For hundreds of years, the temple complex of Angkor Wat has been the jewel of Cambodia’s crown. While most people are familiar with the iconic namesake temple, displayed on the nation’s flag, as well as on the cover of countless Cambodia guidebooks, the full complex of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom is immense. It’s made up of dozens of temples, in various states of repair. Some appear virtually untouched, others are being reclaimed by nature, more still have been lost to the passage of time, leaving only shadows and buried relics.
The whole area of the Angkor Archaeological Park spans over 400 square km and can take days to explore, but visiting the park is simpler now than it has ever been. Since the early 2000s, the park has undergone a massive development to make it more accessible to tourists and scholars alike, everyday, more is uncovered and made available to all, while the setting up of toilets and market stalls selling food and drink make it possible to stay in the park all day if desired.
The development is extremely expensive however, and is paid for in part by admission fees. Entrants to the park must purchase a one day pass ($20), three day pass ($40) or a week-long pass ($60), a small price to pay to see the seventh wonder of the world.
Before you get to the temples however, there’s the small matter of getting to Cambodia. While this would have been extremely difficult twenty years ago, the country has exploded into the modern world since the collapse of the devastating Khmer Rouge regime. International Airports and new roads make it simple to fly into Siem Reap, the gateway city to Angkor Wat.
Once there, you’ll find goods, food, even accommodation at very low prices. First time visitors to Cambodia may be surprised to find American Dollars being issued from cash machines, but with most of the country’s large transactions being made with USD, it is now largely interchangeable with the native currency; the Cambodian Kip.
Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, is Angkor’s lifeline. Accommodation will be found here as there are no hotels within the temple grounds. It’s a lively, characterful little city with great food, good infrastructure and countless spas.
Because of the temples, which are only a few miles from the city limits, it does tend to suffer a little from tourist-itis: most market goods are tacky, a lot of food is westernised and English is the first language. For anyone seeking the true, rural Cambodia, this is not the place. It is however a good place to start, with transport links to areas all over the country. If you’re just visiting for the temples, Siem Reap is a safe, comfortable, inexpensive base.
As for the temples themselves, they are easy to find, and every hotel will offer methods to explore them. There are organised tours in air conditioned minivans which take place in the peak of the day, usually between 9am and 2pm. For more flexibility but added comfort, you could hire a taxi and driver, and drive from temple to temple.
The most common option however is to hire a remork – a motorcycle taxi often mistaken for a tuk-tuk. For $15 a day, you can take this unique mode of transport around all the temples you desire, at a time to suit you. You and up to three others can sit in the open air – but shielded from the sun, and watch statues, relics and monkeys zip by on your way to the next temple.
It’s thoroughly entertaining, but for those who crave a more active experience, it’s possible to hire a bike and cycle around the temples for a mere $1 – $5 a day. This is perhaps the most organic way to experience Angkor Wat, you feel much closer to the temples and get a real sense of their scale. There are no hills and it’s pretty easy going, I would however avoid cycling in late March/April, as temperatures can often reach 40 degrees at the peak of the day.
The Angkor Wat temple itself is nothing short of awe-inspiring, particularly at sunrise, when the sky burns golden red, and the sun rises across the great square moat of the millennia old temple. For this spectacle, avoid the tour groups and venture out for yourself, find a spot away from the tourists, and bask in the serenity of the sight that has stilled visitors for centuries.
You’re free to tour all the temples inside and out, but be respectful, as many still actively function as Buddhist shrines. Don’t be afraid to approach a monk for a blessing, your interest will be gladly received – especially with a small donation – but always ask before taking photos.
The other temples are no less impressive, despite being smaller than the eponymous Angkor Wat. The sheer variety of the temples is absolutely remarkable, while Angkor Wat comprises of traditional Khmer architecture, the others range dramatically. Many travelers are captivated by the eerie Bayan temple, built on many levels of enormous stone faces, staring down explorers with wry, knowing smiles which blaze red at sunset.
Another temple, you will already know, famous for many appearances in films like Indiana Jones, and Tomb Raider. The Ta Prohm temple has been consumed by nature; ancient trees spring from cracks in rocks, and blur the lines between nature and man. Combine this with the early morning mists, and the result is stunningly beautiful.
As a start to a Cambodian adventure, or even as a stand-alone holiday, exploring Angkor Wat is a humbling experience, which will stay with you for a lifetime. The tragedy is that archaeologists are fighting a losing battle, and as time goes on, less and less of these ancient treasures will survive. Ta Prohm’s lifespan is limited by the very thing that makes it beautiful, and other temples like the iconic Angkor Wat are constantly under threat from the environmental consequences of modernisation.
The money from ticket sales, and the interest of the international community is the only thing keeping these great temples alive. By visiting them, you’ll not only have the experience of a lifetime, you will also be helping to preserve them for another generation.
Written By: Adam Niblett
Photographs By: Adam Niblett, 2013