ANGKOR (near Siem Reap, 145 miles from Phnom Penh) was the capital of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist civilization that encompassed all of present-day Cambodia, and much of Southeast Asia. Situated on a flat plain in northwestern Cambodia, it was one of the largest cities in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries. "Angkor" means "capital" in Khmer. It is derived from nagara , a Sanskrit word that originally referred to a particular time and place in Angkor history.

There are 292 temples in the Angkor complex, a fifth of those surviving in Cambodia from the Khmer civilization. Among these are 72 major temples and monuments, and 220 minor ones, of which 30 have been cleared from the jungle and can be visited. By one count the entire complex contains 700 large and small temples and shrines. Constructed from brick and hand-carved sandstone, the temples are scattered over a central 30-square-mile urban area (twice the size of Manhattan) and a 155-square-mile metropolitan area.

Angkor Wat is one temple within Angkor. Other major temples that are open to visitors include Bayon, Angor Thom and Ta Prohm. Some of the temples still covered by jungle have only recently been discovered with the help of photographs taken from space. Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “From the air, the centuries-old temple appears and vanishes like a hallucination. At first it is no more than an umber smudge in the forest canopy of northern Cambodia. Beneath us sprawls the lost city of Angkor, now in ruins and populated mostly by peasant rice farmers. Clusters of Khmer homes, perched on spindly stilts to cope with flooding during the summer monsoon, dot the landscape from the Tonle Sap, the "great lake" of Southeast Asia, some 20 miles to the south, to the Kulen Hills, a ridge jutting from the floodplain a roughly equal distance to the north. More than a thousand shrines the Khmer erected in the city of Angkor during a building spree whose scale and ambition rivals the pyramids of Egypt. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

Many of the temples that have been restored are still used as temples by local people who pray, chant in murmuring voices, leave offerings and light incense and candles in their sanctuaries. There are also some small hamlets scattered among the ruins occupied by people who work in some way at Angkor. The forests and jungle that surround the temples seem to be particularly alive at night when they resound with choruses of frogs, crickets and cicadas.

Angkor is huge and has many buildings and ruins scattered among the jungle. It is sort of like what Washington D.C. would be like if it were abandoned and overgrown and rediscovered in a Planet of the Apes film. Some of the buildings are well preserved. One reason for this is that Angkor wasn’t abandoned all that long ago, the 15th century, and continued to some degree after that. The ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Mayan ruins were abandoned much longer ago than that.

At its peak Angkor was among the world’s most populated cities, with 750,000 residents. It sprawled across an area the size of New York City's five boroughs, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. In 1431 it was abandoned to Buddhist monks after a final sacking by Siamese invaders. In the 1990s temples of Angkor were rediscovered after a quarter-century of closure by war and Khmer Rouge rule. They now draw more than a million foreign visitors a year. During the peak hours of the peak, according to the Washington Post, human traffic jams can form at temple steps once reserved for kings and priests.

UNESCO Description of Angkor: Angkor, in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, is one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. It extends over approximately 400 square kilometers and consists of scores of temples, hydraulic structures (basins, dykes, reservoirs, canals) as well as communication routes. For several centuries Angkor, was the center of the Khmer Kingdom. With impressive monuments, several different ancient urban plans and large water reservoirs, the site is a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilization. Temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, exemplars of Khmer architecture, are closely linked to their geographical context as well as being imbued with symbolic significance. The architecture and layout of the successive capitals bear witness to a high level of social order and ranking within the Khmer Empire. Angkor is therefore a major site exemplifying cultural, religious and symbolic values, as well as containing high architectural, archaeological and artistic significance.[Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The park is inhabited, and many villages, some of whom the ancestors are dating back to the Angkor period are scattered throughout the park. The population practices agriculture and more specifically rice cultivation. The Angkor complex encompasses all major architectural buildings and hydrological engineering systems from the Khmer period and most of these “barays” and canals still exist today. All the individual aspects illustrate the intactness of the site very much reflecting the splendor of the cities that once were. The site integrity however, is put under dual pressures: 1) endogenous: exerted by more than 100,000 inhabitants distributed over 112 historic settlements scattered over the site, who constantly try to expand their dwelling areas; 2) exogenous: related to the proximity of the town of Siem Reap, the seat of the province and a tourism hub.

Angkor contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The influence of Khmer art, as developed at Angkor, was a profound one over much of South-East Asia and played a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian subcontinent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighbouring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture.

The criteria used in the selection of Angkor as an UNESCO World Heritage Site: 1) The Angkor complex represents the entire range of Khmer art from the 9th to the 14th centuries, and includes a number of indisputable artistic masterpieces (e.g. Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Banteay Srei). 2) The influence of Khmer art as developed at Angkor was a profound one over much of South-east Asia and played a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. 3) The Khmer Empire of the 9th-14th centuries encompassed much of South-east Asia and played a formative role in the political and cultural development of the region. All that remains of that civilization is its rich heritage of cult structures in brick and stone. 4) Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian sub-continent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighboring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture.

Websites and Media: 1) Media: Angkor (UNESCO/NHK); NHK World Heritage 100 Series [Windows Media required]. 2) Activities: World Heritage Earthen Architecture Programme (WHEAP); Conservation and Restoration of the Royal Plaza, the Bayon and Angkor Wat. 3) Links: whtour : visit this site in panophotographies - immersive and interactive spherical images; ourplace View photos from OUR PLACE the World Heritage collection.


Short History of Angkor: The earliest evidence of human habitation in the Angkor area has been dated at 5000 B.C. and was in the form of artifacts and remains from pre-Bronze-Age hunter-gatherers. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Angkor-based Khmer empire was the most powerful kingdom in Southeast Asia. At its height in the 12th century, when Europe was still wallowing in the Dark Ages, Angkor was a thriving city with possibly a million inhabitants. By comparison Paris, the largest city in Europe, was home to maybe 30,000 people. Angkor Wat was established under Yasovarman I (reigned 889-900) and expanded and mostly built up as you see today under Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-1150).

Many temples visited by tourists were built under Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1219, and often referred to by tourist guides as J7). He drove the Khmers rivals, the Chams, from Angkor, converted the Khmer empire to Buddhism and raised many monuments. The buildings built before him are primarily Hindu in nature, Those built during his reign and afterwards have more Buddhist influences. Many Hindu buildings were given a Buddhist going over. after the conversions of the Khmers to Buddhism. Beginning in the 13th century, Angkor went into a period of decline as a result of a series of Siamese invasions from present-day Thailand. In 1432, the city was sacked by the Siamese and then largely abandoned when the Khmers established a new capital in Phnom Penh.

Longer History of Angkor: At the beginning of the 9th century AD the two states that covered the territory of modern Cambodia were united by Jayavarman II. who laid the foundations of the Khmer Empire, which was the major power in south-east Asia for nearly five centuries. One of the sites where his court resided for some years was in central Cambodia, to the north of Tonle Sap (The Great Lake), where half a century later Jayavarman's son, Yashovarman, was to establish Yashodapura, the permanent capital of the Khmer Empire until the 15th century. It was later given the name Angkor (from the Sanskrit "nagara", meaning city or capital). [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The first capital was at latter-day Roluos, itself a pre-Angkorian capital, Hariharalaya. This conformed with the classic form of Khmer capital. This comprised certain fundamental elements: a defensive bank and ditch with a state temple at its center built in brick or stone, and a wooden palace. Leading dignitaries would also build temples, both inside and outside the enceinte, which were dedicated, like the state temple, to Hindu divinities, notably Shiva. There would also have been many secular buildings, constructed almost entirely of wood, in and around the enceinte. The state temple at Roluos, the Bakong, and the temple built in memory of the royal ancestors, Preah Ko, were erected around 880. Another essential feature of a Khmer capital, a large reservoir, was added a decade later, with in its center a third temple. Lolei.

