Angkor Archaeological Park
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Stretching over some 400 square kilometers, 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 accommodations and few facilities; the nearby town of Siem Reap 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 8 km by 2.3 km 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. Today, 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 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's, 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.
Tour buses feature guided, air-conditioned comfort but also are subject to large crowds and lack of options. Be sure you know which temples are being visited as some of the larger buses only go to the 2 or 3 main tourist attractions, and leave out important "secondary" sights. The cost is ~US$25-$70/day including driver and guide.
Cars with drivers can be hired for single or multiple days. While all drivers are familiar with the area and happy to suggest good routes, most speak little English and are not actual tour guides. For an actual licensed tour guide, the charge varies from US$45 per day to US$50 for a driver and English speaking guide. It is customary for the drivers to ask for US$5-US$10 extra for trips to further temples such as the those of the Big Circuit, Banteay Srey and more for remote sites like Beng Mealea.
Circa January 2011, the taxi rides purchased from the airport booth to downtown Siem Reap ($7 fixed price) include fliers advertising cars & drivers for Angkor Wat at $30/day. In one experience: The youngish driver from the airport offered to do the same for $25 + free water, and followed through admirably.
Motorbikes (with drivers) can be arranged through any guesthouse for about US$6-$8/day. Again, drivers might ask for more to visit remote ruins. Some drivers can speak a bit of English, and can give you information about Angkor and Cambodian life. Drivers are required to be licensed and must wear their gray numbered vest while traveling within the confines of the Angkor park. The rental of motorbikes without a driver to foreigners in Siem Reap is prohibited; however foreigners can ride motorbikes they've rented elsewhere (e.g., Phnom Penh).
Tuk tuks can be arranged through guesthouses, offering space for one or two travelers. Figure on US$12 for the main Angkor temples, and more for outlying temples. Like the motorbike drivers, they must be licensed, may speak some English, and must wear gray numbered vests while traveling within the park.
Bicycles are another option, though you will spend more time getting from place to place and will have a limited range. They are probably best for visitors planning on returning for several days. Bring sun screen, a good hat, lot of water and a scarf to keep the sun off your neck. The rental is around US$1 per day for a decent bicycle, and quality does vary so check around. As of 2006, there is also an electrical bicycle renting agency near the road to the Angkor. The battery can be exchanged free of charge at several places inside the Angkor. [2008-11-08 update: the electrical bike rental service doesn't seem to be operating anymore]
Horse carriages and even elephants are also available within the park, but only from specific points. For example, elephants travel the route between Bayon and the nearest gate of Angkor Thom.
Electric cars will take you to certain areas for a round-trip price of only $2. They can be found in front of Angkor Wat and the Terrace of the Elephants.
Helicopter flights are another way of seeing Angkor Archaeological Park. You can also visit outlying temples like Banteay Chhmar, Boeng Mealea, Koh Ker, Rolous Group, Phnom Bok & Tonle Sap floating village. Sokha Helicopters  have prices starting from US$110 per person for the basic Angkor Wat, Prasart Kravan, Bat Chum, Sras Srang, Pre Rup, Eastern Mebon & Ta Som 12 minutes tour. Flights depart daily next to the Sokha Yellow Balloon on the road from Siem Reap International Airport to Angkor Wat main entrance. Bookings essential and can be made through hotels or travel/tour agents or direct on +855 12 449 555.
Passes are required to enter the Angkor area. They are on sale at the front gate for 1-day ($20), 3-day ($40), or 7-day ($60) intervals. 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 5PM 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 US$20 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.
Be sure and get to the temples early. You can enter the park beginning at 5AM; 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 8AM instead of 9AM 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 kilometers 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
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.
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 1~2PM. 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 colors 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.
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, totaling 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, but still worth checking out!)
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. 10AM in the morning to around 4 PM in the evening is the stretch most people prefer.
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 it is undergoing painstaking reconstruction work, so visitors can only walk across the long terrace leading up to the main structure and around the outside base. Completion is estimated for 2010.
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 predating Angkor itself.
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. Spread your tourism dollars around--most temples have the same offerings, so buy your souvenirs and gifts for friends back home from several shops, from several temples if possible, especially the less-visited ones.
There are several decent souvenir shops around the old market.The 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 or commercial zoning, dozens of small noodle and snack shops have sprung up near the major attractions of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. If you're in the mood, 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 $1 for a dish and $0.50 for a drink. (Their flocks of five year old emissaries aren't likely to hold price-cutting authority, though.) You'll also find some local people selling fresh pineapples and mangoes (beautifully cut) for about $1 a piece.
Soft drinks are hawked by stalls in front of practically every temple. As you might expect, prices are inflated: $1 for a can of soft drink or a cold 1L plastic bottle of water is more or less standard, although this can easily be bargained down to half or less.
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. However, a disturbing number of rapes continue to happen, especially after dark and in the more secluded temples, so it's unadvised 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 requested for a fee of over $10 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 $10) 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.
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.
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.
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 the Khmers (Cambodian people), it is best to follow the dress code of "long pants/skirt and covered shoulders." This is the dress code that the Khmers follow when visiting any temple or holy space. Most Khmers are non-confrontational so this rule is not strictly enforced, 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 pants and covered shoulders provide better protection from the sun, insects, and brambles when walking around and between the sites.