Anyone planning to tour Southeast Asia can easily recognize the silhouette of Angkor Wat’s lotus bud-shaped towers. But there’s more to Angkor than this massive Hindu (and later, Buddhist) temple complex, the enigmatic faces of Bayon Temple, and the tree-overrun Ta Prohm of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider fame. Here are my personal picks in Angkor Archaeological Park and its surrounds, easily accessible from Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Just outside Siem Reap lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire that spanned six centuries, long before the coming of the French. Next to Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple within Angkor Thom is one of the most photographed in the ancient city of Angkor and is spectacular at any time of day. Just don’t forget that smaller, lesser-known temples in the area are also worth a tuktuk stop.
PHIMEANAKAS Are you in Southeast Asia or South America? At nearly 900 years old, this three-tiered pyramid surprisingly doesn’t get as much publicity as other structures in Angkor Thom, possibly because it is overshadowed by the massive temple mountain of Baphuon. Set deep within the Royal Palace enclosure, this “celestial palace” is intriguing even without the golden pinnacle that was said to top it. And I haven’t even started on what it’s believed to be used for…
BANTEAY KDEI The lure of this temple for me are two-fold: the greenish tinge from the moss-covered stone, which resembles verdigris in the dry season, and the state of ruin, which I find romantic. That it is built on a more human scale helps, too.
PRASAT PREAH KHAN Exploring this large complex was one of the highlights of my trip to Cambodia. The seemingly endless doorways and the beautifully destructive trees that seem to have the stone blocks in their clutches. There’s something about the scene that will remind you of the forces of nature, mortality and time.
Further out from the city limits of Angkor Thom, these are two amazing temple complexes worth journeying out for.
BANTEAY SREI Notable for the refined carvings on its pink sandstone walls, Banteay Srei is called the women’s citadel. Without a doubt, it is the smallest but the most beautiful of the Angkorian temples in its intricacy.
BENG MEALEA But my personal favourite has to be the piles of rubble that make up Beng Mealea. I approached it from a less-used entrance, with vines and spiders to match. It was only several minutes later that I encountered the busloads of Chinese tourists clambering up the stones, and even then I was still in a reverie. This is what I had come for–something lost and reclaimed by jungle. It’s easy to imagine armies of elephants tearing it down (whether or not that story is true). I’d love to go back and explore it again.
BACK IN SIEM REAP
You’ve been to the Old Market, Night Market and Pub Street. But no, you aren’t done shopping just yet.
THEAM’S HOUSE If you hire a guide, there’s a good chance he will take you to the well-oiled machine that is Artisans D’Angkor, where workshops and a carefully art-directed showroom are side by side. On a much smaller scale is Theam’s House, the home, workshop and showroom of Artisans’ former artistic director. Perhaps the lack of multi-lingual salesmen and the chance of running into the man himself are what makes me prefer it. Regardless, you would want to pick up something special here.
What are your must-sees in Angkor and Siem Reap? Share them here.