran and played among the ruins, taking refuge atop one of the towers beneath a frangipani tree.

Frangipani trees smothering the remains of Phnom Bok

Frangipani trees smothering the remains of Phnom Bok

No, there was no view from the temple. No one selling coconuts. Not even a security guard to check our passes. But Phnom Bok personified what I love most about travel—the journey, not the destination.

Have you ever taken a trip where the “getting there” was more memorable than your destination? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. Dennis

    Trip sounded interesting…especially the termites. I was stationed in vung tau in 1969…………if u have any photos of the city as it is today would appreciate a glimpse of them. Also u mentioned the Christ of vung tau……..I will be searching info of same. I was on a large hill ( small mountain), they called it V C Hill. I work with your Dad. I guess I have always wondered what Vietnam is like now. I have hard that Vung Tau is a good tourist town with several nice hotels. Keep safe over there and enjoy……..appreciate your writings

    1. Author

      Hi Dennis, yes I have a lot of pictures of Vung Tau. I was there for a month, but haven’t been posting much since I’ve been busy here at the temples. Vung Tau is much cleaner and laid back than Saigon. Christ of Vung Tau is on the lower peak of Small Mountain, while the lighthouse is on the higher one.

      There are still bunkers on top of the mountain, as well as old artillery near the statue (I think predating the Vietnam war, though). Vung Tau is an extremely livable city right now. Very friendly people, and the mayor made it law that all restaurants and most shops have to list the prices for everything they sell, because domestic and foreign tourists were getting ripped off so often.

      Many nice hotels, especially along the coastal road that runs around the peninsula. The beaches aren’t amazing, but they’re not terrible either. I was staying in a hotel about two blocks from the main beach for $18 per night. I’ll be writing a lot more about the city after I get more info posted on Angkor Wat.

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