Travel bucket lists are all the rage at the moment although some have more clout than others. (I’d skip the Pokémon GO vacation planners if I were you.) Lonely Planet compilations are always worth taking seriously, so when the travel information company published its 500 Best Places to See countdown last year it caused a flurry of media attention. Topping the lengthy list was the temple complex of Angkor Wat, showpiece of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire, the most extensive urban civilisation of pre-industrial times.
Angkor reached its peak between the 9th and 14th centuries, when about 750,000 people lived in the sprawling but highly advanced metropolis. Khmer engineers were ahead of their time; the 400 sq km site features early versions of hydraulic structures such as moats, embankments, reservoirs and canals. Besides Angkor Wat itself, relics include the formidable temples of Ta Prohm and Bayon, as well as more than a thousand other artefacts and ruins.
There are direct flights from Hong Kong to the gateway town of Siem Reap and a couple of hours after leaving Chek Lap Kok you’ll be rubbing shoulders with Buddhist monks, archaeologists and the odd Tomb Raider fan. Accommodation ranges from backpacker hostel dorms to upmarket resorts with infinity pools, spas and wellness centres. Don’t miss the War Museum Cambodia, where you’ll learn about Khmer Rouge atrocities from guides who lived through the genocide. Haggle for souvenirs at the markets and decide whether you prefer an Angkor Wat sunrise or a sunset viewed from a riverboat on Tonlé Sap lake.
Sunrise “how, where and when” discussions take up more travel forum space than any other Angkor topic. Consider skipping the signature reflection pool setting and head instead to atmospheric Bayon Temple, where soft amber light caresses the carved stone faces. Now that you’re up and awake, make the most of the cooler temperatures and start exploring. (After the sunrise many tour groups return to their hotels for the breakfast buffet.) Away from the iconic monuments there’s plenty of room. Meditate amid gnarled tree roots and crumbling rubble, visit a local school or watch as villagers harvest rice.
The Angkor accolades keep coming. The ancient temple city was voted into third place in TripAdvisor’s 2016 Travellers’ Choice Awards and Unesco describes the site as “a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilisation”. The United Nations cultural agency was also impressed with Artisans Angkor, awarding the Siem Reap-based social initiative its Seal of Excellence for handicrafts. The business was set up in 1992 to help young people in rural areas find employment helping to revive traditional Khmer craftsmanship with an emphasis on wood carving, painting, lacquerware and ceramics.
When they’re not sharing tips on where to watch the perfect Angkor sunrise, travel forum contributors are seeking advice on how to avoid crowds. The much-discussed sunrise has become something of a circus.
Arriving in the half light of pre-dawn won’t ensure you have the place to yourself – everyone else is using the same guidebook that recommends waking at 4.30am to guarantee a front row spot at the reflection pool.
Expect a raucous scrum as tour guides bellow at their groups, young children scream themselves awake and ringtones pierce the muggy morning air. Not quite the spiritual experience you signed up for. In fairness, world-class sightseeing attractions are always likely to be busy and tourists complaining about too many other tourists is a bit like car owners moaning about traffic jams.
A bigger issue than visitor numbers is disrespectful behaviour. Cambodians were enraged last year when a Chinese model was photographed topless beside the ruins. It was one of a number of similar incidents that prompted authorities to announce strict new codes of conduct for tourists. These were accompanied by posters warning that inappropriate behaviour such as “exposing sexual organs and nudity in public areas is a crime punishable by law”.
Culturally ignorant tourists are only one side of the story, however. Revenue from ticket sales for the first six months of 2016 exceeded US$31 million, prompting a stream of online posts questioning how much of the money is being reinvested in tourist facilities, restoration work and clearly marked trails.
As one TripAdvisor reviewer put it: “After paying your entry fee, you are left to wander with no information but sellers in your face.”
Ah yes, the sellers. Park management turn a blind eye to Angkor’s army of entrepreneurs. Artisans Angkor may be doing an excellent job of providing livelihoods for Siem Reap’s young people but there are still plenty of persistent child vendors who won’t leave you alone until you buy something. And closely related to the trinket peddler is the scammer. Con artists are so numerous the country is jokingly referred to as Scambodia. Crafty tuk tuk drivers (is there another kind?), fake monks and corrupt traffic police are merely the start of your problems. Authorities recommend informing the park guards if you’re ripped off. Good luck with that one.
Elephant rides have become the latest “should I, shouldn’t I?” tourist dilemma after an elderly pachyderm collapsed and died from exhaustion earlier this year. Wrestle with your conscience and decide whether you feel it’s better to provide employment for handlers and tour operators or be responsible for the beasts suffering in the searing heat. So far, more than 177,000 people have signed a petition at Change.org to introduce a ban on elephant rides at Angkor.
Risks to human health shouldn’t be underestimated, either. Keep an eye out for snakes and the odd land mine, such as the one discovered last year by a tuk tuk driver less than 100 metres from the ticket booths. Dengue fever has killed 24 in Siem Reap province so far this year (mostly children as a result of medical complications) and the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that travellers visiting the more remote Angkor temples should consider antimalarial drugs.
Whatever your feelings about the world’s largest religious monument, the fact that it appears on the Cambodian flag and national banknotes demonstrates the esteem in which it is held. Wong Tai Sin eat your heart out.
Looting has been a problem at Angkor ever since French explorers stumbled upon the city in the 19th century. Vandalised by the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed temples and written records, the site remained on Unesco’s World Heritage in Danger list until 2004, due to pillaging. Work to restore relics that have been damaged, destroyed or outright stolen is patchy at best.