My first glimpse of the ancient temple was in the still-dark morning. To my left, I saw the shadowy outlines of the architectural feat I’d waited my entire life to see, and to my right, an absolute madhouse–a veritable wall of people with cameras flashing, all waiting to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.
To witness the sun’s rays gently illuminating the temple was magical. But I couldn’t help noticing a few things of concern. First, the obvious decay of an irreplaceable cultural site. There were no guards anywhere; I could have scrawled a love note in Sharpie pen on the 900-year-old rocks. Second, the carelessness of some members of the crowd, though most visitors showed proper reverence and respect for the shrine.
That evening, Angkor Wat lured me back again–this time to watch the sunset. Instead of being transported in a van as part of a guided tour, I took a tuk-tuk alone.
The site was crowded, but much less so than on my first visit. My visit was transcendent, the water surrounding the temple as smooth as glass. I mused: How can a place so on-the-beaten-track make me feel like I am the first one to ever see it?
Yet Angkor Wat is but one stunning temple in the area. For the sheer wow factor, visitors flock to see the pink-hued, intricately carved Banteay Srei, known as the “women’s temple,” a half hour from Siem Reap. Closer to Angkor Wat is Ta Prohm, famous for its tree roots that seem to choke the stone–and the fact that scenes from Tomb Raider were shot here. In the ancient city of Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple with its giant carved faces, also inspires awe.
Arriving back at my hotel, La Residence d’Angkor, American photographer John McDermott shed some light on what I had seen. (A selection of his famed temple photographs are on display in the lounge.) “In 2000, tourism was just trickling in and it exploded in 2006,” he explained. “It did ruin the ambiance with snarling traffic and cars everywhere. But, the boost in tourism has given local people incredible opportunity.”
Cambodia’s heartbreaking history is difficult to comprehend. After the jet-setting 1950s and ’60s (Jackie Kennedy famously visited Angkor Wat), the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took control and murdered over two million Cambodians, leading to two decades of darkness and the ravages of war.
McDermott noted that Cambodia is still rekindling its culture, citing the rebuilding of ancient instruments that haven’t been played in hundreds of years as an example. “The people must learn how to reinvent themselves,” he said. “Fortunately, the Asian way is to look forward, not back.”
I came to Siem Reap after visiting comparatively sleepy Luang Prabang. With the tuk-tuks rushing by, and an exciting restaurant scene, the city felt like a giant, growing metropolis. Bisected by the Siem Reap River, it is an city to explore on foot. The hotel I’m staying at is romantic and lush–honeymoon-worthy–with a true sense of place.
I like a mix of the familiar and the more uncharted, which is how I found myself wading through rice paddies and knee-deep water in search of abandoned temples older than Angkor Wat. Just call me Indiannie Jones.
Many of the local Cambodian guides speak limited English, so my inquiring mind was relieved to be able to grill our fantastically fluent guide, Alistair, from Indochine Exploration, who led me through the countryside.
When we reached the first temple, Prasat Prei, after hiking for a few miles, it was eerily quiet. The temple was covered in moss and ants, with tree roots aggressively infiltrating the rocks. We hiked to another ancient temple, Bantheay Thom, and gingerly laid a blanket on the ground to have a picnic nearby.
The final wow was a 15-minute helicopter ride over the temples. I recommend doing it at the end of your trip–to reflect on a country that is juggling massive outside demand to experience its beauty while struggling to relearn and preserve its own priceless culture.
What Else To Know:
- Cathay Pacific recently started offering direct flights from Hong Kong to Siem Reap, a travel first, via sister airline Dragonair. The route is fast and easy, making the journey to the Angkor region much simpler than before.
- My hotel’s affable general manager, Carla Petzold-Beck, speaks multiple languages and treats guests like old friends. This industry insider recommended looking beyond peak season (November-January) to cut back on costs.
- Save time for a few more great experiences: Visit Angkor Silk Farm for a free educational tour of how silk products are made. Save one evening before dinner for the slightly bizarre and totally fun Phare circus, a musical dance spectacle showcasing Khmer culture in a small outdoor theater.
Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.