Henri Mouhot arrived in Angkor in January 1860 and, although he spent only three weeks on the site, his travel report, published a few years after his death in Laos in 1861, contained the passionate description of Angkor which brought the ruins to the attention of the world.
Angkor is the vast area, north of the Tonle Sap lake, where the Khmer kings ruled from the 9th century to the beginning of the 15th century. They left for posterity an incredible legacy in stone, the temples built to house the Hindu and Buddhist divinities worshipped in ancient South-East Asia.
The first king who established his capital near Phnom Bakheng at the end of the 9th century, Yashovarman I, also built one hundred ashrams (monasteries) in his kingdom, which suggests that the territories he controlled covered a large area. Located atop a hill, it is nowadays a popular tourist spot for sunset views.
The Angkor site is located in the province of Siem Reap, in the north-west of Cambodia, between Tonle Sap Lake and a small range of hills called Phnom Kulen was also covered with temple. Banteay Srei was missing, the temple was only discovered a few years later, in 1914.
Angkor Wat is the majestic temple which became the internationally recognized symbol of the ancient Khmer civilization. It is beyond any doubt a wonder of the religious architectural world.
Beng Mealea was only re-opened to visitors in the early 2000s after the painstaking task of clearing it from land mines, which took years, was completed. It’s often described as a ‘flat’ version of Angkor Wat and was most likely built around the same time. You will learn to recognize the sralao tree whose white trunk looks like a combination of vertical roots, but also the strangler fig tree, a ficus which starts its epiphytic life when birds carry its seeds high up another tree or on top of the sanctuary.
More seriously, spending two or three days in Angkor is the minimum time one needs to visit the most important temples. Four to five days will allow you to visit more of the Angkor site temples but also to include a one day-trip to a far away site: Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, Sambor Prei Kuk or Banteay Chhmar. If you are keen on visiting more than one of these far away sites, or on visiting a great number of the Angkor temples, a week will be perfect.
Cambodia became a French Protectorate in 1863, In 1866 a scientific mission send to assess whether the Mekong was navigable (it was not) started with a three-week detour through Angkor, then under the control of Siam. Under the leadership of Commander Doudart de Lagrée, Francis Garnier, Louis Delaporte and Louis Carné conducted the first surveys of the temples.