Yashodapura (Angkor Wat) was built to the north-west of Roluos, around the hill of Phnom Bakeng. The enclosure was square, each side measuring 4 kilometers , and it was equipped with a vast reservoir (baray) measuring 7 kilometers by 1.8 kilometers, now known as the Eastern Baray. The state temple was built at the summit of Phnom Bakeng around 900. Following a short period when the Khmer capital was transferred to Koh Ker, some 60 kilometers north-east of Angkor, the second capital at Angkor proper was built by Rajendravarman in the 960s. the state temple being situated at Pre Rup. He alsoconstructed a temple, the Eastern Mebon, on an artificial island in the center of the Eastern Baray. During his reign Rajendravarman's guru built the exquisite temple of Banteay Srei, some 25 kilometers north-east of Angkor.

Rajendravarman's son. Jayavarman V, abandoned the Pre Rup site in favour of a new location. with its state temple at Ta Kev. which was consecrated around 1000. Shortly afterwards he was overthrown by Suryavarman I, who was responsible for the formidable fortifications around his Royal Palace and state temple, the Phimeanakas, and also for the construction of the great Western Baray, extending over an area of 8x2.5 kilometers. In 1050 his successor created a new and more impressive state temple, the Baphuon, to the north of the temple.

The succeeding rulers left little traces in the form of monumental buildings, and it was not until the accession of Suryavarman II in 1113 that the next great phase of building began. It was he who was responsible for the greatest of all Khmer monuments, Angkor Vat, set within an extensive enclosure and dedicated to Vishnu. Among other important monuments dating from this period are Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda.

The death of Suryavarman II around 1150 was followed by a period of internal strife and external pressure, culminating in 1177 with the sack of Angkor by the Chams. The situation was restored by Jayavarman VII, who celebrated his military success by creating yet another capital at Angkor Thorn and launching an unprecedented building campaign. His state temple was the towering Bayon (dedicated to Buddha): among the many other monuments of Jayavarman VII's reign are Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Ta Som, and Banteay Prei. Such was the grandeur of this capital that none of Jayavarman VII's successors saw fit to replace it. Nor were there any major monumental additions between his death around 1200 and the end of the Khmer Empire in the first half of the 15th century.


Surrounding the temples at Angkor is a sophisticated waterworks system, that still functions to some degree today, consisting of numerous canals, dams and rectangular reservoirs called barays . In a monsoon climate, where the rainy season sometimes brings too much water and the dry season doesn't bring any at all, control over water is the key to wealth and even survival.

The waterworks system was very advanced The canals and reservoirs directed and collected wet season runoff water to prevent flooding; stored the water during the dry season; and channeled it into an irrigation system capable of producing two or three crops a year. Canals were used to haul stones used in the construction of temples. The two largest reservoirs held over two billion gallons of water. To build and maintain such water system required central planning and lots of physical labor mobilized through the power of a god king.

The major temples were surrounded by huge moats. Some scholars believe that some of the moats served as reflecting pools to amplify the beauty of the temples. Others say they were primarily symbols of the cosmos. Water in the moats symbolically separated the outer world from the sacred precincts of the temples inside them. Recent surveys indicate the water may have been more decorative and symbolic that practical. It seems that relatively few canals ran out of the moats, implying that there were involved less in irrigation than previously thought.

Rice surpluses produced by irrigation and floating rice freed labor to devote its attention to art and religion and made it possible for the Khmers to build a large standing army and support an opulent culture with court ministers, priests, bureaucrats, and artisans. But the intensive labor required to maintain both the agricultural and irrigation systems also demanded much from the empire’s work force, and may have proved intolerable over time and led to the Khmer civilization’s collapse.

In his book "Challenging the Mystery of the Angkor Empire: Realizing the Mission of Sophia University in the Asian World, Yoshiaki Ishizawa, former president of Sophia University, says he has answered some longstanding questions about the Angkor civilization. Ishizawa, who has studied and worked to preserve Angkor monuments for more than 50 years, found that temples and roads related to the Angkor Empire had spread over the Indochinese Peninsula by reading inscriptions written in Sanskrit and old Khmer, which were discovered in the Angkor monuments. He concluded this huge network of trade and logistics must have supported and nurtured the once-great civilization. According to Ishizawa, the empire's throne was traditionally seized by force, not inherited through bloodline succession. Ishizawa explained the discarded statues were evidence of political conflicts in which a king displayed his new power, and that the empire continued to flourish until its fall. Hiromi Kanekita, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 26, 2012]


Another significant element of the Angkor complex is the irrigation system of the region based on the great reservoirs, which provided the economic infrastructure for the successive Khmer capitals and their rulers. Spillways from sloping dams used in the system may extended as long as a football field. Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “By harnessing the monsoon tide that gushed from the Kulen Hills, Angkor and its rulers flourished. From the era of Jayavarman II, who laid the kingdom's foundations in the early 800s, the empire's growth depended on bumper rice harvests. Throughout southern Asia, perhaps only the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and their famed reservoirs could compare to Angkor's ability to guarantee a steady water supply. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

“That reliability required massive feats of engineering, including a reservoir called the West Baray that's five miles long and 1.5 miles wide. To build this third and most sophisticated of Angkor's large reservoirs a thousand years ago, as many as 200,000 Khmer workers may have been needed to pile up nearly 16 million cubic yards of soil in embankments 300 feet wide and three stories tall. To this day the rectangular reservoir, or baray, is fed by water diverted from the Siem Reap River.

“The first scholar to appreciate the scale of Angkor's waterworks was Bernard-Philippe Groslier, an archaeologist with the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO). In a landmark 1979 treatise, he envisioned Angkor as a "hydraulic city." The great barays, he argued, served two purposes: to symbolize the primeval sea of Hindu cosmogony and to irrigate rice fields. Unfortunately, Groslier could not pursue this concept further. Cambodia's civil war, the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the ouster of the regime by Vietnamese forces in 1979 turned Angkor into a no-go zone for two decades. After Vietnamese troops withdrew, looters descended on Angkor, swiping statues and even chiseling off bas-reliefs.

“When Christophe Pottier, an architect and archaeologist, reopened EFEO's research station at Angkor in 1992, the first priority was helping Cambodia restore dilapidated and pillaged temples. But Pottier was drawn to the wilderness beyond the temple walls. He spent months crisscrossing the southern half of Greater Angkor on motorbike and foot, mapping once hidden house mounds and shrines near artificial ponds called water tanks. (Lingering lawlessness deterred Pottier from surveying the northern half.) Then, in 2000, Fletcher and his colleague Damian Evans laid hands on NASA radar images of Angkor. They were a revelation: The University of Sydney team, working with EFEO and APSARA, the Cambodian agency that manages Angkor, found vestiges of many more settlements, canals, and water tanks, particularly in Angkor's inaccessible areas. Donald Cooney's ultralight flights have helped Fletcher and Pottier, now a co-director of the Greater Angkor Project, examine these features in finer detail. Crucially, they found inlets and outlets to the barays, ending a debate catalyzed by Groslier's work about whether the colossal reservoirs were used solely for religious rituals or for irrigation. The clear answer is both.

