Location: (near) Siem Reap, Cambodia
Visited: July, 2010
Site Type: Cultural
Opinion and Background: Whenever I visit a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, a fantastic temple, or any other amazing place for that matter, I have a habit of asking myself, “Was it ‘Angkor’ good?” Angkor, in many ways, is my example of a location that is worth the travel expenses to see with your own eyes, no matter how far it may be. I don’t really say this often, but the ancient Khmer city of Angkor is something that you must see before you die. Yes, it is that good.
First, a little clarification. The name ‘Angkor’ is often confused to mean the same thing as the temple of ‘Angkor Wat.’ Angkor is the name of the whole capital city of the ancient Khmer Empire which encompassed Angkor Wat along with about a thousand other temples and monuments, the most famous ones being Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom (and its central temple of Bayon), Preah Khan, and Banteay Srei. If you come to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site and only see Angkor Wat, you are missing out on the other, far cooler temples in this massive city.
But the significance of Angkor does not stop there. It is not all about its temples and religious structures. A recent aerial survey of the area confirmed that Angkor was not only the largest urban center of the pre-industrialized world, but that there is no other ancient city that came close! Angkor is thought to have covered an area of about 1000 km squared. The second largest city of the time was the Mayan city of Tikal in present-day Guatemala at about 150 km squared (an 1/8 the size). In addition, at its height, it could have supported about one million inhabitants, and showed advanced levels of understanding the concepts of population density control, a feat not matched until the agricultural revolution, almost a thousand years later.
If I did a detailed review of every temple in Angkor, I could take a month to finish this post. Instead, I will just give a brief introduction to each, and write a detailed post about each one later :).
1) Angkor Wat
Judging by the crowds, this is the most famous temple of them all. A huge moat surrounds Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world.
2) Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm is a fantastic temple with eerie looking trees growing around and through it. While not as big as Angkor Wat, it happens to be my favorite. The movie Tomb Raider was filmed in this temple.
3) Angkor Thom / Bayon
Angkor Thom was a city within a city, and the longest lasting capital of the great Khmer Empire. The ‘Bayon’ was the central temple, famous for its many faces around tall pillars. Because of this unique style, other temples with a similar architecture are said to be in the ‘Bayon style.’ Confusing, I know.
4) Preah Khan
The least restored temple in the immediate Angkor area is Preah Khan. When I first saw it, it was my least favorite as it was largely destroyed. Seeing past pictures and understanding the history has made me appreciate it more. It is a favorite among many as it is one of the least traveled temples in the Angkor area.
5) Banteay Srei
A fantastic temple that sadly, I didn’t know existed until recently. Much like most tourists, I too did not go above and beyond in my early traveling days and didn’t do research before arriving in Cambodia. This place is reason enough to return (maybe 2014), but for now, enjoy this fantastic video by the great travel blogger Nomadic Samuel.
1) Completeness / Preservation (11/15): Angkor was on UNESCO’s list of endangered sites for over a decade. Since then, the Cambodian government has done a fantastic job of preserving the ancient city and letting it keep its cool, old look. However, at over a thousand structures and temples, much of it is still rubble. It is unrealistic to expect a full restoration and what remains is extremely impressive.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (15/15): If this needs clarification, you clearly didn’t read the third paragraph.
3) Cultural Significance (25/25): Direct influence of the region and an example to the entire Afro-Eurasian landmass for centuries. Along with the Indian subcontinent, it was the only land that the Mongols were unable to conquer. If this doesn’t deserve 25, I can’t think of any site that does.
4) Personal Impact (15/15): One of a handful of places that I would jump at the opportunity to visit again.
5) Logistics (7.5/10): It seriously could not be easier or cheaper. Siem Reap has an international airport which is the busiest in all of Cambodia, including the capital of Phnom Penh. I arrived by bus from Phnom Penh which was extremely easy to set up, and very cheap (6 USD). The temples are only a few km away from Siem Reap, and dozens of tuk tuk drivers, car rentals, bike rentals, motorcycle rentals and so on are at your disposal at a tiny cost. My hotel was on the luxurious end, with a complementary massage and everything. At a whopping 12 USD a night, I thought I could afford to spoil myself a bit. The city of Angkor itself costs 20 USD for a 1 day pass, 40 USD for 3 days, and 60 USD for 7 days. A bit pricey (relative to everything else in Cambodia), but so worth it. While Cambodia has the Riel as its official currency, in practice, the US dollar is used as well.
6) Uniqueness (17.5/20): Sure, other temples exist in the world, but none like this. In addition, the UNESCO World Heritage nod doesn’t come just because it is a religious site. It is possibly one of the most important cities in the ancient world.
Combined Score: 91/100
Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.