Cambodia's famous Angkor temples are under pressure from mass tourism - but with a little care it's possible to enjoy them in a positive fashion
There were so many camera flashes as the vermillion sunrise silhouetted Angkor Wat, I felt like an A-list celebrity attending the Oscars. King Suryavaram II would probably be delighted that nine centuries on, crowds were still wowed by his creation. But he’d be dismayed to read recent reports suggesting the UNESCO-listed ruins are being damaged, as tourist numbers are predicted to rise to over 3,000,000 visitors annually by 2010. However, there are ways to beat the crowds and enjoy Angkor Wat in a more sustainable fashion.
Angkor is not one single Buddhist temple but a complex of hundreds of temples spread over 400 square kilometres. Most were built during a glorious era of Cambodian Khmer rule between 877-1295 AD. Entry is via a ticket barrier located south of Angkor Wat, close by Siem Reap city where virtually everybody stays. The choice is one-day, two-day, three-day or weekly passes. I thought the three-day pass ($40) was just about right. It's scarcely possible to scratch the surface in a day, yet a week is likely to ‘temple out’ even the most ardent enthusiast of Khmer architecture.
Visiting the 12th-century Angkor Wat was my top priority. Sunrise highlights its world famous outlines of prasat towers and walkways of naga multi-headed serpents. When it was hotter in the day, I returned to its shady courtyards to admire the Hindu-inspired bas-reliefs of dancing celestial nymphs and mighty battle scenes. Elsewhere, I’d wholly recommend the magnificent Angkor Thom complex, with its wonderful stone heads reminiscent of Easter Island and its 350m-long Elephants Terrace. Fabulous Ta Phrom temple is still tangled in jungle, giant buttress roots lifting up carved stone lintels and creeping between bodhisattvas. And if I could only make one journey further afield, the intricate carved beauty of the 10th-century Banteay Srei temple is as good as Cambodia offers.
For several reasons, I opted to pedal around Angkor’s temples by bicycle. And I loved every minute of it. It’s very easy to book a coach or minibus tour in Siem Reap but they seemed to squash all the adventure and spontaneity out of Angkor Wat. I’d watch visitors being shovelled in and out of the coaches and then march listlessly around the various temples before departing for the next one. By bicycle, hired from my local guesthouse for £2 per day, I was able to pick and choose my itinerary; stopping when I felt fatigued or wanted to explore.
The other real benefit is your visit will be pollution-free. There is genuine concern that traffic emissions are damaging the temples, particularly as coaches sit with engines running to maintain a chilly air-con that never allows your body to adapt to the humidity outside.
Heat and humidity is always high. Ideally, November to April is a better time to travel, although temperatures still nudge 25°-35˚C. So if you’re not up to cycling in these temperatures, yet want some measure of freedom, hire a moto (motorcycle with driver) or tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) for the day. Most guesthouses in Siem Reap recommend favoured drivers but always negotiate a daily price and route.
After the obligatory awe-inspiring sunrise at Angkor Wat, I followed a recommended circular temple route. By setting off early and pedalling in the relative cool, I was able to get a head start on the coach parties and enjoy the remoter temples in relative emptiness. Ta Prohm, for instance, is hugely popular because of its Tomb Raider fame; here, a typically unanimated Angelina Jolie played the animation Lara Croft. The way the trees and surrounding jungle grip the sublime, fallen temples is a reminder of just how Angkor looked when Frenchman Henri Mouhot ‘discovered’ the temples in 1860.
I’d also advise visiting the popular temples around lunchtime, because they virtually empty then. Every day around noon, the ridiculous fiasco occurs of coaches turning around and driving clients all the way back to Siem Reap for lunch. There are lots of local restaurants set up opposite the more important temples frustrated at this loss of trade. So I’d thoroughly recommend eating and resting up at these little establishments. Sure the food isn’t cordon bleu - fried rice, noodle soups or grilled fish - but eating there helps put something back into local people’s pockets.
There are other ways to ensure your money really benefits local people. Various local NGOs support small-scale ecotourism projects. The Singing Tree Café offers a lovely garden setting for dining in downtown Siem Reap and promotes fair trade goods and organic foods, with links to local craft projects and nature conservation reserves.
My final decision each day was where to watch sunset? Tragically, encouraged by guidebooks, the whole world and its dog migrates to the 9th-century hilltop temple of Bakheng. Thousands of tourists clamber all over King Yasovarman I’s fragile temple looking for somewhere to sit. The temple is being slowly destroyed: the front staircase already undermined and closed off. Visit this beautiful temple during daytime, when the hordes depart, but stay away for sunset.
Instead, I’d simply recommend sitting by Angkor Wat’s outer moat watching orange-robed monks and visitors filter out and the daytime heat gradually diffusing from the great temple as dusk falls.
Thai Airways fly from London to Bangkok and then on to Phnom Penh. Bangkok Airways fly to Siem Reap from Bangkok.
Where to stay
Palm Garden Lodge: clean budget option with rooms from £10 per night.
Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor: stunning offering for bigger budgets.