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Angkor, Cambodia's Pride

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Angkor
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Angkor, Cambodia's Pride

story by: Tom Ricketts

The temples of Angkor are often said to be amongst the most important ancient sites in the world, right up there alongside the Pyramids of Giza and Machu Picchu. However for years the small country of Cambodia has been ravaged by war or ruled by a brutal regime which has made it impossible to visit. But no longer! The country has rid itself of the Khmer Rouge and is gradually opening its arms to a steady stream of tourists eager to see the astounding city that was home to an empire that once ruled over all of Southeast Asia.

The bustling city of Siam Reap is gateway to Angkor. The small airport receives flights from the likes of Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, so is easily accessible from New Zealand. Visas can be obtained on arrival, but have your travel agent organise it in advance to spare yourself the long queue in the sweltering, non-air conditioned terminal. The next queue will be for your transportation by bike, tuk tuk or taxi to the hotel. Again, have your travel agent organise this in advance.

Siam Reap is a somewhat sobering introduction to the poverty of Cambodia. Many of the shacks and huts that line the streets would not be considered fit for even a family pet in New Zealand. And you’ll no doubt cringe when you spot young children playing with feral animals in the dusty garbage clogged streets. You will need to know that Cambodia is poor, very poor. The Vietnam War, the following civil war and the Khmer Rouge have all certainly taken their toll on this country. But smile and give a wave to the kids on the road, and they’ll jump up and wave you all the way down the street! Considering the history, it’s amazing how happy and friendly the Cambodian’s are today. Your hotel in Siam Reap will certainly be an oasis from the city though. Be sure to choose one with a pool which will pay for itself in days to come. The city has a few attractions such as museums and a night market, but the main drawcard is the aptly named Pub Street. Here you’ll find all sorts of restaurants and bars serving up excellent Cambodian fare, and the ridiculously cheap cold beer is surprisingly drinkable. When the sun goes down, the backpackers come out and the lively nightlife scene quickly amps up.

But what you’re really here to see is the temples of Angkor. Cambodians are incredibly proud of the complex, so much so that it even features on the Cambodian flag. Started in the 11
th century, Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire which existed until its fall in the 15th century. At its peak, the empire ruled over present day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and mainland Malaysia. Although never abandoned like Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza etc, it wasn’t ‘rediscovered’ by Europeans until the mid 19th century. By then, the majority of the complex had been reclaimed the jungle. French colonialists started preserving the complex but were soon ousted by the Khmer Rouge, who thankfully did little damage to the temples during their rule. Since then there have been many multi-national efforts to restore the temples which continue today.

Most people start by rising early and seeing the sun rise over the main temple of Angkor Wat which if you’re lucky enough to have cooperating weather, is rather stunning. Angkor Wat is covered in incredibly intricate carvings depicting many battle scenes fought between the Khmer and their ancient enemies in Siam and Vietnam. The dominating feature is the five towers which represent the five peaks of the mythical Mount Meru, home of the gods. While most of the temples are able to be climbed, Angkor Wat is apparently off limits. However give a couple of dollars to a security guard around the back and he’ll turn his back long enough for you to scramble up and take some pictures.

Not far away is Bayon which is arguably as impressive as Angkor Wat. Here you’ll find over 200 [remaining] faces carved into the temple walls. They’re thought to be that of a Khmer king called Jayavarman VII who thought of himself as a god. However others believe the faces are that of Buddha. Whatever the truth, it’s an amazing sight and also contains many carvings of battle scenes including some with elephants and horses, the latter meaning the Khmer had now encountered the Chinese.

One of the most famous temples in the complex is Ta Prohm which has been left in much of the state it was in when rediscovered. Jungle trees sprout from the stone courtyards and buildings, their roots strangling the ancient buildings. The trees have had to be killed to prevent any further damage as they grow, but you can almost imagine what it would have been like for the first Europeans who visited here.

There are many many more temples in the complex, each with their own unique features. The majority of temples can be seen in one day, although it will be rushed. The heat is so oppressive that you’ll most likely want to thrown in the towel by mid afternoon and retreat to the hotel pool. Two days is definitely the minimum recommended time, or three days if you’re particularly interested studying the carvings and walking amongst the ruins. We also strongly recommend hiring a guide here, especially if you’re only doing a quick trip. The guides can tell you the stories behind the complex, explain the intricate carvings, and show you the best temples.

The temples of Angkor are truly special, and they deserve their reputation as one of the world’s most important historical sites. An absolute must for anyone travelling to Cambodia.

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