Even the name conjures up a sense of wonder and mystery, an appreciation of both the incredible feats of mankind over the millennia and the inexorable power of nature in equal measure. Or maybe that’s just me. In any case it would be fair to say that I was rather looking forward to my time at the vast Angkorian temple complex near Siem Reap in Cambodia, albeit tinged with a slight concern that perhaps it wouldn’t live up to the picture already formed in my overhyped imagination.
I needn’t have worried.
If your first view of the towers of the main attraction, the smiling faces of Bayon or the encroaching jungle at Ta Prohm don’t leave an indelible impression on your consciousness, I’d suggest double-checking for a pulse. It really is that sort of place, and one that you owe it to yourself to visit at least once during your lifetime.
Here are a few things I figured out while I was there to help you make the most of your time in this unbelievable part of the world.
Apparently the most popular time to visit Angkor is between the cooler, drier months of November and February. As a result, I’d highly recommend avoiding being anywhere near the place during that time. For me there’s nothing that takes the shine off an amazing place like this than sharing it with a few thousand of your closest friends.
Traipsing along behind yet another chattering tour group, all of whom are vying to get photos of themselves in identical ‘crazy’ poses before climbing back on the bus and being whisked away to do the same thing again at the next spot, is not the ideal way to see the temples of Angkor. If you can stand the heat and the risk of rain in the late afternoon, a visit in the early monsoon months of June or July will see far few visitor numbers and a much more enjoyable experience all round.
Similarly, each of the major temples has peak times of the day associated with it, due either to the views at sunrise or sunset, or based on the times that the tour buses roll up. If you can make sure that you are somewhere else at that time, you may well end up with many of the less famous temples virtually to yourself. I know I did.
Even when crowds are unavoidable a little lateral thinking could give you a surprising amount of solitude. Sure, spend a couple of minutes taking the eponymous sunrise shot of Angkor Wat over the reflecting pool, but then hightail it inside and climb up to the inner courtyard as soon as there’s enough light to avoid falling down the steep sets of narrow stairs that lead there.
The above picture was taken just after sunrise and other than a couple of local guards who were too busy shooting catapults at the bird life to notice me, there wasn’t another soul in sight for at least half an hour. Of the entire time that I spent clambering around the temples, that memory will undoubtedly be one of my favourites. There’s simply no way describe the feeling of being alone in such a wonderful place.
Thirty minutes later, it was completely different.
This may seem obvious, and yet I have been astonished by the number of people who only allowed themselves a single day at Angkor. It simply isn’t enough. Even the inner temples cover a vast area, while the total complex is in excess of 160 square kilometres and some of the most interesting ruins outside the ‘big three’ lie a fairly lengthy motorbike or tuk-tuk ride away. It is impossible to rush through most of the temples without doing them a complete disservice, and the oppressive heat of the late morning and early afternoon will slow you down even further.
Give yourself an absolute minimum of three days here – you can buy a pass that provides access for three days out of seven for $40 USD, and it will take at least that long to appreciate the diversity and brilliance of the dozens of temples on offer. If you have to cut something else from your itinerary to achieve this, so be it.
Although the ruins of Angkor are lumped together in the guide books because of their similarities in geographic location and construction material, many of them share virtually nothing else. Design, orientation, purpose and date of construction varied dramatically from one temple to another, and the changing political and religious overtones of the Khmer kingdom are reflected in the monuments to its rulers and gods.
The qualities of many of the less famous temples are much more subtle than the main attractions, and as result are worth seeing first to give yourself a chance to appreciate them. Anywhere else in the world ruins like Preah Khan, Pre Rup and Banteay Srei would be considered historical highlights in their own right, but after spending a morning engrossed in the grandeur of Angkor Wat and the royal city of Angkor Thom pretty much anything tends to pale in comparison.
Exploring Angkor is likely to be an experience that you remember for the rest of your life. Taking a few simple precautions will help ensure that the memory is an entirely positive one.
While the temples are obviously the main attraction, they aren’t the only thing worth looking at in the area. The Angkorian complex doesn’t exist in isolation – it is part of a vast ecosystem of birds, animals, plants and humans living and competing for resources in a setting of stunning natural beauty.
Take the time to look beyond the worn sandstone and bas reliefs while walking around and between the temples to call out a greeting to local fishermen, spot the myriad range of butterflies and dragonflies flitting amongst the ruins and marvel at the awesome power of the jungle as gigantic trees rise into the canopy in front of you. The ruins are undoubtedly incredible, but they are just a part of the story.
Visiting the temples of Angkor is an incredible and unique experience. Book a plane ticket, grab your guide book and go. It will be one of the best decisions you ever made.