Angkor shades Pompeii
Exploring the Cambodian ruins left European equivalents in the archaeological dust.
I’m walking through the dense Cambodian jungle in search of ancient ruins. The notion sounds romantic, until you realise that once upon a time the animal kingdom had a board meeting and decided to base almost everything that could kill you in Cambodia. Think panthers, bears, tigers, tarantulas, scorpions, snakes – plus add a bit of malaria and dengue fever mosquitoes for good measure.
Not to mention the odd landmine left from the brutal Pol Pot regime.
At this point, I’m trying to channel my inner Indiana Jones (and quite appropriately, because parts of The Temple of Doom was actually filmed here). But in reality, if I had a beekeeper’s suit handy, I’d probably be wearing it.
Our tuk tuk driver, who wanted to show us a temple deep in the jungle, is trying to reassure us that most of the things that will kill us don’t actually live in the Angkor Archaeological Park, a sprawling Unesco World Heritage protected site with more than 1000 temples.
But just in case, our guide is wearing his Cambodian safety boots – also known as Jandals. A great comfort.
After a 15-minute walk, an incredible sight emerges – an ancient temple decaying in the forest. Over the centuries it has slowly succumbed to the jungle and now lies half covered in trees, roots and moss.
There’s not a tourist in sight and not one sign of modernity. It’s as if we discovered it.
What’s most remarkable about the Temples of Angkor is the sheer size and number of them. An Australian study mapped the jungle floor of the Angkor region using lasers from a helicopter. The groundbreaking research picked up ancient patterns in the earth’s surface that would have been irrigation systems, roads, dams and even gardens.
The study concluded the city – once the capital of the Khmer Empire which ruled huge swathes of South East Asia – was much bigger than first thought.
It could have been home to a million people and was likely the largest preindustrial city in the world.
Today, the main sign of that is hundreds of scattered temples, most of which hauntingly sit in a state of ruin.
The star attraction is the famed Angkor Wat temple, reputed to be built by 300,000 labourers using 6000 elephants. It’s the largest religious monument in the world; the complex has a land size five times bigger than the Vatican, an area equal to roughly 160 rugby fields.
The downside to its fame is that thousands of people swarm the Hinduturned-Buddhist temple from sunrise to sunset.
Combine loud crowds with jungle heat, and it’s not always a pleasant atmosphere.
But with hundreds of temples to choose from, it’s easy to find other spectacular scenes without any tourists; especially during the monsoon season when visitor numbers are at their lowest.
The Angkor temples sit just a short distance from the region’s capital, Siem Reap, an ever-bustling hub that accommodated most of the two million people who visited the Angkor ruins last year.
An incredible figure when you consider that in the mid-1990s just 7500 people visited.
The streets of Siem Reap are lined with chic restaurants and carts selling local delicacies.
You’ll find everything from sticky rice to fried river snakes or even tarantulas.
While it’s a vibrant atmosphere, the increased tourism is putting huge stress on infrastructure.
The temples are sustaining wear and tear with millions of footsteps, and Siem Reap is struggling with water, sewage and electricity to cope with the influx of people.
So if you think Angkor is an undiscovered gem of South East Asia – there are two million reasons you’re a bit late to the party. But, that’s not to say you shouldn’t visit.
For me, exploring the Angkor ruins left Rome and Pompeii in the archaeological dust. It really should be on your bucket list – just get there soon before we’re talking five or 10 million visitors piling into the ruins each year. Last year Brook Sabin and his partner Radha Engling quit their jobs and sold everything to travel. Each week Kiwis in Flight takes you on their adventures. See
Cambodia has some of the world’s best ancient sightsbut as Kiwis Brook Sabin and Radha Engling found, you’d better get in quick.
Millions of people visit Angkor Wat each year, with a huge increase of visitors reported from China.
Siem Reap’s Pub Street has dozens of cheap eateries.