Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, the TEMPLES OF ANGKOR are scattered over some four hundred square kilometres of countryside between the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen Mountains, although the most famous are clustered close to Siem Reap, 310km northwest of Phnom Penh. Atmospherically surrounded by patches of dense forest and standing proudly above rice paddies, the temples do not feel like sterile museum pieces, but seem still to be part of everyday life – aspects of which continue much as depicted in temple bas-reliefs.
For most visitors, Angkor Wat, an iconic temple of soaring towers and intricate carvings just a short drive from Siem Reap, is the chief reason to visit Cambodia. The first glimpse of its breathtaking sanctuaries lingers in the memory forever, while its gallery of bas-reliefs – exceptional in both detail and quality of execution – is a delight for novices and experts alike. Running it a close second is the nearby walled city of Angkor Thom, its gateways famously topped with four huge stone faces. The motif is continued at the very centre of Angkor Thom in the Bayon, Jayavarman VII’s state-temple, which has two galleries of bas-reliefs.
There’s much more to Angkor than just these main sights, however. The site is vast, covering an area of some four hundred square kilometres, and diverse, with buildings ranging in scale from early, tiny brick towers like Prasat Kravan to the massive and stark sandstone edifice of Ta Keo. You could easily spend two full weeks at Angkor and still have more to see, but most people find three days is enough to take in the principal sites, albeit in a bit of a rush; four to five days is better. Many of the most important temple sites are within a few minutes’ drive of Siem Reap, but a few are scattered much further afield; transport is easily hired in Siem Reap and access roads are now in decent condition.
The government’s active promotion of Angkor Wat as a tourist destination has seen visitor figures soar, turning the once sleepy Siem Reap into a tourist hot spot. The local airport is linked with a number of Asian cities as well as Phnom Penh; National Route 6 south to the capital and north to Thailand is in excellent condition; and boats from Phnom Penh and Battambang remain popular with tourists. Surprisingly, given the explosion of new hotels, restaurants and bars, Siem Reap retains its small-town atmosphere.
If you tire of temples, the floating villages of Tonle Sap, the massive freshwater lake that dominates central Cambodia, are worth exploring. The land south of Siem Reap is part of the lake’s flood plain, and is inundated from June to November. North of town, the rice fields stretch out to the natural boundary formed by the Kulen Mountains which divide the lush lowland from the province’s more barren north; here, at Phnom Kulen is Cambodia’s largest reclining Buddha, carved out of a massive rock, while at two spots on the Siem Reap River (which rises in these mountains and flows south to drain into the great lake) the river bed itself has been carved with intricate linga and religious scenes. The far north of the province is worth visiting only if you are curious to see Anlong Veng, the site of Pol Pot’s death.
For six hundred years the area around the provincial town of Siem Reap, was the heart of the Khmer Empire. Its rise to importance began in 802 with Jayavarman II’s move to Phnom Kulen and ended when the Thais sacked Angkor Thom in 1431. A ready supply of water and the fertility of the land meant that the area could support large populations, and successive Angkorian kings constructed their royal cities and state-temples here. The empire reached its apogee in the twelfth century under the leadership of Jayavarman VII – the greatest temple-builder of all – when it stretched from the coast of Vietnam to the Malay peninsula, to Pagan in Burma and north to Laos. However, once abandoned, this part of Cambodia sank into obscurity until, at the end of the eighteenth century, as part of Battambang province, it came under Thai rule, a state of affairs that lasted until 1907, when the French negotiated its return.
Angkor’s earliest monuments date from 802, when Jayavarman II came north from Kompong Cham to set up court at Phnom Kulen. No further stone temples were built after the reign of Jayavarman VII, the greatest temple-builder of them all, came to an end in 1219; scholars theorize that either the area’s resources were exhausted or the switch to Theravada Buddhism may have precluded their construction. After Jayavarman VII, the temples and palaces remained in use until they were sacked by the Thais in 1431; the following year, Ponhea Yat took his court south to Phnom Penh and left Angkor to the jungle. Though Angkor was never completely deserted, the local people who continued to worship at the temples were unable to maintain them.