“The researchers were amazed by the ambition of Angkor's engineers. "We realized that the entire landscape of Greater Angkor is artificial," Fletcher says. Over several centuries, teams of laborers constructed hundreds of miles of canals and dikes that relied on subtle differences in the land's natural inclination to divert water from the Puok, Roluos, and Siem Reap Rivers to the barays. During the summer monsoon months, overflow channels bled off excess water. After the rains petered out in October or November, irrigation channels dispensed stored water. The barays may also have helped replenish soil moisture by allowing water to soak into the earth. In surrounding fields surface evaporation would have drawn up the groundwater to supply crops. "It was an incredibly clever system," says Fletcher.

“That clever water system may have made the difference between mediocrity and greatness. Much of the kingdom's rice was grown in embanked fields that would otherwise have relied on monsoon rains or the seasonal ebb and flow of water on the Tonle Sap floodplain. Irrigation would have boosted harvests. The system could also have provided survival rations during a poor monsoon season, says Fletcher. And the ability to divert and impound water would have afforded a measure of protection from floods. When other kingdoms in Southeast Asia were struggling to cope with too little or too much water, he says, Angkor's waterworks would have been "a profoundly valuable strategic asset."


Life in Angkor: Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “An intriguing firsthand account brings the city to life at its zenith. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat, spent nearly a year in the capital at the end of the 13th century. He lived modestly as a guest of a middle-class family who ate rice using coconut-husk spoons and drank wine made from honey, leaves, or rice. He described a gruesome practice, abandoned not long before his visit, that involved collecting human gall from living donors as a tonic for courage. Religious festivals featured fireworks and boar fighting. The greatest spectacles occurred when the king ventured out among his subjects. Royal processions included elephants and horses decorated with gold, and hundreds of palace women bedecked in flowers. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

Angkor Bas-Reliefs: Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “Angkor's daily rhythms also come to life in sculptures that have survived centuries of decay and, more recently, war. Bas-reliefs on temple facades depict everyday scenes—two men hunched over a board game, for instance, and a woman giving birth under a shaded pavilion—and pay homage to the spiritual world inhabited by creatures such as apsaras, alluring celestial dancers who served as messengers between humans and the gods. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

The bas-reliefs also reveal trouble in paradise. Interspersed with visions of earthly harmony and sublime enlightenment are scenes of war. In one bas-relief, spear-bearing warriors from the neighboring kingdom of Champa are packed stem to stern in a boat crossing the Tonle Sap. The scene is immortalized in stone, of course, because the Khmer were successful in battle.


Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. By the late 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came upon the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat—the most elaborate of the city's temples and the world's largest religious monument—the once resplendent capital of the empire was in its death throes. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

“Scholars have come up with a long list of suspected causes, including rapacious invaders, a religious change of heart, and a shift to maritime trade that condemned an inland city. It's mostly guesswork: Roughly 1,300 inscriptions survive on temple doorjambs and freestanding stelae, but the people of Angkor left not a single word explaining their kingdom's collapse.” French researchers long maintained the Angkor empire perished due to fatigue from continuous constructions of temples.

“Recent excavations, not of the temples but of the infrastructure that made the vast city possible, are converging on a new answer. Angkor, it appears, was doomed by the very ingenuity that transformed a collection of minor fiefdoms into an empire. The civilization learned how to tame Southeast Asia's seasonal deluges, then faded as its control of water, the most vital of resources, slipped away.

“Bas-reliefs also reveal trouble in paradise. Interspersed with visions of earthly harmony and sublime enlightenment are scenes of war. In one bas-relief, spear-bearing warriors from the neighboring kingdom of Champa are packed stem to stern in a boat crossing the Tonle Sap. The scene is immortalized in stone, of course, because the Khmer were successful in battle. Although Angkor won that clash, the city was riven by rivalry, which heightened its vulnerability to attacks from Champa to the east and the formidable kingdom of Ayutthaya to the west. Khmer kings had several wives, which blurred the line of succession and resulted in constant intrigue as princes vied for power. "For centuries, it was like the Wars of the Roses. The Khmer state was often unstable," says Roland Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney and co-director of a research effort called the Greater Angkor Project.

“Some scholars believe that Angkor died the way it lived: by the sword. The annals of Ayutthaya state that warriors from that kingdom "took" Angkor in 1431. No doubt the prosperous Khmer city would have been a rich prize: Inscriptions boast that its temple towers were clad in gold, as Zhou's breathless account confirms. To reconcile tales of Angkor's wealth with the dilapidated ruins encountered by Western travelers, French historians a century ago concluded from the tantalizing allusion that Ayutthaya sacked Angkor.

“Fletcher, who says his obsession is to "figure out what makes settlements grow and die," is dubious. Some early scholars, he says, viewed Angkor through the lens of the sieges and conquests of European history. "The ruler of Ayutthaya, indeed, says he took Angkor, and he may have taken some formal regalia back to Ayutthaya with him," says Fletcher. But after Angkor was captured, Ayutthaya's ruler installed his son on the throne. "He's not likely to have smashed the place up before giving it to his son."

“Court intrigue may not have perturbed most of Angkor's subjects, but religion was central to daily life. Angkor was what anthropologists call a regal-ritual city. Its kings claimed to be the world emperors of Hindu lore and erected temples to themselves. But as Theravada Buddhism gradually eclipsed Hinduism in the 13th and 14th centuries, its tenet of social equality may have threatened Angkor's elite. "It was very subversive, just like Christianity was subversive to the Roman Empire," says Fletcher. "It would have been exceedingly difficult to stop."

“Such a religious shift would have eroded royal authority. The regal-ritual city operated on a moneyless economy, relying on tribute and taxation. The kingdom's de facto currency was rice, staple of the conscripted laborers who built the temples and the cast of thousands who ran them. An inscription at one complex, Ta Prohm, notes that 12,640 people serviced that temple alone. The inscription also records that more than 66,000 farmers produced nearly 3,000 tons of rice a year to feed this multitude of priests, dancers, and temple workers. Add just three large temples to the equation—Preah Khan and the larger complexes of Angkor Wat and the Bayon—and the calculated farm labor required swells to 300,000. That's nearly half of the estimated population of Greater Angkor. A new, egalitarian religion such as Theravada Buddhism might have led to rebellion.

“Or maybe the royal court simply turned its back on Angkor. Successive rulers had a habit of erecting new temple complexes and letting older ones decay, and that penchant for starting anew might have doomed the city when sea trade began to flourish between Southeast Asia and China. Maybe it was simple economic opportunism that, by the 16th century, had caused the Khmer center of power to shift to a location closer to the Mekong River, near Cambodia's present-day capital, Phnom Penh, affording it easier access to the South China Sea.

“Economic and religious turmoil may have hastened Angkor's downfall, but its rulers were blindsided by another foe. Angkor became a medieval powerhouse thanks to a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs that enabled the city to hoard scarce water in dry months and disperse excess water during the rainy season. Forces beyond Angkor's control threw this exquisitely tuned machine into disarray.”

Water and Climate and Angkor’s Decline and Fall: Dougald O'Reilly, deputy director of the Greater Angkor Project, a team of researchers at Australia's University of Sydney who in recent years have discovered how vast ancient Angkor was by studying images taken by NASA satellites and an ultralight plane, believes that the city's 15th century collapse occurred largely because people neglected their environment, cutting down too many trees to expand rice paddies, causing waterways to fill with silt.

Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “Fletcher was baffled when his team unearthed one of the more extraordinary pieces of Angkorian workmanship—a vast structure in the waterworks—and found that it had been demolished, apparently by Angkor's own engineers. Around the end of the ninth century, with Angkor blossoming, engineers excavated a long canal that altered the course of the Siem Reap River, redirecting it southward to the newly constructed East Baray, a reservoir nearly as big as the later West Baray. The dam, positioned in the river, diverted water to feed the canal. But part of the massive structure may also have functioned as a spillway during monsoon surges, when water would have overtopped the low structure and flowed down the former river channel. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

“The ruins of the spillway are a vital clue to an epic struggle that unfolded as generations of Khmer engineers coped with a water system that grew ever more complex and unruly. "They probably spent vast portions of their lives fixing it," says Fletcher. Some of the dam's blocks lie in a jumble; huge sections of masonry are missing. "The most logical explanation is that the dam failed," Fletcher says. The river may have chewed into the dam, gradually weakening it. Perhaps it was washed away by an unusually heavy flood, the kind that comes along every century or even every 500 years. The Khmer then ripped apart much of the remaining stonework, salvaging the blocks for other purposes.

“Another clue that the water system was failing comes from a pond at the West Mebon, an island temple in the middle of the West Baray. Pollen grains preserved in the muck show that lotuses and other aquatic plants flourished in the baray until the early 13th century. Then new kinds of pollen appear, from species such as ferns that prefer marsh or dry land. Right at Angkor's zenith, one of its reservoirs apparently went dry for a time. "Something was going wrong much earlier than we expected," says Daniel Penny, a pollen expert and a co-director of the Greater Angkor Project.

“Any deterioration of the waterworks would have left Angkor vulnerable to a natural phenomenon no engineer of that day could have anticipated. Starting in the 1300s, Europe endured a few centuries of unpredictable weather marked by harsh winters and chilly summers. Until recently there was only sketchy information on how other parts of the world fared during this period, called the Little Ice Age. Now it appears that Southeast Asia, too, experienced climatic upheaval.

“Around Angkor, the summer monsoon season lasts from roughly May through October and delivers nearly 90 percent of the region's yearly precipitation. A dependable monsoon is critical for all manner of life, including people. To unmask monsoon patterns of long ago, Brendan Buckley of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, ventured into the forests of Southeast Asia in search of trees with annual growth rings. He and his team knew it would not be easy: Most species in the region lack distinguishable growth rings or have ones that aren't laid down year by year. Several forays paid off with a clutch of long-lived species, including teak and po mu, a rare cypress. Some po mu trees they cataloged are nine centuries old, survivors of both Angkor's heyday and its demise.

“The po mu trees told a stunning story. Sets of constricted growth rings showed that the trees had endured back-to-back mega-droughts, from 1362 to 1392 and from 1415 to 1440. During these periods the monsoon was weak or delayed, and in some years it may have failed completely. In other years, megamonsoons lashed the region.

“To a tottering kingdom, extreme weather could have been the coup de grâce. Decades earlier, Angkor's waterworks were already ailing, to judge from the idled West Baray. "We don't know why the water system was operating below capacity—it's a conundrum," says Penny. "But what it means is that Angkor really had no fat to burn. The city was more exposed to the threat of drought than at any other time in its history." Prolonged and severe droughts, punctuated by torrential downpours, "would have ruined the water system," says Fletcher.

“Still, Penny says, "we're not talking about the place becoming a desert." People on the Tonle Sap floodplain south of the main temples would have been buffered from the worst effects. The Tonle Sap is fed by the Mekong River, whose headwaters in Tibetan glacier fields would have been largely immune to the effects of an altered monsoon. But Khmer engineers, skilled as they were, could not alleviate parched conditions in the north by moving Tonle Sap water against the lay of the land. Gravity was their only pump.

“If inhabitants of northern Angkor were starving while other parts of the city were hoarding rice, the stage would have been set for severe unrest. "When populations in tropical countries exceed the carrying capacity of the land, real trouble begins," says Yale University anthropologist Michael Coe. "This inevitably leads to cultural collapse." A malnourished army, preoccupied with internal strife, would have exposed the city to attack. Indeed, Ayutthaya's invasion and the Khmer king's ouster happened near the end of the second megadrought. Add to the climate chaos the shifting political and religious winds already buffeting the kingdom, and Angkor's fate was sealed, says Fletcher. "The world around Angkor was changing. Society was moving on. It would have been a surprise if Angkor persisted."

“The Khmer Empire was not the first civilization felled by climate catastrophe. Centuries earlier, as Angkor was rising, halfway around the world a similar loss of environmental equilibrium was hammering the Maya city-states in Mexico and Central America. Many scholars now believe that the Maya succumbed to overpopulation and environmental degradation following a series of three punishing droughts in the ninth century. "Essentially, the same thing happened to Angkor," says Coe, who in the 1950s was the first to discern similarities between the Khmer and Maya civilizations.

“Modern societies may need to brace for similar climatic challenges. According to Buckley, the most likely trigger of the Angkor megadroughts was intense and persistent El Niño warming of the surface waters of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Scientists debate whether human-caused climate change will lead to more pronounced El Niños, but the Vietnamese tree rings show that even natural oscillations in the Pacific can spark catastrophe. Angkor's end is a sobering lesson in the limits of human ingenuity. The Khmer had transformed their world—a monumental investment that would have been excruciating for the kingdom's rulers to forsake. "Angkor's hydraulic system was an amazing machine, a wonderful mechanism for regulating the world," Fletcher says. Its engineers managed to keep the civilization's signal achievement running for six centuries—until, in the end, a greater force overwhelmed them.


Rather than expanding temples built by their predecessors, the Khmer kings consecrated their rule by building new temples—with its own moats, irrigation systems, causeways, gates and carved sandstone towers—in scattered areas, where separate mini-cities grew up around them. That is why there are so many incredible monuments in the Angkor area.

Hundreds of architects and engineers were hired to design the temples. Some were dedicated to Buddha. Some were dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu or Shiva. Others were built as shrines to the Angkor god-king that commissioned them. Some like Angkor Wat were all of the above. For the most part the temples were viewed as sanctuaries of the gods and only members of the royal family and perhaps some monks or priests were allowed to enter them.

The sandstone used to build the monuments was transported from faraway quarries by canal barges, oxcarts and elephants. After the stones were cut and fit together they were decorated with bas-reliefs and free-standing statues. Many were once painted with bright colors and decorated with gold leaf. The stone building were once surrounded by wooden houses, where ordinary people lived, but these all disappeared with time.

Angkor Architecture: The architecture of Angkor was influenced by architecture in India and other kingdoms in Southeast Asia, but also contains some unique elements such as those associated with the Khmer king and his cosmology and divinity.

Many Khmer temples were built as microcosms of Hindu cosmology with a central tower or towers representing Mt. Meru, , the center of the Hindu universe and the home of the Hindu gods. The sanctuary walls defined the limits of the universe. Some features that appear to have been built for military purposes were in fact built for symbolic and religious reasons. The water-filled moats, for example, that surround the temples represent the oceans around the Hindu universe.

