Last Update: October 2020
5 minute read
Behold the center of the ancient Khmer empire! Magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. You may think that Angkor Wat is one of the 7 world wonders. Well, it’s not, but it sure is impressive.
It’s also over-rated.
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Angkor Archeological Park
Where I write “Angkor Wat”, I actually mean “Angkor Archeological Park”. Next to the Angkor temple, the park consists of numerous other temples and buildings. Of course Angkor Wat is the most significant, but there’s also the ancient Khmer city Angkor Thom, which holds the unique Bayon temple.
Furthermore, there’s Phnom Bakheng, with a temple on a 60m hilltop and perfect for sunset view watching. Also, don’t forget the Ta Prohm temple, overgrown by giant tree trunks and made famous by the Tomb Raider movie.
The park, its building structures and elaborate water system are truly impressive and continue to amaze. Yet another example of the ingenuity by ancient civilizations.
Next to the religious importance, Cambodians are proud of Angkor Wat. They even depicted the monument on the national flag. Likewise, it has great historical value. It was from Angkor, that the glorious Khmer empire was ruled, which stretched as far as Cambodia, large parts of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and even Southeast China.
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Expectation vs Reality
So, what’s the overrated part you say? Isn’t this a must see?
Well yes, it’s definitely a must see. Attractions like these are unique and deserve to be bucket listed. However, we tend to over romanticize and expect too much. This is stimulated of course by photos of a serene Angkor Wat during sunrise with beautiful reflections in the lotus pond.
These photos typically depict a gorgeous scenery, but please realize that most of them were taken in perfect conditions that are actually pretty rare. Moreover, they are likely to be heavily edited with filters for dramatic effect and vibrant colors. It’s magical.
I’m no professional photo editor, far from, but I managed to manipulate the photo on the left with just one filter. Imagine what a professional photo editing tool can do. To the right is the original photo without filter. Still beautiful, but nonetheless…no magic.
Then, once you have taken your sunrise photo, turn around.
In order to behold Angkor Wat during sunrise you have to defy the tourist hordes. You won’t be alone, so forget about the pure serenity you were looking for, it’s pretty non existent. And you don’t get to judge the hordes, because they are there for the same reason you are.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Oh man, I literally had to use my elbows to reach the pond and get in front of the crowd. We woke up at 4am to make sure we got here on time. We even bought our park tickets yesterday afternoon in order not to loose time at the ticket office. And here we are, well before 5am and there’s already a huge crowd.
Anyway, we managed to get in front with a bit of pushing and shoving. I’ll never forget the faces we met when we finally reached there. “Intruder!, go away!” Yes, everybody wants the perfect shot of the Angkor Wat sunrise without a bloody tourist head photobombing it.
I swear, some of them even waded into the pond, thereby pushing forward the frontline. Again, their faces when I jumped in front of them, waist deep, barely able to keep my equipment dry. “Intruder!” Well, I got my sunrise shot.
Templed out at Angkor Wat
So you finally made it to Cambodia and Angkor Wat and you can already see yourself rambling from temple to temple for days on end. Your mind is set on visiting as many temples as you can. Finally!, all the beautiful scenery from the travel magazines is within your grasp. You are ready to buy a 3-day ticket to the Angkor Archeological Park.
Hold your horses buddy/missy! Unless you are an archeology or history fanatic, don’t do that. Agreed, the temples and scenery are special. However, after one whole day of temple sightseeing in the scorching heat the average holiday maker is totally templed out. I know I was.
The first impressions will be fantastic and wow you. Then, the initial excitement wears off and it will become difficult to distinguish one temple from another. The crowds will start to annoy you and the relentless heat tempers your enthusiasm as the day progresses. All you crave for is the hotel swimming pool.
One day at the temples will give you the opportunity to see Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Baphuon and the sunset at Phnom Bakheng without rushing it. These are the main attractions. There are more, but it won’t get more interesting.
Let’s be honest, if you’ve spent a day visiting the top floors of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, will you go again the next day, because you missed the first floor?
