Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to Angkor Wat and dozens of other temples. Angkor Wat is a symbol of national pride for Cambodia and is the largest religious monument ever built. It was the main temple and capital city for King Jayavarman VII, who ruled the Khmer regime in the 12th century. The Khmer civilization vanished mysteriously in the 16th century and temples of Angkor are the best remaining record of their architectural and artistic achievements.
Given the significance, the size, and number of temples, it’s no wonder that tourists flock to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is already the most visited site in Cambodia, with four million people in 2015. Lonely Planet even put Angkor Wat on the top of their 2016 Ultimate Travel List, making a slowdown in traffic unlikely.
Though a little touristy, Angkor Wat is a must-do if you’re in Cambodia. We enjoyed exploring the temples, learning some history, and generally avoiding the worst of the crowds and the heat. Here’s the full story: The Positives (Why It’s Cool!), The Weird Stuff (Why It’s Not Cool), Getting Around / Should You Get a Guide, and some Last Thoughts and Bonus Pictures
Before I get into the history, I wanted to put Angkor Wat’s size in context. It is a commonly quoted Angkor Wat fact that it’s the largest religious monument in the world. The place is huge. The temples are believed to have been built in over a year by 300,000 men and 6,000 elephants. To put the size of this walled city and central monument in context, the city is four times as big as Vatican City, and the central monument has the same footprint as the Great Pyramid of Giza though less than half its height. There’s a footprint map of the pyramids compared to Angkor Wat as the #4 map here.
While the size alone is very impressive, Angkor Wat and other temples are also historically significant because they’re some of the few remaining artifacts of the Khmers. This regime came to power around the 9th century and built their capital in the area around present day Siem Reap. At its height, the capital city, largely housed in the walled area of Angkor Thom, had about about a million people and was supported by a complex system of canals and irrigation systems. Many of the temples had large moats. Angkor Wat’s protective moat is very deep and was once home to crocodiles, adding another layer of protection. Some of the other temples, like Preah Khan, had shallower decorative moats or ponds nearby, most of which were dry when we visited. Most of the civilization vanished mysteriously around the 16th century. Archeologists believe it may have been due to ecological issues, like a drought, which were exacerbated by overpopulation and overuse of the land.
Many of the temples include both Buddhist and Hindu elements. Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple to honor Vishnu, but was gradually converted as Buddhism became more popular in the region. When Javamayan VII, who built the temple, converted to Buddhism, he changed some of the artwork in the existing temples and built a number of new temples like Bayon and Ta Prohm, but left most of the temples and artwork intact. His successor, Javamayan VIII, remained Hindu and changed some things back, but in time the whole area became Buddhist. Today, you can see the giant carved panels of artwork telling the stories of various gods or picturing Aspara dancers. In the bas-reliefs, these dancers all have different hair styles and outfits, possibly modeled after real women of the period.
Of course, there are other parts of the temples that haven’t held up quite as well.
I won’t try to explain the history or the architectural significance of all the temples, but here’s a few fun facts and pictures.
While Angkor Wat has some positive aspects, anyone visiting should be aware that it gets a little crowded. There a lot of tourists and locals selling things to tourists outside the temple areas. There are only a few marked paths through the temples so people end up everywhere. It’s also sad to see that many of the temples are falling down. Some are held up with random wooden supports and others are surrounded by scaffolding and tarps while they’re being restored. I was originally pretty judgy about the restorations, as they look painfully obvious when they’re first fixed, but even after five years the rocks start to take on the darker and varied color and begin to blend right in.
From what we could tell from the signs, most restoration is not being done by the Cambodian government, but instead as joint arrangements with archeologists from other countries. Almost all the temples seem to be somehow under construction or repair, though it was usually just in one area.
