Stone and secrets in Angkor Wat

On either side of me, I could feel rather than see, the great moat of water.  It’s presence beside for hundreds of steps or more, there was no telling how far it stretched away into the dark.   Uneven flagstones kept my toes engaged while my mind wandered to the mystery of how such a water trench was cut by hand into the Earth over 1000 years ago.

The air was dark and thick, laying low below a canopy of stars.  Orion lay on its side, like some great celestial sacrifice. Ahead, a darker shape with a black rectangular center rose into our horizon of stars. A gate, a doorway into the ancient temple.  The five smallish fingers holding onto mine gripped a little tighter as we stumbled together, and she leaned into me – scared? excited?  maybe just sleepy.

With hushed whispers we moved through the opening and out into a great open space. The air vibrated with a hum of jungle insects and muffled birdsong.  Scattered about the grounds were a reflection of the stars – hundreds of small earthly cell-phone lights as others sought out an early morning encounter with mystery.  The sight was strangely beautiful.

As we wandered the next kilometer or so, dawn light began to massage tree tops and a magnificent temple into existence. Elegant, soaring, lanceolate temple spires emerged into our vision from the darkness of space.  We settled into a quiet repose next to a small pond, alongside a small town of other tourists to witness the daily unveiling of Angkor Wat.

When Amy and I decided to visit Angkor Wat, a complex of ruins in the North part of Cambodia, we knew it would probably be a tourist zoo.  The attraction is actually a collection of ancient structures, a sprawling complex built by the powerful Khmer kingdom of Cambodia between 1000 and 1500 years ago. Angkor Wat is just the most well-known of the temples.  Around 500 years ago it was abandoned and the hungry Cambodian jungle began to take over.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, explorers, French mainly, “re-discovered” the place and began clearing away the encroaching jungle.  Eventually the entire Angkor temple complex was revealed as the largest religious monument ever constructed on Earth.  As such, it has become a popular tourist destination.  Generally, Amy and I avoid such places, since crowds can really spoil a place.  Nevertheless, when in Cambodia…  We bought the three-day pass, figuring that our kids would burn out after day one, and we would burn our entrance fees.

We were wrong.  Sure, each day we all grew temple tired, but Mia, especially, was determined not to waste money.  She was going to visit temples each day, she was not going to waste money.  She does not want to make money.

We did not anticipate being captivated by the majesty of these great stone temples.  We did not hire a guide, we barely read about anything.  We just wandered, gazed and gawked. Some picture highlights of Angkor Wat:

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By 9:30 am we were ready to move on, so we tuk-tukked (I love this verb!) to Ta Prohm, the so-called “jungle temple.”  Here, the temple excavators opted to keep the encroaching jungle in place, to allow visitors to experience a unique state of deconstruction.  They selectively cleared jungle that had been creeping in on the abandoned structures for 400 years.  Plus, the management made tourists walk about a kilometer to the ruins.  As a result, the temple was free from motor noise, and the spectacle of giant Banyan trees growing over and out of crumbling stone walls and arches was spectacular.  Plus, we spent an additional hour seeking out the “dinosaur carving” in a wall that has some great internet fanfare associated.  Some creationists claim it as evidence of a young Earth, humans co-existing with dinosaurs.  Other theories seem a bit more plausible:  perhaps the ancient Khmer had found fossilized evidence for dinosaurs?  it looks a bit like a Pangolin (endangered Camobodian critter that looks like an armadillo)?

We loved Ta Prohm, here are few photos from there:


On day 2, we opted to sleep in and try to beat the crowds by visiting the temples around the lunch hour.  Our idea worked, as we walked into Angkor Thom, believed to be the capital complex of the kingdom, with hardly any other visitors.  We were able to stroll through the halls and doorways in quiet awe.  To keep the kids’ interest, I suggested we film a trailer for “Temple Run” since the video game sort of looks like this place.  I’ll attach it to the bottom of this post.  The movie-making was fun, but delayed our progress.  By the time we made it to the top where hundreds of enchanting Buddha faces are carved into the walls, the place was mobbed by selfie-sticks and chattering tourists.  We made a quick exit, then pushed the kids past their limit on a peaceful 3 km walk from one complex to another.  Meltdowns, begging for ice cream, and suggestions of child abuse ensued.  Our sweet Tuk-tuk driver with cold water was a welcome sight.

On our last day, I was inspired by our friend Lisa to go for a run.  She told us that she did the “Angkor half-marathon” a couple years ago.  Awesome!  I met our driver at 6 am, started running by 6:30.  It was lovely, but by 7:30 I had already drank my 0.5 liter of water, and was worried my sweat might short circuit my iPhone.  I bought more water, and kept going, running in the shade as much as possible.  I made it 12 km before my radiator blew. I asked a friendly ticket checker “how much farther?” He informed me “5 km further,” then laughed at my look of desperation.  He waved over a buddy (an on-duty police officer which seemed a little suspect), who motor-scooted me back for $3.  Ha!

For our final evening, we went to a more obscure temple at our tuk-tuk driver’s recommendation, and climbed to the top for sunset.  It was lovely, peaceful and reflective.

Photos from Bayon and sunset (check out the new T-shirts we just printed that day, cool!)

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We know that we are tourists, but we don’t really like it.  The crowds, frantic energy and the quest for the best selfie can kill a mood.  For our next adventures, we are going to look for nature and connection.  (Foreshadowing:  we found it, a couple days spent with a k-4 school in the rural countryside.  Those kids were insanely adorable!  We will talk about that experience another time…)

Finally, thanks for reading this long one (if you made it this far!).  Here is the trailer we made at Angkor Thom.





Author: johnchesbrough

I am a dad from Bellingham, WA, excited to share our family adventure through Asia. I like to play in the mountains and wood, with my family, my dog, and with numbers.

5 thoughts on “Stone and secrets in Angkor Wat”

  1. The narrative is captivating and the pictures do much to enhance our understanding of your understanding of the place. My first thought was “Indiana Jones”! Can’t wait to see Mia accept the Oscar for best director!


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