Angkor: 1000 Years of History in a Day

With almost two million people visiting annually, Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park is deservedly one of the most popular tourist sites in the world. The plethora of stone temples and monuments situated in modern day Siem Reap province are all that is left of an ancient mega city that reached its zenith between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.

Angkor WatAngkor Wat, the main temple of the area, is inundated with tourists in peak season

Prior to my visiting the ancient remains of the vast city of Angkor, I knew next to nothing about them. I had a vague recollection of a story I had heard about some erstwhile French explorer unexpectedly stumbling upon the lost city much to everyone’s astonishment, not least his own. Unfortunately, there is only a sliver of truth to this tale. Angkor, and in particular the main temple Angkor Wat, had never been lost to the local populace, though many of the other monuments and temples had long since been claimed by the surrounding jungle by the time of the Frenchman’s arrival.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire that ruled from present day Burma to Vietnam. The city covered over 400 square miles (1036 square kms) including suburbs, roughly the same area as modern day Paris. In ancient times, it is estimated to have supported at least 0.!% of the world’s population.

Outer wall Angkor WatThe outer wall of the Angkor Wat complex

Perhaps just as fascinating as the temples of Angkor, and possibly as much a testimony to the ancient Khmers’ engineering prowess, is the enormous system of artificial waterways made up of canals, dykes and reservoirs. These waterways served the purpose of supplying some 750,000 people with fresh drinking water and providing irrigation for crops while, like the rest of the complex, remaining faithful to religious Hindu symbolism.

Some historians speculate that the failing of this elaborate system may have led to the Khmer Empire’s desertion of Angkor in the 15th century in favour of a site near the modern day capital Phnom Penh. Others believe it is more likely that this was due the gradual shift from the Empire’s Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism in the 13th and 14th centuries and the resulting change in religious observances. The truth, like much of the history of Angkor, is that no one really knows. And the mysteries behind this famous site make it all the more beguiling.

Angkor WatMany of the monuments require support to prevent collapse, elsewhere restoration is ongoing

Angkor Wat, literally City Temple, is the huge centre-piece of an area overflowing with incredible ancient art and architecture. Now an important religious site for Buddhist monks, it was originally constructed as a spiritual abode for the Hindu god Vishnu. Of all the sites in the area, Angkor Wat is perhaps the most significant artistic site; well preserved bas-relief galleries illustrating Cambodia’s rich history of myth and legend line many of the walls. Built in the 12th century with 9 to 15 million tonnes of stone, the outer wall covering an area of 820,000 square metres (203 acres) and the temple itself measuring an astonishing 187 m (614 ft) by 215 m (705 ft), it is little wonder the largest monument in the world is so revered it is depicted on the nation’s flag.

Angkor Wat

But there is a lot more to Angkor than Angkor Wat, which was so thronged with tourists when we were there that if I hadn’t already suffered from claustrophobia before venturing in I would likely have acquired the condition before crawling out. (Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but the combination of stifling heat and cramped conditions did sap my interest in that particular site a little after a time).

Spread over a large area, there are over 1000 temples and monuments in the forests of Angkor Archaeological Park. A number of options are available to explore these including tour buses with itineraries to see the main sites and, more interestingly, tethered balloon rides that allow you to see the vast complex from an aerial perspective.

Angkor ThomAncient date trees grow out of many of the temples and structures, this one in Angkor Thom

Personally, I am not a fan of itineraries and I couldn’t quite justify the cost of the balloon ride, so we hired a local Tuk-Tuk driver for the day and went on our merry way. This proved to be the right decision: we spent as much time as we liked at each site, when we were thirsty we went for a drink, when we were hungry we ate, and when Mary tired of archaeology she curled up in the Tuk-Tuk hammock and I went off exploring Indiana Jones-style on my own. I’m quite sure it would have been a nightmare on a scheduled tour. Quite sure.

Angkor Thom

I have trudged around many a temple in my time. I once dated Thai girl who practised Buddhism and dragged me around more religious sites than I care to remember. I felt at the time she was practising a little too much, but that is by the by. Of all the temples, churches and cathedrals I’ve seen, none of them compare to the temples of Angkor Wat. When one considers the sheer size and scale of such an undertaking, the moving of rock from quarries many miles away, the incredible engineering feat of fixing so much rock on rock without mortar, the masses of relief artwork carved with painstaking precision, it really does blow the mind.

Definitely one for the bucket list.


How to get there

Detail Angkor WatThe modern town of Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor. You can book coaches, minibuses and even taxis from almost any hotel or hostel. The journey takes roughly five hours. Alternatively, you can book a boat, which may be a little more expensive but surely a more pleasant method of transport. The boat takes about six hours. In retrospect, I wish we had taken this option. Siem Reap also has an airport where you can fly in and out from and to various locations in Southeast Asia.


Visiting Options

Siem Reap caters to every budget. You can find hotels and hostels, or lodgings somewhere in between. Like your travel arrangements, these can be booked in advance in Phnom Penh. There are various options for seeing the sites including scheduled bus tours with guides provided, tethered balloon tours to get an aerial perspective the area, or simply hiring a Tuk-Tuk driver for the day. We chose the latter option as it offers the most flexibility. You don’t have the luxury of a guide this way but you can buy a glossy magazine for a dollar at any of the main sites that offers similar information. A one day pass for the Angkor area is $10 US, a three day pass $30. The ticket must be picked up in person as it incorporates a (horrifically distorted) photograph.

When to Visit

Peak season in Angkor is December and January. Temperatures during these months are likely to be kinder but the flip side of that coin is that there are more tourists then. However, we went at the end of January and apart from the two main temples, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the number of tourists did not affect us too much. Even then it was very hot and temperatures usually soar higher in February through to May before the monsoon in May and June. If you don’t like too much heat that may be worth considering. Travelling to Angkor in the rainy season is not impossible, but you will get wet, obviously. In the post-monsoon which lasts to October rains are sporadic and shouldn’t bother you if you come prepared.