The world's largest religious monument now draws tourist numbers to match; find out what the locals make of it all and ways of getting off the temple trail
It’s ten years since I first clapped eyes on Angkor.
I’d seen countless images of the temple, but none could prepare me for the spiritual stirring of that initial encounter. Crossing Angkor Wat’s moat, the size and scale was overwhelming; as I saw the triumvirate of towers rising ahead, I knew I was touching greatness – a testament to the architectural audacity of the ancient Khmers.
Ten years on, and with Angkor back where it belongs on the global hotlist of heritage sites, I paid a return visit.
It was like walking into a gold rush. Visitor numbers have just reached the magic million mark and are projected to keep on rising; the astonishing 500 temples in the area are flanked by an even more astonishing 1,000 hotels. Welcome to Cambodia’s boom town.
Even Angkor’s grand new ticket checkpoint is a far cry from the early days, when it was a shed on the side of the road. “The Angkor passes are controlled by a Vietnamese-owned petrol company called Sokimex,” Ouk, my moto driver, told me.
The contract was awarded in secrecy and the company is taking a greater share of revenue than Apsara, the government agency protecting the monuments. That’s progress for you.
As we passed the vast moat of Angkor Wat, I asked Ouk what this place means to the Khmer people. “Angkor Wat is a powerful place. It proves that Cambodia was once strong, not always weak like today.”
For the average Cambodian, a pilgrimage to Angkor is like the Hajj: a journey they must undertake during their lifetime. However, many poor farmers can’t afford it. “My home province is Battambang in the west,” Ouk said. “It’s not so far, but most of my family have never been to Angkor.”
We passed through the towering gates of Angkor Thom and considered the legacy of king Jayavarman VII. “He built lots of temples, but he also cared for his people and provided them with a network of roads, resthouses and hospitals,” Ouk explained. I asked how today’s government measures up. “The roads are getting better, but the route to Thailand is still terrible. Hospitals, schools, services – things are pretty bad as we have to pay for everything.”
“A big difference to people, yes,” Ouk said. “People have jobs and more money. Moto drivers are training to be tour guides, like my younger brother. People are saving to buy cars, everyone is hopeful for the future.”
We continued out on the beautiful country road to Banteay Srei, a route too dangerous to travel in 1995 unless you could pay for an armed escort. Back then, an American researcher was ambushed and killed on this road, though witnessing the rural tranquillity today it’s hard to believe.
“Siem Reap is the safest place in Cambodia,” Ouk enthused. “Our country was dangerous – we had war – but now we have peace, life is better. It is important that tourists feel safe here, but it is also good for the local people who are no longer afraid.”
We followed the tourist tide up to Phnom Bakheng for the classic sunset over Angkor Wat. Hundreds of package-tour pilgrims gathered at the summit. This is the downside to the new Angkor: too many tourists in too short a time – with the infrastructure not always ready.
“Our temples have been here for 1,000 years, but they have never had this many visitors. Tourists come in big shoes and the authorities are worried about the damage to the sandstone,” said Ouk. Apsara is considering a plan to introduce soft slippers for all visitors but, as numbers soar, timed tickets, night openings and wooden walkways are as good as essential.
The day over, we headed into town. Ten years ago there were no bars; now there are a dozen on Bar Street alone. Tourism is changing the face of Siem Reap: the population is growing and new businesses open each week, creating jobs, generating wealth and improving living standards. It’s easy to get high on the area’s optimism.
Ripples are also reaching communities further afield, who are being encouraged to revitalise their arts and crafts industries. Weaving, carving, traditional dance – all are experiencing a rebirth thanks to the insatiable appetite of tourism.
For the people of Angkor, the arrival of tourism has been a mixed bag of fortunes. Likewise for travellers: better facilities, less poverty and more infrastructure have to be weighed against growing crowds and increasing commercialisation.
Sitting at the centre of this storm, the temples of Angkor remain much as they have done for 1,000 years. Angkor is still the biggest religious complex in the world; still one of its greatest wonders.
Tourism is here to stay but plan your trip well and you can avoid the worst of it. Go to the temples in the peaceful moments between tour buses, head for the little-known corners and remote sites detailed in the following pages, and you can still experience this magnificent place without the masses.
There’s far more to Angkor than the eponymous Wat and the faces of the Bayon. Explore the less-visited reaches of the complex and you can find quiet corners away from the crowds.
Why choose? For the best carvings in the country
What’s there? This petite pink temple is the understated jewel in the crown of Angkorian-era art. The elaborate carvings are the finest in Cambodia; the name translates as ‘Fortress of the Women’, as the intricate detail is considered too fine for a man’s hands.
Where? 32km north of Angkor Wat
Need to know: Quiet Angkor? Rarely these days, but stake your claim just after sunrise around 7am or as the sun sinks from the sky from 4pm.
Why choose? For a look at nature at its most voracious
What’s there? Beng Mealea is the Titanic of temples, a slumbering giant lost for centuries in the forest. It is a mirror image of Angkor Wat, but utterly consumed by the insatiable appetite of nature.
Where? 75km from Siem Reap, best approached via the town of Dam Dek
Need to know: Entry costs US$5 plus a road toll. Combine with Kbal Spean or Koh Ker for the ultimate day trip.
Why choose? For the easiest jungle trek in the area
What’s there? Kbal Spean is an intricately carved riverbed deep in the jungle. Carved into the bedrock here are hundreds of lingams – phallic representations sacred to Hindus. The 30-minute hike here takes you past knotted vines, huge boulders and big views over the surrounding jungle.