Most temples were built facing east towards the rising sun which was regarded as auspicious, with the main gate on the east side. The west was considered inauspicious and associated with death. The north was linked with elephants, which are valued because of their strength. The south was neutral. An effort was made to make sure all the structures were balanced and in harmony as is the case with the Hindu and Buddhist universes. Angkor Wat was built facing west, perhaps in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, preserver of all things.

The decorative motifs and sculptures are similar to those found in India. Some early buildings contains elements found in the architecture of ancient Indonesia. Some of the later ones contain Chinese characteristics such as glazed tiles and Chinese-style motifs in the reliefs.

The architectural technology is less sophisticated than that of the Romans. The rooms are small, ceilings are low, and some of the designs for stone structures is based on wooden structures. Many buildings are made of rough-hewn blocks of sandstone placed on top of porous slabs of laterite—a spongy, iron-laden soil that hardens when exposed to air— and fitted together rather than anchored with concrete. But, somehow, using these basic techniques and materials, the Khmers were able to create structures of extraordinary beauty, harmony and complexity.

Sandstone was the preferred material for walls with reliefs because it is relatively easy to carve. The sandstone blocks used at Angkor were quarried about 40 kilometers away and transported by raft to Angkor when Tonle Sap reversed its direction and flowed towards Angkor. The laterite used for foundations is found in abundance in the Cambodian soil. Known for its durability, it is a red rock that is soft when it is underground, because of its high water content, but becomes hard when exposed to sunlight. In most cases it was cut while still in the ground and removed in the form of blocks that were left to dry on the sun.

Elements of Angkor Architecture: 1) the corbel arch is a primitive construction method that was used only by the Khmers. It is made by placing blocks on top of one another until they come together. The disadvantage of this method is it creates arches that are tall and narrow and accommodate little space underneath them. 2) False doors are another common Khmer feature. They are sometimes found with real doors at the main sanctuaries of temples, and are often beautifully decorated and carved. 3) Khmer pediments (triangular upper portions of a wall) are often intricately decorated with pictorial scenes.

Other common Angkor architectural elements included: 4) rectangular and lotus-shaped pillars (free-standing supports); 5) rectangular pilasters (columns that project slightly from a wall); 6) decorated lintels (slabs that supports the weight above a door) and tympanums (triangular spaces above lintels enclosing the moldings of the pediments); and 7) windows with balusters. Often the windows have laterite blocks placed at the top and five to seven wood- or bamboo-like balusters on the lower half.

Khmer central towers are almost always facing towards the east. Their conical shape is formed by a series of stepped tiers that come together to form a rounded point at the top The interior is usually relatively plain, with the exterior being more highly decorated. The focus of a temple is the sanctuary, which sits on elevated platform below the central tower. Elaborate temples have a central tower surrounded by other towers. These towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru and were often adorned with stucco or carved sandstone decorations.

As the temples became more complex, hallways and galleries were built off the sanctuaries. They were usually set on platforms, with stairways connecting different levels. Later, separate buildings were added for meditation halls, “libraries” and other purposes, and elaborate porches, sanctuary walls, gates and causeways across moats were built. Gallery walls were often decorated with carved reliefs. The so-called libraries were generally storage rooms for sacred objects.


Rediscovery of Angkor, Looting and War Damage: The French naturalist Henri Mouhout is credited with rediscovering Angkor Wat in 1858 under vines and jungle growth. In Voyage a Siam et dans le Cambodge (1868) he wrote: “Suddenly, as if by enchantment, [the traveler] seems to be transported...from profound darkness into light... There are...ruins of such grandeur...that, at the first view, one is filled profound admiration, and cannot but wonder as what has become of the powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works.” The “discovery” made Mouhout quite famous. He was given credit for making one of the greatest archeological finds of all time.

In actuality local people had known about Angkor ever since it was abandoned in 1432. Other Westerners laid eyes on it before Mouhout. Some Portuguese missionaries visited it in 1580. They wrote detailed descriptions of it and discounted the possibilty that the Khmers could have built and theorized maybe it as built by descendants of Alexander the Great or Jews from China.

The French missionary Father Charle-Emile Boulliveaux who saw it in 1850. But Mouhout drummed up the most press attention with the posthumous account of his journey published in 1863, two years after he died of malaria in Laos while exploring the Upper Mekong River Basin.

By 1870s the French were busy looting treasurers from the site. The French archeologist Louis Delaporte, for example, collected 70 sculptors from Angkor, many of which are now in the Guiment Museum in Paris.

In the 1920s and 30s Angkor was visited by the rich and fashionable. The Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton came here after falling madly in love with the famous Moscow-born German artist Walter Spies in Bali. During the Cambodian civil war, the Khmer Rouge years and the Vietnamese occupation, the Angkor area was the site of some fighting. Some land mines were planted around the temples and artillery pieces were set up on high ground. Bullets, shrapnel and mortars hit some of the temples but mostly the temples and building emerged from the war and Khmer Rouge years remarkably unscathed. Mostly the temples was left to be reclaimed by the jungle and rediscovered again, by tourists, beginning in the early 1990s. More than 25,000 mines were removed before the area was declared the Angkor Archeological Park.

Restoration of Angkor: French archaeologists began clearing Angkor Wat out of the jungle in 1908. They worked almost continuously until 1972, when they were forced to leave aa the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia. Work did not resume until years after the Khmer Rouge was ousted and then only in fits and starts as the Khmer Rouge sought refuge in the mountains and jungles not far from the Angkor area.

In 1986 the Archeological Survey of India began a six year restoration project at Angkor Wat. A few years later a Polish team began restoring Bayon. Part of the restoration at Angkor Wat involved replacing stones in temple's East Gallery, which contains a magnificent bas-relief depicting a Hindu creation myth. The Indian team which worked there from 1986 to 1992 temporarily dismantled part of the temple to remove lichens that had eaten away at the stone, and shored up areas that were in danger of collapsing. The India team were criticized for destroying details on carving as they cleaned off the lichen and for filling in cracks using concrete that contained salt that ate away at the stone. UNESCO, France and other Western nations did not participate in these efforts because the United Nations did not recognize the Vietnamese-back government that governed Cambodia until 1989. These days many nations and organizations are involved in the conservation and restoration efforts at Angkor's temples.

Angkor's temples fared fairly well and sustained little damage during the two decades of war. A few stone heads were loped off and looted, some entire statues disappeared, a couple of stone noses were shot off and walls were scarred with bullet holes and shrapnel pits. But all 'n all the temples and buildings are is in pretty good shape considering what happened Cambodia. Many of the missing statues in turns out were taken by the government and placed in a huge warehouse to keep them safe. Large areas of Angkor were land mined. This helped deter looters (the mines have since been removed from the main temple area but some may still be found off the beaten path).

Mother nature has done more damage to Angkor than weapons or guerrillas. Fig trees, vines and jungle growth have swallowed up several smaller temples and strangled larger building, crushing and grinding the stones.

Archaeologists and their Cambodian laborers have performed a herculean feats removing the jungle growth and rebuilding the temples. Sometimes ordinary Cambodian peasants can be seen picking weeds and clearing away vines with machetes for no pay. They are doing this out of pride for their culture and to earn merit in the next life. Local farmers can also sometimes be seen climbing on the towers to collect bats to eat and sell. Some local people sell trinkets and T-shirts. In many temples you can find local people and visiting Cambodians praying and leaving offerings, Some families have lived in the Angkor area for generations. Other are relatively new arrivals. By one estimate 100,000 people live inside the Angkor Wat park. Some monkeys and elephants have also arrived. Some well-connected people have built villas and restaurants in the park.

