Angkor Wat is one of the most impressive sites in the world, and was immediately a highlight of my southeast Asia trip. The temples are breathtaking! While you need to visit them in Cambodia to appreciate it, below is a photo tour of the experience.
I’ll start with some sunrise photos, because that’s what it’s famous for and I love them! I’ll show you the geography, then sprinkle in a little history, with photos throughout the post.
Where is Angkor Wat?
Angkor Wat is located in Siem Reap, in Cambodia. Along with Angkor Thom, the Bayon temples, and Ta Prohm, Angkor might be the best two-day trip you can take in all of Asia.
Angkor Wat was built by the vanished Khmer empire. It was constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II, who ruled from 1113 to at least 1145.
Did you know?
Angkor is located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap literally translates to ‘defeat of Siam,’ which is today’s Thailand. It’s a conflict that goes back centuries, between the Siamese and Khmer people.
The real “tomb raider” ?
This is Angkor’s only temple with tombs, despite the “Tomb Raider” movie being shot at nearby Ta Prohm, where there’s no tombs.
“Angkor Wat” translates to “The city that is a temple.”
Aspara dancers everywhere!
There are more than 1,860 carved Apsara dancers in Angkor Wat.
Did you know?
I found this interesting – “Angkor Wat” translates to “The city that is a temple.” It’s true, it’s both a city and temple at the same time.
Stories in the Walls – a closer look
How long did it take to build?
They say Angkor Wat took 30 years to build, which seems like a long time, until you see all the rich detail on nearly every wall. Nearly every wall has details you can miss!
Why was Angkor Wat built?
Scholars say the temples were built for funerary purposes, since its bas-reliefs are meant to be viewed anti-clockwise, a direction that was associated with death in the Khmer empire.
From Hindu to Buddhist?
This stone sculpture depicts the 8 arms of Vishnu, the powerful Hindu god, but with the head of Buddha. When Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple, the head of Vishnu was replaced with the head of Buddha.
Many devatas grace the walls. Devata is another word for deva, the Hindu term for deity
My favorite in the Angkor Wat complex?
Finally, if you’re going to Siem Reap, you’ll definitely also want to check out both the Bayon temples / Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm (post coming soon). Those are my favorites!
Angkor Wat is at the top of the list of places to visit for Cambodia, and possibly all of Southeast Asia! I’ve posted a photo tour, but this Angkor Wat video provides a different view – an aerial view of one of the 7 wonders of the world.
The videos fly over and through my favorite temples – Angkor Wat, Bayon, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, all in Siem Reap Cambodia. For a photo tour of each, click the linked names.
Pro Tip — Plan for big crowds; it was packed both times I visited. Decide if you’re going to try to catch Angkor Wat at sunrise – if not, choose a different order to explore the temples to avoid the largest crowds. Even if that’s your plan, visit Angkor Wat to capture your sunrise photo, and then leave that temple to start at Angkor Thom, since most of the crowd just stays at Angkor Wat. Then come back for sunset. This Angkor Wat video, “Angkor Wat from the Air,” will give you a sense of what the rest of the complex looks like.
The below videos provide a bit of the history:
Here’s Nat Geo‘s 1 hour documentary on Angkor Wat:
Nat Geo: Lost City of Angkor Wat
Ancient Megastructures – Angkor Wat:
Have you been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia? What’d you think of it?
My favorite in Angkor Wat?
Finally, if you’re going to Angkor Wat, you’ll definitely want to check out both the Bayon temples / Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm (post coming soon). Those are my favorites!
Initially the faces were believed to represent Brahma, the Hindu God of creation depicted with four heads. When it was later established that the Bayon was not a Hindu temple but a Buddhist one, archeologists believed the faces to be of Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The similarity of statues of Jayavarman VII and the face towers had led some to believe that it is the King himself whose face is depicted on the towers.
Bayon temples History:
But who’s Jayavarman?
Bayon was the state temple of Jayavarman VII, a powerful ruler in the late 13th century (Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII). The temple sat at the center of Angkor Thom, a walled city that served as the capital of the Khmer Empire.
Next, we’ll explain the cosmic angle.
The Bayon temple was “intended to evoke the form of Mt. Meru—the cosmic mountain at the center of the world in Buddhist cosmology. In keeping with this cosmic symbolism, the plan of the temple is based on a ‘yantra’, a symbol used by Tantric Buddhists as the basis of mandala diagrams that represent the layout of the universe. The temple honored not just one deity, but a host of gods found throughout the Khmer empire. Its central shrine held an image of Jayavarman VII, who perhaps imagined himself as a god-King ruling in the name of the Buddha” [source]
Our guide explained how the bas-relief is showing Khmer soldiers going to war
Bayon faces are facing in all four directions on each tower. The faces are thought to represent Lokeshvara, a Buddhist deity that projected benevolence outward to the four directions
Details on every Bayon wall!
Next, I’d like you to focus in closer up on the actual walls. Every wall has detail that’s interesting in Bayon!