Where? 50km from Siem Reap, 18km from Banteay Srei
Need to know: Entry is included in the Angkor pass but last entry is 3.30pm, as locals say there are still tigers in the area. Combine it with Beng Mealea for a memorable day.
Why choose? For a dose of history and a dip in a waterfall
What’s there? This sacred mountain was the birthplace of the Khmer empire. It was here that Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java in 802, setting the stage for the glories of the Angkor era. There are numerous sites, but most visitors make for the huge 15th-century reclining Buddha at Wat Preah Ang Thom. Further downstream is one of the region’s largest waterfalls, the perfect place to cool off after exploring.
Where? 60km from Siem Reap
Need to know: Entry is cheaper if bought at City Angkor Hotel).
Angkor may have been the epicentre of the ancient Khmer empire, but the ancient God-kings left their imprint across vast swathes of territory. Their inspirational temples are still found scattered across much of central and eastern Thailand and southern Laos.
The most sublime and spectacular are found deep in the forests of northern Cambodia, all but forgotten to the world for three decades. Erased from the map by a brutal civil war, nature played its part too, the jungle slowly reclaiming the network of trails that connected Angkor to the ancient places of pilgrimage around the kingdom.
But as the temples of Angkor grow busier and as the roads improve, those in the market for an adventure are beginning to journey into the jungles of Cambodia to discover the lost treasures of the Khmer empire.
Why choose? For the biggest temple in the most secluded location
What’s there? Not to be confused with the Preah Khan of Angkor notoriety, this remotest of remote temple complexes is often referred to as Preah Khan Kompong Svay by scholars, or Prasat Bakan by locals. The largest single enclosure built during the Angkor period, its total area exceeds that of even Angkor Thom. By the time it was reconstructed by Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century it was believed to be the second city of the Khmer empire. Several principal structures are found at Preah Khan, including four-faced Prasat Preah Stung, a trademark of Jayavarman VII constructed in the style of the Bayon, and delicate Prasat Damrei (Elephant Temple), with two carved elephants ceremoniously adorned by devout locals. The central temple is immense, but has fallen victim to devastating looting in the past decade due to its remote location.
Where? 150km east of Angkor
Need to know: There are no official charges, but local guards will request a donation. Rumours abound of a Koh Ker-style toll road appearing soon.
Get there: Preah Khan is connected to Beng Mealea and Angkor by an ancient Angkorian road with elaborate stone bridges spanning the many rivers, including 77m Spean Ta Ong with 15 arches and two guardian nagas, a sight to behold in the midst of the jungle. Access is by 4WD or dirt bike during the dry season and it can be approached from Siem Reap, Kompong Thom or Tbeng Meanchey. It is best undertaken as a two-day trip with an overnight in the nearby village of Ta Seng, but could just about be done as a
day trip from Kompong Thom or Tbeng Meanchey.
Why choose? For majestic sunsets
in a stunning location
What’s there? The mountaintop temple of Preah Vihear is breathtaking, clinging to the cliffs
of the Dangkrek Mountains. The foundation stones spill over the cliff as it falls precipitously to the plains below, the views over northern Cambodia seemingly infinite on a clear day. Sunrise or sunset from here is a humbling experience, made more majestic by the silence and solitude.
Where? 247km from Siem Reap
Need to know: Plan on a night here, as access from the Thai side is between 9am and 5pm, so there is plenty of time to have the temple to yourself. Entry currently costs US$5 from the Cambodian side; there is a 200B park fee for those entering from Thailand.
Get there: The fastest route is via the new toll road to Koh Ker (six hours in the dry season by 4WD or dirt bike). It is possible to make a loop back to Siem Reap on the old road via Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge until 1998.
Why choose? For tonnes of big temples without the tourists
What’s there? In the 10th century, Jayavarman IV threw his toys out of the pram, stormed off to the north-west and established the rival capital of Koh Ker. Here, he was determined to legitimise his rule through a prolific building programme that left a legacy of 30 major temples and some huge sculptures – now on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
The most striking structure at Koh Ker is Prasat Thom, a seven-storey step pyramid, more Mayan than Khmer, with commanding views over the surrounding forest. Nearby is Prasat Krahom (Red Temple), named after the pinkish Banteay Srei-style stone from which it is built.
There are many more temples in the era, including the five towers of Prasat Ling, each enclosing a giant linga (fertility symbol) – the biggest and best seen in situ in Cambodia.
Where? 146km from Siem Reap.
Need to know: It currently costs US$10 to visit Koh Ker if using the toll road
Get there: Doable as a day trip from Siem Reap thanks to the new toll road linking it with Beng Mealea: it is two hours by car or dirt bike in the dry season. Temple enthusiasts may prefer to overnight here to take in a sunset or sunrise and explore the satellite temples in more depth.
Why choose? For spectacular carvings amid the jungle
What’s there? Another creation from Cambodia’s most dedicated builder Jayavarman VII, this temple was the focus of a major city in the 13th century. Abandoned to the jungle for years, it has only recently been cleared, revealing superb carvings on the outer walls, as well as the enigmatic faces of Avalokiteshvara, as seen to superb effect at the Bayon in Angkor Thom.
Tragically, Banteay Chhmar was subjected to much looting in the late 1990s, but many exquisite carvings remain, including ‘Lok Sam Pi’ or the ‘man with 32 hands’.
Where? 150km from Siem Reap
Need to know: Food and drink are available at Banteay Chhmar village.
Get there: Take the road via Sisophon, which varies from good to downright appalling depending on the season. It usually takes about four hours and can be undertaken as a long day trip or as a two-day trip with an overnight in Sisophon.