Foreign donors and governments, led by the U.S., France and Japan, have spent as much over $50 million restoring monuments in the Angkor Wat area. Currently there are preservation teams from about 30 different countries operating in the area, in part because the Cambodian government has little money to expend on such endeavors. Deciding how they money should be spent, what kind of work should be done or avoided is a messy process that involves the Cambodian government and a number of foreign academic and non-governmental organizations. The French L’Eole Franciase d’Extreme-Orient has been aroudn the longest, about 100 years. The Japanese feel they have a large say because they have poured a lot of money into various projects.

The massive preservation effort now involves archaeological teams from at least 12 countries. Russians, Indians, Germans, Americans, Chinese, Indonesians, Swiss, Italians and Poles are also involved and they have their opinions on how work should be done on whether trees should be saved or chopped down and their interests often clash with those of tourists, who, for example, like all he trees entangled with the ruins because the vegetation helps extenuate the aesthetic, adventurous image of the place. For the most part archeologists don’t like the trees because they can tear apart the buildings.

Most of the Cambodian researchers that studied the Angkor civilization before the Cambodian Civil War and the Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s were killed during the years of the Pol Pot regime. Japan’s Sophia University established the Asia Center for Research and Human Development in 2002 under the philosophy that "the preservation and restoration of the site should be carried out by Cambodians, for Cambodians." Six Cambodians had received doctorate degrees and 13 have received master's degrees from the university as of March 2009. In 2001, the university's investigation mission, including Cambodian trainees, successfully excavated 274 discarded Buddhist statues at the Banteay Kdei temple about 30 kilometers from Angkor Wat.

Conservation and Local People at Angkor: The Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA) is the Cambodian agency that manages Angkor. Much of the conservation and restoration works at Angkor between 1907 and 1992 was done by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the Archaeological Survey of India, the Polish conservation body PKZ, and the World Monuments Fund. The property is legally protected by the Royal Decree on the Zoning of the Region of Siem Reap/Angkor adopted on 28 May 1994 and the Law on the protection of the natural and cultural heritage promulgated on 25 January 1996. In order to strengthen and to clarify the ownership and building codes in the protected zones 1 and 2, boundary posts have been put in 2004 and 2009 and the action was completed in 2012. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The ICC-Angkor (International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the historic site of Angkor) created on 13 October 1993, ensures the coordination of the successive scientific, restoration and conservation related projects, executed by the Royal Cambodian Government and its international partners. It ensures the consistency of the various projects, and defines, when necessary, technical and financial standards and calls the attention of all the concerned parties when required. It also contributes to the overall management of the property and its sustainable development. The successful conservation of the property by the APSARA National Authority, monitored by the ICC-Angkor, was crowned by the removal of the property from the World Heritage List in danger in 2004. The site was put on the World Heritage List and World Heritage in Danger list in 1992 after surviving invasion, civil war, the Khmer Rouge, illegal excavation, pillaging, landmines. and most recently legions of tourists.

Angkor is one of the largest archaeological sites in operation in the world. Tourism represents an enormous economic potential but it can also generate irreparable destructions of the tangible as well as intangible cultural heritage. Many research projects have been undertaken, since the international safeguarding program was first launched in 1993.The scientific objectives of the research (e.g. anthropological studies on socio-economic conditions) result in a better knowledge and understanding of the history of the site, and its inhabitants that constitute a rich exceptional legacy of the intangible heritage. The purpose is to associate the “intangible culture” to the enhancement of the monuments in order to sensitize the local population to the importance and necessity of its protection and preservation and assist in the development of the site as Angkor is a living heritage site where Khmer people in general, but especially the local population, are known to be particularly conservative with respect to ancestral traditions and where they adhere to a great number of archaic cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere.

The inhabitants venerate the temple deities and organize ceremonies and rituals in their honor, involving prayers, traditional music and dance. Moreover, the Angkor Archaeological Park is very rich in medicinal plants, used by the local population for treatment of diseases. The plants are prepared and then brought to different temple sites for blessing by the gods. The Preah Khan temple is considered to have been a university of medicine and the NeakPoan an ancient hospital. These aspects of intangible heritage are further enriched by the traditional textile and basket weaving practices and palm sugar production, which all result in products that are being sold on local markets and to the tourists, thus contributing to the sustainable development and livelihood of the population living in and around the World Heritage site.

The Angkor Management Plan (AMP) and Community Development Participation Project (CDPP), a bilateral cooperation with the Government of New Zealand. The AMP helps the APSARA National Authority to reorganize and strengthen the institutional aspects, and the CDPP prepares the land use map with an experimental participation of the communities and supports small projects related to tourist development in order to improve the income of villagers living in the protected zones;

The Heritage Management Framework composed of a Tourism Management Plan and a Risk map on monuments and natural resources; a multilateral cooperation with the Government of Australia and UNESCO. Preliminary analytical and planning work for the management strategy will take into account the necessity to preserve the special atmosphere of Angkor. All decisions must guarantee physical, spiritual, and emotional accessibility to the site for the visitors.


There are worries that Angkor could become too much like a theme park. Hot air ballooning trips over the ruins have left some tourist injured. Proposals have been made to install escalators to carry visitors to the hilltop temples.

Where all the money from ticket sales and entrance fees goes it s not clear. The government took the right to collect entrance fees away from the conservancy agency that ran the park and gave it to a politically-connected private firm called Sokimex which already has a monopoly on fuel and military supplies.

Money comes not only from tourism. Movies such as “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider” have been shot there and fees are collected for events such as concerts and weddings. In December 2002, a concert with tenor Jose Carreras was staged with 150 Cambodian dancers and 112 orange-robed monks. Some film companies have hired sections of sites for days at a time to shoot movies and television commercials. The military reportedly wants to open a casino.

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sokimex Group, which has used its connections with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to become the country's biggest company, plans to build a 900-room hotel and spa, with shopping mall, water park, slot machines and conference center, on a 56-acre site in Siem Reap.Sokimex also controls the ticket concession to Angkor. Passes cost $20 a day, $40 for three days and $60 a week. It's small change for a company that deals in oil, gas stations, pharmaceutical products, garment making, property development and luxury hotels and resorts, in addition to running an airline. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2008]

Sokimex's share of the admission take is set by a contract with the government, and Burnham said it leaves most of the profit in the company's hands. One-third of the revenue is supposed to go to APSARA, a Cambodian agency set up by royal decree to preserve the Angkor sites and manage development. But some people dispute the ticket sales figures, saying Apsara -- which takes its name from the heavenly nymphs of Hindu and Buddhist mythology whose bare-breasted figures adorn the Angkor temple walls -- gets enough only to cover basic expenses. "APSARA has virtually no money for conservation," Burnham said. "All of the conservation at Angkor is being done through international assistance."


Western journalists began drifting back to Angkor round 1989 with armed escorts. Angkor Wat was reopened to tourists in 1991. In 1994, about 45,000 people visited Angkor. In 1996, the figure jumped to 65,000. In 1997, the numbers dropped after a coup in Cambodia. In the late 1990s, an impressive faux-temple tollbooth was opened up. In 1998, a light and sound show was introduced at Angkor Wat. About 80,000 people came that year. In 1999, there were 250,000.

