Situated deep in the jungles of north-western Cambodia, the ancient and incredible temples of the Angkor Archaeological Park are the number one tourist attraction for visitors to this charming and unique country. Immense in scale, yet exquisite in artistic detail, these mysterious remnants of the ancient Khmer civilisation are a sobering reminder of human being's insignificance in comparison to the power of nature, and the inevitable ravages of time. Recently, my family and I were fortunate to visit this incredible place, and to experience its special ambiance.
Angkor Wat in the early morning
The largest and most famous of the Angkor temples is Angkor Wat, which is lauded as the largest religious structure in the world. Angkor Wat was constructed in the early 12th century by the God-king, Suryavarman II at Yasodharapura, which at that time was the capital of Cambodia's vast Khmer Empire. Embodying the highest principles of classical Khmer architecture (a style which was strongly influenced by the Dravidian temple design of South India), it was the state temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, and later used as the king's mausoleum.
Surrounded by a wide moat and a huge wall, the scale of the building defies belief. It is even said that Angkor Wat is one of the few ancient structures which can be seen from outer space. The main temple building was built to represent Mount Meru, the celestial abode of the Gods, and this is reflected in its form, with its pyramidal terraces gradually ascending to higher levels, and its exquisite, highly ornate spires.
Artistically, Angkor Wat is also renowned for the innumerable decorative sculptures and bas reliefs which adorn many of its surfaces, both inside and out. Amongst these, some of the most famous are the thousands of apsaras, beautiful dancing girls of the heavenly realm. The master stone masons of Angkor were so diligent in their craft that it's reputed no two have exactly the same hair-style and ornamentation.
Some of the beautiful apsaras of Angkor Wat
Despite its breathtaking scale and splendour, Angkor Wat isn't the only structure of historical interest within the 400 square kilometre Angkor Archaeological Park. The Khmer civilisation was deeply spiritual, and almost everywhere the remnants of ancient temples, shrines and monuments can be seen. In fact, according to some estimates, hundreds of ancient Khmer structures exist, of various sizes and states of repair. Just a few kilometres from Angkor Wat are the remnants of the walled city of Angkor Thom, the imperial capital of the last Khmer empire.
One of the gateways leading into Angkor Thom
Like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is immense in size, and during its days as the imperial capital, a population of approximately a million people was reputed to live within its strong stone walls. Today, it's incredible to wander through the ruins: to ponder upon the rise and fall of civilisations and the short life-span of human beings.
Angkor Thom contains one of the most unusual structures in the whole archaeological precinct, and perhaps the world: the enigmatic Bayon, which stands at the exact centre of the imperial city. Constructed by Jayavarman VII, it is characterised by 54 towers which are each adorned with four huge sculpted faces of Avalokiteshvara: images which are often reputed to resemble the king himself, thus emphasising his position as a divinely ordained ruler. It's an incredible experience to wander through this temple: once again, the scale of the buildings and their ornamentation is staggering. By the time we reached here, I was exhausted.
The Bayon, Angkor Thom
The final place which my family and I visited on our tour was Ta Prohm, yet another temple, but one which was distinctly different from those which we'd already seen. Unlike Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, which both celebrate the mastery of the Khmer civilisation and its skilled artisans, at this beautiful Buddhist place of worship which was dedicated to King Jayavarman's mother, it is nature in her most untamed and powerful form who rules supreme. While the other temples have been carefully reclaimed from the jungle, and painstakingly been restored, here, one can see gnarled, moss-covered roots and branches embracing the ancient stone-work. The combination of man-made artistic beauty with that of nature in her wildest, most untamed form is breathtaking, and many visitors consider a sojourn at these incredibly atmospheric ruins to be the pinnacle of their visit to the Angkor temples.
For more information about the mysterious temples of Angkor, go to the UNESCO website
and watch this short video from National Geographic
. For more practical travel advise regarding what to do and where to stay, check out this website
or get the terrific pocket-size Lonely Planet guide-book, 'Angkor Wat & Siem Reap' by Nick Ray.
When to visit?
Early morning is the most popular time to visit Angkor, and at dawn hundreds of travellers from all around the world congregate in anticipation to witness the spectacular sight of the sun rising over the ancient temples. It's a magical experience that shouldn't be missed. Later in the day the sun can get very hot, so some visitors try to do their sightseeing in the mornings, before returning to Siem Reap around 11am or midday.
Early morning at Angkor Wat
Cambodia is very hot most of the year. Most visitors prefer to visit from December to March when the weather is at its coolest. However, the increased number of visitors means that the temples can get quite crowded, and prices for accommodation skyrocket. We visited in July, which is the hot season. Although the weather was very warm, it wasn't intolerable: we went on our excursions during the cooler hours of the day, and returned to our hotel when it started getting uncomfortable.
The ruins of Angkor are situated about six kilometres from Siem Reap, a picturesque provincial city with a population of about 90,000 people. In addition, the Angkor Archaeological Park, where most of the ancient temples are situated, extends over a vast area, so it's essential that visitors have reliable transport organised to get there and back, as well as travel between the various sites within the park.
The most popular method of transport is by tuk tuk, small three-wheeled cabin cycles with open sides. These are easily organised from most accommodation places in Siem Reap, or can be easily flagged down on the street. Tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap are generally very knowledgeable about the Angkor temples, and provided they are fluent in English, you can learn a lot about the historical background of the area. For an extra fee, many tuk tuk drivers are happy to accompany visitors around the various sites.
Another option is to pay a registered guide to escort you around the archaeological park: an additional expense on top of the cost of a tuk tuk and driver. These guides are required to speak fluent English (and / or other languages), and undergo rigorous training, including an in-depth knowledge of the site's history. My family chose this option, and our guide Sunny was terrific company – cheerful, charming and full of fascinating information about the places we visited.
Finally, for the rugged individualist or those travelling on a very tight budget, it's possible to hire a moped or a push-bike, and visit the sites independently. This option is great as it gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. However, to get the most out of your visit, I'd strongly recommend that you do some background research about the sites and / or purchase a guidebook.
For foreigners, the entry fee is certainly not cheap. A one day entry to all sites in the reserve is a hefty US $20.00, a US $40.00 pass will allow entry for three days, and a one-week pass will cost you US $60.00. This system is strictly enforced and if you're caught out without a valid pass you'll receive a fine of US $100. Very serious-looking officials are everywhere, diligently checking that all tourists are adhering to the system, so don't risk it. Remember, Cambodia is a developing country and this region especially relies on the revenue brought in by international visitors. If you visit the Angkor temples accompanied by a guide and / or tuk-tuk driver, they will emphasise the importance of doing this, as they will get penalised (as well as you) if you don't follow the rules. Visitors independently cycling to the sites especially need to be aware of this, and stop en-route at the large ticket office, just outside the reserve area.