Angkor Wat is often compared to other iconic ancient sites such as Macchu Picchu, Petra and the Pyramids. But the comparison is misleading. The instantly recognisable Angkor Wat is actually only one of over 600 temples and other relics in a vast complex that cover 400 square kilometers and represents over 400 years of temple building frenzy undertaken by a bewildering list of Khmer kings. Individually the temples and cities do not, in my opinion, match up to these other monuments but collectively they represent a staggering concentration of architectural relics. Add in a location surrounded by dense jungle (which, in some cases still covers the temples) and rice paddies and they are a match for anything.
Different temples are built in similar but still diverse styles. Bayon, the temple that lies in the centre of the massive walled city of Angkor Thom, looks like something out of one of Max Ernst's nightmarish paintings from immediately after the Second World War. Fifty four towers are each decorated with four huge faces that stare down with an enigmatic smile exuding power and just a hint of malice, that emphasise the divine power of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who presided over the most active period of building in the 12th century. Ta Phrom looks as if it should have been the set for an Indiana Jones film with its crumbling towers and walls overgrown by the huge roots of jungle trees (in fact it was used in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). Baphuon is a pyramidal representation of Mt. Meru which forms a key element in Hindu creation stories. It has been described as the world's largest jigsaw puzzle because prior to the Khmer Rouge coming to power it was dismantled by French archeologists and a detailed map made so it could subsequently be restored and rebuilt, a technique first developed by the Dutch. Unfortunately the map was destroyed during the civil war and so a long, painful process has been undertaken to put it back together.
Further afield Banteay Srei is an exquisite gem, built from pink sandstone with every inch covered in lovely carvings. Ankor Wat itself is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world and is the best preserved temple in Angkor. Hundreds of people gather every day to watch the sun rise over its trademark corn-cob towers. But it should be most renowned for its immense bas-relief. Almost one kilometre long and two metres high it depicts in intricate detail the Hindu myths and also daily life under the Khmer kings. It is easily the equal of the frieze that decorated the Parthenon and much better preserved.
The temples are the mainstay of tourism in Cambodia. Nearly 3 million people a year visit, representing a major source of income not just for the local area but the country as a whole. People find a myriad of ways to get in on the act. In one temple a man makes a living renting out a torch so visitors can look down a well. Tourist guides, tuk-tuk drivers, the mahouts who give elephant rides, stall holders, craft workers and artisans, water sellers, restaurant and hotel workers all depend on the Angkor temples for their livelihood. They have turned nearby Siem Reap into one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. Yet despite this, whilst being very touristy, it manages to retain its charm and is not too busy.
The more deleterious impact of mass tourism can be seen at the nearby Tonle Sap lake. This massive freshwater lake, during its greatest extent in the rainy season the largest in South-east Asia, is home to a large population of stateless Vietnamese people who live in floating villages complete with churches, schools, health centres and petrol stations.
Unfortunately their lifestyle is polluting the lake (using it as a toilet for example) and local Cambodians have capitalised on their presence and a visit to the floating villages is firmly on the tourist trail. We are no exception. But the tour feels very unsatisfactory - voyeuristic and damaging, with hundreds of motor boats adding to the pollution and churning up the shallow lake. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth (in a few weeks time as the lake reaches its lowest level before the rainy season, a very real nasty smell as well, apparently.)
But this has really been our only negative experience of Cambodia which is a delightful country and a good place to end our holiday. Tomorrow we fly home, going from temperatures in the high 30s to ones which, by all accounts, are nearer to freezing. Never mind culture shock, weather shock is going to be the real problem!