REDISCOVERY AND LOOTING OF ANGKOR
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]
According to UNESCO: 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.
Development at Angkor
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."
Tourism at Angkor
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.
Angkor Ends Elephant Rides
In November 2019, it was announced that Angkor was ending its elephant ride and the elephants were going to be moved to a new home in a suitable jungle area. Sopheng Cheang of Associated Press wrote: “Apsara Authority, the government agency that oversees the Angkor archaeological site, said it is important for the animals to be able to live in their natural habitat, and there are other ways to provide attractions and rides for tourists. Some of the 14 elephants officially at the site under the management of a private company are old and in ill health. They have been providing rides for tourists since 2001. [Source: Sopheng Cheang, Associated Press, November 14, 2019]
“The death of a female elephant in 2016 of heart failure after giving a tourist a ride triggered an outpouring of grief and criticism on social media. A petition was posted on the website change.org addressed to the Apsara Authority calling for the end of elephant riding there. The agency said tourists will be allowed to see, but not ride, the elephants at their new location about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Angkor Wat.
“Apsara Authority spokesman Long Kosal said by phone from Siem Reap that the elephants will continue to be under the care of the company that owns them, which would also train them to put on performances for visitors. He said two of elephants have already been taken by truck to their new home and the rest will be gradually transported through the end of this year.”
Angkor Wat Light and Sound Show
“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 www.angkorwatshow.com
Visiting Angkor in the Rainy Season
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."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, 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.
Last updated August 2020