Tickets are $20 a day, $40 for three days, or $60 for a week. I was a little surprised to find that while you get a very sophisticated ticket that includes your printed photo, you don’t get any handouts or maps. There are very few signs on the road through the park, though it’s not typically a self-guided place because most people see the temples with a guide or a driver. At this moment, I really missed the US National Parks where they give you a printed stack of helpful info as soon as you enter.
In another surprise, the Angkor Wat temple area is not managed by the Cambodian government. In 1999, management rights were sold to Sokimex, a Cambodian corporation owned by a Vietnamese businessman. Sokimex also manages an import export businesses, a few luxury hotels, and a petroleum operation of some sort. There’s not a ton of solid information about the deal or the company online in English but it sounds like it’s rife with corruption. The Cambodian government is supposed to get a cut of the profits, but there are complaints that Sokimex is underreporting ticket sales. Corruption seems to be a lot more obvious in SE Asia, but it’s especially sad to see it in a place like Angkor Wat where you get the sense the money could be better used to protect or restore the temples and support and the community. The Cambodian government is going to take over management in 2016. Hopefully that will help.
There are two main loops in the big Angkor Wat area, descriptively called the Small Tour and the Grand Tour. The Small Tour covers Angkor Wat, the most famous temple, as well as Bayon, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider Temple. The Grand Tour is a bigger loop that covers a number of smaller temples. Most everyone we talked to recommended taking two days to do the two loops, and a third day to explore some of the other temples that were further away.
Guide or not, there’s a few ways to get around the temples. You can hire a car or tuk tuk to drive you around, or you can rent bikes and explore on your own.
For our first day, Adam and I went back and forth about if we should get a guide. Most travel guides and blogs say you should either get a guide or at least get a good book. I thought the guide would be more interesting, and that was wrong. We asked our hotel to arrange a guide, which set us back $40 for the day, in addition to the $15 we paid to the tuk tuk driver. (As reference points, a typical lunch for two in Siem Reap was $10 and our hotel was $25 per night, so $40 is a big sum.) Our guide was a very nice Cambodian gentleman, but his English was limited to a very small number of stories and phrases about each temple. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t know very much about the temples or he just didn’t understand our questions. We heard a lot of the same stories over and over again, frequently adding “because” in the middle before repeating himself again.
The one nice thing about the guide was that he knew all the best spots to take pictures. Unfortunately, the weather was really misty and overcast so a lot of the shots didn’t turn out as well as I hoped. If we had to do it all over, we would’ve taken the tuk tuk for sure and a book about the temples. You are definitely going to want a source of information, but I wouldn’t get a guide unless you could be sure to get a good one.
By the second day, we figured we would be better off without a guide and rented a pair of mountain bikes to ride over to the temples and around the Grand Loop. Even though it was very hot out, riding the bikes was pleasant and there was not a lot of road traffic once we got past Angkor Thom. It’s about 7 miles from downtown Siem Reap to the temples, and the grand circuit is loop of about 10 miles, so be prepared to cover some flat distance if you explore this way. We found the bike riding to be really preferable to the guided tour.
Last Thoughts and Bonus Pictures
While Adam and I generally enjoyed our sightseeing trip around Angkor Wat, I did leave feeling a little disappointed. Most of the facts in this blog post are things I hoped to learn from our guide and had to look up afterwards instead. I think we just had bad luck with our guide, but we certainly could’ve done our homework better and planned to just go with a tuk tuk and a book from the beginning. We had a blast hiking and biking all over the temples and taking a few photos.
Angkor Wat also feels like a cultural site that’s now completely overrun by tourism. (This is the exact same way we felt when we visited Yellowstone National Park in the US.) Maybe it’s impossible for a historic, natural or cultural landmark to keep it’s feeling of character after reaching a certain number of tourists. I think most National Parks do a pretty good job of this, likely because the visitor per square mile count is still pretty low. I’ll keep an eye out for other places that get this right in the future.
That said, I would still that recommend anyone who passes through SE Asia stops at Angkor Wat, just know what you’re getting into!