If I had a bucket list, one of the only things left on it at the beginning of this year would have been to visit Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Well, in February, the time finally came to meet this internationally renown bucket list item face-to-face. And there was no better time to get introduced than at sunrise. So we did what we so often find ourselves doing when we’re on “vacation;” we woke up at 4:30 AM to join thousands of other bleary-eyed, camera-toting tourists to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

And as with all things we rise early to see, it, too, was absolutely incredible. But was it really worth it?

I guess the only real downside (other than our incessant yawning) was the number of people  at the site with us. There was quite a bit of pushing and shoving as people jockeyed for the best position from which to view the sunrise. I must admit, that soured my experience a bit. The view was incredible, but the whole experience … it was just kind of bleh. I honestly don’t think that my Angkor Wat experience would have been any less impressive or dramatic if I had seen it for the first time at noon instead of 5 AM.

But none of that is Angkor Wat’s fault.

Angkor Wat did its job — and then some — and that’s all that matters. This spectacular temple (and the rest of the temples making up the massive Angkor complex), which holds significance to both the Hindu and Buddhist religions, is, dare I say, the most impressive man-made structure my eyes have beheld to date. Indeed, Angkor Wat, and the Temples of Angkor, absolutely blew me away and kept me fully engaged for the three days we spent exploring them.

Here are some of my favorite photos from our visit to Angkor Wat:

Angkor Wat at sunrise … you can’t tell there are 5,000 people around, can you?

The grounds surrounding the main part of Angkor Wat, enclosed in the compound. If you have time, I suggest spending some time exploring these grounds. They’re beautiful!

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One of the corridors of the walls surrounding the main temple. You can see there are carvings on the walls, as well as intricate designs on the pillars.

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Detailed reliefs line the walls of Angkor Wat, depicting stories of the Hindu gods and the Khmer people.

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A buddha statue located in the front cloister as you enter the complex.

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A statue of the Hindu god Shiva in the front cloister.

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A sacrifice of chicken and bananas.

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  Although Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, it later became a Buddhist temple, or “Wat,” and today is viewed as one of the most important sites in Buddhism. Monks make pilgrimmage from all over the world to pray at Angkor Wat.

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A visitor lights incense and offers a prayer before one of the hundreds of buddhas throughout Angkor Wat.

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One of many devatas, or female deity, carved on walls and pillars all around the Angkor Wat complex.

An outer view of the prasats, or pillars, that make up the main temple complex.

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The central prasat on the top level of Angkor Wat. This is one of the five prasats that make up Angkor Wat’s most recognizable features.

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The view looking down from inside the complex of the temple prasats.

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As we were about to start making our way out of the Angkor complex and conclude our exploration for the day, a monkey jumped onto Justin’s backpack and ripped open the yet unopened can of Pringles like it wasn’t his first time to do so. He then proceeded to dump out the chips and share them liberally with the rest of Angkor’s monkey community. On that note, it was time for us to get out of there.

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I had mixed feelings as we left Angkor Wat that afternoon. As I mentioned before, it was one of my only remaining absolutely must-see bucket list items when we came to Cambodia, but I left questioning whether or not it lived up to the hype. Was I just expecting too much? Could it have possibly lived up to my expectations?

After giving myself a few days to rest and think about it, I decided that as archaeological and historical structures, the temples at Angkor are certainly impressive — one of the most impressive sights I’ve seen in all the world — and are definitely worthy of a visit.

That said, I do think that several factors detracted from the Angkor experience for me.  First, there were entirely too many people there. We visited during Chinese New Year (February), as that is when we had time available to travel, and the crowds are just insane during that time. I’m convinced no one was left on the streets of Beijing that week because they were all in Southeast Asia. The second thing I find detracting for me about visiting a place like Angkor is the darkness of the more modern-day history of a place like Cambodia. With the Khmer Rouge genocide taking place just a few decades ago and the widespread poverty and commercial exploitation of children and adults that is rampant throughout the country, it was difficult for me to separate myself from that knowledge and freely enjoy Angkor in all its grandeur.

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Have you visited Angkor Wat? Were you impressed? Share your experience below!

To help plan your trip to Cambodia’s Temples of Angkor, check out the following resources: