Angkor Archaeological Park
Stretching over some 400 square kilometres, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The most famous are the Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations.
Angkor Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. At the same time, it was also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to looting, a declining water table, and unsustainable tourism. UNESCO has now set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.
Angkor itself has no accommodation and few facilities; the nearby town of Siem Reap, just 6km south, is the tourist hub for the area.
The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost Hindu concept is the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: this is why so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. The linga (phallus), representing the god Shiva, was also critical and while the lingas themselves have largely gone, linga stands (carved, table-like blocks of stone) can be found in many if not most rooms in the temples. There was also a political element to it all: most kings wanted to build their own state temples to symbolize their kingdom and their rule.
While early Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples, Jayavarman VII converted to Mahayana Buddhism c. 1200 and embarked on a prodigious building spree, building the new capital city of Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more as Buddhist structures. However, his successor Jayavarman VIII returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive spree of destruction, systematically defacing Buddhist images and even crudely altering some to be Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost out to Buddhism again, but the (few) Buddha images in the temples today are later Theraveda additions.
One element that continues to mystify archaeologists is the baray, or water reservoir, built in a grand scale around Angkor: for example, the West Baray is a mind-boggling 8km by 2.3km in size. While it has long been assumed that they were used for irrigation, some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious. Not a single outlet has been found, either by eye or by NASA imaging. The moat around Angkor and the West Baray still contains water, but the rest have dried up.
As you tour the temples, you will see certain mythical figures and other motifs cropping up repeatedly.
Angkor is hot and sticky throughout the year, but the peak visitor season is November to February, when the weather is dry and temperatures are coolest (25-30°C). The flip side is that the temples are packed, especially around Christmas/New Year, and hotel rates are at their highest. March to May is brutally hot, with temperatures reaching 40°C. June to October is the rainy season, and outlying temples and the roads leading to them can turn into quagmires of mud. However, this is also when the temples are at their quietest, and it's still often possible to do a good half-day round of sightseeing before the rains start in the afternoon.
Angkor is located about 20 minutes to the north, by car or motorbike, from central Siem Reap. See the Siem Reap article for details on getting there.
For those interested in researching Angkor Wat prior to their arrival, several excellent books are available. Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman provides detailed maps, suggested itineraries, and helpful information about all of the temples in the Angkor region. Angkor by Michael D. Coe offers an insightful history in the Khmer Empire. Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors is a wonderful work of historical fiction that brings Angkor Wat to vivid life, offering readers a glimpse into this legendary temple.
Passes are required to enter the Angkor area. They are on sale at the front gate for 1-day (USD20), 3-day (USD40), or 7-day (USD60) durations (children under 12 enter for free after showing a passport). The 3-day pass is valid for any 3 days within a week, while the 7-day pass is valid for any 7 days within a month. If you plan on using your 3 or 7 day pass on non consecutive days, make sure to get the newer version, otherwise you may be given an old one that must be used immediately. Cambodians can enter for free — you shouldn't need to buy a pass for your guide or your driver. If you buy a pass in the evening, you can enter the park after 17:00 to view the sunset without it counting as use of a day on your pass. The passes are non-transferable. You will have a photograph taken and printed on your pass to make sure they are non-transferable. Regular checks for the pass are performed at almost all sites within the park, so carry your pass with you at all times, and be certain to buy the passes only from the official Apsara Authority counters, not from other vendors, and definitely not second-hand.
Guides can be hired for about USD20 a day and are available for most major languages. Hiring a guide for at least the first day can help you get orientated to the temples and are particularly useful for finding and explaining the bas-reliefs, which can otherwise be rather overwhelming and/or difficult to understand.
"Ancient Angkor", the guidebook that is hawked at every temple, is surprisingly good. Particularly if you are interested in the carvings on the walls and towers, the book will keep you occupied for hours. If you don't want to pay money to hear a local tell you about the temples in broken English this is a good option. Authored by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, the cover price is USD 27.95 at book shops, and is sold by some at much lower prices. For example, the book shop at the international airport is selling it for USD 20. Vendors located within and outside Angkor Wat sell duplicate copies of the book, for as little as 1 USD, if you haggle, or it's the end of the day.
