For most people, the name “Petra” evokes images of one thing and one thing alone: the treasury. Very few think of a necropolis so vast that you could spend days exploring and still not see it all.
Likewise, “Angkor” instantly reminds us of “Angkor Wat,” one of the most magnificent structures of the ancient world. But in reality, just like Petra, Angkor is far more than one single structure.
Angkor is in fact a vast and sprawling metropolis, the remnants of the largest city in the pre-industrial world. In its heyday, Angkor supported a population of more than a million – at a time when London had just 50,000. It was the political, religious, and social center of Cambodia’s Khmer empire, and although most of its structures – built of wood – have long since decayed, literally hundreds of stone temples remain.
Siem Reap’s proximity to this ancient wonder is the sole reason it’s been transformed from ricefields and dirt roads into a tourist mecca boasting everything from $5 guesthouses to $1000 luxury resorts. Millions of travelers come from far and wide to lay their eyes upon the single largest religious building on earth, and what’s left of the empire that built it.
So after spending nearly six full weeks within earshot of Angkor, holed up coding and blogging, I finally decided to get out and see it for myself.
Tickets to visit the ancient city go for an outrageous $20 a day (or $40 for 3 days, or $60 for 7). I only say “outrageous” because the average Khmer earns something around $50 a month, and even as a tourist, $20 is nearly double the cost of basic room and board. Plus of course the fee is racially applied. As Angkor covers such a vast area, officers wait on all the roads in, vigorously stopping everyone with black or white skin.
Anyway, I rode my bicycle to the ticket counter at about 5pm on the day before I planned to attend. One of the “traditions” of Angkor is to watch the sunrise, but since that means getting up at around 4:30am I wanted to have my ticket ready in advance.
Then I headed to Phnom Bakheng for a panoramic sunset view of the area. Unfortunately, they stop letting people in at 5:30 (even though sunset isn’t for another hour!) so I had little choice but to turn back.
It was the luckiest ‘rejection’ ever.
As it turns out, a ticket to Angkor actually lets you enter the evening before it becomes valid, so I was able to get an unplanned peek at Angkor Wat itself. As usual, the main (Western) entrance was overloaded with tourists…
…but the quieter Eastern entrance was completely abandoned. It was just me, my bike, and the sounds of the Cambodian jungle.
I made my way inside, discovering an unbelievably majestic (and unexpected) sight: a huge yellow moon just starting to rise behind the world’s largest religious structure.
Because 99% of the tourists were atop Phnom Bakheng, I more or less had the entire place to myself – save for just a few wandering monks.
I remained quietly inside until well past closing, when the moon was high in the sky and the jungle had come alive with the sounds of wild animals. THIS is what exploring magnificent ancient ruins is supposed to be like.