Angkor, in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, is Magnificent – in case you didn’t know it already!
It truly is one of the Wonders of the World! There, you heard it here first!
This has been my 3rd visit to this monumental, awe-inspiring complex, with it’s towering structures, stoney paths and mysterious hallways, all covered with intricate carvings depicting this ancient, mysterious civilization.
It speaks of a luxury and opulence more commonly associated with the Egyptians, and literally boggles the mind, if only for its size alone.
The temples of Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, are generally accepted as honoring the Hindu god Vishnu and are a symbolic representation of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology.
Stretching over 400 square kms, it represents one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements, and for several centuries was the center of the Khmer Kingdom.
Angkor is sometimes said to rival the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal, and that’s saying something – I think we’d all agree that those two are pretty impressive!!
Wat is the Khmer name for temple (the French spelling is “vat “), which was probably added to “Angkor “when it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the sixteenth century. After 1432 when the capital moved to Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat was cared for by Buddhist monks.
During a half-millennia of Khmer occupation, the city of Angkor became a pilgrimage destination of importance throughout Southeastern Asia. Sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned in 1432, Angkor was largely forgotten for several centuries.
Wandering Buddhist monks, passing through the dense jungles, occasionally came upon the awesome ruins. Recognizing the sacred nature of the temples but ignorant of their origins, they invented fables about the mysterious sanctuaries, saying they had been built by the gods!
Most people believed the stories to be nothing more than legend, however, until the French explorer Henri Mouhot brought Angkor to the world’s attention in 1860. The French people were enchanted with the ancient city and beginning in 1908 funded and superbly managed an extensive restoration project. The restoration has continued to the present day, excepting periods in the 70’s and 80’s when military fighting prevented archaeologists from living near the ruins.
The structures one sees at Angkor today, more than 100 stone temples in all, are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings – palaces, public buildings, and houses – were built of wood and have long since decayed and disappeared.
Ta Prom, better known as the site used in one of the Tomb Raider movies starring Angelina Jolie, is unlike other temples in the Angkor region, in that it has been largely left as it was found, with very little restoration, and thus preserving a great example of what a tropical forest will do to an architectural monument minus any human intervention.
One thing I found in the 2 years since I was last there, is that it has become a LOT busier – when our tuktuk pulled up at around 5am (yes that’s the time you need to get there – at least to catch the sun rising over Angkor), several buses had already arrived plus at least another 20-30 tuktuks, with more enroute.
There was even an aerobics class going on in the carpark (What tha!!) – slightly disturbing to say the least, if only for the tinny Khmer version of 80’s music they were exercising to! Yikes!
A little info about Angkor before you go: cost of tickets aren’t too bad, but when you add in your Tuktuk driver (around US$10 per person per day), plus some food etc. it starts to add up a little, but I reckon it’s worth every penny myself!
• Passes are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days*. A photo is taken on the spot free of charge, and is required at time of purchase so it can go on your pass, which is shown to guards at each temple complex
*Recent reports say that these prices are set to rise in 2017!
Visiting hours are 5:00AM – 6:00PM. Angkor Wat closes at 6:00PM, Banteay Srey closes at 5:00PM and Kbal Spean at 3:00PM.
I’ve done the one-day and three-day passes – one day should be enough to see the main bits I think, as it gets very hot in Siem Reap (about 4 km away) at all times of the year!
If you’re really into it then get the 3-day pass, and maybe leave the 7-day passes to all the budding archeologists out there!
** Hot tip – where you buy your passes you can also buy coffee, tea, juices etc and some Pretty good pastries and sandwiches as well – don’t be conned by the locals^ selling you breakfast at the actual temple – it’s rubbish and costs about the same – you have been warned! 🙂
^Locals actually live onsite around the temples!
• Siem Reap is nothing great compared to other SE Asian cities, and is more like a large country town, with most action centered around 7 or 8 streets, the main one being Pub Street (yes, you heard right!), which is closed off at night (sort of anyway!) so people can meander down the street at a leisurely pace – it’s a great place to people-watch over a cool drink from some of the bars too. Siem Reap also has a nice river running through town, and is quite scenic – at night anyway!
There are plenty of places to eat, drink, sleep, and shop (there are about 3 night markets at last count), catering for ALL budgets ($15 guesthouses and homestays rub shoulders with hotels like Sofitel, Le Meridian, Park Hyatt, Raffles etc.).
In saying that, there are some pretty funky little lanes to explore, with some cool little eateries and bars, such as Miss Wong, Picasso Bar & Tapas, and Khmer BBQ (yummo cook-at-the-table stuff done at several restaurants!), and they’re not too expensive if you’re counting your coins.
There’s also a pretty good café I found for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner!) called Café Central, on the corner of Pub Street and Street 11 – friendly, not too exxy and good coffee as well!
(If you’re really game, try one of the fried spiders, scorpions or snakes on offer from the street seller-fellas! I kid you not!)
Out of town the land is all pretty flat but with the average annual rainfall for Cambodia being around 1400 mm in the central low land regions and may reach 4000 mm in certain coastal zones or in highland areas, things all stay pretty green – Cambodia can look like one big puddle in the wet season!
With this in mind, the Floating village is worth a look (in the wet season) – there’s been some talk recently about relocating many of the residents so I don’t know how long it will retain its unique charm!
• Getting there is always interesting – at the height of the wet season you can take a big high-speed boat from the pier at the end of Street 104 on the Tonlé Sap in Phnom Penh (or PP as the locals call it!) all the way to Siem Reap and takes around 5 hours. It’s a more comfortable ride than the bus I think, and gives you a great perspective on how really REALLY big the Tonlé Sap actually is – it’s HUGE!
Otherwise, there are buses that run between PP and Siem Reap (5-6 hours – I’ve done this too and it’s okay!), and an International-size airport about 8-10km out of town.
• Money – Cambodia’s main currencies are the US Dollar and the Riel – 4000 Riel to the Dollar. Riel is mostly given as change but if you have enough in your pocket, it’s totally okay to pay with them too! There are plenty of ATMs and Banks around as well, and pretty much all spit out US dollars.
**Hot tip – don’t accept badly-worn, torn or mangled notes – you’ll find it really hard to get rid of them!
• Like everywhere else on earth, there are scammers, so watch out for those, and a few dodgy characters, but for the most part, Siem Reap is a fairly benign place to hang out while you’re checking out Angkor – I truly recommend it just for the temples. You won’t be disappointed – just get there soon before its completely overrun – it’s already getting pretty busy!
All pics are by the Author – please ask before you use them!