The temples of Angkor and surrounds used to exude a strong sense of adventure and exoticness. Visitors were few and far between then. With striking ruins such as Ta Promh seemingly devoured mercilessly by the trees, these ruins seemed wild and unexplored. A few kilometers lied Siem Reap, a small outpost containing a few hotels for those who were eager enough to explore the temples. Up until the year 2000, this was still the case and Angkor was just something you get to watch in documentaries.
Several hundred years after the fall of the Khmer Empire, a new one centered on tourism is gradually taking its place. Since the turn of this century, tourism in the Angkor sites has grown exponentially. Siem Reap likewise grew exponentially with it. I visited in 2007, which is the year Angkor received the most number of visitors (not even 2008 could top that). The Angkor I visited was extremely convenient and seemed to center on one thing – tourism. Guides, tuktuks and private transportation were everywhere and easy to find. Accommodations and restaurants were aplenty. I couldn’t help but notice the new hotels that sprouted like mushrooms in Siem Reap. A lot of them were being built simultaneously, with modest exteriors and spartan beds that cater to the hordes of tour groups that come to admire the temples.
This being said, the temples in Angkor still looked majestic. It also helped that the weather was good when I went. Basically did 2.5 days of temple touring, and covered a lot of ground including some of the minor temples. The ruins started to look alike by the second day but was still a sight to see.
We hired a car and a guide for 2 days. We started in Angkor Thom, from which we explored the Bayon, Baphuon, Phinmeakas, Terrace of Elephants and the Leper King. Afterwards, we made a stop at the maze-like temple of Preah Khan – which remains mostly unrestored.
In the afternoon, amid the sweltering heat, we went to Angkor Wat – the most well known among Cambodia’s temples. The building plays an important role among locals, and is featured prominently in the nation’s flag. It is also a living temple – and there are still worshippers who come to pray. Certain parts contain very intricate bas reliefs of devatas or apsara. We then wrapped up the day’s temple tour by going to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset.
The following day, we ventured to the Ta Promh temple complex. It was made famous during the Tomb Raider movie, where the erudite Lara Croft (played by Angelina Jolie) was featured running around the eerie temple complex. The main draw of Ta Prohm is the wild vegetation which seems to overwhelm – and threaten – it in some areas. No surprise. Unlike many of the other Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in pretty much the same condition as when it was discovered.
Some of the other temples require a relatively long drive. Banteay Srei is one such complex, but the journey’s definitely worth it. The temple is made of sandstone, giving it a reddish hue that is a departure from Angkor. Elaborate carvings are the main draw here, and I only had sheer admiration for the people who painstakingly created these art works almost a thousand years ago. Talk about mad skills.
After lunch, we headed back to the main Angkor area and stopped by Banteay Samre and Prasat Kravan. By this time, the temples were starting to look alike to me.
We only hired the car for two days, and the third day was supposed to have been spent preparing for our trip to Vietnam. But since our passes allowed us to see the temples for another day and we had a few hours to spare, we decided to hire a tuktuk to bring us to the temples in the Rolous group. It was a bit out of the way, but the tourists still arrived in hordes! Never mind that the ruins were more or less similar to the ones in Angkor.
In recent years, some entrepreneurs from Europe and the US have established businesses in Siem Reap. Mostly service-based, these range from a one-room hotel to french bistros. All this have helped make Siem Reap a real tourist town as far as tourist towns go.