In the Footsteps of First Ladies at Angkor Wat

By Travel Writers

September 21, 2019 6 min read

By Steve Bergsman

The first time I ever heard of Angkor Wat, the huge Hindu-Buddhist temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was when I was a young man watching the news after dinner with my father. One night in 1967 the feature story was about Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of President John Kennedy, visiting Angkor Wat, which I assumed had just been discovered in a Cambodian jungle. I thought, how cool is that, an ancient civilization found deep in a forbidding jungle like in some B-movie. I guess I had been listening with just one ear because, in some regards, Angkor Wat was never really lost. The natives always knew it was there, and the complex is so expansive that it would have been like losing the Great Pyramid.

The huge temple, considered the largest religious monument in the world, was constructed in the 12th century and then more or less abandoned in the 16th century when the Cambodian king moved his capital to Phnom Penh. Westerners had seen it as early as the 16th century, but its rediscovery in the 1860s is credited to the French explorer Henri Mouhot, who was an Indiana Jones-type figure — with less luck. He succumbed to malaria and was buried near the Mekong River.

Most people know something of Angkor Wat even if they don't realize it. One of the temple ruins in the historic area is Ta Prohm. Most of the other big buildings have been cleared and preserved, but the vegetation — including some very wide and tall trees — has grown up through the Ta Prohm ruins, causing the jungle and the ruins to merge and create the most eerily atmospheric site in all of Angkor Wat.

That was probably why it was used in the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" movie. Look for the scene where tremendous ganglia-like alien beings (actually roots) crawl above an entrance to the temple. On the grounds it's easy to spot because tourists line up to take a photo in that space. Not to be outdone by Angelina Jolie, my wife took her position in front of the attacking plant life so I could take her picture. She survived.

The Ta Prohm temple was built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII, who dedicated it to his mother. The king was one of the great princes in the history of the world. After defeating the Muslim armies of the Cham, he constructed temples and hospitals across a vast Cambodian kingdom, including the third great temple complex in the area, Angkor Thom, which was the capital of his kingdom and probably sustained a population of 150,000 people.

So how do you cover three vast temple complexes when Angkor Thom alone is more than 5.5 square miles? First of all, try not to go during the winter months because the international tourism traffic is formidable. Second, try to arrange a tour guide ahead of your visit. Getting to Angkor Wat is complex — paperwork and passes — and it's good to have a guide to get you through the stuff you need to do so you can get to the places you want to see.

Our guide, an experienced pro who has been doing this for more than 20 years, began in the morning with Angkor Thom because it is large, impressive and takes a long time to wander through. He ended the morning with Ta Prohm, which seems to be everyone's other favorite stopping point. We broke for lunch and then came back to do Angkor Wat, which took about two hours.

Just a note of caution here: There's a steep wooden stairwell to the high levels of the complex, and if you go in the winter the line backs up for two hours. We went in the off-season (hot and rainy summer), and there were no crowds whatsoever. Of course it was like walking around in a steam room, but you gotta give on something in the shoulder months.

The reigns of King Jayavarman VII and his predecessor, King Suryavarman II, when Angkor Wat was constructed constituted the golden era of the Khmer Empire. The temples were originally Hindu but later became Buddhist before being abandoned. The walls of most of the temples are thickly covered with carved pictures and sometimes ancient writings — all of which tell a mythical story. There's Buddha, demons, monkey kings, warriors and figures from heaven and hell, but most of all there are also beautiful dancer-consorts called apsaras. Many ancient Cambodia tales tell of generals being seduced by beautiful women and losing a war.

One afternoon, I visited the Siem Reap Raffles Hotel and noticed a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy, which brought me full circle. On inquiry, I was told in recent years other first ladies have visited Angkor Wat, including Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.


Siem Reap, the nearest city to Angkor Wat, boasts a modern international airport. Most hotels are in Siem Reap. We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard:

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Visitors tour the ruins of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.

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