Around 1570, King Satha was so enchanted when he rediscovered Angkor Thom deep in the jungle that he had the undergrowth cleared and brought his court there, though by 1594 he was back at Lovek. Another short-lived period of royal interest occurred in the middle of the seventeenth century when, according to a letter penned by a Dutch merchant to the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, “the king [Barom Rachea VI] paid a visit to a lovely pleasant place known as Anckoor”. Subsequently, despite tales of a lost city in the Cambodian jungle filtering back to the West via missionaries and traders, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Cambodia opened up to European explorers. The first proper account of Angkor Wat, published by the French missionary Charles-Emile Bouillevaux in 1858, failed to arouse wide interest, but in 1864, the diaries of botanist and explorer Henri Mouhot, who had stumbled on Angkor by accident a few years earlier, were published posthumously, and the temples gripped the world. The Briton J. Thompson published the first photographs of Angkor in 1867, and was the first to suggest a link between temple architecture and the mythical Mount Meru. Close behind him came Doudart Lagrée, who discovered Beng Mealea and Preah Khan (Kompong Thom).Read More
Angkor from the air
Angkor from the air
An exhilarating way to see the Angkor area is from the air. Although over-flying of the temples is not permitted, you can still get a wonderful overview by balloon, helicopter or microlight. Angkor passes are not required for any of these aerial excursions.
If you’re on a restricted budget the cheapest option is from the gondola of a tethered helium balloon ($15 per person, children $7.50, for 10min) located between the airport and Angkor Wat (t011/886789 or t012/520810, e[email protected]). Weather permitting the balloon ascends to 200 metres around 30 times per day carrying 30 passengers at a time, from where there’s a bird’s-eye view of Angkor Wat and nearby temples. Helicopter trips start at $90 per person for a thrilling eight minutes viewing the Angkor Wat area with Helistar Cambodia (t088/888 0017 or t012/449555, wwww.helistarcambodia.com) who fly from Siem Reap’s airport. Longer (more expensive) flights can be arranged over the Tonle Sap, Kulen hills and so on. Most exciting of all though are SkyVenture’s microlight trips (t077/602912 or t017/678533, wwww.skyventure.org); flights start at $45 per person for 15 minutes around the areas of Roluos and Bakong temples, or consider a $145 “see it all” hour’s trip.
No visit to Cambodia is complete without at least a quick glimpse of women performing the ancient art of apsara dance, as depicted on the walls of Angkor’s temples. Wearing glittering silk tunics, sequinned tops (into which they are sewn before each performance to achieve the requisite tight fit) and elaborate golden headdresses, they execute their movements with great deftness and deliberation, knees bent in plié, heels touching the floor first at each step, coy smiles on their faces. Every position has its own particular symbolism – a finger pointing to the sky, for instance, indicates “today”, while standing sideways to the audience with the sole of the foot facing upwards represents flying.
In the reign of Jayavarman VII there were over three thousand apsara dancers at court – the dances were performed exclusively for the king – and so prized was their skill that when the Thais sacked Angkor in the fifteenth century, they took a troupe of dancers back home with them. Historically, the art form was taught only at the royal court, but so few exponents survived the ravages of the Khmer Rouge that the genre was very nearly extinguished. Subsequently, when Princess Boppha Devi – who had been a principal dancer with the royal troupe – wished to revive it, she found it helpful to study temple panels to establish the movements. It was not until 1995, a full sixteen years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, that Cambodians once again witnessed a public performance of apsara dance, at Angkor Wat.
These days, the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh takes much of the responsibility for training dancers, who are chosen not only for aptitude and youth (they start as young as 7), but for the flexibility and elegance of their hands. It takes six years for students to learn the 1500 intricate positions, and a further three to six years for them to attain the required level of artistic maturity. Also taught is the other principal Cambodian dance genre, tontay, in which the emphasis is on depicting folk tales and episodes from the Reamker.
