There’s no question that Angkor Wat lures millions of visitors to Cambodia.

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.

The crowds at Angkor Wat just before sunrise (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

The crowds at Angkor Wat just before sunrise (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

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.

The pool at La Residence d'Angkor (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

The pool at La Residence d’Angkor (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

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.

Banteay Srei Temple (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Banteay Srei Temple (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

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.

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Comments

  1. 1/2d
    http://www.mediod.com/blog/2014/10/11/7-things-to-remember-when-visiting-angkor-wat
    October 12, 1:49 pm

    When I visited Angkor Wat, I didn’t know anything about it. I wandered around the ruins admiring its enormity, its carefully crafted bas reliefs depicting beautiful stories, the mesmerizing reflection of the temple on the lagoon. But I knew nothing and eventually the scorching heat won me over and found myself eating pineapples and monkeying around with macaques.

    Here are a couple of things I wish I had known before walking into the City of Temples:

    1) It was built by an ancient race: the Khmer people. These people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, dating back to 2000 BCE. They developed the first alphabet still in use in SE Asia, from which Thai and Lao scripts are derived. Angkor Wat was erected during the peak years of the Khmer Empire, somewhere around 1113 and 1150 CE.

    2) Pol Pot did not want to destroy Angkor Wat. We hired an “unofficial” guide who told us that the Khmer Rouge tried to blast out the temple, as Pol Pot’s aim was to abolish all cultural forms and start civilization anew. A new civilization without architecture. There was one exception, however: Angkor Wat (and other Khmer temples). “These buildings had a useful nationalist symbolism with which to bind people to the [Khmer Rouge] regime, while at the same time being temporally distinct from a living culture marked for destruction” (source: The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. Robert Bevan).

    3) The temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the center of the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain cosmology. Sacred mountain with five peaks.

    4) The dancing girls are deities. There are more than 1,796 depictions of apsaras (dancing nymphs). These celestial dancing girls are characters from Indian mythology and, the story goes, were used by the gods to seduce mythological demons, heroes, and ascetics. If the girl is not dancing, she is called a devata.

    5) Most of the stories depicted on the walls are from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Although originally Hindu, it has been a Buddhist temple since the late 13th century.

    6) Average income in Cambodia is around $3 USD per day. Please keep this in mind as children and adults swarm towards you at the entrance of the Angkor temples trying to sell you postcards, artwork, textiles. Don’t get irritated. Think about how it is possible to have such an imbalance of income in the world.

  2. Sok CHHAN
    Siem Reap
    September 18, 1:03 am

    Is a great show! I love it!
    I also recommend you to visit the Khmer ceramics centre is a social enterprise reviving ceramics arts. They give free vocational training and employ disable. http://www.khmerceramics.com/

  3. Craig Dodge
    Siem Reap, Cambodia
    July 26, 6:59 pm

    Since your last visit, Phare, the Cambodian Circus has a Big Top. Top rated (TripAdvisor) Siem Reap entertainment. http://www.pharecambodiancircus.org/circus/facilities/

  4. LG
    Cambodia
    June 25, 10:41 pm

    Of course, there are plenty of wonderful temples and places to visit in Siem Reap. If you have a chance to visit here i would love to recommend a middle price hotel, Royal Crown Hotel & Spa. You can check for more information here at: http://www.royalcrownhotelspa.com

  5. Norajean Walsh
    United States
    May 9, 11:28 am

    Ha, Indiannie Jones. I love it!

  6. mike
    United States
    March 24, 11:26 am

    my that is quite a morning crowd. buddy and i did not get there that early but that’s more than i expected would show up then – plenty busy when we were there of course. amazing place to see! just posted my write up and pics here.
    http://www.igobyplane.com/2014/03/23/angkor-archaeological-park/