Finally, let’s finish the tour with some more photos of these structures. You can’t tell from my expression here but I loved it!
Angkor Wat Itinerary
If you have just a day or two, make sure you get to these three areas of temples.
I went swimming in shark infested waters – and lived to tell about it!
Swimming in Shark Infested Waters – SCUBA Diving with sharks, no cage
We went SCUBA diving in the Semporna Archipelago, and sharks were everywhere! This was only my second time seeing whitetip reef sharks while SCUBA diving so I was still getting comfortable with the idea of it. Eventually I got really excited to see (and photograph sharks – we saw a dozens of sharks per dive!
I’ve received tons of questions about diving with sharks, so I’ll tell you about it here. I’ll also attempt to dispel some myths about sharks.
Are sharks dangerous??
This is the most common question I get when people hear my excitement about swimming with sharks. The short answer: No. Sharks are not inherently dangerous to people.
We’ve all seen the movie Jaws, but not all sharks are the same. The overwhelming majority of sharks are not dangerous (unless provoked). These were reef sharks – people commonly refer to them as “vegetarian”* sharks!
They’re just as scared of us, as we’re the same size as them.
Are reef sharks dangerous?
Whitetip Reef sharks are curious. They’ll swim right up to you, and fortunately aren’t typically aggressive unless provoked.
Are dangerous sharks in Borneo?
When you dive safely and don’t provoke sharks, it’s safe. The places where I went are safe when diving safely. Sipadan and the Semporna Archipelago also have a reputation for having Hammer Head Sharks, but the divers I met said they hadn’t seen them in a long time.
[Note – unlike what my dive master told me, whitetip reef sharks are not actually “vegetarians” – their diet is explained below]
Why are they called Whitetip Reef Sharks?
Whitetip Reef Sharks get their name from their fins, both of which are white tipped. Whitetip Reef Sharks can be found swimming alongside us and the other fish. They also like to hang out near the ocean floor and in caves.
“Wait, you went diving with sharks and weren’t even protected in a cage??”
Do you need a cage to dive in “shark infested waters” ?
Nope! I live dangerously. Seriously, with a few precautions, not all sharks are aggressive and a cage isn’t necessary for Borneo and in many other regions of the world, assuming you’re not deliberately doing stupid things (listed below). If you treat them with respect and are smart, they’re not the vicious predators you see in movies like “Jaws.”
“I would do anything … but I won’t do that” –
Are all shark species safe to go diving without a cage?
No! I wouldn’t seek out Bull Sharks or Tiger Sharks, or the Great White, the “most feared predator on earth,” to dive with. There are people that do (including some in the comments below), and SCUBA diving tourism is souring, but it’s all about comfort level and education.
Here’s what I do NOT recommend:
You don’t want to deliberately confuse a shark as to their food. I wouldn’t dive with a group that deliberately throws dead fish and blood in the water (called “chum” – more on “chumming” from wikipedia here), and I don’t recommend you do either.
I wouldn’t go spear fishing, as they’ll try to steal catches and maybe get curious. Some say they also hear the sound of a spear gun and respond in seconds.
I also wouldn’t recommend that you make physical contact with a shark, tease a shark, or otherwise mess with their environment.
All three of these are messing with the shark’s environment, and leads to accidents. Why increase your risk and make it dangerous?
Perhaps I’ll feel differently over time. I doubt it As of now this is where my comfort level is. I was just swimming and photographing in their world, and loving it!
How close did you get?
What do whitetip reef sharks eat?
If they don’t eat people…what do whitetip reef sharks eat?
Whitetip Sharks hunt at night, and like to eat octopus, crabs, and lobsters, and hang out on the ocean floor near potential meals. They have a blunt snout so when they’re getting into caves, they can still snatch some lunch. They also mix into their diet some bony fish, including eels, squirrelfishes, snappers, surgeonfishes, triggerfish, damselfishes, parrotfishes, and goatfishes. Yum!
Even after seeing dozens of reef sharks in the Semporna Archipelago, it was still exciting!
Reef Sharks come in 3 varieties –
Whitetip Reef Shark, Triaenodon obesus (sometimes written as White Tipped Reef Sharks or White Tip Reef Shark)
Baby Whitetip Reef Sharks are 20-24 inches, after a 5-month pregnancy.
Are Whitetip Reef Sharks an endangered species?
No, but their conservation status is “near threatened.” Fisherman hunt them for their fins, to make “shark fin soup.”
Where were these shark infested waters photos from?
Sipadan is easily my favorite SCUBA dive site yet! Sipadan is located in the Semporna Archipelago in Borneo. I was momentarily terrified when I found myself eye-to-eye with a shark during my SCUBA Diving open water test, in BaliIndonesia, but by the time I got to Malaysian Borneo I was seeking them out. I found plenty! The Semporna Archipelago is known for having tons of whitetip reef sharks and it didn’t disappoint.
Discovery Channel’s Shark Week typically premieres in August in the United States – check listings.