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Angkor travel guide

South-East Asia’s most fascinating ancient site is a verified world wonder – but it’s still possible to play the adventurous archaeologist among Cambodia’s famed ruins

Angkor Wat is often lauded as the world’s largest religious structure. But while there’s no doubt that the centrepiece temple is vast, dramatic and sensuously beautiful, there’s far more to the millennium-old Khmer site of Angkor than its star turn.

The roots of Angkor date back to AD 802, when the Khmer ruler Jayavarman II kicked off the building craze; the following 600 or so years saw scores of Hindu and then Buddhist temples sprout across the land surrounding present-day Siem Reap, as well as reservoirs and structures whose purpose is still shrouded in mystery.

Long lost in the Cambodian jungle, the ruins were ‘rediscovered’ by French explorer Henri Mahout in the 1860s; today, they’re thronging with tourists (and, though now vastly outnumbered, Buddhist monks who still worship at the temples).

The fortified city of Angkor Thom is dominated by the enigmatic smiling faces of the Bayon, while nearby tree roots strangle the jungle-strewn temple of Ta Prohm. Nearby Preah Khan is a huge, elaborate maze to rival Angkor Wat itself, while further afield, fine carved reliefs adorn the red stone walls of Banteay Srei.

If you time your visits to each site carefully, you can avoid the crowds and enjoy a series of intimate encounters with these ancient marvels. Above all, learn to look for the detail in the hidden corners, absorb the atmosphere in the moments of peace, and meet the locals on an even footing; then you’ll truly appreciate the contrasts in scale between the huge stone blocks and intricate carvings, and start to understand a little about the lives of Khmers past and present.

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