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From Moon Angkor Wat
Most visitors to Cambodia come to see the temples of Angkor. Located in forests to the northwest of Tonlé Sap Lake, the sprawling ruins of the Angkor Empire are simply without equal in Southeast Asia. The interplay of forest and ruins gives the former Khmer capital its otherworldly, fantastical atmosphere. Even widely traveled and jaded culture hounds cannot help but be moved by the scale and sensuousness of these buildings.
- Angkor Wat: The greatest of great temples, Angkor Wat is a monumental dream in stone.
- Angkor Thom: Cambodia's last imperial city is surrounded by a three-kilometer wall and moat. At its center, the Bayon is a spectacular temple dominated by towers adorned with the enigmatic smiling faces of the bodhisattva.
- Ta Prohm: The forest-covered temple of Tomb Raider fame is the most romantic ruin in the Angkor Archaeological Park.
- Banteay Srei: This small 10th-century temple features some of the most exquisite carvings of the Khmer Empire.
- Beng Mealea: Away from the crowds and subsumed by forest, this remote temple offers visitors one of the most atmospheric experiences of any Khmer temple.
Siem Reap, the town nearest to the Angkor temples, has grown from a tiny village 100 years ago into Cambodia’s second-largest city. Some locals call it the unofficial capital, thanks to the millions of tourist dollars that have been rolling in since the late 1990s. Siem Reap translates as “Defeated Thailand,” a reference to the Khmer Empire when it controlled large swaths of Siam (today’s Thailand) for several centuries. Siem Reap really came into its own at the beginning of the 20th century, when the first wave of international tourists arrived. Le Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened in 1932, and tourism grew steadily until World War II. Following the war, Angkor became trendy once more and remained on the global tourist circuit until the late 1960s, when increasing turmoil in Cambodia and the neighboring war in Vietnam put an end to tourism. Today, after several decades of political unrest, Siem Reap is the safest city in the country and Cambodia’s boomtown. Here are some must-see highlights of this thriving, chaotic metropolis.
- The Old Market Area: Peruse a wide variety of souvenirs in Siem Reap's sprawling market and watch the locals shop from early morning to dusk.
- Wat Damnak: An active but quiet temple allows you to get away from the crowds and ruins for an idyllic afternoon stroll.
- Wat Athvea: Experience local village life at this small, virtually unknown temple ruin just outside Siem Reap.
- Apsara Dance: Catch a traditional Cambodian dance performance, once reserved for kings, at the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor.
- Phare: The Cambodian Circus: View a breathtaking acrobatic circus performance at this exceptional and internationally renowned big top.
To delve deeper into Cambodia’s architectural heritage, explore wonderful stretches of the Cambodian countryside, or just get away from the tourist crowds around the main temples, it’s worth considering a number of rewarding excursions around Siem Reapmost of them within a day’s travel of the temple town.
To learn more about Cambodia’s rise to Asian superpower, the temple complexes of Sambor Prei Kuk, which predates Angkor by several hundred years, along with Koh Ker and Banteay Chhmar should be of interest. The laid-back city of Battambang offers quiet colonial-era boulevards, possibly the best circus and arts center in Southeast Asia, a couple of spectacular hilltop temples, and trips through local villages where visitors can experience rural life in Southeast Asia that has mostly already disappeared from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Here are some suggestions for exploring beyond Angkor Wat and Siem Reap.
- Banteay Chhmar: One of the barely discovered gems of Angkor, this remote temple to the west of Siem Reap sees relatively few visitors.
- Sambor Prei Kuk: This collection of small temples, built in the 7th century, offers visitors a look at the architectural legacy of local Cambodian rulers who preceded the Angkor god-kings.
- Koh Ker: This royal capital features an impressive temple pyramid from the 10th century, surrounded by almost 100 smaller structures. It makes for a great combined trip with Beng Mealea.
- Bamboo Trains: Powered by water pump engines, these homemade wooden platform handcars race up and down dilapidated railway tracks to get local produce and people from their homes to the markets in Battambang.
- Phare Ponleu Selpak: Battambang's circus, the best in the region, is the bedrock of Cambodia's creative talent and has turned out countless students in the last decade.
- Wat Banan and Wat Phnom Sampeau: Two hilltop temples and the villages and rice paddies between make for a fantastic day trip through Cambodia's rural communities, whether on the back of a motorcycle, in a tuk-tuk, by bicycle, or on the Bamboo Train.