No matter how much research you’ve done or how many pictures you’ve seen, you can never be fully prepared for the sight that is the mighty Angkor Archaeological park. The sheer size and scale of the place (it is the size of Paris!) is truly astounding. Covering about 400 square kilometres this UNESCO World Heritage Site is located amidst fields and lush forests.
It is a living heritage with people living and working the fields in the tradition of their Khmer ancestors. They still retain dance, and music, religious customs and cultural traditions from those ancient times.
The Khmer kings began building the complex in about 802 AD. The city was a true representation of their reach and power that lasted till late into the 14th century. The Khmer domain stretched from Vietnam to China and all the way to the Bay of Bengal. What they built is one of the mankind’s most astounding architectural and civic feats.
All these years later and the over 100 stone temples, still in fine condition, stand as testament to their achievements. Now a protected Archaeological Park, the city comprises literally thousands of sculptural riches, water features (basins, water channels, moats, reservoirs and canals). The ancient irrigation system of Angkor complex is still viable and used by the locals.
Khmer art, architecture, cultural traditions and religious practices drew heavily and evolved from the Indian subcontinent. Inspired by Hindu and Buddhist traditions it took on its own distinct characteristics while borrowing from local styles and culture. The end result is unique.
Despite the huge numbers of treasures, one structure stands out – the Angkor Wat. This massive, yet beautiful temple and its vast enclosure was the work of King Suryavarman II. Work on the temple began in 1113 and is dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It is the greatest of Khmer monuments.
Preservation and restoration of the site passed through several organisations, including the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the Archaeological Survey of India, the Polish conservation body PKZ, and the World Monuments Fund. From 1993 the International Coordinating Committee for Angkor ensures the preservation, restoration and conservation of the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Tourism is a huge economic factor for the people here. The challenge is to minimise the enormous damage to this heritage that unsustainable tourism brings with it. Local people are unhappy with development, water demands and construction aimed at meeting tourist needs and feat they will ruin the environment and ambience. UNESCO has a large programme to safeguard this fabulous site and its surroundings from all these depredations.
The temples can be broadly categorized into four groups:
• Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
• Little Circuit (Le Petit Circuit), to the east of Angkor Thom
• Big Circuit (Le Grand Circuit), taking in major sites north and further east
• Roluos group, 15 km east of Siem Reap
• Outlying temples, about 20 km from Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Temple
Describing Angkor Wat is almost impossible, let alone on a restricted forum like this. The sheer size, endless beauty and details of the temple are overwhelming no matter how many times you see it. It is the largest temple complex and religious monument in the world so you will need several visits to take in its three levels.
Architecturally it is based on ancient Indian Dravidian concepts with carvings and sculptures covering every surface of the temple including walls (inside and out), roofs and lintels. The eastern gallery contains the most celebrated scene, the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
The temple was protected from the jungle’s encroachment by its wide surrounding moat. It is estimated that if the temple was to be built today it would take 300 years, yet the monument was finished in no more than 40 years – in the 12th century!
Angkor Wat has been on Cambodian national flags since 1863.
When to go
Time of year: November to February is the coolest period and the best time to visit. The down side is that is when the Angkor and temple area are packed with tourists and the rates for everything are sky high. March to May, temperatures average 40°C and very humid.
June to October is the rainy season. Should you visit at this time, there are hardly any tourists and you can get a good half day of sightseeing before the rains come in the afternoon.
Time of day: The best times are at sunrise and sunset. Angkor Wat is spectacular at sunrise. The Park opens at 5:00am and visitors are relatively few but the place can fill up really quickly.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is located in Northern Cambodia and 6 kms (or 20 minutes by car/motorbike) north of Siem Reap township. In the rainy season the roads to Angkor are bad – slushy and rutted.
Tour buses: Offer air-conditioned comfort; cost US$ 25 to US$75; include driver and guide; visit only 2/3 main sites; arrive when crowds are large and lack options.
Cars with drivers: Offer drivers knowledgeable of the area; cost between US$45 to US$50 a day; guides come extra.
Motorbikes: (with drivers) offer a variety of visiting options including to remote/seldom visited areas; cost US$6 to US$8 a day; drivers’ English is often limited but they can give you insights into local life.
Tuk Tuks: Hire these at guesthouses; maximum space – 2 travellers; cost US$12 for the main temples; more for the outer ones; extra US3$ if you want to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise.
Bicycles: Good option; cost US$1 per day; but be prepared to be jolted. In the rainy season, the roads turn to squishy muddy tracks.
Other options: Within the Park itself you can hire horse carriages, elephants and electric cars.
Admission: You have to buy a pass to enter the Angkor area; available at the Apsara Authority; cost: 1 day – US$20; 3 days US$40; 7 days US$60. Passes are non-transferable.
Guides: US$20 a day; they speak most international languages.
On your own: If you don’t want a guide, the “Ancient Angkor” guidebook is a brilliant option and very informative.