Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed

The Khmer Empire and the temples of Angkor


My trip to Cambodia was just as much a reason to escape the traffic choked streets of Manila, my new home, as it was to finally see the famous temples of Angkor. I, like everyone else, had seen countless photos of the mighty Angkor Wat, often emerging from a misty sunrise, grand, ancient and imposing – and damn, did I want to see that. Tick it off my list and move on. But I was so unexpectedly moved by the whole place – this living testament to Cambodia’s incredible history – I learned so much more during my time there. Who built these towering stone monuments to kings and gods, which still stand thousands of years later?

The ancient temple complex of the Angkor Archeological Park is a vast area of a thousand temples. It is the only remains of what was once one of the most powerful empires to ever exist. The Khmer Empire of the 9th to 15th centuries flourished, and grew to rule over most of Southeast Asia, at times stretching from the tip of Indonesia to south China and west towards Vietnam and Myanmar.

Angkor was the empire’s mighty capital, built during the height of the Khmer reign. It was home to an estimated one million people – a whopping 0.1% of the global population. The temples were a testament to the empire’s incredible wealth and power. Bearing religious iconography and architectural styles from both Hindu and Buddhist sources, the temples tell a story of the varied belief systems that influenced the Khmers over time, and the kings that ruled.

And now I was here to see it all. I arrived in Siem Reap alone in the dusty heat of February, the high season. Angkor was busy with tour buses and travellers, all eager to get a glimpse of those famed ruins. I hired a local tuk tuk driver for four days and spent my time exploring the temples and learning more about their history.

What is special about the Angkor Wat temple?

Angkor Wat stands as the most expansive religious edifice globally, covering more than 400 acres. The largest of its kind, this monumental structure earned UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 1992, sparking a global endeavor to preserve this magnificent structure.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

Angkor Wat at sunset
Angkor Wat at sunset
Angkor Wat close up
Angkor Wat close up
Close up faces of Bayon Temple in Cambodia's Temples of Angkor
Close up faces of Bayon Temple
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed at Angkor Temples – Faces of Bayon Temple
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed – Faces of Bayon Temple
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed at Angkor Temples – Sunrise over Pre Rup
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed – Sunrise over Pre Rup
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed at Angkor Temples – Ta Prohm
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed – Ta Prohm
Cambodia's Magnificent Past Revealed at Angkor Temples — Ta Prohm Tree Roots
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed — Ta Prohm Tree Roots

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GO – Getting There

Siem Reap is just six kilometers from Angkor and extremely well connected. The quickest way to get there is to fly into Siem Reap international airport. If you’re coming from Thailand, Vietnam, or other areas of Asia, it’s also easy (and cheaper) to catch a bus into town. You may find yourself changing at Phnom Penh, six hours away, depending on where you’re coming from.

Getting around the temples is a breeze, there is a good GPS signal in the park, and plenty of good old fashioned maps to help you find your way. Hire a scooter or bike and see the temples at your own pace, or rent a tuk tuk and driver and save your legs the effort.

Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed – Map
Cambodia’s Magnificent Past Revealed – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Angkor Wat – the showstopper

Nothing can quite prepare you for this place. Built by Jayavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat was originally designed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu – the “preserver” – until its use was gradually changed to become a Buddhist temple.

Its name means Capital Temple, and it’s thought to be the largest actively used religious building in the world. Its classic Khmer design of a “temple mountain” represents Mount Meru, a holy mountain of great importance in Hindu mythology. A huge moat surrounds it, stretching for five kilometers. At its centre stand tall, grand towers which are visible from wherever you are in the complex. There are beautiful carvings and inscriptions throughout, and a grassy inner courtyard area.

Angkor Wat has come to symbolise Cambodia and its history and resilience. It is rightly held as a symbol of great national pride and inspiration, which has helped Khmers recover after the devastating effects of years of war and trauma. The crowds may throng here during sunrise and sunset, but they don’t take away from the temple’s inherent mysticism and awesome history.

Angkor Thom – the city within a city

Just down the road lies Angkor Thom, a mini city encompassing several temples over a nine kilometer area. This is another fantastically well preserved and popular site, built by King Jayavarman VII. His influence on the construction is demonstrated in an inscription found on one of the walls, which refers to the King as the groom and Angkor Thom as his bride.

This site is home to the beautiful Bayon temple, an intricately designed Buddhist temple denoting the king’s faith, which stands in the centre of the Angkor Thom complex. Its most distinctive feature is the multiple smiling stone faces that have been carved into the towers lining the upper terrace of the temple. Most are in fantastic condition, and walking among their many serene faces is an awe inspiring experience.