Now the influx tourists can be quite large. Direct flights between Angkor’s nearest town, Siem Reap, and Bangkok were launched in 1998, making it no longer necessary to go to Phnom Penh. Now there are direct flights to Siem Reap to a number of countries. Next to the main ticket office a huge parking lot was built. In 2002, there were 316,000 foreign visitors and 300,000 Cambodians. Some Cambodians come her have their wedding pictures taken at Angkor Wat. Others are monks who have come to do some serious praying. Including Cambodians, the number of visitors to the archaeological park reached a record 2 million in 2007. By the 2010s, 3 million a year were coming.

Wandering around the ruins are local people that sell T-shirts, post cards and souvenirs. Many of the beggars that once used to work Angkor, some of them maimed or blinded by mines, have been formed into a small orchestra that sometimes plays from one of the pavilions. Some of the guides are said to be former Khmer Rouge members.

To keep the temples from being swamped there is some discussion of roping them off and restricting the use of motor vehicles in the park; relying instead on electric-powered buses In 2000, a plan was developed to replace the noisy motorbikes with quiet electric cars. Under the scheme 300 eight-passenger Korean-made vehicles would ferry tourist between Angkor Wat and Siem Reap and 500 local women in traditional clothes would drive or serve as guides on the vehicles. As of 2004 the plan had not been initiated yet. [Source: Wire service reports; Douglas Preston, National Geographic, August 2000]

Stephen Brookes wrote in the Washington Post, “Decades of war and civil strife had kept the crowds away, and when I'd first visited in 1999 for a rushed, two-day trip, I had the place almost to myself. You could climb to the top of Angkor Wat, the most famous of the many temples at Angkor, and contemplate eternity, or lose yourself in the enigmatic stone faces of the Bayon, or privately indulge your Indiana Jones fantasies in the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm.[Source: Stephen Brookes, Washington Post, November 4, 2007]

“But all that has changed -- with a vengeance. The political stability of the past decade has reassured travelers, and Angkor is now suffering a flood of tourists -- more than 1.7 million last year, up from 200,000 only three years before. And with a new airport open and roads being built to connect Angkor more easily with Thailand and Vietnam, officials expect that number to rise to more than 3 million by the end of the decade.

“In short, Angkor has grown up: It's no longer the gritty, suffer-for-culture experience it once was. In fact, it has become a luxury destination. But if you've been putting off seeing it, don't wait too long. The Cambodian government seems determined to push tourism to the breaking point and is busily cooking up a marathon, a golf tournament, a huge light show extravaganza at Angkor Wat and even an international tourism expo in the next few months. By December, the place will be inundated once again with visitors -- until the rains return in May and scare them away, making it safe once again to visit.”

Hordes Tourists at Angkor: Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “These days, the onslaught begins in the early-morning darkness, when invading columns of buses, taxis and sputtering tuk-tuks converge on a dirt parking lot across from Angkor Wat's broad moat. They disgorge hundreds of camera-wielding tourists, who march through the gray light toward the awesome gates of the world's largest religious monument. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2008]

“When the shutters stop clicking, tour guides herd their groups into the monument all at once. Tourists jostling for space bump, scrape and rub their fingers against exquisitely carved stone, adding to centuries of damage to the friezes of soldiers depicted in epic battle atop chariots and elephants. By dusk, the mob of sightseers has moved to Phnom Bakheng, where buses drop off hundreds of people who then scramble for position on large, delicately balanced stone platforms at the small temple, Angkor's oldest. Obscured from the road by dense forest, it was safely off the regular tour routes until sappers cleared land mines that Khmer Rouge guerrillas had placed to defend the strategic hilltop. "Now it's suddenly become the destination where everybody wants to be at the end of the day to see the sunset, and to see the views, which are spectacular," said Bonnie Burnham, president of the New York-based World Monuments Fund. The nonprofit group helps conserve historic sites around the world.

“As night falls, the tourists feel their way back down the hill and onto air-conditioned buses. They're delivered to their hotels in nearby Siem Reap, where they rinse off the sweat of a long day's touring with a dip in the pool or a soothing shower before dinner. As the taps open up, more of the dwindling ground water is drained. UNESCO has warned that the receding water table could undermine Angkor Wat's fragile foundations, causing the temple to gradually sink. There hasn't been enough research to say how much the heavy demand for water affects Angkor Wat's stability, said Dougald O'Reilly, a Canadian archaeologist who heads a nonprofit group working to protect Cambodia's historic sites from looters and overuse.

“With more hotels and resorts on the drawing board, conservationists are pushing hard to prevent a destructive free-for-all of development and tourism. "It's going to mean some sacrifices," Burnham said. "People aren't going to be able to do some of the things, in an unregulated way, that they've been permitted to do in the past." The effect of millions of feet pounding on Angkor Wat's steps and floors already has led officials to close some areas. The towers, the tallest of which rises 213 feet, are off limits because the constant wear and tear made the structures unsafe.

“A first step toward reducing congestion could be as simple as insisting that visitors walk through Angkor Wat in the same direction, from beginning to end, Burnham said. She also wants to see Cambodian officials set time constraints on tickets for the busiest of Angkor's temples, to limit pressure during peak hours. The day may come when a strict quota is placed on the number of visitors allowed at certain monuments, Burnham said. But O'Reilly hopes to avoid that by persuading tourists and their guides to make better choices.”


Admission and Hours at Angkor Archaeological Park: You must possess an admission pass (an 'Angkor Pass') to visit the temples and sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Passes may be purchased at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat. One-day tickets only can be purchased at the secondary tollgate on airport road entrance near Angkor Wat and at Banteay Srey. Passes are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. Visitors have ID photographs taken and sealed in a laminated card. A photo taken on the spot free of charge is required at time of purchase of a pass.

Visiting hours are 5:00am - 6:00pm. Angkor Wat closes at 6:00pm, Banteay Srey closes at 5:00pm and Kbal Spean at 3:00pm. Always carry your ticket. It will be checked upon each park entry and at major temples. There is a significant fine for not possessing a valid ticket inside the park. A regular admission ticket is not required to visit Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker or Beng Melea, but there is a separate entrance fee of $20, $10 and $5, respectively.

Traveling Around Angkor Archaeological Park: Visitors also need to hire transportation—often with a guide-driver— to take them from Siem Riep to Angkor Archaeological Park and ferry them around the different temples and sites they want to see. It takes at least two full days to see Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. A car and guide goes for about $35 a day. With $10 extra for a trip to Baneay Srei. A motorcycle with a driver goes for about $15 a day. A bicycle, $5 to $15 a day, depending on the quality of the bicycle.

Unfortunately, it is hard to beat the crowds even by arriving early. Many people come before dawn to observe the rising sun. Some prime viewing spots are cluttering with people, cars and motorbikes. Sometime radios and boom boxes disturb the pristine quiet. But fortunately Angkor is large enough that you can usually find some place to escape from the crowds. Many of the tour groups hit Bayon in the morning and Angkor Wat in the afternoon. To avoid these crowds do the reverse.

Visitors to Angkor should take into consideration the roads, proximity of the temples, and favorable light conditions. For some temples it is important to begin at the principal entrance to perceive the space and decoration as the builder intended. The monuments are oriented according to the four points of a compass which can be used as a point of reference. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The Angkor group, including Roluos and Banteay Srei, has to be treated as an ensemble which steadily grew over some three centuries, Masterpieces such as the Bayon and Angkor Vat have to be seen in their contexts and integrated with the temples and other constructions, particularly the great reservoirs. It is also essential to take into consideration that the areas of jungle between the brick and stone monuments constitute a reserve of buried archaeological remains of immense importance in the study and interpretation of Khmer culture. Another significant element of the Angkor complex is the irrigation system of the region based on the great reservoirs, which provided the economic infrastructure for the successive Khmer capitals and their rulers. a . Angkor provides wonderful photographic opportunities. the monuments and the surrounding jungle afford unlimited textural and lighting opportunities for composing a picture.

