How to Get the Most Out of the Angkor Archaeological Sites
Hire a good qualified guide, do some pre-trip reading, get off the beaten track, and other tips from a Siem Reap based archaeologist on how to get the most out of your visits to the Angkor archaeological sites in Cambodia.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Angkor archaeological sites, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park are undeniably a highlight of visiting Siem Reap. So there are few things more disappointing to hear than a traveller complaining of being “templed-out” after just one day exploring the archaeological ruins.
We learnt many years ago visiting Mayan and Aztec ruins on our first overseas trip to Mexico that unless you do some reading, preparation and planning, as well-preserved and as prettily-decorated as the monuments are, the archaeological sites could be any big old stone building or pile of rubble. You need to make sense of them and imbue them with meaning.
Visit with a knowledgeable, professional guide who is passionate about archaeology and history and has the ability to bring the past to life and you’ll be more engaged. Go one step further and do your own preparatory reading and you’ll be even more absorbed.
But no matter how much research you’ve done and how well your guide enlivens your experience, other factors can work against you having a great time.
Go in the debilitating midday heat of March-April and it’s hard to enjoy anything much aside from a swim in a pool. Likewise, if your visit coincides with that of a tour bus or three, and it’s impossible to get up close to admire intricate carvings or take a photo without other people in the frame shooting their selfies.
So what can you do to get the most out of your visit to Angkor?
How to Get the Most Out of the Angkor Archaeological Sites
Once again, we went to our expert archaeologist, Dr Damian Evans, former director of the University of Sydney’s Robert Christie Research Centre and now with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient in Siem Reap, to get his advice on how people can get the most out of their visits to the Angkor archaeological sites.
Q. What is it that visitors should be getting excited about when they visit the Angkor archaeological sites?
A. Consider the scale of what was achieved here, using the relatively simple technologies at the disposal of the medieval Khmer civilizations – not just the size of the monuments, but look at the vast number of stone blocks that were brought in from quarries tens of kilometres away and the millions of cubic metres of earth, stone and water that were moved in order to create this grand vision of the cosmos rendered on earth.
To really appreciate it, I usually recommend people get up in the air above Angkor, and luckily there are a number of relatively inexpensive ways to do so.
Q. A must-do for most visitors is Angkor Wat, but what are the other not-to-be-missed Angkor archaeological sites and experiences?
A. I think the list of must-see archaeological temples is pretty well-established – there are three or four of them – and it’s possible to do them all in one long day if you have the energy… but not much else.
People should consider extending their stays, taking it easy, avoiding the crowds (which is easy enough to do if you’re an early-riser) and seeing things that are not big-ticket “must see” attractions.
Do things like walking along the walls of Angkor Thom, for instance, or participating in one of the community-based tour initiatives, such as the tour of Baray Reach Dak (see: the Natural Circuit of North Baray, Angkor Park tour), or taking a boat out on the West Baray.
Q. What’s the best time of year for exploring the Angkor archaeological sites?
A. I recommend avoiding the temples in the high season if it’s possible, unless you’re able to get out and about by 7am at the latest to beat the hordes. If you do wake up early then see a temple or two, spend the heat of the day poolside, and head out to see a couple more sites in the late afternoon.
I have no idea why there aren’t more visitors in the rainy season: everything is lush and green, the crowds are way down, it is relatively cool, and it normally only rains for an hour or two in the afternoon.
Q. For those who want to spend a few days at the temples, what’s your advice for making the most of that time?
A. Find out what the big tour companies almost always do – sunrise at Angkor Wat, sunset at Phnom Bakheng, etc – and then use local knowledge or online resources to do exactly the opposite, or find a tour company that specializes in thinking outside of the box. To take just one example, if you go to the Bayon at about 4.30pm, you will have the magnificent bas-reliefs pretty much all to yourself.
Q. And for those who want to stay longer and get off the beaten track and experience some remote or lesser-visited Angkor archaeological sites, what do you recommend?
A. Given the remarkable improvement in the roads all across northern Cambodia in the last few years, I’m surprised that more people don’t take day trips to places like Koh Ker, Banteay Chhmar and Preah Khan of Kompong Svay.
Beng Mealea is gaining in popularity these days, but I think most people are not aware that some other formerly remote temple sites are now accessible by good roads on a 2-3 hour journey from Siem Reap, and that visiting them can be hugely rewarding. Some of the more enterprising tour agencies can organize local homestays or camping out near the temples, which can be a great experience.
