Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire that reigned supreme from around the 9th – 15th centuries. It’s complex of temples is a World Heritage Site and a place you have to visit.
There are over 1000 temples in various stages of disrepair, with restoration having been made a priority in the last decade or so. Standing proudly at the centre of it all, and still the most impressive is Angkor Wat, built by King Suryavarman The Second between 1113 and 1150. I dragged myself out of bed before sunrise to capture it at first light, before taking a stroll around the main complex hours before the buses of tourists descended and I wasn’t disappointed. It is a beautiful experience.
I hired a guide to take me to a number of the other more famous temples including Bayon, also known as the Temple of Faces, The Baphuon that offers a wonderful view from the top and Ta Prohm, the backdrop of the Tomb Raider movie which has been reclaimed in parts by nature as trees with giant roots have taken up home in around the stonework. If you go early enough to skip too many tourists and follow a guide who knows the temples well, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered the ancient ruins yourself.
You can do the more popular and famous temples close to Siem Reap in one or two days, but if you’re a real temple buff or don’t like other people there are a number of complexes further away that a guide can take you to. The more energetic people I saw rented bicycles to ride to the temples, but honestly, it’s further than it seems.
Siem Reap is a small, relaxed town and is easy to walk around. Life spills out onto the streets with massage and reflexology chairs lining the pavements and tanks filled with flesh nibbling fish. Pub Street, nearby, is where most of the action happens, hardly surprising with a name like that.
There is also a central market where you’ll find a wide range of everyday goodies and tourist tat. And if you’re looking for some quiet time, there is a small river that runs through the town where you can find the odd small coffee shop and eatery to sit.
Note: Unfortunately one thing you will discover is that over the years orphanages have become part of Cambodia’s landscape, and a popular tourist attraction. This has led to plenty of unscrupulous people setting up places and exploiting children to raise money. So please don’t visit any orphanages, kids shouldn’t be seen as tourist attractions.
However, if you do want to do something positive, I recommend you visit Haven restaurant where orphans that are now going into the workforce are trained in hospitality skills so they have a future to look forward to. It’s a lovely, peaceful place with good food and wonderful people.
You don’t need many days in Siem Reap and at the temples, but make sure it’s on your Asia itinerary because it’s a wonderful trek back in time.