Another excellent source of material on Angkor Wat is Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors. This best selling novel is a work of historical fiction, and brings ancient Angkor Wat back to life, as well as the celebrates the Khmer culture.
Be sure and get to the temples early. You can enter the park beginning at 05:00; the temples open at sunrise. There are fewer visitors early in the morning, and the sun isn't at full force. Arriving at the temples at 08:00 instead of 09:00 can make all the difference in staying one step ahead of the crowds.
The temples can broadly be categorized into four groups:
You can, of course, mix and match freely, but as distances are fairly long, it makes sense to plan ahead and pick sites connected by road. Most car, tuk-tuk or moto drivers will have an itinerary ready if you don't have one in mind, and their expertise may come in handy for arriving at sites a step ahead of the big tour groups.
Located six kilometre north of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is one of the largest of Khmer monuments. Built around the first half of 12th century by King Suryavarman II, the temple's balance, composition and beauty make it one of the finest monuments in the world.
Though 'Wat' is the Khmer (Cambodian) word for temple, the westward orientation of the structure is atypical of temples. Scholars believe that the architecture and sculptures are that of a temple where Lord Vishnu was worshipped but it was also built as a mausoleum for the king after his death.
How to explore
Do your homework first. To enjoy the ruins, read articles on the sites, not just the history but also the spatial relationships and the hierarchy of importance of the ruins. The JASA Office (Japan Apsara Safeguarding Authority) - a Japanese government agency has an information office, the Bayon Information Centre in Siem Reap along Sivatha Blvd. (at the back of Hotel Le Meridien Angkor) provides a bird's eye view of the story of Angkor Wat via DVD screenings and display storyboards in English for USD2 and for another USD5, a handy, concise and very enlightening graphic booklet (in color and perfect professional-level English) is available.
The size of the monuments makes it look overwhelming when one encounters it for the first time. The following is one of the suggested plan to explore Angkor Wat. Enter through the west entrance. When you reach the entry tower, walk to the right to get a glimpse of all the five towering gopuras.
Passing the tower and the libraries on both sides of the walkway, climb down the steps towards the left side and get to the water basin. You can catch a glimpse of the temple and its reflection in the water. Go past the basin and reach the left end of the temple.
You would by now have reached the starting point of the famous bas reliefs depicting scenes from various mythological stories and historic events. Walking from left to right you will come across scenes from battle of Ramayana, battle of Mahabharata, army of Suryavarman II, scenes from judgement by Yama (the supreme judge), churning of ocean by demons and gods to get Amrita — the nectar of immortality, Vishnu's victory over demons, victory of Krishna over Bana and other scenes of battle between gods and demons.
Climb the steps to reach the second tier. One can reach the third tier and the central courtyard within by climbing the steps oriented towards any of the four cardinal points. However, it is suggested that the steps on the south (right) be taken, as these have now been fitted with a handrail — particularly useful when descending.
Note to photographers: The temple at Angkor Wat is a bit unusual in that it was built to face due West (most have been built to face the rising sun.) As a result, the iconic image of the Temple has the sun rising behind it from the East. There are just two times a year when this is possible; during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (around March 20th and September 22 each year.) This does not mean that amazing images aren't possible at other times of the year, just that if you want to have the sun rising over the spires of the complex, a date near an equinox is best.
You can also expect a lot of people to join you in your photographic adventure. It is not unusual to see tour buses lined up at the check in points well before sunrise. Make sure you have a flashlight as you have to cross a long bridge with little in the way of railing an no artificial lighting. Just in front of the Temple is a large pond that is often seen in photos reflecting the structure and the rising sun. However, this pond is frequently filled with water lilies that may obstruct its mirror qualities. Once the sun is up you will find many amazing things to shoot. Buddhist monks wearing saffron robes are frequently seen among the ruins, as are monkeys and, of course, loads of tourists. Locals will sometimes pose for you, but they often ask for money in exchange (usually a dollar or two.)
