In her second instalment from Cambodia, Katie Law marvels at the mighty Angkor temples and explores the charming city of Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is 320 kilometres north of Phnom Penh and at the heart of the temples of the Angkorian civilisation. Before our journey, I had only heard of Angkor Wat, but there are hundreds more temples, some barely accessible in the overgrown jungle. Others, we were told, have been detected by overhead cameras using infrared technology, but remain buried.
A helicopter ride offers fantastic aerial views of the original city layout, and its sophisticated irrigation system. A bicycle ride through the countryside revealed more remnants, as well as temple ruins in paddy fields, which we had all to ourselves.
Many of the forest temples are off the beaten track and have become romantic ruins that fire the imagination of how they might once have looked. At Beng Mealea, an hour’s drive from Siem Reap, the only sounds are of mynah birds singing high up in the spung trees. The ancient temple walls are covered by strangler fig trees that grip like tentacles and up which you can freely clamber, Lara Croft-style, over the tumbledown stone slabs, some half-buried in the earth, their carved details worn not quite smooth by almost a century of neglect.
Another highlight is the small temple at Banteay Srei, from 967 AD, where flowers and mythical creatures are deeply carved into almost every inch of the rose gold sandstone. A sunset gondola ride, drinking gin and tonics, around the moat at the temple of Ta Prohm is magical.
Angkor Wat itself is of course a marvel and to see it bathed in moonlight with almost no one else around is worth the 4.30am start, although it does quickly become crowded with hordes of selfie-stick waving Chinese tourists. This is why expert help in planning your itinerary is so important.
Siem Reap is well worth a visit in itself. Kandal Village along Hup Guan Street is hip and fun, with shops that sell everything from artisan ceramics to cold-pressed cappuccinos, while the bustling, covered market offers colourful snapshots of local daily life. There’s much else to enjoy too. The Phare Circus is an extravaganza of gymnastics, juggling and acrobatics, while traditional Apsara dancing – unchanged since the days of the temple sculptures – can be found at the Apsara theatre. Another important and deeply affecting highlight was our visit to the Landmine Museum, which shows how millions of landmines were planted all over the country by the Khmer Rouge, the long struggle to get rid of them and how many have still not been cleared.
Cambodian food everywhere is deliciously light, slightly sweet and never too spicy. Spring rolls stuffed with salad, peanuts and chicken, or hot banana pancakes made in front of your eyes at market stalls, or the most delicate fish amok at the countryside Villa Chandara were both fresh and moreish.
And there are hotels to suit every budget in Siem Reap. The luxurious Amansara, set in a magnificent 1960s building once occupied by King Norodom Sihanouk, is spectacular, both architecturally and in terms of comfort. The more mid-range boutique Shinta Mani hotel by the river is sleek, but cosy and has lovely staff who immediately make guests feel like family.
Wherever you stay, help in planning your itinerary and navigating the crowds is essential, so do invest in a copy of Andrew Booth’s The Angkor Guidebook, which contains detailed photographs and maps of many of the temples with clever pictures of how they would originally have looked that you can overlay on top of the photographs.