What surprised me most about Siem Reap, Cambodia was not the grandeur and sophistication of the temple complexes. Walking among the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, I was struck by the overriding presence of the ‘feminine’. Carved into every wall of this vast complex are the images of Devata (goddesses) and playful Apsara (nymphs). This beautiful setting blends a rich history of Buddhist and Hindu influences that exude a feeling of peace and hint at the grandeur of the lost Khmer civilization.
Siem Reap, a Temple Base Camp
Siem Reap is a short (less than an hour) flight from the international airports of Bangkok, Phnom Pehn, and Ho Chi Minh City. It serves as the base for visiting the surrounding temples and caters to travelers of every level. It can equally be enjoyed as a single traveler or a family. You can stay in a five-star luxury colonial style hotel that offers traditional afternoon tea, such as Raffles (1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Kum, website), boutique alternatives such as Shinta Mani Club (Oum Khun and 14th Street, website) or mid-range options such as Tara Angkor hotel (Vithei Charles de Gaulle, website).
There is an array of excellent local restaurants easily reachable from your hotel by tuk-tuk (think horse and carriage, with a motorbike in place of the horse). They offer traditional Khmer and Asian cuisine, such as the local delicacy, Amok, a thick curry soup made with coconut cream. Two good options are Khmer kitchen, which has three locations (website), and the Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant (Old Market).
There are traditional dance and dinner shows such as Apsara Theatre (website) but these can be quite touristy and you ideally need to book in advance. There are also luxury spas, such as Bodia spa that offer a full range of body treatments including the traditional Khmer massage (website).
The Temples of Angkor
Visiting the wondrous temples of the UNESCO Archaeological Park can, at times, make you feel like Indiana Jones. From the 9th to 15th century Angkor, was the heart of the Khmer Kingdom. The most famous temples of Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, exemplify changing periods of Khmer architecture. Today, the park is spread over 400 square kilometers with temples, forests and even villages inhabited with the descendants from the heyday of the kingdom.
Mini-buses packed with tourists set off early to see Angkor Wat, on what is termed the inner-circuit route to see the main temples, followed by the outer circuit on subsequent days (it will make sense when you get there). Thankfully, these package tours break for breakfast and lunch at the same time each day, leaving the temples virtually empty. My advice is to hire your own tuk-tuk or taxi, from as little as $15 a day, and visit the temples in the opposite direction to the arranged tours, taking a later breakfast and lunch. By staying out later, you also get to watch the sunsets shimmering above the tree line. A 5am start to see the stately sunrise over Angkor, is also very popular.
You can hire a knowledgeable tour guide with good English from $45 per day, or just enjoy the experience of discovering the temples for yourself with a guide book. Each temple is unique. The complex of Bayon for example has amazing head carvings, whilst the complex of Ta Prohm was so overgrown when it was excavated that they had to leave trees in place to protect the structure from collapse. This haunting temple was used during the filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and is a definite highlight.