When to visit
The sight of the grand monument towering over the landscape is breath-taking at any time of day. However, to maximise the effect it is suggested that the first trip to Angkor Wat be made in optimal lighting conditions, usually around 13:00~14:00. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a also great sight to witness. Hence most of the tourists tend to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, then explore other ruins in the morning and then return to Angkor Wat later in the afternoon. The sun rises behind Angkor Wat and the best colours are seen just before the sun climbs into view. As the position of the sun as it rises varies according to the time of year, do position yourself accordingly. For example, in November-December time when you are facing Angkor Wat, the sun rises on your right hand side. Hence grab a place to the extreme left of the entry tower to see the sunrise. Sunset at Angkor Wat is best viewed either on the top tier or outside the main temple structure.
If you visit the temple at sunrise or sundown, you are advised to bring a torch since there is no lighting, and since the temple has many steps, puddles and other obstacles you can't see at night that could make you trip.
Built in the latter part of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, Bayon is one of the most widely recognised temples in Siem Reap because of the giant stone faces that adorn the towers of Bayon. There are 54 towers of four faces each, totalling 216 faces. There is still a debate as to who is being depicted in the faces. It could be Avalokiteshvara, Mahayana Buddhism's compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of King Jayavarman VII and Buddha.
How to explore
Bayon's plan can be divided into three levels — the first two are bas-reliefs and the uppermost consists of the central sanctuary. The outer gallery depicts scenes from everyday life and historical events, while the second inner gallery depicts mythical figures and stories. In total, there are more than 1km of bas-reliefs to be viewed in the Bayon.
Enter Bayon from the east. The outer gallery comes into view first. The second gallery is on the next higher level. The third level is where you will encounter many of the famous faces (and tourists). The fact that these stones are exposed to direct light makes it easy to shoot pictures throughout the day, though mid-day sun eliminates shadows. You will find fewer tourists too during this time of day. Elephants are also available to take you from the gate into Bayon for $10 per person (seats are limited and often already pre-booked by the tour groups)
When to visit
The surrounding and the tall towers makes Bayon a bit dark and flat for study and photography near sunrise and sunset. Hence, it is best to visit Bayon when there is plenty of light. 10:00 in the morning to around 16:00 in the afternoon is the most popular.
Located to the northwest of the Bayon, the Baphuon is supposed to represent Mount Meru (sacred to Hinduism), and was one of the largest and grandest structures in Angkor. Built into the western face of the Baphuon is a giant reclining Buddha, added in the 16th century after the region converted from Hinduism to Buddhism.
Archaeologists had dismantled the Baphuon to perform renovation when they were interrupted by the civil war; the records for piecing the temple back together were subsequently lost or destroyed. Today the reconstruction work is done, so visitors can now walk up to the top tier.
Other Angkor Thom sights
The Bayon and Baphuon temples form only part of what was formerly the giant city of Angkor Thom, once thought to hold a population of one million.
In addition to the Bayon and Baphuon temples, the ancient city of Angkor Thom holds a number of other sites of interest:
In clockwise order, exiting Angkor Thom by the Victory Gate:
In clockwise order, exiting Angkor Thom by the North Gate:
The ruins here are from the ancient capital of Hariharalaya, dating from the late 9th century and thus pre-dating Angkor itself.
This section mainly applies to those who visit the temples on their own, without a tour guide.
Souvenirs are also sold in front of all temples. Bargain, but not too hard: many souvenir sellers live within the park and, being banned from farming on their own land, have to resort to this to make a living. Please do not encourage children who pester tourists in the temples themselves to give money or buy postcards.
There are several decent souvenir shops around the old market. One of the shops called 'Black Garuda' has some original key holders and mobile straps and they donate some of your purchase to land mine victims.
Despite a ban on development and commercial activity, dozens of small noodle and snack shops have sprung up near the major attractions of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Some shopkeepers may be willing to bargain - during summer low season, you can bring the price of a good lunch down to as low as USD1 for a dish and US$0.50 for a drink. Their flocks of five year old emissaries aren't likely to hold price-cutting authority. You'll also find some local people selling fresh pineapples and mangoes (beautifully cut) for about USD1 a piece. Also try the seasonal toddy palm fruit – a hollow sack as soft as jelly at 4 pieces for $US1 sold at the roadside to Bantay Samre and at temple refreshment stalls.
Soft drinks are sold at stalls in front of most temples. As you might expect, prices are inflated: USD1 for a can of soft drink or a cold 1.5 litre plastic bottle of water is more or less standard, although this can easily be bargained down to half or less.
