Located in Siem Reap, truly magical Angkor Wat was to be my first visit to a UNESCO World Heritage destination. I had heard that Angkor Wat was truly magical thanks to UNESCO great commitment to preserve these archaeological and historical sites and their surroundings in impeccable conditions. Siem Reap in itself is lively and surprisingly trendy when it comes to accommodation, restaurants and hotels, with countless boutique hotels for a 21st century hip traveller. Magnificent ancient religious and cultural monuments, beautiful scenery and landscape, happening nightlife and not to mention friendly locals of Siem Reap have all help to make it one of my most memorable trips, and this triggered my passion to further explore Southeast Asia.
It was in early May, the temperature was simply burning hot and humid. The sun was strong, but as I was well equipped with a hat and sun protection among the several travelling gadgets, the heat wasn’t a nuisance at all. The timing was not the best in terms of weather; however, for those serious enough to visit Angkor Wat and take photos, it was the right time to come: the excessive heat had driven away the majority of overseas tourists, leaving only those from neighboring countries who are used to such climate. Thus, it was a heaven for young travelers and photographers for they could take all the time needed in each of their favourite photo spots.
First destination was Angkor Wat, one of the seven wonders and most renowned religious and cultural site in Siem Reap. It was exciting for me, especially not knowing what to really expect, though I had had a slight photo glimpse from my loyal DK Traveler Guidebook. My first glance of Angkor Wat was along the walkway across the surrounding water reservoir. As we entered the causeway, my friends spotted this popular photo angle from where most professional photographers – definitely not us – take shots of the temple’s reflection on the pond in front of it. My shot was indeed an attempt version, and I promised myself to return with a more advanced camera and better skills.
The temple – or Wat – is an incredible construction in classic Khmer architectural style, and its interior design truly represents the clash between the two most astonishing civilizations and faiths: Hinduism (12th century) and Buddhism (14th Century). The laterite building material covered with soft sandstone really passed the chill feeling of how ancient, sacred and magical the site once was and still is at the present day. Its cultural, religious and historical significance is so tremendous that it became a national symbol and was placed on the flag of Cambodia. Angkor Wat could well be comparable to Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, with its assimilation of Islam and Christianity.
Angkor Wat outline was not just a simple one straight causeway to the main temple section. Before reaching the Central Sanctuary, I discovered that Angkor Wat’s outline is not just a simple one straight causeway to the main temple section but an interesting series of galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards in almost a maze-like number of paths and stairways. Walking along the galleries, I passed besides several Buddha Statues, feeling slightly let down when I saw that some part of these statues were dissected. What a magical sight all of this would have been if it had been preserved exactly the way it was in those days, though logically I understand this was impossible to achieve.
As we all reached in the main part of the Central Sanctuary, the mountain-like pyramidal shape temple, we marveled at the wall carvings of Apsara dancing girls, each one different from the other, all wearing carved ornaments and circlets. To get to the top of the Central Sanctuary was a very steep climb, so much so that the government had to build additional steps to assist visitors and assure their safety. Once I reached the top, I was impressed by the surrounding landscape and scenery, an endless panoramic view covering hundreds and hundreds of acres. We were so spellbound by the scene that It took us quite a long time before we could move on to another significant attraction: the Bayon Temple.
Despite being much smaller than Angkor Wat, the impact from Bayon Temple was equally overwhelming. Perhaps it was the physical vicinity of all the bodhisattva stone faces and the dark colours of the stones that made me feel like I was in those ancient times. This archaeological site also has some great bas-relief in fine details, including depictions of Khmer Army in procession. The best treat for me was the sight of Bayon Temple’s well defined towers and sculptures from its Southern gate.
Ta Prohm is another magnificent site within Angkor Thom. This area combines jungle surroundings and an archaeological site where ancient tree crawl around ruins and temples, providing a truly distinctive character. There are three significant attractions there, namely crocodiles, waterfalls and the popular Tomb Raider tree, part of the filming location for Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider movie. Worth mentioning also astonishing sites such as Pre Rup (Crematorium), Preh Khan (a temple with famous bas-reliefs of the Hall of Dancer), Preh Neak Pean (the Sacred Pond) and Banteay Srei, a 10th Century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and made with a hard red sandstone that can be carved like wood.
Apart from an endless lists of archeological sites, Siem Reap is also blessed with incredible landscape and scenery. Tolensap is Cambodia’s largest freshwater lake, one the several popular sites where to marvel at the floating villages, and a great place where to enjoy breathtaking sunsets over the horizon. The idea of a spectacular sunset triggered a climb to Phnom Bakheng; once there, we had plenty of time to relax, rest and chill while enjoying the view of the almighty Angkor Wat from the top of the hill. This completed my collection of great sunsets!
Restaurants and Night Out
We had lunch at trendy Shintamanee Boutique Hotel, and had an afternoon tea at Park Hyatt’s gorgeous pink themed tea room, where service was great and the tea set was delicious and beautifully presented. Their ice coffee really made our day during that boiling day of May.
Siem Reap at night is at Pub Street, where visitors are offered numerous choices from bars and restaurants that with or without air conditioning, street foods stalls, night markets, and fine Khmer, French and International cuisine.
Truly magical Angkor Wat has it all, from amazing archeological sightseeing to beautiful landscapes and sceneries, to great cuisine and night out. Siem Reap really summed it all up as an ideal travel destination in Southeast Asia, with its mystique and enigmatic ambience.