When you first open your eyes to the beauty, wonder, and tranquillity of the temples of Angkor outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, you can only begin to imagine how far Cambodia has progressed since the dark days of the 1970’s when the brutal Khmer Rouge regime ruled the country.
There are still scars, of course – wounds that deep never heal without a trace, but the 1992 inclusion of the Angkor Archaeological Park on the UNESCO World Heritage List showed that a country once so ravaged still had an ancient treasure to call its own.
The French-influenced city of Siem Reap is located in northwest Cambodia and is the starting point for any trip into and around the temples of Angkor. It’s a bustling city and those who are not completely comfortable and confident on a bicycle are better off relying on motorised transportation. A reumork (it’s not called a tuk-tuk in Cambodia) is a no-stress way to move around in pairs and small groups and rides within the city are one or two U.S. Dollars (USD).
The Angkor Night Market near Sivatha Street is open daily until midnight and is a lively and colourful spot to browse through silk and cotton textiles, Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) art and handicrafts, as well as all kinds of holiday souvenirs.
The streets between the Night Market and the Old Market are full of restaurants and food stalls but if it’s Khmer cuisine you’re looking for, then The Alley is where you need to be. It’s here where you’ll find Cambodia’s national dish, amok, something that you shouldn’t leave the country without first tasting.
Thanks to a bountiful supply in the Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodians eat a lot of freshwater fish, the principle ingredient in amok. The fish is cooked in a mixture of curry paste, coconut milk, spinach, lemongrass, chilli, kaffir limes leaves, and is always accompanied by rice. Presentation is also important as amok is served either in a banana leaf parcel or the shell of a young coconut.
Other favourites are lok lak, marinated and stir-fried beef cubes served with fresh vegetables and a dipping sauce of lime juice, sea salt, and black Kampot pepper, and fresh spring rolls packed with herbs, crunchy vegetables, and dipped in a hot sweet and sour sauce garnished with crushed peanuts.
As charming as Siem Reap is, it is Angkor, the heart and soul of Cambodia, which everyone comes to see. To visit the temples you must first purchase an Angkor admission pass, or incur a heavy fine if caught without one. They’re sold in one-day (20 USD), three-day (40 USD), and one-week (60 USD) blocks and can be bought on the main road leading to Angkor Wat. To enjoy a free temple sunset then purchase your pass after 5pm and race to Angkor Wat, as the validity of the pass only starts from the following day.
It is Angkor, the heart and soul of Cambodia, which everyone comes to see.
One thing to keep in mind is that a single day will never be enough to really savour the temples of Angkor, and once you see them in all their glory, you’ll know why.
Sunrises and sunsets reign supreme. To seat yourself atop ruins which are hundreds of years old and watch the burning orange sun rise above Sra Srang (Pool of Ablutions) is simply breath-taking. This is one of the most stunning, yet quietest, places at Angkor to take in a sunrise. As you bear silent witness to the beauty, Khmer people dotted along the edge of Sra Srang perform their ablutions, a ritual cleansing of their bodies.
Phnom Bakheng is a temple which offers spectacular sunset views over Angkor Wat and the Western Baray, but in sharp contrast to a peaceful sunrise at Sra Srang, you will be one of many ascending the steep temple stairs and laying claim to a spot on the sun-warmed sandstone.
And what would Angkor be without Angkor Wat? A single day can easily be devoted to this temple alone. The bas-reliefs surrounding the central temple complex are not only a place to escape the sun, but a place to view epic depictions of historical and religiously significant events.
Sometimes, however, the path less travelled at Angkor Wat will produce the most memorable experiences. After crossing the bridge at the west entrance, turn left and wander along the moat until you reach the North Gate. It is here that a group of young monks from Angkor Wat meet to practise their English. You may find yourself slipping into the impromptu role of a tutor for the afternoon and leaving Angkor Wat having made new friends and fantastic memories.
Cambodia is in the GMT+7 time zone and be forewarned that the average high temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius the entire year. The monsoon season lasts from April until October, making November the best time of year to travel to Siem Reap. If it does rain, it’s not lashing down and it’s still relatively quiet before peak tourist season.
The riel (KHR) is the official currency of Cambodia but it is preferred that you conduct your transactions in Cambodia’s unofficial second currency, the U.S. Dollar (USD). Cash machines in the country dispense USD so there’s no need to worry about finding a currency exchange.
If you’re not a fan of long-distance bus rides, the best way to reach Siem Reap is by air. Siem Reap International Airport is seven kilometres from the city. There are daily arrivals from several Asian cities, including Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Vientiane. A Tourist Visa on Arrival can be obtained for 20 USD at the airport visa counter. Check with the Cambodian Embassy in your country to be sure whether you’re eligible for a visa on arrival, or whether passport holders from your country should apply in advance.
Fixed-rate taxis are outside the arrivals terminal and are the fastest and most efficient way to reach Siem Reap.
Ta Prohm – The charm of Ta Prohm lies in the fact that, as much as possible, this temple has been left in the same condition as when it was rediscovered by European explorers.
Bayon – Constructed in the late 12th century, Bayon’s 54 Gothic-style towers are adorned with 216 serene stone faces. Its eastward orientation makes it a great temple for sunrise as face after face is bathed in morning light. Sunset offers the same effect in reverse.
Banteay Srei – Located 32 kilometres from Siem Reap, this temple is one of the smallest sights of Angkor. It was consecrated in 967 AD and its intricate and elaborate carvings lead many to praise it as ‘the jewel in the crown of Angkorian artisanship’.
More details about Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor can be found on the Tourism Cambodia website.