An intro to Angkor

So of course I’d heard of Angkor Wat, but it took coming to Cambodia and doing a bit of reading for me to realize it’s not just that one particularly large and famous temple or the setting for the Tomb Raider movie (yes, I realize I am ignorant – that’s why we’re traveling 😉 ). For anyone else who might be as uninformed as I was, here some background (courtesy of Wikipedia, UNESCO and Lonely Planet).

A bit of history

Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park covers about 400 square kilometers (UNESCO) and contains hundreds upon hundreds of ancient temples, “ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest single religious monument.” (Wikipedia)

A photo of an ariel map of Angkor, just to give you a feeling of the size. It’s clickable if you want to zoom for a closer look.

In its heyday between the 9th and 15th centuries, Angkor was the buzzing center of the Khmer Empire, a city which archeologists speculate supported up to one million people.

The stone and brick buildings which remain today are nearly exclusively religious monuments: “…the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone was reserved for the gods,” while the palaces, houses and public buildings used by the city’s residents were built of wood which has long since disintegrated. (Lonely Planet)

Angkor encompasses multiple religions, from indigenous to Shaivism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Shiva the destroyer), Vaishnavism (a form of Hinduism focusing on the god Vishnu the sustainer), both Mahayana and Theravada forms of Buddhism and even the “cult of personality” in which kings represented themselves as deities. (Wikipedia) Some of the temples started out their lives as Hindu houses of worship and were later repurposed for Buddhist use.

Angkor today

While many of the ruins have been partially excavated, they remain set in an incredibly beautiful, atmospheric natural environment, surrounded by idyllic forests of trees so old and huge and wise that it seems they must have been seeds when the buildings were still freshly constructed.
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Massive trees growing around some wooden steps behind Baphoun

Bird, frogs and insect song adds to the magical atmosphere. While Western access to the park is strictly controlled, many Cambodians live in small villages on the grounds and we’d often see verdant rice fields stretching along the road between sites. The nature is just amazing and as much a part of the incredible atmosphere and experience as the temples themselves.

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Beautiful rice fields outside Banteay Srei

Many of the temple ruins were overtaken by the encroaching jungle over the centuries after Angkor’s fall. The French Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient was heavily involved in the restoration of many of the temples during the 20th century; in 1907 the ruins saw their first arrival of Western tourists (200 of them!). (Lonely Planet) Today, the site receives around 2 million tourists per year.

As incredible as they are, the ruins have not been fully explored or excavated and many are lacking proper infrastructure to ensure they aren’t damaged by all those trampling tourists (us included :-/ ). While the situation isn’t black and white, indications are that Cambodia’s notoriously crooked government is more interested in increasing tourist traffic (and the related cash flow) than preservation.

Entrance to the park is 20 dollars per day, 40 for a three-day pass, 60 for a week’s entrance. We spent nearly four full days and had a really satisfying mix of sites and experiences. I could imagine having gone for the full week pass, only with Roman knocked out with a bad cold at the start of our time, we’d already been kicking around town for a while before we got to see any of Angkor and our visa was running out even as we were feeling like we’d gotten our fill of Cambodia.

I’d heard that most tourists only spend on average three days in all of Cambodia, which means spending even less than three days at Angkor. I can’t even begin to understand how or why someone would do this, although we did see plenty of turbo-tourists zipping in to a temple and leaving again before we’d even finished enjoying the amazing and intricate carvings of a single room. I suppose a little culture is better than no culture at all though. 😉

Siem Reap

The jumping off point for all the temple exploration is the town of Siem Reap. This place has apparently exploded in recent years with the increase of tourism. Roman has a friend who stayed there ten years ago; the street our hotel was on now in 2011 didn’t even exist when he was there apparently.

The bus we took from Battambang pulled into town along a broad road that was bordered by massive, pristine, posh-looking block hotels. The center of town feels more like being at Epcot center or a Caribbean island than Cambodia: a commercialized mish-mash of international and Khmer restaurants, bars, tschotschke shops and boutiques, throbbing with loud music and tipsy tourist crowds at night.

There’s benefits for tourists – high quality food and competitive pricing on hotels (well, some hotels. Lonely Planet lists one whose rates start at USD 750 per night!!) – which we were happy to take advantage of. It’s not all bad, it just didn’t feel like we were in Cambodia any more… It did make me all the more grateful for the time we had in Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang. And to be fair, the vibe feels more normal and there are some nice places around as soon as you get away from the microcosm of “Pub Street”.

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Pub street starts to light up for the night (Thanks for the picture Roman! 🙂 )

Speaking of hotels, we stayed at the Angkor Pearl. At USD 16 per night, this place was excellent value for the money. High quality, spotless rooms, simple but really tasteful and comfortable. Nice, firm mattress – among some of the best beds we’ve experienced this whole trip Breakfast wasn’t included but was cheap at USD 2.50 per person. It was a short walk from the action at Pub Street. Definitely recommendable!

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