Siem Reap, CambodiaIt was early morning in Siem Reap, the bustling capital city of Cambodia, and already it was extremely hot and humid. The streets of this historical city were teeming with activity as market stalls selling fruit and spices were being set up for the day’s trade. Locals filed past as monks in brightly coloured saffron robes with alms in hand went about their early morning business.
I observed all this from the back of a tuk tuk while heading to one of the most significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, Angkor Park, which is located approximately five kilometres from Siem Reap. We are here to view the temples of Angkor Thom, including Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Banteay Srei and Ta Prohmn, which are some of the better-known temples amongst hundreds of others.
Located in Northwestern Cambodia, this massive historical and religious park is a UNESCO world heritage listed site, and is over 400 square kilometres in size, containing the remains of the Khmer Empire dating from the 9th to 15th centuries.
I heading there early in the morning as this and late afternoon are the best times to see the temples. There are fewer tourists and the light at these times enhances the temples’ appearance, making them even more magical and dramatic.
Our first stop was the Bayon Temple, located in the centre of Angkor Thom. The Bayon forms a three-tiered pyramid encompassing 54 towers that are dominated by over 200 four-metre high rock carvings of intimidating faces, all looking out to the north, south, east and west. Each incredibly formed face has a faint smile and closed eyelids that seem to eerily follow your every move.
On leaving the Bayon Temple, young locals tried to sell us the obligatory fans and postcards. The beautiful innocence of these children with their deep, sorrowful brown eyes and beautiful smiles belies the sadness of Cambodia’s dark recent history. The past is very much apparent when you are touring outside of Siem Reap, as there are still areas that are forbidden due to undetected landmines that are still unaccounted for and active.
Our next stop was Ta Prohm Temple, where giant figs and silk cotton trees have entrenched their roots so deep into this ancient temple that they have been left untouched, as disturbing them could mean the crumbling of this historical structure. This is by far the most dramatic and enchanting temple of all and was where Angelina Jolie filmed the movie Tomb Raider.
We finished our temple-viewing day at Angor Wat, which is the largest of the Khmer temple complexes and is often described as one of the most spectacular religious monuments in the world. It is also featured on the national flag.
The next day we hired a car (at a very low cost) and made Banteay Srei Temple our first stop. It’s one of the oldest and most beautiful temples in the region and is approximately 25 kilometres from the main complex of Angkor Wat. It’s a comparatively small 10th-century temple boasting a pink hue due to the hard red sandstone it’s made from and featuring the most unusual detail and exquisite sculptures.
You could spend your entire holiday exploring the Angor Thom region, but there is so much more to see, including Phnom Kulen, one of Cambodia’s holiest and most sacred mountains that. Getting there from Siem Reap takes about an hour-and-a-half and it’s only accessible by car.
Ascending the steps to the top of the mountain (which is about a 15-minute walk by foot from the car park) we passed many exotic sculptures and child buskers singing, which made the enchanting walk even more pleasant. When we finally reached the top we arrived at a sacred temple, which houses a giant reclining Buddha that has been carved from the existing sandstone rock that sits at the top of the summit.
To cool off afterwards, the nearby Phnom Kulen waterfalls are known for their spiritual waters and they were perfect for a post-climb swim.
There is so much history in Siem Reap that I felt as though I need muched more time to discover the full extent of this extraordinary city. I’ll can’t wait to go back.
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The writer flew to Cambodia with Vietnam Airlines