Angkor Wat

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The perennial danger with all world famous icons like Angkor Wat is that they may fail to live up to all its hype. Fortunately there's no worry with Angkor Wat, it easily matched my expectations & even exceeded them.

You really do need a guide to effectively explore the sprawling jungle complex. Every tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap offers a tour of Angkor Wat but you often get a garbled & incoherant account so its best to have a professional guide like the one I booked with Travel Indochina. They picked me up & returned me to my hotel, there were just 5 of us in the group, tickets were included, so no queuing, the guide was cleverly able to get us away from the big crowds & he took us to a decent place for lunch.

At its height the city of Angkor Thom was the Khmer Empire capital but they ruled over most of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam as well as Cambodia. Chinese & Indian traders originally brought Buddhism, Hinduism, writing & science to the region so the Khmer culture developed along the lines of an Indianised princedom. Both religions appear in the temples at different periods under different rulers.

Today the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Archaeological Park is located within a 400 square kilometer national park & has 40 temples – Angkor Wat is just the most famous temple.

Its still a jungle location but trees & roots have been cleared from most temples because of the damage they do. But there's still a jungle ambience with swarms with butterflys, dragonflys, the constant squawk of parrots, troops of baboons & there are even elephants that ferry people on the traditional routes between different temple gates. The Tx Prohn temple has been left with the classic strangler figs which seem to crawl all over the buildings, so its the most atmospheric of all the sites, when its not too busy.

Most of the building were constructed between the 9th & 12th centuries & in its hayday the city of Angkor Thom had twice the population of London. After almost 500 years as the dominant culture in the region it began to decline as the Siamese (Thailand) grew in strength & influence.

It really is one of the most amazing places I've ever visited & personally I rate it as the most impressive historical monument in the world, although monument is a totally inadequate word. The vast Angkor site contains the remnants of an Empire, utterly unique architecture & was probably the greatest culture of its day.

Over 2 million people visit Angkor every year so to avoid the crowds some good tips are – get a good guide, visit towards the end of the low/rainy season (October) or try to arrange a 6 am dawn arrival.

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