|Inspiring: A spire reaches skyward inside the perimeter of breathtaking Angkor Wat. — VNS Photos Nguyen Khanh Chi
by Nguyen Khanh Chi
Vo Hong Van stops in his tracks by the stone pavement that leads to Angkor Wat and gazes at the vast temple complex, muttering his astonishment under his voice.
The tourist from HCM City pauses and tries to fully take in what appears in front of him. This is the first time Van has visited the Angkor temples in Siem Reap Province, known as the cradle of Cambodia's Angkorean civilisation.
"Angkor Wat is so impressive and overpowering. It is much more amazing than what I was led to believe when I found out about the UNESCO-recognised heritage," said the 44-year-old man from Go Vap District.
"It is much bigger than I thought, and as far as the architecture is concerned ‘seeing is believing'. It is so true that this iconic Cambodian landmark is unique in the world."
As part of the Angkor complex, which consists of 200 individual monuments spread across an area of 400sq.km, Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous ancient temple of them all.
Built for King Suryavarman II in the early 20th century, it is the best-preserved temple and the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its founding.
"After coming here I understand that because there are dozens of ruined temples in the Seam Reap area, it depends largely on how much time one has and one's level of interest to determine how long it would take to explore them all," Van said.
"I said to myself that the next time I come here, I will take longer to explore and increase my knowledge of the vestiges, culture and local people."
I agree with Van as recently I returned to Siem Reap for only the second time in 10 years. Both times I have visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, the Phnom Bakheng temples and Tonle Sap Lake, I have never had enough time.
According to local tour guide Sok Try, Angkor Wat which literally means ‘City Temple', is a Hindu temple complex dedicated to three main gods – Siva, Vishnu and Brahma.
"Directly looking at it, visitors can see that Angkor Wat consists of three towers, but when looking from an oblique angle one can see five towers," Try said, adding that it is easy to spot Angkor Wat on Cambodia's national flag.
According to Cambodia's Ministry of Tourism, more than 2 million out of the 3.5 million foreign tourists that visited Cambodia last year came to Angkor and Siem Reap has the potential to receive at least 10 million tourists annually.
|Old and new: The pavement that leads to Angkor Wat. One side is newly paved while the other side remains untouched.
Despite the influx of tourists from all over world, the area's image, its culture and traditions have remained intact.
"In everything they do, the Cambodians try to preserve what belongs to their ancestors," Try said, pointing to the pavement that leads to Angkor Wat. One side is newly paved while the other side remains untouched, with many of the uneven square bricks broken. Later on when we were entering a long corridor full of wall carvings inside Angkor Wat, Try reminded us not to step into the area separated by a rope barrier.
"They put up the barrier to prevent the stone path from getting worn out as each day huge numbers of visitors walk along here."
After paying attention to so many details, it is easy to see how well the Cambodian authorities and people have done in their efforts to impress tourists and attract them back.
"This is our first trip to Angkor. The whole complex is very beautiful and breathtaking," said Shineu Freese, a female tourist travelling with a group of friends from Canada.
"They have done a really good job of preserving it and we can see all the different features and what everything means. It is very interesting."
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During a recent visit to the complex at the invitation of the local culture and tourism authorities, former Vietnamese tourism ambassador Ly Nha Ky said she was extremely impressed with "everything that makes Angkor known to the world".
"I really admire the way that Cambodia has dealt with the numbers of tourists. I rarely see vendors hanging around the complex. The area is quite clear and clean," said Ky.
"Doing good business from tourist destinations increases the incomes of local residents which is excellent, but local authorities also prioritise the protection and preservation of the heritage rather than just reaping the economic benefits.
"I'm convinced that many tourists will return. This is also because the Angkor complex itself is so huge that no one can take in all the culture and ancient architecture in one go."
Ky said she would return to learn more about the people and the culture here, as she feels so warmly welcomed.
"The carvings and the Buddhist statues, the architecture and the local people, but most of all, the atmosphere here has made me respect what Cambodia has done to preserve this site and culture in these amazing surroundings for the benefit of the whole world."
With the newly-discovered city of Mahendraparvata, which was lost for more than 1,200 years, lying almost 40km north of the Angkor complex, the area now has another reason for tourists to visit time and time again.— VNS