Stretching over some 400 square kilometres, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The most famous are the Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations.
Angkor Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. At the same time, it was also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to looting, a declining water table, and unsustainable tourism. UNESCO has now set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.
The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost Hindu concept is the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: this is why so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. The linga (phallus), representing the god Shiva, was also critical and while the lingas themselves have largely gone, linga stands (carved, table-like blocks of stone) can be found in many if not most rooms in the temples. There was also a political element to it all: most kings wanted to build their own state temples to symbolize their kingdom and their rule.
While early Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples, Jayavarman VII converted to Mahayana Buddhism c. 1200 and embarked on a prodigious building spree, building the new capital city of Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more as Buddhist structures. However, his successor Jayavarman VIII returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive spree of destruction, systematically defacing Buddhist images and even crudely altering some to be Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost out to Buddhism again, but the (few) Buddha images in the temples today are later Theraveda additions.
One element that continues to mystify archaeologists is the baray, or water reservoir, built in a grand scale around Angkor: for example, the West Baray is a mind-boggling 8km by 2.3km in size. While it has long been assumed that they were used for irrigation, some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious. Not a single outlet has been found, either by eye or by NASA imaging. The moat around Angkor and the West Baray still contains water, but the rest have dried up.
As you tour the temples, you will see certain mythical figures and other motifs cropping up repeatedly.
Many-headed mythical serpent. The most famous Nagas’ in Angkor can be found on the guardrails of each entrance to Angkor Thom.
- Tour buses feature guided, air-conditioned comfort but also are subject to large crowds and lack of options. Be sure you know which temples are being visited as some of the larger buses only go to the 2 or 3 main tourist attractions, and leave out important “secondary” sights. The cost is about USD25-70/day including driver and guide.
- Cars with drivers can be hired for single or multiple days. While all drivers are familiar with the area and happy to suggest good routes, they are not tour guides. For a licensed tour guide, the charge varies from US$45 per day to USD50 for a driver and English speaking guide. It is customary for the drivers to ask for USD5-10 extra for trips to further temples such as the those of the Big Circuit, Banteay Srey and more for remote sites like Beng Mealea.
- Tuk tuks can be arranged through guesthouses, offering space for one to four travellers. Figure on USD $13 for the small circle and USD $15 for the big circle, and more for outlying temples. They must be licensed, may speak some English, and must wear grey numbered vests while travelling within the park. Add USD $ 5 extra fee if you would like to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. Extra fee is for the tuk tuk driver to start the tour at 05:00 instead of 08:00.
- Bicycles are a very convenient option to visit Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the little circuit or even the big circuit – depending on time you have and how big fan of Khmer temples you are. Renting a bike in Siem Reap is easy and cheap (USD1 per day, in most of places you don’t even have to leave passport, locks for bikes are provided, check the bike before and ask for some amendments if needed, eg, pumping air, oiling the chain). It is about 6km from the city to Angkor Wat (if you go first time, make sure you go by the Visitors Centre which is the only place where you can buy passes). In the little circuit most places are at most 15 minutes away from each other by bike, so it is actually not a problem for a regular tourist (without much biking experience) to visit Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and spots on the little circuit in one day. If you are willing to get up early and start your trip 06:00 (it is not uncommon to see a bike rentals open from 04:30) it won’t be a problem to visit all above plus the big circuit (where spots are 30 minutes away each other by bike) in one day. Take into account your shape and visiting preferences. If you bike a lot at home – you can easily get around much quicker. If you enjoy Khmer architecture more than the regular Angkor visitor, it is recommended you reserve at least 3 days for the trip (and it doesn’t matter if you go by tuk-tuk or by bike). It is a good idea to take a lot of water with you (rent a bike with a basket!), but not a big problem if you run out of it during your trip. Around every temple in Angkor park you can buy some food and drinks (it’s just more expensive than in the city, around US$2 per big bottle of water in the Park). Cycling in Angkor Park is safe (traffic is low), pleasant (nice views and a lot of trees providing shadows in sunny days) and, last but not least, it saves you a lot of hassle of dealing with tuk-tuk drivers.
- Horse carriages and even elephants are also available within the park, but only from specific points. For example, elephants travel the route between Bayon and the nearest gate of Angkor Thom.
- Helicopter flights are another way of seeing Angkor Archaeological Park. You can also visit outlying temples like Banteay Chhmar, Boeng Mealea, Koh Ker, Rolous Group, Phnom Bok & Tonle Sap floating village. Helistar Cambodia  have prices starting from USD90 per person for the basic Bangkeng Mountain, Angkor Wat. Sras Srang, Pre Rup, Eastern Mebon & Ta Som 8 minutes tour. Flights depart daily from the Military Apron, Siem Reap International Airport. Bookings essential and can be made through hotels or travel/tour agents.
Passes are required to enter the Angkor area. They are on sale at the front gate for 1-day (USD20), 3-day (USD40), or 7-day (USD60) durations (children under 12 enter for free after showing a passport). The 3-day pass is valid for any 3 days within a week, while the 7-day pass is valid for any 7 days within a month. If you plan on using your 3 or 7 day pass on non consecutive days, make sure to get the newer version, otherwise you may be given an old one that must be used immediately. Cambodians can enter for free — you shouldn’t need to buy a pass for your guide or your driver. If you buy a pass in the evening, you can enter the park after 17:00 to view the sunset without it counting as use of a day on your pass. The passes are non-transferable. You will have a photograph taken and printed on your pass to make sure they are non-transferable. Regular checks for the pass are performed at almost all sites within the park, so carry your pass with you at all times, and be certain to buy the passes only from the official Apsara Authority counters, not from other vendors, and definitely not second-hand.
Guides can be hired for about USD20 a day and are available for most major languages. Hiring a guide for at least the first day can help you get orientated to the temples and are particularly useful for finding and explaining the bas-reliefs, which can otherwise be rather overwhelming and/or difficult to understand.
“Ancient Angkor”, the guidebook that is hawked at every temple, is surprisingly good. Particularly if you are interested in the carvings on the walls and towers, the book will keep you occupied for hours. If you don’t want to pay money to hear a local tell you about the temples in broken English this is a good option. Authored by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, the cover price is USD 27.95 at book shops, and is sold by some at much lower prices. For example, the book shop at the international airport is selling it for USD 20. Vendors located within and outside Angkor Wat sell duplicate copies of the book, for as little as 1 USD, if you haggle, or it’s the end of the day.
Another excellent source of material on Angkor Wat is Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors. This best selling novel is a work of historical fiction, and brings ancient Angkor Wat back to life, as well as the celebrates the Khmer culture.
Be sure and get to the temples early. You can enter the park beginning at 05:00; the temples open at sunrise. There are fewer visitors early in the morning, and the sun isn’t at full force. Arriving at the temples at 08:00 instead of 09:00 can make all the difference in staying one step ahead of the crowds.
The temples can broadly be categorized into four groups:
- Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the grandest temple of all and the ancient capital next to it
- Little Circuit (Le Petit Circuit), taking in major sites to the east of Angkor Thom
- Big Circuit (Le Grand Circuit), taking in major sites north and further out east
- Roluos group, 15km east from Siem Reap along National Highway 6
- Outlying temples, located over 20km from Angkor Wat
You can, of course, mix and match freely, but as distances are fairly long, it makes sense to plan ahead and pick sites connected by road. Most car, tuk-tuk or moto drivers will have an itinerary ready if you don’t have one in mind, and their expertise may come in handy for arriving at sites a step ahead of the big tour groups.