Cambodia’s Angkor is, quite simply, one of the most splendid attractions in all of Southeast Asia. Long considered “lost”, the ruins of Angkor were never really lost to the Khmers, who have used the monuments as religious sites throughout their history.
The myth of the lost ruins of Angkor is more suited to an Angelina Jolie film than the history books. The story more or less begins with their being “rediscovered” by Western explorers in the 19th century, beginning with the French botanist Henri Mouhot who stumbled across Angkor Wat in 1860. Few remember though that Mouhot was led to the site by a Khmer guide and that when he arrived, he found a flourishing Buddhist monastery within the temple grounds.
During the Khmer Rouge period, the ruins were largely left to their own devices. Like most Khmers, even Pol Pot was unable to shake the power of the site, saying in 1977, “If our people can make Angkor, they can make anything.”
Never lost, lost then found, found then lost then found again — today it doesn’t really matter. With thousands of people visiting daily, the sprawling Angkor Park remains a see-at-least-once-in-your-life destination.
Angkor refers to the entire 400 square kilometre Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site packed with historic temples, hydraulic structures such as reservoirs, ancient highways and forest. Angkor Wat is the iconic temple with lotus-like towers at the heart of the park while Angkor Thom is the ancient walled city, within which many more temples are found.
Most of the nearest accommodation is in Siem Reap, while for food and drink, there are some snack stalls set up by Angkor Wat. They’ll offer basics like baguettes and noodle soup and much-needed bottles of water at slightly inflated prices, as do the row of restaurants running alongside to Srah Srang — don’t expect haute cuisine, and you will not be disappointed. Alternatively Angkor Cafe, opposite the front entrance to Angkor Wat, offers air-con, a gift shop and Western fare. Unless you’re in a rush, in the middle of the day you’re best to head back to Siem Reap for a rest and a meal — Siem Reap has some outstanding restaurants.
Passes to the park cost $20 for one day, $40 for three days of visits within a week, and $60 for seven days of visits within a month. Ticketing is operated by privately owned Sokimex Corporation. The process takes a few minutes and they take your photo and print it on the ticket, so don’t hope to share a week’s pass with a fellow backpacker unless you bear an uncanny resemblance. Only the main entrance issues tickets, despite there being other roads that enter the park. Tickets are checked at almost every temple too, including the ones further afield. The ticket sales booths open at 05:00, though if you are intent on jostling for the best spot for sunrise and plan to leave earlier, it is possible to buy your ticket the evening prior – after 17:00. It is also free to enter without a pass at all after 17:30, but given the sun sets early in Cambodia be prepared to return in the pitch black. The temples are not lit at night, so there’s nothing to hang around for.
Transport to the park for the day is relatively easy. The going rate for a day-long tuk tuk ride through the park is $15. This price includes Angkor Wat, Bayon, and all the temples in the immediate surrounds. For longer distances, expect to pay more. Trekking out to the Rolous Group of temples about 13 kilometres away will cost around an extra $3, while prices for trips to Banteay Srei and even farther temples can range wildly depending on your driver’s willingness to make the trip. The roads are all flat so it is easy to cycle – as long as you can cope well with heat and avoid the steady stream of tour buses on the main routes.
An English-speaking guide costs $30 a day – a rate set by the Khmer Angkor Tour Guide Association. It will cost more for guides speaking other languages. Some of the best tour guides can charge more than this as they are in high demand. A good guide is recommended if you really want to understand the thousands of carvings adorning the buildings and get pointers on what time of day to visit the various sites.