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Close to a million people visit the ruins of Angkor each year and for good reason. Located to the north of Cambodia's Great Lake (Tonle Sap) and south of the Kulen Hills, not far from Siem Reap, this is without much doubt Cambodia's number one attraction and one of the most amazing places in the world. There are over a thousand temples in Angkor, ranging from little more than piles of rubble to the amazing Angkor Wat, the undisputed star of the show. This ruin is one of the most famous in the world and a trip to Cambodia is not complete without a visit.
Once a mighty force in South East Asia, the Khmer Empire dates back to the year 802, when it was established by Jayavarman II. The city of Angkor stood at the centre of this mighty Hindu empire and grew to become the largest known pre-industrial settlement, spanning a massive 3,000 square kilometres (roughly equivalent to Los Angeles).
Angkor Wat, the main temple in the Angkor region, was built during the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II. It was built as a personal mausoleum and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
Following Suryavarman's death in the mid 12th century, the empire entered a period of strife. Ultimately this led to weakness, which was exploited by the neighbouring Cham people. The capital, Yasodharapura, was sacked and the reigning king killed. A prince, who later became King Jayavarman VII, took control of the empire and defeated the Cham. His reign was considered the greatest and during his time he had the walled city of Angkor Thom constructed. King Jayavarman also transitioned the Khmer empire from Hinduism to Buddhism, which has remained as the principle religion of Cambodia.
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After a long period of decline, Angkor's powerful position eventually came to an end in the 15th century when Thai invaders, pushed out of China by the Mongols, sacked the city. The Khmer Empire then moved its capital to present day Phnom Penh.
Angkor was gradually taken over by the rainforest until 1860, when the French explorer Henri Mouhot came across it and alerted the world to its existence. Sadly, Westerners came and looted many of the relics from the temples for museums or private collections. A long restoration process was started in 1907 and saw large areas of forest cleared, foundations repaired and drains installed to protect the city from water damage. This process was stopped in 1970 when the Cambodian civil war made aid workers flee the country. During the civil war there was intense fighting even in the temples.
After the end of the civil war restoration work was started again. The first step was to remove the land mines that had been left among the temples. Today the process of restoration continues even with up to a million visitors a year coming to see the ancient city of Angkor.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. The temple grounds are surrounded by a huge moat. The only way in is via the huge causeway over the moat. The main temple buildings are still out of view at this point, but the outer walls are visible across the moat with their distinctively shaped towers, which have been likened to giant corncobs.
When people in the rest of the world say Angkor Wat, they are referring to a massive collection of temples which covers many square miles. In actual fact, Angkor Wat is the name of a single massive temple. In addition to being one of the best-preserved monuments in the area, it is undoubtedly the most grandiose. It is for this reason that this single temple gives its name to the entire area, which includes nearly a thousand temples in the surrounding 200 square kilometre or 75 square mile area.
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Temple of Bayon has four large carved faces oriented on the four cardinal points (N,E,S,W).
Also referred to as the Royal Terrace, the Terrace of Elephants considered one of the masterpieces commissioned by Jayavarman VII. Even today in its weathered state, it is impressive in a way quite different from the grandeur of the temples. The 350-metre-long (almost a quarter mile) terrace is 2.5 metres (or 8 feet) in height and features many stone carved elephants.
The curious name of the Terrace of the Leper King comes from a sculpture found on top of the 3-metre-high carved terrace during the 15th century. Interestingly, the subject of the statue was neither a king nor a leper. Apparently, the discoloration and moss growth on the old statue had made it seem like it had leprosy. Terrace of the Leper King is located north of the Terrace of Elephants.
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The Baphuon is a hulking temple, with three levels and a rounded top. Symbolically, the state of the Baphuon is a testament to many facets of the history of Angkor Wat, both positive and negative. It began as a hugely ambitious and grand project, yet due to its sheer size, it eventually crumbled on its foundations. It was built as a Hindu temple but was converted to a Buddhist temple in the late 15th century as the religion took hold across the nation. In more recent history, it has undergone intensive restoration, a process interrupted by the chaos brought about by the Khmer Rouge. Only now is it being fully restored, paralleling the slow recovery of the Cambodian nation itself.
Ta Prohm was orginally called Rajavihara, meaning "Royal Temple". It was built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The temple conveys a sense of discovery and other-worldliness beyond that of the other temples. The main reason for this is that Ta Prohm has been spared the restoration efforts given to other temples. Be sure to take note of the battle between nature and Ta Prohm, as the jungle is slowly engulfing the temple.
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Located to the west of the Elephant Terrace and through the Royal Gardens is Phimeanakas. Phimeanakas is known as "the celestial temple," and is one of the older buildings from the old capital of Yasodharapura, which Jayavarman VII incorporated into his new capital, Angkor Thom. Phimeanakas was built at the end of the 10th century by a king named Rajendravarman II who reigned from 941 to 968. However, the temple as you see it today was rebuilt by Suryavarman II in the 12th century. He refashioned it as a three-tiered temple and crowned it with a wooden tower, which no longer exists.
Sunrise to Sunset everyday of the week, every day of the year.
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You need to buy a ticket in order to enter the temple-ruins area. Tickets are sold at the entrances to the area and it is possible to buy 1-day ticket for US$20, 3-day ticket for US$40 and 1-week tickets. The 3-day ticket is the best deal, simply because there is so much too see and it would be a shame just to spend a single day here. Although if someone is willing to spend sun rise to sun set at the temples, wear good shoes and move fast it is possible to do Angkor justice in one long day.
From Siem Reap it it possible to rent a bicycle, a moto/tuk-tuk (motorcycle-taxi) with driver or a car with driver. The motos are quite nice because they offer shade in the sunny season and shelter in the rainy season. You should pay US$10-15 for an entire day starting between 7:00am and 9:00am.
It is possible to rent an air conditioned car for the day in Siem Reap. This is more expensive then renting a moto/tuk-tuk although can be more comfortable during the hot dry season. Talk with your hotel about arranging a car for the day.
The only buses in Angkor are tour buses and those are few and far between. It is best to rent a car or a moto/tuk-tuk.
Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport (REP) has flights with Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur, Asiana Airlines to Seoul, Bangkok Airways to Bangkok, Cambodia Angkor Air to Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, China Eastern Airlines to Kunming and Nanning, China Southern Airlines to Guangzhou, Jetstar Asia to Singapore, Korean Air to Seoul and Busan, Lao Airlines to Luang Prabang, Silk Air to Da Nang and Singapore, and Vietnam Airlines to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Luang Prabang.
There are a few restaurants in Angkor but they tend to be over priced. Ask your driver about finding slightly cheaper food. There are plenty of vendors selling snacks near the major temples.
There will be countless kids trying to sell water and other beverages. Remember that there will be a convenience charge that is negotiable.
Sleeping in the park is not an option. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses in nearby Siem Reap.
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