The main reason for visiting Angkor is still the mystery that surrounds it

Many tourists head to Angkor before dawn to capture beautiful snapshots of the temple ruins at sunrise. — Photos: DAVID BOWDEN

Tourism was identified as a major industry for Cambodia after years of civil unrest, and the listing of Angkor as a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) World Heritage Site in 1992 was key to implementing a national tourism plan for the country.

The jewel in Cambodia’s tourism crown is Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious site. It’s worth noting that this temple is but one of the many close to the rapidly growing township of Siem Reap. Archaeologists have identified over 1,000 religious sites scattered over the plains of northern Cambodia, with Unesco recognising greater Angkor as a heritage site for all to admire.

Interestingly, the area was declared the Parc d’Angkor or Angkor National Park in 1925. Covering 11,000ha, it preceded the opening of Malaysia’s King George V National Park, which later became Taman Negara, in 1938-1939.

Before the civil unrest in Cambodia, the park was administered by Conservation d’Angkor (now Apsara National Authority).

The first temples in this part of the country date back to the 9th century, with the last being built in the 12th century. During this period, Angkor culture dominated South-East Asia, but it declined for reasons that still baffle the experts. While the Khmer people still used the temples, the forests grew over most of them, and they seemingly disappeared. In the mid-19th century, the temples were “rediscovered” by French explorer Henri Mouhot, although even this is disputed by some experts.

Dedicated temple-goers can spend weeks discovering all the Angkor sites, while others will be able to see the main temples in just one or two days. Organised tours are available, or enthusiastic independent guides with their own transport can be hired at a (usually) reasonable price.

Siem Reap has many other non-temple attractions to make it a complete travel destination. If your budget permits, check into the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor to be graciously immersed in its heritage and have the ever-helpful staff arrange some iconic journeys to the temples and into the region.

Get off the tourist paths to explore antiquities like the Angkor Thom East Gate, also known as the Gate Of The Dead.Get off the tourist paths to explore antiquities like the Angkor Thom East Gate, also known as the Gate Of The Dead.

It’s in the timing

The monsoon plays a big role in the lives of those residing in South-East Asia, and the situation is no different in rural Cambodia, with the parched dry season being the most desolate time of the year.

The rainy season extends from June to October and reinvigorates the land to enable the rice crop to be planted in order to sustain life for all Cambodians. Tonle Sap, the region’s largest lake, fills and then overflows into the Mekong River system, where an abundance of fish are harvested.

The Angkor is very much a mixed site in that it protects both cultural and natural assets. Indeed, Angkor was a city that some suggest was bigger in its time than London then was. It was also a hydrological society, with large dams or barays that were based on the management of water to enable farming and religious activities. The management of the Unesco site takes into consideration that the local Khmer people live in and around the temples and are still dependent on the land and the forests in their daily lives. There are many faces to Angkor, depending upon the season and the time of day. During the wet season, small depressions within many temple grounds fill with water to present spectacular reflective surfaces for photographs.

Angkor Wat covers an area of 162ha with a moat and laterite walls on its periphery. When viewed from the front entrance, it looks sparsely vegetated, but from the air, or the elevated temple of Phnom Bakheng, the forests are most apparent.

The best times to visit Angkor are to avoid the height of the dry and wet seasons, with the period from November to February being the most popular with tourists. The build-up to the wet season from March to June is very hot and humid and should be avoided.

Temple touring

Access to most of the Angkor temples is strictly controlled, and visitors must purchase access passes. Tourists may be able to check out some of the more remote and lesser-visited temples without purchasing a pass, but only visiting those and not the main ones defeats the purpose of travelling to Angkor. A day pass costs US$37 (RM177), while a three-day pass is US$62 (RM296).

One of the features of most of the sandstone walls is the bas-relief, or three-dimensional engravings. Those of Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple are particularly intricate, with various apsaras, or celestial dancers, as well as numerous carvings that portray Angkor life in the past. Very few apsaras are the same, and there are thousands to be found throughout Angkor, despite many having been illegally removed.

One of the features of most of the sandstone walls in Angkor is the bas-relief, or three-dimensional engravings.One of the features of most of the sandstone walls in Angkor is the bas-relief, or three-dimensional engravings.

Ta Prohm temple remains entwined by the roots of huge trees, as it was intentionally left by early French archaeologists to show visitors what it looked like in the late 19th century, when they began documenting the temples of Angkor. This is the temple that was used as a backdrop in the 2001 Angelina Jolie movie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Then, archaeologists faced the dilemma of either letting the destructive forces of biological weathering go unchecked, as nature would have it or stepping in and restricting tree growth. The debate continues in the hallowed halls of global archaeological departments.

Proving that archaeology is alive and thriving, as recently as last year archaeologists unearthed some significant 600-year-old sandstone Buddhist statues buried under the platform at the southern gate of Ta Phrom.

The Elephant Terrace near the Temple of the Leper King is one of the best-restored areas. Local Khmer archaeologists and artisans, with the assistance of foreign experts, meticulously reassembled this part of the Angkor jigsaw puzzle.

Temple town

Siem Reap is the gateway to ancient temples and a civilisation that, at its height, was considered the world’s largest pre-industrial city with an estimated one million residents.

Siem Reap is a town that’s easy to get around on foot or on the back of a motorbike, the most common form of public transport here. Siem Reap was once a town that mostly attracted adventurous backpackers, but now it’s a trendy destination for hip travellers. It has evolved into a tourist town with many activities, from its legendary Pub Street to duty-free shopping, heli-tours, spas and bike tours, in addition to archaeological tourism.

Phare, the Cambodian Circus, is not to be missed, so start the night with sunset drinks, move on to the marvellously uplifting and skilful circus before booking a late dinner.

Vespa tours of the temples can be organised as a Raffles curated journey.Vespa tours of the temples can be organised as a Raffles curated journey.

While visiting Pub Street in Siem Reap is a rite of passage for many young travellers, there are some fine bars, cafés and restaurants here, too, and in other parts of the town. Seek out restaurants such as Spoons, Cuisine Wat Damnak and Chanrey or the numerous hawker food outlets in the Old Market.

Grand accommodation

The exclusive Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor has always been the place to stay in town since it first opened in the 1920s. It fell into disrepair during the days of the Khmer Rouge but is now renovated to accommodate those who appreciate life’s little luxuries after a hard day of temple touring.

Raffles is also the preferred address for those who love heritage hotels, as it’s the grand colonial property in town. It has accommodated royalty, writers and movie stars, who were then the equivalent of today’s influencers and key opinion leaders.

The hotel reopened as Raffles in 1997 after a meticulous restoration and refurbishment effort. If the hotel is beyond your budget, at least take time out to enjoy a refreshing beverage in the hotel’s famous Elephant Bar.

It’s amazing how quickly the tourists have returned to Siem Reap after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the deleterious impacts of Covid-19. Direct international flights on airlines such as AirAsia have made this easier, but it is the determination of Cambodians for tourism to work that has led to millions of annual visitors discovering the temples of Angkor.

Travel notes

Getting there: AirAsia flies direct from Kuala Lumpur to the new Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport. The new, Chinese-built and funded airport, is located 50km to the east of Siem Reap.

Visa: Malaysians don’t require a visa to enter Cambodia, but some other nationalities do, and visas can be issued on arrival for US$30 (RM143) and a passport photo.

Where to stay: Being the tourist town that it is, Siem Reap has accommodation to satisfy all budgets, but those who want to reminisce the romantic days of grand touring, check out the Raffles Grand d’Angkor (

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