Cambodia’s ancient temples by helicopter

By Jade Bilowol/AAP with AG staff 2 April 2011
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Take in the splendours of the ancient and sprawling city of Angkor from a totally different perspective.

IT’S ONE THING SEEING Cambodia’s ancient Angkor temples up close and personal. It’s something else capturing a bird’s-eye view of this once-thriving kingdom from the height of a helicopter. We’ve strapped ourselves in and put on our headphones, which fail to completely suppress the ‘whump, whump, whump’ of the chopper’s blades, which are slicing the air and whirling us into the clear, blue sky.

The voice of our Aussie pilot, Phil Butterworth, crackles through our earpieces: “You’ve chosen a great day to fly. The weather conditions are pretty much perfect”. He outlines the itinerary of our brief flight. We’ll eyeball seven temples amid this UNESCO World Heritage Area, including the jewel in the crown, Angkor Wat.

No sooner have we taken off from the international airport at Siem Reap, the charming, French-influenced town at the doorstep of the temples, when Angkor Wat – reportedly the world’s largest religious building – looms into our sights.

Surrounded by a moat, it sits on top of a 1 sq. km mound of earth cut into the thick green foliage. Built in the early part of the 12th century by then Angkor ruler Suryavarman II, this Hindu temple looks deceivingly miniature from the air. The sheer beauty of its architecture emphasises just how sophisticated the Khmer Empire was for its time. During its peak, it was arguably the most advanced kingdom in the world.

The Angkorian Era

The Angkorian era stretches more than six centuries from the early AD 800s. The number of ruins is contested, but there are said to be up to 1000 known sites ranging from stony rubble to the magnificent Angkor Wat.

The Cambodians believe there are more majestic treasures yet to be uncovered beneath the dense vegetation. The temples scattered through the region only hint at the vastness of this former behemoth that, at its most powerful, was home to one million. At the same time London’s population nudged just 50,000.

One of Angkor’s many Buddhist monks takes in the spectacular view from on high (Credit: Robert Churchill/Getty).

Due to the Khmer settlement’s sprawling nature, the city of Angkor is devoid of an official boundary. Its size has been compared to modern Los Angeles, yet it didn’t enjoy the luxuries of cars and electricity.

Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples. So much so that I find it surprising to learn it’s one of a great many temples here.

Angkor’s lesser known temples

Our pilot Phil pulls us away, the helicopter gravitating towards some of Angkor’s lesser known attractions, including Prasat Krayan, Prasat Bat Chum, Srah Srang, Prasat Pre Rup, Eastern Mebon and Prasat Ta Som. In their varying sizes, shapes and stages of decay or restoration, each of the temples is awe-inspiring.

Albeit a more expensive way to see Angkor Wat, I have opted to fly by helicopter, as it’s a quicker way to cover more ground. I also hope this sky-high view orientates me and enables me to gauge the distance between the structures.

Phil reveals his pick of the bunch – Prasat Pre Rup – which he explains is featured as much as Angkor Wat in many documentaries and film shoots.

It’s easy to see why. Its outer galleries are neat borders, ascending towards four towers guarding its large, innermost tower. It seems to be a royal tomb. “It’s best at sunset. Go down there with a few beers and relax,” Phil advises before we continue on to East Mebon.

On our way back to the airport we once again hover near Angkor Wat. From the opposite direction it cuts a darker, silhouetted marvel, backlit by the sun.

As we touch down, Phil tells us Siem Reap has changed dramatically over the past few years, as hotels and resorts sprout up everywhere. But its centre remains intact with quaint, French shop fronts, a sophisticated restaurant scene and leafy streets.

A boy leaps into the cooling waters at Angkor. Can it support growing numbers of visitors? (Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty).


Cambodia’s Bayon Temple

The next day we immerse ourselves in the thick of the temples at ground level, battling the sweltering, stifling heat. Before Victoria Gate, en-route to Bayon Temple, our tuk-tuk bounces along a bridge lined with statues. I can’t help but notice the old bodies of men and gods with new heads. We learn the heads were lopped off by the Khmer Rouge during their four-year reign of genocide.

We reach Bayon Temple, which proves impossible to capture in one photo, no matter how far back you step. It features more than 200 stone faces, their facial expressions ever-changing depending on the sunlight’s direction. Another highlight is Ta Prohm, its slabs of limestone pushed out of place by the power of huge tree roots. One of its claims to fame is being the backdrop to Angelina Jolie in the movie Tomb Raider.

We are shocked at how scores of tourists are able to simply crawl all over these archaeological gems. Surely the damage caused day-in, day-out is not sustainable? At Angkor Wat alone, 1.7 million people visited in 2006, and tourism numbers have been growing at around 30 per cent a year.

The distance between temples via tuk-tuk really hits home the immensity of this temple trail. It’s all much easier to navigate by helicopter. Only rivalled by the likes of the pyramids and Machu Picchu in Peru, this ancient marvel is one to be admired from a distance. Not man-handled and further deteriorated.

Jade Bilowol writes for publications including the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Associated Press.

Cambodian essentials:

• You will need to catch a flight from Australia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, as there are no flights from Australia to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.

• Flights between Australia and Vietnam are available with a variety of airline carriers including Vietnam Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Jetstar and Qantas. Once in Ho Chi Minh City, you can fly direct to Siem Reap with Vietnam Airlines.

• Helistar Cambodia flights start from $90 per person for an eight minute flight. For further details, visit