Q. For visitors with an interest in art and architecture, what should they not miss?
A. If people don’t have the opportunity to see the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh then the much-maligned Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is actually worth a visit to provide a bit of background and context and see some of the highlights of Khmer art.
For architecture visit Banteay Samre, Koh Ker, and the lesser-visited face-towers on the gates of Angkor Thom (East, West) and Ta Prohm (North), and for art, the Roluos group, Banteay Srei, and the bas-reliefs of the Bayon.
Q. Do you think a pre-site visit trip to the museum enhance the experience of the temples?
A. I think a visit to the National Museum in Phnom Penh provides very valuable context to the temples, yes. If people don’t have the opportunity to visit the museum in the capital then there are several museums around the Siem Reap area, including the Angkor ‘National’ Museum. I would recommend doing the museum visit before heading out to the temples, to provide some background.
Q. Do archaeologists have good imaginations? When you look at a temple do you visualise it as it might have been centuries ago? Do you see elephants hauling massive stones from Kulen, see a King arriving shaded by parasols, or smell the aromas from a market?
A. Sure, archaeologists have good imaginations, but are generally a pretty cautious bunch when it comes to committing to certain accounts of the way that things were done. This is because of the inherent uncertainty involved.
Over the course of a few years however a bunch of art historians, archaeologists and other specialists have collaborated on things like a new guidebook that presents some ideas about how the temples might have looked in their heyday, as well as a bunch of visualisations and animations that attempt to do the same.
It’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a lot that we still don’t know and that these visions of Angkor are not definitive, but represent a fair attempt at imagining what the temples would have looked like based on the best and latest scholarly data.
Q. For visitors who don’t have an archaeologist’s imagination and a vast knowledge of the past, what are your tips for getting the most out of a visit to an archaeological site?
A. If people are very keen to gain an in-depth understanding of the temples, then a good, properly licensed Khmer tour guide from a reputable agency is essential. It’s worth noting though that this is just one of the approaches to visiting the site.
An equally rewarding way of visiting the monuments is just to wander around by yourself with no fixed itinerary or running commentary, and just sort of soaking in and appreciating the grandeur and majesty of the place, while letting your imagination and sense of wonder run with it. Or, ideally, combine both approaches.
Q. Essential pre-trip reading that you suggest people do?
A. By far the best in-depth textual guide to the finer details of the temples is Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook by Michel Petrotchenko. It is superb. If you want a more visual reference with a more general ‘big picture’ approach then The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Guide to the Temples compiled by Andrew Booth is unique and indispensable.
Beyond the temples, Michael Coe’s Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation is a worthy introduction to the civilisation of Angkor, and David Chandler’s History of Cambodia is an accessible but scholarly overview of the broader contours of Khmer history from the earliest times up until the present day.
Q. Do you think Angkor Wat at sunrise is a must-do? If not, where else do you suggest people savour the sunrise or sunset?
A. Each to their own, but I personally don’t see the attraction. A good start would be to look at the places that provide great vantage points for sunset, and try experiencing sunrise at the same places.
Q. Any advice for visitors as far as conduct and behaviour at the temples goes?
A. I would suggest that the set of outdoors ethics about “leaving no trace” is equally applicable to the temples of Angkor. The careless attitude of many foreigners towards the temples and towards the customs and beliefs of the local people to whom these are living, sacred monuments is pretty alarming for me not only as an archaeologist but also on a personal level.
This includes people touching and rubbing the reliefs and inscriptions, sitting on or climbing over carvings, flying radio-controlled toys over fragile temples without permission, scraping the artwork with backpacks, throwing rubbish around, shoving and shouting, and dressing inappropriately – or not at all!
The local authorities are faced with an essentially impossible task to prevent or police this kind of behaviour over such a vast World Heritage site, so it really falls to the visitor to educate themselves about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and to make sure that what they leave behind is a positive impression among their Cambodian hosts who are allowing overseas guests to wander through their immensely important cultural heritage sites.
Q. Best place for lunch at the temples?
A. Lots of good places along the north bank of the Sras Srang. Most of them owned locally by people from Sras Srang village and serving good Khmer fare.
Q. Any final secret archaeologist tips for surviving a full day at the temples in the heat of March-April?
A. Early starts, late evenings, long siesta.
Hoping those tips help you to get the most out of your visits to the Angkor archaeological sites. If you have other ideas, we’d love to hear them in the comments below.
Read part one here: An Archaeologist’s Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park (and what makes it special).
Pictured above, the pyramid temple of Bakong, part of the Roluos Group, and one of our favourites.
You can find Damian Evans on Twitter at @archaeoangkor