Angkor Wat

CAMBODIA’S ANGKOR WAT


SAY WAT?

Saul, helpdesk hero in the Responsible Travel office, used to pronounce Angkor Wat (as in wot) as Angkor Wat (as in bat). He doesn’t any more but it just goes to show, you can’t assume that just because this incredible temple complex has been a film set for Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, everyone knows all there is to know about one of the world’s most exciting archaeological parks.
Firsly, the size of the Angkor complex can’t be underestimated; it’s huge and encompasses an area roughly the same size as Vienna. Tours can last two or three days, or more, with coaches, bicycles, taxis and cyclos (three-wheeled bikes with passenger space on the back) ferrying tourists back and forth from Siem Reap to catch the sunrise, sunset or just to make the most of one of the world’s largest ancient temple sites. Monkeys, street kids, hawkers and orange-robed Buddhist monks line the roads but nothing really prepares you for what lies ahead so do some research, travel with a guide and find some space to truly appreciate Angkor, at a time and pace that suits you.

So if you’re tempted to book an Angkor Wat holiday, make sure to get in touch with Saul on the helpdesk, or anyone else at Responsible Travel for that matter, because nothing beats firsthand knowledge, especially when it comes to picking up the lingo.

Find out more about our top Angkor Wat highlights, with an interactive map of the site, in our 2-page guide to Angkor Wat.
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Ellena Johnstone, from our supplier Insider Journeys, shares her advice on visiting Angkor Wat:

“First time visitors rarely realise how extensive the temple complex is; take comfortable shoes, plenty of water and don’t try to pack too much into one day! With two or three days, you will have the opportunity to explore lesser-known temples, such as the atmospheric Beng Mealea, enveloped in snaking vines, or Banteay Srei with its unusual pink sandstone carvings. Also, make sure you climb Bakheng Hill to watch the sunset over the temple complex – it’s a mesmerising view, and well worth the climb!”

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANGKOR WAT


The Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire, also known as the Angkor Empire, ruled Cambodia and large parts of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Their legacy was one of agriculture, primarily rice farming. The irrigation techniques which they developed, in the form of canal networks and hydraulic engineering, were pivotal to maintaining rice paddies, fruit orchards and fresh water reserves, filled with fish, to support local villagers and the vast armies protecting Khmer kings.
From the 10th to 15th centuries, the capital of the Khmer Kingdom was Angkor, in the area now known as Angkor Archaeological Park. This huge city encompassed a forested area roughly the same size as Vienna (400km2). Angkor was an incredible feat of engineering and ingenuity, and its mind-boggling size and incredibly decorative places of worship, carved deities and walled citadels, reveal not only the might of the Khmer Empire but also the importance of religion across the whole of Southeast Asia. The centrepiece of Angkor was a vast temple complex which was initially built under the instruction of the Khmer king Suryavarman II to worship the Hindu god Vishnu. This was unique as it broke with the tradition of worshipping the Hindu deity Shiva.
Important info: a Wat = a Buddhist temple
The decline of the Khmer Empire started at the end of the 13th century with royal in-fighting, religious intolerance and aggressive attacks from neighbouring nations, all leading to the inevitable. Although Angkor was still inhabited after the 15th century by Japanese settlers and Khmer villagers, the temples, canals and incredible architectural designs slowly started to crumble and succumb to the elements as the finger-like grip of surrounding creeper fig trees took hold.
Towards the end of the 12th century, the main temple became the main wat; which wouldn’t have taken too much redecorating as the architecture had originally been created to represent Mount Meru, a mythical, five-peaked mountain, which is hugely significant in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Angkor Wat continued to be a Buddhist place of worship right up until the 17th century but it wasn’t until the French explorer, Henri Mouhot, came across Angkor in the middle of the 19th century, that one of the world’s most important archaeological sites was brought to the attention of the rest of the world.
Restoration work began in the 20th century, mainly clearing the build up of earth and the all-consuming jungle. However, anything of significant artistic worth or financial value was ransacked in the 1980s and early 1990s before Angkor came under the protection of UNESCO in 1992.
Tourism would come soon after with an increase of annual foreign visitors rising from just 7,650 in 1993 to over 2 million in 2015.*
Today, the Angkor Archaeological Park encompasses Angkor Wat as well as the equally impressive ruined temple complexes of Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Phnom Bakheng amongst others. These offer insight into the devotion of the Khmer Empire as well as an exciting adventure into a crumbling ancient world.

