I delayed writing an Angkor journal for a long time. Despite having visited the site in three different years, what could I possibly add to the probably millions of words already written about it?
Yet, the temptation was big and after all I have a few good tips, including where to find a decent cup of coffee within the complex.
Why should the visit be prepared?
My first visit was done in the company of two fellow travelers I met in the way from Bangkok. I wasn't an expert, but knew enough to appreciate and enjoy the site. That wasn't true for the other two, who quickly got bored and sat sipping coffee while I shamelessly kept climbing deformed rock piles; they simply didn't have a clue what they were looking at.
What is Angkor?
Angkor was the capital city of a Khmer kingdom, the name was derived from the Sanskrit "nagara," meaning "city." The kingdom existed as such from 802AC, when Jayavarman II declared himself "universal king" (chakravartin) and "god-king" (devaraja), until 1431AC, when the Thais invaded Angkor.
Where is Angkor?
Angkor is located in modern Cambodia's northwestern corner, just north of the Tonle Sap Lake, near the modern town of Siem Reap and not far from Aranyaprathet in Thailand.
Details regarding practical ways of reaching the area from Thailand and Cambodia are in my journal Planning Cambodia.
How many structures are in Angkor?
Within the area covered in the past by Angkor, over a thousand structures have survived; some of them are temples, other monuments or administrative buildings. Angkor Wat is the name of the central and largest temple; Angkor Thom was the walled downtown area. The Bayon is one of the most impressive temples and Ta Prohm is the famous site where strangler trees grow atop temples.
How big is the complex?
At its peak, the city covered over three thousand square kilometers, meaning that Angkor was the biggest city the world ever knew before industrial times.
Is the complex related to black magic ?
It is worth paying attention to the stone murals in Angkor Wat. Many of them have missing squares; the mutilation was performed by the local population after the empire's fall. In such a way they attempted to neutralize any magical power left in the temple.
Before Angkor, two kingdoms existed in the area: Funan from the first century BC to 550AC and Chenla, from 550Ac to 800AC. Both kingdoms held complex relations with the Chinese and the Cham.
In the year 802AC, the Khmer King Jayavarman II declared the independence of Cambodia from Java and established his capital at Hariharalaya (the Roluos Temples) at the northern end of the Tonle Sap Lake.
The new kingdom bordered China, Champa and a place identified as "the land of cardamoms and mangoes" (somewhere in modern Thailand).
Yasovarman I ascended to the throne in 889AC and immediately began the construction of a new capital north of the first one and called it Yasodharapura, which featured the first temple in the area surrounded by a baray - a surrounding water canal.
Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat between 1113 and 1150AC, dedicating it to Vishnu, instead of the traditional attachment to Shiva of earlier Khmer temples. By any standards, this is the pinnacle of Khmer religious architecture. The temple is in fact an open Hindu encyclopedia, which can be read on several fashions. As a geographical text, the baray represent the oceans surrounding earth, the walls are the mountains enclosing the world, and the four sides of the temple represent the different landmasses and the peak at the center Mount Meru - the gods' abode. On the temporal angle, the baray represents the present, while the central point is the universe creation time. On the social interpretation, the center represents the god-king, while in the Buddhist angle the three steps depicts the different here steps of spiritual development: the center represents the achievement of nirvana.
In 1177AC, the Cham launch a sea invasion up the Mekong River and across the Tonle Sap Lake and destroyed the city. Jayavarman VII defeated the Cham and assumed the throne in 1181AC to become the greatest Khmer king. He built Angkor Thom as his walled capital over the ruins of Yasodharapura; at its center was the Bayon, one of the most striking temples in the whole complex. He led the transition from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism, which included alterations of Angor Wat.
After his death, the country returned to Hinduism, only to convert to Theravada Buddhism during the 14th century. In 1431AC the capital was destroyed by the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom . Abandoning it, the Khmer relocated the capital in Phnom Penh, a site which was easier to defend; a few centuries later the Thais imitated the event by moving their capital from Thonburi to Bangkok as a defense from the Burmese.
From the late 19th century French archaeologists began the restoration of Angkor; the works stopped during the Khmer Rouge era and its aftermaths and were resumed in 1993 by the Japanese, the French and UNESCO, which recognized the site as a World Heritage Site.
Wining Strategies for Visiting the Complex
All the local guides have read the Lonely Planet books and would try to sell that company's idea of how to visit the temples. They offer the free sunset view plus a two days trip along the short and long circuits described on those guides. Moreover, the pricing strategy of the place follows the pattern as well, asking twenty dollars for the first day, the same amount for the second day and then giving a free third day.
There are better tactics for covering the main sights. The day before the planned visit, rent a "moto" for two dollars and go to Angkor around 5pm, buy a one day ticket for the next day and enter to see the sunset from the sunset hill, that's included in the ticket. The sunset is west from that hill while the temples are on the eastern side; nonetheless the experience offers an astonishing view of the temples from above.
Once back at town, invite the moto driver to drive you the next day for six dollars; explain he should arrive at 4:45 or 5am sharp and in a sober state.
If the sky is unclouded, the sunrise behind the temples is spectacular; the angular temples' silhouettes are outlined first by the dim lights and provide an unforgettable view.
After the sunrise is over do not stay at Angkor Wat since it will be crowded. You can have a good coffee and breakfast at the stalls in front of the main entrance; those on the left are for tourists while those on the right are regular Khmer stalls, at them, tasty Khmer food is offered.
Spend the morning hours visiting Angkor Thom (the city surrounding the central temple), the Bayon (with its columns featuring the king's face on each direction) and Ta Prohm (the temples with trees growing on them). After finishing them, return to the Angkor Wat complex, when everybody is elsewhere.