Angkor Wat, Cambodia – If You Liked Lara Croft Tomb Raider, You’ll Love This Place

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Where's Lara? Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I have to admit, if someone gave me a quiz on the plot line of Lara Croft Tomb Raider, I’d fail miserably. I remember two important things, though – Angelina Jolie, as the star, and the hauntingly beautiful oriental ruins where some of the important parts of the plot played out. I knew that Angelina Jolie wasn’t computer generated (at least I didn’t think so), but I wasn’t too sure about the exotic ruins with great trees gobbling up the walls.

Ten years later, I stood at the very scene I had watched in the movie. But it WAS real, and for a matter of fact, had been for more than 1,000 years. I was at the great, ancient Angkor Wat complex in northern Cambodia, Southeast Asia.

My wife and I had come to visit our son and daughter-in-law who were wrapping up their two year stint in the Peace Corps, teaching in a tiny village in the south. They wanted to make sure we didn’t leave the country without seeing some of Cambodia’s often-overlooked charms (by Americans, at any rate).

Angkor Wat is actually a vast complex of ancient temples, some dating back to before the 12th Century, and is considered to be the world’s largest religious monument. A few stats to help properly boggle the mind: the main part of the walled complex is 820,000 square metres (203 acres) and is surrounded by a moat 5 km long and 190 m wide. Other temples dot the jungle around the main complex, and some pre-date the main wat (temple) by a couple hundred years. Angkor took some 40 years to build, and like the pyramids, involved a cast of thousands.

Construction of the main complex took place in the last half of the 12th Century and served as a Hindu temple. As Buddhism became influential in the region, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple, though it never lost its Hindu roots. And, it was never really abandoned – it was still in use as a religious center when the 19th Century French explorer Henri Mouhot focused the West’s attention on it:

“One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”

Enormous restoration and archeological work was done starting in the early 20th Century by multiple countries as well as the United Nations. Angkor Wat is now designated as aWorld Heritage Site. The site so impressed the French with its beauty and archeological significance that it was a major reason why France adopted Cambodia as a protectorate nation in 1863. Today, with millions of visitors exploring the complex annually, tourism has become a major source of support for the Cambodian government’s restoration and upkeep of the site.

But statistics don’t do this place justice.

While it’s mind-boggling to imagine a site of such scope being assembled in 40 years by human and elephant labor, an exploration of the ruins reveals that the real show-stopper is the extensive friezes and sculptures that adorn almost every wall, inside and out, of the complex. Many are still in excellent condition, though some suffer from erosion and the countless hands of visitors caressing the artwork. Scenes of great battles, some mythic and some historical adorn the walls, along with scenes of everyday life among the Khmer. Scantily-clad temple dancers are frozen at almost every turn (I couldn’t help but think that they were far more appropriately dressed than most of the tourists, given the sultry heat of the monsoon season).

Asia and Australia are booming compared to America right now, and so most of the visitors were from China, Japan, Korea and Australia. I heard very few America accents. Cambodians were in abundance too. Angkor Wat is a source of deep pride among the Khmer, and it adorns their national flag.

Evening in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Evening in Siem Reap, Cambodia

If you visit Southeast Asia, I would strongly urge you to include a stop at Angkor Wat. There is an airport at the nearby town of Siem Reap, a beautiful town of strong French colonial heritage, and worth visiting in its own right. Flights are short and easy from Bangkok, Thailand and Air France has just opened up a route from Paris via Bangkok. As a matter of fact our Air France Boeing 777 (capacity 300+) had only about 35 passengers on board when we flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city (OK, it WAS the off-season).

International Wildlife Adventures offers a two-day trip to Angkor Wat as part of its Southeast Asia cruise: Asia Cruise | Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

Ideally plan to spend at least two or three days exploring the ruins and the little town of Siem Reap. Best time to go is October through March, though we enjoyed our visit in the green rainy season, humid as it was. And we had many of the ruins to ourselves for part of the day since there weren’t so many tourists.

Get up early and visit the site before the other visitors arrive. It will be cooler and, who knows, maybe you’ll catch them filming a sequel to Lara Croft Tomb Raider.

Angkor Wat Gallery


  1. Just read this post, and wow! I had zero idea the place was as big as you describe it. I thought maybe 20 or 30 acres tops. But 200 plus acres? As good as your pictures are I am sure they don’t do the place justice. If I didn’t have a trip to Europe planned already I might’ve have chosen Cambodia instead.

    There’s always next time.

    • [There’s always next time.]

      Hopefully. ;)

      But it’s not so much the size as the unbelievable complexity of the artwork. Almost everything is covered with beautiful sculpture, friezes and designs.

Speak Your Mind