*Source: APSARA (Authority of the Protection & Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap)

HOW TO GET TO
ANGKOR WAT


Angkor Wat is a 20-minute drive from the gateway town of Siem Reap. On organised tours, you’ll be picked up by private vehicle with a local guide who will stay with you throughout the tour. There’s also the opportunity to explore by bike or by remork (Cambodia’s version of a tuk tuk). Journeys out to nearby Tonlé Sap Lake, to see the floating villages, are definitely recommended after exploring Angkor Wat.

BEST TIME TO VISIT ANGKOR WAT


Angkor opens from 5am to 6pm and pre-dawn pickups can be arranged so that you can witness the sun rising over the temples. Many larger tour groups will head back directly after sunrise for breakfast so it’s a good idea to take some snacks and stick around before they return mid-morning. Another top tip is to do the traditional temple circuit of Bayon in the morning, Angkor Wat in the afternoon and Phnom Bakheng as the sun sets, in the opposite direction. And, although the peak season for visiting Angkor falls within the drier, cooler months of November to March it’s still worth braving the humidity between June and October because there are far fewer crowds. Also, it usually only rains in the afternoon so you can visit Angkor in the morning and head back to Siem Reap to enjoy a beer, book and brief tropical rainstorm from the shelter of an open-sided bar.
Mark Ord, Southeast Asia specialist for our supplier All Points East, explains how to avoid the crowds: “If the central area of a particular temple looks too crowded then walk around the outside. You don't need to go far to avoid the crowds. This isn't a beach holiday so the occasional shower shouldn't be a disadvantage – it'll cool you down and there are plenty of cafes to shelter in for 20 minutes so I'd strongly advise visiting in low season months of say May, June, July and September.”

RECOMMENDED ANGKOR WAT TOURS


There are some excellent small group holidays and tailor made alternatives for travellers looking to experience Angkor Wat, with foodie adventures, wildlife expeditions, cultural heritage trips and photography holidays all combining with guided temple visits. Spending time in Phnom Penh and learning about the atrocities that befell Cambodia under Pol Pot is also highly recommended, as is getting off the beaten track and visiting the port town of Kampong Chhnang or taking a boat out to Rabbit Island, both of which are rarely seen by ‘in and out of Angkor’ tourists.
Ellena Johnstone, shares a couple of places to visit away from Angkor Wat: “Siem Reap’s night markets are also well worth a visit, and an ideal place to pick up souvenirs and sample Cambodian street food. And if you need a break from temple-touring, take a boat trip on the remarkable Tonlé Sap Lake, taking in remote floating villages and fishing communities.”

HOW TO TRAVEL RESPONSIBLY


Although the adage “when you’ve seen one temple you’ve seen them all” might work for slightly jaded gap year students, it’s certainly not the case for wiser travellers. Giving yourself the time to visit temples with a guide is always going to put a really unique and interesting spin on things so don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re going just to tick a box; an Angkor experience should be far more than just that.

There may be few restrictions in place, despite the constant crumbling, but please do resist the urge to clamber all over the temple ruins, exciting as it may look.

Water is in scant supply around Angkor, mainly due to the increase in tourists, so make sure you book with a company that uses accommodation with a sustainable water use policy. Go easy on the long showers and report any leaky taps.

Finally, unfortunately, begging is big business around Angkor Wat and don’t be surprised if you’re mobbed by kids asking for cash and often using way too familiar Western phraseology, including advertising slogans, to entice you to part with your Cambodian Riel. Best advice is to learn how to say “no thank you” in Cambodian – min ei te arkoun haey – and ask your tour operator the best way to help get Cambodian kids off the street. Visit the Save the Children Cambodia website for more information on this issue.
Trisha Burdett, a traveller on one of our Cambodia holidays: “Make the effort to spend time with the local people and to visit the places where they are helping the local community. Cambodia is an incredible country.”
Photo credits: [Top box: ken shirakawa] [Ellena Johnstone quote: Ross Huggett] [Aerial view of Angkor Archaeological Park: Jerry Luo] [Silhouette of temple: Nick Hewson] [How to get to Angkor Wat: Andrea Schaffer] [Mark Ord - avoiding crowds: Davidlohr Bueso] [Ellena Johnstone - Siem Reap night market: Alan Wat] [People on back of truck: ND Strupler]

Written by: Chris Owen
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