Cambodia’s Angkor is, quite simply, one of the most splendid attractions in all of Southeast Asia. Long considered “lost”, the ruins of Angkor were never really lost to the Khmers, who have used the monuments as religious sites throughout their history. Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivaled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp and a luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jahan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal. Angkor Wat is located about six kilometers (four miles) north of Siem Reap, south of Angkor Thom. Entry and exit to Angkor Wat can only be access from its west gate.
The myth of the lost ruins of Angkor is more suited to an Angelina Jolie film than the history books. The story more or less begins with their being “rediscovered” by Western explorers in the 19th century, beginning with the French botanist Henri Mouhot who stumbled across Angkor Wat in 1860. Few remember though that Mouhot was led to the site by a Khmer guide and that when he arrived, he found a flourishing Buddhist monastery within the temple grounds.
During the Khmer Rouge period, the ruins were largely left to their own devices. Like most Khmers, even Pol Pot was unable to shake the power of the site, saying in 1977, “If our people can make Angkor, they can make anything.”
Never lost, lost then found, found then lost then found again—today it doesn’t really matter. With thousands of people visiting daily, the sprawling Angkor Park remains a see-at-least-once-in-your-life destination.
Angkor refers to the entire 400 square kilometre Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site packed with historic temples, hydraulic structures such as reservoirs, ancient highways and forest. Angkor Wat is the iconic temple with lotus-like towers at the heart of the park while Angkor Thom is the ancient walled city, within which many more temples are found.
While not quite at a Venetian level of overcrowding, Angkor is not far behind and the times of wandering ruins all by your lonesome are sadly long gone. Aiming for pretty much any of the top shelf moments—dawn across the ponds at Angkor or sunset at Bakheng for example—largely fall into the simple don’t bother category. With some ingenuity and imagination you’ll be able to dodge some of the crowds—Bakheng in the middle of the day is often pretty quiet for example—but for the most popular monuments, they are now very popular indeed—to the point of being downright unpleasant.
Allow yourself plenty of time. Set aside enough time to Ta Phrom for example to allow for you to wait out the ebb and flow of the bus loads, or, as already mentioned, visit at off-peak times to dodge the worst of the hordes. Or, if you really want to eschew the crowds, concentrate on the minor sites. Yes they’ll be smaller and perhaps less spectacular, but they’ll also be quieter.
Food and accommodation
Most of the nearest accommodation is in Siem Reap, while for food and drink, there are some snack stalls set up by Angkor Wat. They’ll offer basics like baguettes and noodle soup and much-needed bottles of water at slightly inflated prices, as do the row of restaurants running alongside to Srah Srang—don’t expect haute cuisine, and you will not be disappointed. Alternatively Angkor Cafe, opposite the front entrance to Angkor Wat, offers air-con, a gift shop and Western fare. Unless you’re in a rush, in the middle of the day you’re best to head back to Siem Reap for a rest and a meal—Siem Reap has some outstanding restaurants.
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