Bucket list goals: Why the time to visit Angkor Wat is now

Vantage Travel Team February 11, 2018

I still remember standing in front of the iconic triple towers of Angkor Wat at dawn. In the still air of morning, the sky slowly illuminated: a glowing blend of bone-white and orange set against a silhouetted shape so revered in Cambodia that it graces their national flag. Eventually the spires of this landmark were bathed in light, and I was transfixed. More than 800 years after it was constructed, the greatest feat of the Khmer Empire could still leave visitors in awe — and I realized why it remains a bucket list must-do.

Originally built in the 12th century by the Khmer king Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is justifiably one of the most visited places in Asia, with more than two million travelers experiencing it each year. For centuries, it was seen solely by the people of this region. One of the first westerners to visit was the 16th-century Portuguese monk Antonio da Madalena, who wrote that Angkor Wat was “of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” Many modern travelers share this sentiment.

The scale of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is stunning. Recognized as the world’s largest religious monument, the complex of temples and monasteries stretch out over an area of nearly 400 square miles (though it doesn’t take long to travel to the main temples). The structures themselves evoke a blend of reverence and admiration: this is both a grand and a hallowed space, equal parts spectacular and serene.    

Yet the most impressive part of Angkor isn’t in the sweeping scale of it — but the details.  Virtually everywhere you look in this ancient destination is a masterpiece of artistry. The bas-reliefs are perhaps the most famous; carved into the gray sandstone, they are stunningly well preserved and breathtakingly intricate. Many of the carvings represent stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana Hindu epics (the monument was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but was converted for Buddhist use in the 13th century), while others depict Khmer wars. You can spend hours admiring the seemingly endless array of sculpted stories.

There are many temples to visit, including the famous Bayon Temple, which features more than 200 similar faces carved into stone towers. Pointed in each of the cardinal directions, these are believed to be depictions of Jayavarman VII, with his face altered to bear the peaceful smile of a bodhisattva (akin to a Buddhist saint).  This temple is so beloved that it has earned the nickname the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia.”

The main temple (Angkor Wat) is unquestionably the most awe-inspiring of them all, though. More than 200 years after da Madalena's visit, a French naturalist and explorer named Henri Mouhot came upon Angkor Wat in the 1860s, and his writings and renderings drew the sustained attention of the outside world. He wrote of Angkor Wat: “One of these temples — a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo — might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome . . .”

There is a reason this place has left so many spellbound and searching for words. It’s the same reason it should be on your list of must-sees in your lifetime.  Luckily, you’ll get ample time to explore this legendary landmark on Mysteries of Angkor Wat & the Mekong River — join us and cross yet another unforgettable destination off your list.