The Bayon is believed to be the very last temple built at Angkor, and the only one built solely as a Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha himself. There are more than 200 faces carved into the stone walls. Many people believe they are carved in the likeness of the king. It can never be verified of course, but it’s a nice thought.

Ta Prohm – where the jungle is king

To witness how the dense, jungle environment can either destroy or enhance these ancient temples depending on how you look at it, you have to visit Ta Prohm. This early 13th century temple has been left almost entirely as it was found, with only minor restorations to allow for visitors.

Famous for being the backdrop to the 2001 Tomb Raider film, Ta Prohm is best known for the many trees which grow out of its ruins, the stone bricks cracked and warped around the jungle invasion.

When the Khmer empire finally fell in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was deserted for centuries, until restoration began in the early 2000’s. The temple was deliberately left mostly as it was found, in its partially collapsed state, with only minor changes made – such as the wooden walkway surrounding the outer walls and other additions making it safe for visitors.

The enormous trees roots that seem to emerge from every crevice make the whole place look like an extension of the jungle itself. Ta Prohm is easily one of the most atmospheric sites in the whole Angkor complex.

These are just a few of the breathtaking sites that make up Angkor, but certainly three of the most celebrated. As you wander through this amazing place, try to imagine the people that lived here, their mighty, all-powerful kings, and the immense power and prosperity that defined the Khmer empire for centuries. Angkor is a stunning, living part of Cambodia’s history, with a unique place in the heart of every Cambodian.

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Stay – Accommodation

Siem Reap is bursting with accommodation options and you could spend days deciding on where to stay. But you don’t need to – here are the best of the best.

Onederz Khmer House
A modern, comfortable, mid-range hotel on the outskirts of town in a quiet countryside location, but still just five minutes away from the action. There are two pools, friendly staff and an excellent restaurant. Yours for £30 per night.

Penda Homestay
This beautiful, friendly place is located in a village just 15 minutes from Siem Reap. Surrounded by lush gardens and with private rooms that don’t compromise on comfort, staying here will give you a peek into rural Cambodian life. All for just under £20 per night.

Siem Reap Phan Villa
Owned and operated by a local family, Siem Reap Phan Villa is a peaceful little oasis in the heart of town. Rooms are spacious and excellent value for money, coming in at around £15 per night.

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Eat – Restaurants

If you’re well versed in Thai and Vietnamese food, you’ll find Cambodian dishes to be more or less a combination of the two. Endlessly tasty and less spicy than Thai, the top dish you have to try while you’re in town is Fish Amok. Amok refers to the process of cooking meat or fish in banana leaves using steam alone – thick coconut cream and galangal are classic ingredients. The fish used usually comes from nearby Tonle Sap lake, so you’ll definitely be eating local. Excellent street food abounds in Siem Reap. Check out Pokambor Street Food stall no. 7 – their mama noodles are a meaty feast.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

It depends if its rain you want to avoid, or the crowds. The best time, weather wise, is from November to April, when the weather is driest but the crowds are at their peak. Be warned that things really start to heat up towards the end of February though, and reach boiling point by April. Head here in the wet season between May and November and you’re likely to get the temples to yourself – mostly.

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Safety – Possible risks

Siem Reap is generally safe, as long as you stick to well-lit streets by night and don’t make any grand displays of wealth (keep any wads of cash hidden). The biggest safety issue is traffic. If you hire a scooter, take things slowly and expect traffic to come from anywhere, at any time. Look both ways and look again as you cross any roads.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

Despite being a huge tourist destination, Siem Reap is shockingly cheap. A decent meal including a beer probably won’t set you back more than £5. Tuk tuks are cheap and bartering is expected. Always bear in the mind that the drivers don’t earn much and a little extra goes a long way. Your biggest cost by far will be the pass to enter the Angkor complex. A single day costs $37 and a three-day pass will set you back $62. One day will never be enough, so opt for the three-day option if you can afford it.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Dress conservatively at temples, smile politely, and place your hands together and bow slightly when you meet people. Try not to point – especially at a person; this is considered rude.

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy a meal with a local family, always remember to leave at least some of your meal on your plate. An empty plate implies you didn’t have enough to eat and your hosts could get offended. The plastic plague is as rampant here as it is everywhere else in the world, so refill your bottle and give the plastic bags a miss.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Siem Reap is an incredibly easy place to hang out in for a few days, or even weeks. The city is well and truly on the traveller trail, and has been for years. Almost everyone speaks at least some English, but learning a few Cambodian phrases will go a long way towards earning respect from local people.

Many people believe Siem Reap doesn’t show the “real Cambodia”, and there’s no doubt some truth to that. If you have time, head out into any one of the many villages that surround the city to find rural Cambodia at its most charming.

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

Discover more activities to do with this guide to Siem Riep!

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