Angkor Wat was rated #3 in things to do on TripAdvisor for 2015. Number three. It beat out the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, The Lincoln Memorial, and the Great Wall of China, if that offers any insight into how big of a deal this place is. So how come when I talk to people about my recent trip there they say, “Anchor what?”
“Angkor Wat,” I reply.
“Where is that? Russia?”
For such an impressive place, and despite many tourists catching on to its beauty, why is it so obscure compared to less impressive sights?
A lot of that, I believe, is due to the complex nature of Cambodia’s history. The 900-year-old, 12th century series of temples is the largest religious monument in the world, spanning 1,626,000 square meters. The main temple, Angkor Wat, was constructed initially as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire, and gradually evolved into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century.
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After the collapse of the Khmer Empire that built it, it became overrun by the jungle, requiring considerable restoration in the 20th century. It survived the wrath of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal Cambodian genocide, and a devastating civil war that sadly saw its stone Buddhas used as target practice. Include fungi overgrowth, earthquakes, and theft, and it’s a miracle the ruins are as well preserved as they are (although there has been an ongoing effort to restore it as well).
Although there were Western visitors before this time, the country’s unrest made it a difficult (if not unsuitable) place for tourists until recently – which could be why I get the occasional, “Anchor what?” instead of a nod of understanding.
It began receiving visitors in the 1990s, but it took a while for the beauty of the location to catch on. In 1993, about 7,650 people visited the site – in 2014, it received 2.35 million visitors.
Despite its growing popularity, it is still a place, I believe, that should be visited as soon as possible. We made our trip in June 2015, and we were amazed at how much of the site you were able to see and touch. There are no guards posted everywhere telling you to get down, or be safe, or move on, like you typically have at places like this. Instead, you are free to roam unrestricted through the national park of temples at your own pace. The park is so vast that you may require a car or tuk-tuk to take you from one temple to the next (unless you feel ambitious enough to walk).
However, because it is growing in popularity so quickly, there are some who are concerned that tourism will destroy the park – even when civil war, the jungle, and theft could not.
John Stubbs, who used to work for the World Monuments Fund and spent 15 years working at Angkor, said back in this 2007 interview with The Guardian that, “Tourism is already out of control, and unless the Cambodian government takes some pretty radical action to rein it in now much of Angkor’s magic and heritage could be lost forever.”
While Cambodia certainly has some steps to take to ensure Angkor Wat stays well-preserved despite its boom in popularity, it is a place that you must see to fully understand its beauty. And despite warnings about crowds, some days you just get lucky.
We woke up at 4 a.m. and made it to the park around 4:45 so we could watch the sunrise. Instead of going straight to Angkor Wat like most of our fellow tourists, we went to the Bayon temple (in the nearby ancient city of Angkor Thom), and had the entire place to ourselves. For nearly an hour, we explored the beautiful temple unrestricted before moving on, and continuing our tour of the park.
The Cambodian sun filtered through the pillars of the temples, highlighting perfectly the ruin of this lost civilization, the orange robes of Buddhist monks scattered across the landscape.
I’ve never been anywhere like it. There’s nowhere like it. My best advice is to go, and to go soon.