Angkor is an archeological site in Cambodia that stretches over some 400 km2. It was the capital – actually, several capital cities, each with a huge temple at its center – during the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. The remains, over 1000 temples and other structures, include the famous Angkor Wat (depicted on Cambodia’s national flag), and Angkor Thom. Other structures have been reclaimed by nature or are now just piles of rubble in the rice fields and the jungle surrounding the site.
Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction
Angkor is probably Southeast Asia’s single most famous tourist attraction and draws over two million visitors a year. The entrance fee is quite high (USD20 for one day, USD40 for three days and USD60 for one week) but, contrary to Bagan in Myanmar, here the money does most probably go into restoration and conservation of the site. The whole compound is remarkably clean (and this in Cambodia) and vendors can’t set up their stalls just anywhere.
It’s possible to visit Angkor by bike though I wouldn’t recommend it; the site is huge and it gets really, really hot around noon – the heat shouldn’t be underestimated. A good option to visit is by tuk-tuk and it’s probably best to ask the hotel for a reliable tuk-tuk driver.
For many people, Angkor seems to be the highlight of their Southeast Asia trip but, truth be told, this wasn’t the case for us. Maybe we expected too much or maybe we knew too little about the place and its history (yes, alright, we could’ve hired a guide) to really appreciate it but somehow, Angkor didn’t leave that much of an impression on us. Sure, the temples are impressive, no doubt about it, just because of their sheer size and the amazingly detailed – and sometimes hilarious – stone carvings and bas-reliefs.
Some of the temples have been partially restored, but others not and it’s amazing to see how nature has reclaimed the stone structures. Trees grow on top of the walls, their roots embracing the walls and displacing stones – an awesome sight. One of the most famous such trees (no, the most famous, actually) is in Ta Prohm, where parts of Tomb Raider had been filmed. The spot is always crammed with tourists waiting patiently to have their picture taken with the tree. But Ta Prohm is huge and it’s easy to get lost and get away from the masses, so let people enjoy their Lara Croft moment and venture further into the labyrinth of the temple.
If you want to see more of these enormous trees, ask the tuk-tuk driver of your choice (or, your hotel’s choice) to take you to one of the smaller temples where the trees are just as huge but the crowds much smaller. Speaking of crowds: June is not high season but nevertheless there were lots of people (especially many Chinese groups), and this definitely takes away from the experience and the magic of the place.
The most disappointing thing however, was the sunrise. Virtually every tourist goes to see the sunrise at the pond in front of Angkor Wat as if this were the only spot in whole Angkor where the sun rises. The setting is beautiful, for sure: you have this gorgeous temple surrounded by palm trees and its reflection in the pond dotted with lotus flowers. But there’s nothing peaceful about it. Hundreds of people stand in front of the pond, holding their cameras and cellphones into the air, hoping to get a picture without people while vendors walk around selling coffee, breakfast, scarfs, pants (the omnipresent elephant print pants – fashion design at its worst), and whatever a tourist might (or might not) want.
It’s not a total waste of time to go see the sunrise, though: The time after sunrise is the best and quietest to explore the temples. Most people go to have breakfast or even head back to their hotel so chances are good that you’ve got a temple all to yourself. That is when Angkor reveals its magic and the figurines carved in stone come to life.
So: go for sunrise (even if it’s just to take in the scenery and shake your head at all the people waiting for the sun to come up), then, as soon as possible, go to one of the temples, no matter which one, and enjoy it to the max, it’s the best time of the day! Even before noon you’ll be exhausted, the crowds get bigger and the heat stronger, so head back to Siem Reap for lunch (the restaurants at Angkor are overpriced and not good) and relax at your hotel.
And the sunset? Not at Angkor. Everybody heads to Phnom Bakheng, probably because it’s the only hill around. Only 300 people can be on the temple on the hill at the same time, so you have to get there early. If you’re hoping for a good picture, forget it. There’s no foreground and Angkor Wat, which can be seen from Phnom Bakheng, is quite far a way and lies to the east.
Siem Reap is the base for all tours to Angkor. The main tourist drag is around Psar Chas, the old market. Psar Chas is a great place to have some fun and kill time when you’ve got nothing else to do. Partly “real market” with fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, etc., and partly tourist-oriented souvenir shops selling spices, clothes, hats, and jewelry, it’s a great place to bargain. Although you don’t need real bargain skills to get lower prices.
While the spices are sold at exorbitant prices, silk scarfs and gems are unbelievably cheap. A silk scarf for USD5? Wow. A huge ruby for USD200? That’s expensive. Ok, you get a discount, 40 US Dollars. Just today, just for you. And that big green elephant? That’s jade. Real jade? Of course (the vendor’s expression super serious, even though the “stone” is as light as only plastic can be. And almost Shrek-green). Usually it costs 10 Dollars but today, Sir, I make discount for you, only 5 Dollars! Business is bad, please buy!
For little money you could fill your suitcase with gifts for your family and friends: Rubies, sapphire, jade, silver, silk, amber, North Face bags, Converse shoes, you name it. All real. Real fake.
All in all, Angkor will most likely not fail to impress you. But its sheer size and the amount of visitors might very well overwhelm you in a maybe not so positive way. Nevertheless, Angkor is worth a visit and anyway, everybody perceives it differently.