The Royal University of Fine Arts mounts performances of apsara dance on special occasions (such as the Khmer New Year or the king’s birthday) in front of Angkor Wat and sometimes in Phnom Penh. But more commonly, you’ll be able to watch both styles of Cambodian dance in the cultural performances put on by hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Conservation at Angkor
Conservation at Angkor
By the late nineteenth century, travellers and researchers from many countries, notably France, were arriving in Cambodia in search of its “lost” temples. The first major step towards a proper study of Angkor’s legacy was the foundation in Vietnam in 1898 of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (wwww.efeo.fr); their scholars mapped the temples for the first time, and created the body now known as Angkor Conservation, based 2km north of Siem Reap, which works on the restoration of temples.
Work at Angkor was carried out throughout the first half of the twentieth century, with only a brief pause during World War II. Particularly noteworthy among the researchers of the time were Henri Marchal and Maurice Glaize, the former remembered for his restoration in the early 1930s of Banteay Srei, the latter for restoring Banteay Samre, Bakong, Neak Pean and part of Preah Khan. It was during work on Banteay Srei that the restoration technique of anastylosis began to be employed in Cambodia, involving the temporary dismantling and analysis of intact parts of structures so that ruined sections could be reassembled faithfully. In 1960, Bernard-Philippe Groslier assumed control of Angkor Conservation, taking after his father George, who had previously held the post. He was able to commence work on the Baphuon before the monuments were again abandoned during the civil war and the Khmer Rouge years.
Contrary to common belief, the temples suffered little war damage, but looting undoubtedly occurred and the fabric of the temples continued to be at risk from encroaching vegetation. Things improved little during Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s, when only Indian conservators were allowed to work here; their work at Angkor Wat, where they used chemicals to clean the stone and cement to fill gaps, has been much criticized. By 1992, however, UNESCO had declared Angkor a World Heritage Site, and conservation projects to the tune of millions of dollars were put in place, sponsored primarily by Japan.
Since the 1990s conservation of the temples has been coordinated by APSARA, an NGO that also oversees the preservation of the cultural heritage of Siem Reap province. Their task is formidable: not only is looting a problem, particularly at remote temples with jungle cover and lack of sufficient guards, but the effects of growing visitor numbers, erosion and destabilizing of some temples, is devastating. Measures taken in an attempt to preserve the ruins include: banning over-flying of the temples; limiting access (the central sanctuary of Angkor Wat); creating set visitor routes (through the terraces at Angkor Thom); and cordoning off the bas-reliefs (at Angkor Wat).
Entry passes are required to enter the Angkor Archaeological Park, and must be shown at many of the temples. At the main entrance, on the Siem Reap–Angkor Wat road, three categories of pass are available: one day, this can be purchased after 5pm, allowing entry for sunset on the day of purchase and all the following day ($20); three days, valid for three days during the following week ($40); seven days ($60) valid for one month. Children under 12 are admitted free, but you must show their passport as proof of age; 12 and over they pay the full entrance fee. One-day passes only can be bought at the ticket office between the airport and Angkor Wat, at Roluos group and at Banteay Srei. Note that payment is by cash only, no cards are accepted; there is no need to provide a photo as these are now taken digitally at the ticket office. Most people find the three-day pass adequate, giving enough time to see all the temples in the central area and to visit the outlying temples at Roluos, Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre. Separate tickets are required to visit Phnom Kulen ($20), Koh Ker ($10), and Beng Mealea ($5); the fees are collected at those temples.
In the late afternoon, hundreds of tourists make the trek up the steep, badly eroded, rock-hewn steps of Phnom Bakheng to watch the sun set over Angkor Wat. If you don’t want to walk, between 3 and 5pm elephants wait at the foot of the hill to ferry visitors up via a roundabout track ($20); downhill trips ($15) run between 5 and 6pm. The best time to see Phnom Bakheng itself though is in the early to mid-morning (which is not a bad time for the view either); it’s likely you’ll have the temple to yourself, with just a couple of grazing elephants for company, though you’ll have to walk up under your own steam.