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What really rubs me the wrong way about Angkor Wat is all of the commerce and greed surrounding it.
First of all, tickets to the site are very expensive. 1-day tickets are $37, 3-day tickets are $62 and a week pass will cost you $72. Again, unless you have a special interest in archeology or history you’re probably good with a one day visit.
A few years ago the Cambodian government took over the ticket sales operation from a private company. They immediately doubled the ticket prices and there’s very little transparency on the proceeds.
We do know that the locals are not profiting, except for a few underpaid security and ticket offices clerk jobs. Almost 50% of visitors are from China. They travel with their own airline(s) and are transported around in buses from Chinese owned companies. They stay and eat in Chinese owned hotels and restaurants and even bring their own tour guide.
Hey, don’t blame the Chinese for doing business. Blame whomever is selling out the local population.
Note that the Chinese hotels were built with by Chinese workers, with mainly Chinese materials and equipment. The package tours are paid for in China and the majority of the funds never reach Cambodia. Except for the ticket fee of course, but we’re still guessing where that money ends up.
I have spoken to local restaurant owners, tuk-tuk drivers and street stall vendors. Turns out that all of them are coerced into paying a hefty percentage of their earnings to the local police or run the risk of having their permit revoked.
According to government publications, an alleged 28% of the ticket revenues goes to temple and infrastructure maintenance. I always wondered what happens with the rest of the money. Again, we can only guess since there’s no record. Mind you, the tickets sales bring in more than 100 million USD every year!
Meanwhile, all over Cambodia, tourists enjoy driving their rental motorbikes, but here it’s prohibited. “Too dangerous, we don’t want tourists to get hurt” is the official statement. Well actually, traffic around Angkor isn’t half as bad as for instance Phnom Penh where motorbike rental to foreigners is perfectly legal. Still, lawmakers and officials ensure there’s no such thing as a taxi
A staggering 2.6 million international visitors bought a ticket to the Angkor Archeological Park in 2018. It’s a large park, but still, 2.6 million is a lot. Needless to say it takes a heavy toll on the monument.
Since 2017, visitors to the top of Phnom Bakheng are limited to 300 people per day, because of threatening damage to the temple. Invaluable bas-reliefs are worn down by the many tourists touching them. The limitation is a start, but not nearly enough.
Over 10 years ago, the World Bank warned that temples at the park were sinking into their foundations as nearby hotels drained the underground reservoirs. Meanwhile, during the droughts of 2018 and 2019, Siem Reap hotels continued to draw heavily from the province’s water table.
First of all, the Cambodian government should seriously limit the number of visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park at once. A drastic measure, but next to monument preservation it would also make the experience special again and justify the high ticket price.
Second, real protection of the monument is necessary by implementing physical barriers and wooden steps to cover the ancient stones. I’ve seen tourists damage the crumbling stones while climbing the temples for a selfie.
Last, the government needs to regulate the water use and enforce these regulations. If not, they might soon face a degradation of the cultural heritage to a point where it cannot remain open to visitors. Now that would ruin the lucrative ticket sales.
Angkor Wat is big business! But only for some. The tourist dollar goes straight to shady businessmen and greedy officials that bypass the local population, while the latter are the rightful heirs to the Angkor Wat heritage. Moreover, they fail to preserve their big money machine for the sake of short term greed.
The out of control tourist visits are straining the infrastructure and thereby destroying the very same object of their adoration. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t visit Angkor Wat. I am saying that the Cambodian government should use more of the tourist dollars into preserving and protecting the monument plus give back to the local community.
Discover Angkor Wat, Bayon temple and Ta Prohm (tomb raider) temple with this “Full-Day Small Group Temples Tour”. You will be transported by air conditioned minivan with max 10 people.
I do recommend this tour, which includes pick up from your hotel and an English speaking guide for just $18.
What’s your opinion about Angkor Wat or other destinations that suffer from over-tourism? Let us know in the comments below.