Clouds are common and tend to diffuse the light which is somewhat flat even though it is intense. As most of the temples face east the best lighting conditions are in the morning except for Angkor Wat where the best light is in the afternoon because it faces west. the temples surrounded by jungle such as Ta Prohm and Prah Khan can be photographed with good results when the sun is directly overhead and shining through the foliage.

The name of the monuments at Angkor are often modern ones designated by Cambodians or early European travellers. In publications by the French the enclosures of a temple are numbered starting from the central sanctuary and progressing towards the enclosing walls. The system used in guidebooks usually reverses the order for the convenience of the visitor. Thus the first enclosing wall the visitor encounters when entering a temple is number one. The numbers ascend from the exterior to the interior of the monument. In many distances, though, only traces of the enclosing walls, particularly the outer one, remain.


Legend of Angkor Wat Light and Sound Show is sometimes held during December and January. In 2008- 2009, the show ran every night from December 5, 2008 through to January 31, 2009 except Sundays and Christmas Ever and New Year’s Eve. The show was staged on grounds of Angkor Wat temple 20:00 - 21:00 and featured extravagant display of lights, sounds, water screen, and other special effects. The evening also included a traditional Khmer village market bustling with various folk performances, local delicacies, arts and handicrafts and a special celebration featuring the official national APSARA dancers on stage with hundred of Cambodian performers. During the event, guests enjoyed a sumptuous dinner.

Show highlights: Scene 1: Exploring the deserted empire: In 1860, Alexandre Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist, made a journey of exploration into the regions of Siam and Laos. When his group entered Cambodia, Henri heard from the villagers about the great temple of splendid beauty, believed to be built by the hands of gods. He relentlessly searches for it until finally the mysterious, legendary temple hidden in the dense forest appears before his eyes.

Scene 2: The legendary origin of the Khmer empire: Henri lies alone unconscious in an island. He regains consciousness and finds a lady with the look of Apsara in front of him. She tells him his wish had come true and takes him to experience the beauty of the Khmer civilization - starting from the legendary origin of the Khmer empire, the love story between Preah Thaong and Neang Nagi, the daughter of the king of Nagas. In this scene audiences will witness a wedding procession scene.

Scene 3: King Suryavarman II and the great Angkor Wat: Then Apsara brings Henri back to the time when the monument was constructed by thousands of workers. The moon shines in the sky, reflecting the outline of the temple. The sound of construction echoes around. Part by part, they witness the building of Angkor Wat to completion.

Scene 4: The glorious period of the Angkor empire: Apsara casts a magic spell and scenes from the glorious Khmer empire during the reign of Suryavarman II appear. She takes Henri for walk around to observe the lives of the people. Then, Apsara leads Henri to where the New Year celebration takes place and they stand with the crowd as they witness the spectacular procession of King Suryavarman II who presides over the celebrations.

Scene 5: The legend of Apsara: After the amazing trip, Henri becomes curious about Apsara. Was she once the spirit of an Angkor Princess? Apsara tells him she was born from the Churning of the Sea of Milk and promises to show her creation myth. In return, he must promise to bring life back into this great Angkor ruin that he had witnessed. Henri makes his promise and is at once transported back to witness Apsara’s creation.

Scene 6: Back to present: Henri finds himself back to the place where he loses consciousness. Still dazed from his unforgettable journey to the past, Henri fulfills the promise he made to Apsara – a promise that has been carried on until this present day and hopefully well into the future. For more information and online booking, please visit


Stephen Brookes wrote in the Washington Post, “Rain was lashing against the side of the plane as we broke through the clouds. Below us, Cambodia stretched out like a perfect disaster: fields flooded to the horizon, palm trees whipped by the wind, a sky so dark and heavy it seemed about to collapse. As we dropped closer, we caught a glimpse of two people pushing a truck through knee-deep water, struggling to keep from being washed away. "It's fantastic!" I said to my wife, whose hand was clamped on mine in a vise-like grip. "It looks like we timed this perfectly!" [Source: Stephen Brookes, Washington Post, November 4, 2007]

We'd come to Cambodia to see the famous temples of Angkor... And we'd come in July -- in the heart of the monsoon, which sensible people had told us was pure madness. even though it rains almost every day -- sometimes in torrents so thick you can barely see -- it rarely lasts more than an hour or two. And the effect is usually refreshing. The rain clears the air, washes away the dust and cools down everything. The landscape turns lush and fragrant, colors take on richer hues and, instead of scorching tropical sun, you get constantly changing light and spectacular sunsets. For photographers in particular, it's the only time to go.

Besides, prices for everything drop dramatically -- hotels typically charge half of their high-season rates -- and there's never a problem getting into a restaurant or booking a last-minute flight. And best of all: Tourists stay away in droves. "It's empty," groaned general manager Didier Lamoot, gesturing at the deserted lobby of the Sofitel Royal Angkor, one of the new hotels in Siem Reap, the town where all visitors to Angkor stay. "People are afraid of the monsoon," he said. "Germans, if they think there will be one second of rain, they don't come. And the French, if they hear about heat but no sea, then, non." He shrugged his shoulders in Gallic resignation.

But actually, "empty" was the reason we were there. Not surprisingly, Angkor is a madhouse during the November-to-April high season. Buses cram the parking lots, spitting out diesel fumes and tour groups. Thousands of people clamber over the temples, turning them into human anthills, and at the peak viewing times, gridlock sets in; so many people are trying to climb the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng, famous for its view of the sunset over Angkor Wat, that officials are even thinking of installing an escalator. Forget trying to contemplate the timeless mystery of the place. The only mystery is how to avoid being trampled.

So when we got up the next morning and set out for Angkor Wat, it was with crossed fingers, hoping our theory about the rainy season would, um, hold water. But we needn't have worried. The rains of the night before had given way to scattered clouds, the air was fresh, and as we walked out the long stone causeway to the temple, the biggest crowd we saw was a Cambodian wedding party having its picture taken.

We weren't completely alone, of course. Two elderly monks in saffron robes passed us, and a few Korean families peered intently at each other through digital cameras. But it was easy enough to avoid the tour groups as we made our way through the temple. We climbed higher and higher up the narrow stairways, over the wide stone terraces, past the churning friezes and delicately carved celestial dancers. It was eerily quiet -- the loudest sound was the cry of birds in the jungle -- and the huge temple spread out below us, infinitely ancient, evocative and remote. We sat in silence, letting the sweep of the centuries roll over us.

And for the rest of our six-day stay, things stayed virtually perfect. It rained now and then, and the weather was often steamy. But there were three full days of pure, glorious, uninterrupted sun (which we suffered through by the hotel pool), and when the rains finally returned, they came as a welcome break. We'd go out in the early morning, explore a temple or two, and then retreat for the day. "Templing can be exhausting," John McDermott, an American photographer who has settled near Angkor, told me one afternoon over lunch. "You're climbing up and down stone steps in the sun and trying to absorb hundreds of years of history. It's best to stretch it out over a week; spend a morning in the temples, skip a day, then go back the next afternoon. Otherwise you just get burnt out."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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