Back in the 12th century, the world looked very different. While Europeans were still muddling through the Middle Ages, the Khmers were busy building one of the world’s strongest empires in what is today known as Cambodia. King Suryavarman II (Civilisation game fans might remember him) decided that the Khmer Empire needed a suitable temple, so he ordered the erection of Angkor Wat (Khmer for ‘Capital Temple’), which still stands today as the world’s largest religious monument. Angkor was lost to the Chams (Khmers’ biggest enemies back then) but regained by King Jayavarman VII, who later led a massive building program which included Angkor Thom (‘Capital City’, an incredible metropolis with a full scale moot and irrigation system), Bayon and Ta Phrom (two temples, the latter featured in the Tomb Raider flick). Unlike previous Kings, Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist, and ordered the alteration of Angkor Wat and other existing Hindu temples. This back and forth between both religions continued throughout the Khmer Empire, forcing the Angkor temples to undergo several adaptations (some less successful than others).
By the 15th century the Khmer Empire was a shadow of its former self, and the once glorious Angkor was progressively abandoned. In the 16th century, one of the first westerners to visit it (a Portuguese monk, incidentally) said it was “of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen”. It was a Frenchman however that in the 19th century popularised the site among travelers, although wrongly attributing it to same ancient civilisation: “It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged”.
Despite its magnificence, Angkor took its time to become a major tourist attraction. By the 90’s, twenty years after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that wiped a quarter of Cambodia’s population, the site still received less than 10.000 visitors a year. Today though it receives more than two million visitors a year, and I bet it’s a matter of time till visitation limits are put in place (like in Machu Picchu). Probably parts of the complex will also become off limits – to limit wear – but as of now virtually everything is accessible, making us feel like Lara Croft’s fellow tomb raiders. I would rate the whole experience a notch above Machu Picchu, because of this flexibility (Machu Picchu can feel constrained at times) and the fact that there’s a wider range of restored (e.g. Angkor Wat) and unrestored monuments (e.g. the trees that grew on top of Ta Phrom are now an integral part of the temple’s beauty).
Here’s a top tip if you’re thinking about visiting Angkor (and you really really should): the site can become pretty crowded, but most of the visitors are Asian. The good thing about that (besides the fact that Asians are fun folks) is that they love to huddle up together and follow the same route. We asked our guide to make the exact opposite route and enjoyed solitude throughout most of the day, starting with a sunrise at the Sras Srang lake, a misty visit to Lara Croft’s Ta Phrom and an afternoon in Angkor Wat.
So, is there anything else around Angkor that is worth visiting? Not much, but you’ll need to spend at least a night in Seam Reap (the nearby town) and you might as well try some of the tourist attractions there, like Artisans Angkor (an organisation that trains and sells the handicraft of local artisans) and the night market.
Siam Reap was also unfortunately where Jules and I parted ways with Alexandra, João & João, our incredible travelling buddies. We’ll leave you with some more of João’s amazing photographs:
On the next post Jules will talk about Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The major reason to visit it is a sad but necessary one: to witness the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge regime and ensure we never forget the deaths of 2+ millions Cambodians in the 70’s.