Some local drink vendors in Angkor temples might also offering fresh coconut water.
The area has seen a large increase of hotels and guest houses in 2003, with many new 3 to 4 star places opening up on the road between the airport and Siem Reap. See Siem Reap for hotels and hostels. Camping is not allowed.
By local regulation, motorcycle and tuk-tuk drivers must at all times wear a numbered vest when on the job, which goes a long way towards preventing hassles and scams. This, unfortunately, is not enforced, and you will see a fair number of drivers without vests. However, a disturbing number of rapes continue to happen, especially after dark and in the more secluded temples, so it's not advised for women to travel alone.
Whilst visiting the temples, beware of off-duty police officers, who are in uniform, that start walking beside you and start showing you around the temples. At this point either say that you would like to see the temples yourself, or agree on a price at the start. Several people have been asked for a fee of over USD10 at the end of the temple tour and you are not going to argue with a member of the police force. The official wage for a police officer is very low, so they can easily double their salary by being tourist guides.
Whilst at the temple beware of anyone offering you incense. They will hand you the incense and then "teach" you a blessing. They will then ask for a donation (generally about USD10) for the monks and the upkeep of the temple. None of the funds will make it to either of these causes, so it's best just to say a quick "No thank you" when they try to give you the incense in the first place.
Tourists mulling over whether to rent a tour bike – have no fear. Parking is never a problem and not in the warden’s wildest dream that a bike parked besides an attraction will get lost or stolen, locked or not. In small temples it surely is easy to park and leave. But what about big sites such as Angkor Wat? Just do it! Bikes are parked across the west entrance and vendors will even compete for your attention to babysit your bike. During biking trip be aware of children standing by the roads in Angkor Park and raising their hands to give you high fives. Stay on a safe side and just wave your hand, as sometimes they try to take out a ring off your fingers when you give them a high five.
Be prepared for vast numbers of peddlers who linger around temples. It may feel difficult or rude to ignore the constant come-ons to buy souvenirs, photocopied guidebooks, t-shirts and assorted junk, but it can be necessary in order to enjoy your visit in semi-peace.
Early in the morning, when it is popular for people to take pictures of the sunrise at Angkor Wat, off-duty park employees may attempt to restrict you from accessing the third (top) level inside the main temple. They will insist that you pay them extra money for the privilege of climbing up here. They can become very aggressive towards tourists who attempt to climb the stairs without paying. Your daily pass already gives you access to this and all other public areas inside the park. One day a week, the third level IS closed in observance. However, the area is then closed to EVERYONE on this day.
Touring the temples is a hot and sweaty job, so bring sunblock and keep yourself well hydrated. Some of the temples, notably the uppermost level of Angkor Wat, require climbs up very steep staircases and are best avoided if you suffer from vertigo or are not fully confident of being able to keep your footing.
Malaria is not endemic around the temple complex; however, it is recommended to seek medical advice before you travel as conditions may change.
Don't feed or approach the monkeys who lurk around some sites: many are ill-tempered and will bite at the slightest provocation.
Some of Angkor's sites were originally built as Hindu temples, while some were built as Buddhist temples, and yet others were converted over the years. Today, most of Angkor's major temples house at least a few Buddha statues (nearly all added later) and draw a steady stream of monks and worshippers. You may be approached for donations, but you are under no obligation to pay unless you actually choose to accept incense sticks or other offerings.
Because these are still holy spaces for Cambodians, it is best to follow the dress code of "long trousers or skirt, and covered shoulders". A skirt or shorts which cover the knees are also acceptable. This is the dress code that the Cambodians follow when visiting any temple or holy space. This dress code is strictly enforced in only two places: the top level of Angkor Wat (closed for restoration late September 2013), and the Phnom Bakheng temple-mountain; the required dress code there is "covered knees and shoulders, no hats". Most Khmers are non-confrontational so this rule is not really enforced with the exceptions mentioned above but wearing inappropriate clothing sends a message of disrespect. A good rule of thumb is "Would I wear this to my own house of worship?" If not, it may be poor etiquette to wear it to someone else's holy site.
As an added benefit, long trousers and covered shoulders provide better protection from the sun, insects and brambles when walking around and between the sites.