Cambodia’s majestic temple exceeds expectation
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of those rare bucket-list activities that deserves the hype. My experience began with a 4.30am wake-up call and a short trek through pitch-black Cambodian jungle. As dawn filtered into the night sky, a trio of soaring structures emerged from the darkness. The sheer height of the ancient towers was beyond my expectations: more than 200 metres of intricately carved sandstone. Entering the 163 hectare complex from the deserted Ta Keo east entrance (most people arrive from the west gate) afforded me a rare tourist-free moment to absorb the magnitude of the 1,000-year-old site – a faint chorus of chanting from Buddhist monks providing the perfect ethereal soundtrack. By the time I arrived at the western entrance, a group of bleary-eyed tourists were gathered, cameras at the ready, to capture the majestic sight of Angkor Wat reflected in the moat as the sunrise flecked the sky with a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and purples.
The awe-inspiring temple is one of the largest religious sites in the world, built as a Hindu temple with masterful architecture that replicates elements of the universe: the surrounding moat a symbol of the oceans, the soaring temples stretching to heaven. Having a guide provided invaluable insight into the various features and secrets of the remarkably well-preserved complex: the square holes that were once sacred pools; the mysterious doorway that only echoes when a person beats their chest; the 3,000 unique apsaras (celestial nymphs) carved into the walls; the numerous decapitated Buddhas, whose heads were plundered to sell on the black market.
At 7.30am I joined the queue to climb the 100-plus seriously steep steps to Bakan, the summit of the central tower – there’s a strict limit on numbers, so it’s best to go early to avoid the queues. From the lofty height of Bakan you can look over the grounds of Angkor Wat and beyond. Though it’s mostly hidden under jungle canopy, the sprawling 400sq km Unesco World Heritage site contains scores of ancient temples from the old Khmer Empire.
Bayon, a short drive away, was next on our hit list. The entrance is guarded by two snaking lines of fearsome stone warriors holding nagas (mythological serpents) in front of a large archway topped with a four-sided face. The Buddhist temple of Bayon is a maze of galleries, towers and more steep steps, but is most famous for the hundreds of giant, smiling stone faces carved into its walls and towers. There are also some incredibly detailed stone bas-reliefs depicting everyday life – from childbirth and cooking to gambling and war – with nationalities, dress and expressions all clearly visible in this fascinating historical narrative.
The final stop of my tour was Ta Prohm – world famous thanks to its Hollywood debut in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The iconic silk-cotton and fig tree roots creeping over the temple’s doorways and stone walls are incredibly photogenic. Visitors have free rein to explore and soak up the atmosphere and, of course, pose for the iconic Tomb Raider shots.
The sprawling 400sq km Unesco World Heritage site contains scores of ancient temples from the old Khmer Empire
REST IN STYLE
By the time I’d enjoyed these three magnificent ruins, it was around 1pm. Hardcore temple hunters can continue on to many more sites but, for me, some food and a nap were in order. I retreated to the beautiful Shinta Mani Angkor boutique resort (adjoining the Shinta Mani
Shack resort), a short tuk-tuk ride or walk from the centre of town. The collection of 37 rooms was designed by renowned architect Bill Bensley, whose distinctive style is everywhere – from the optical illusion floor of the pool to the Khmer-inspired modern artwork. Favourite features of my beautiful Deluxe Poolview suite included a fresco directly above my bed that greeted me first thing in the morning, the spacious terrazzo bathroom and rainshower, and the balcony overlooking the pool.
In addition to international dishes, the hotel’s on-site Kroya restaurant features a dazzling array of Khmer cuisine, which is all about contrasts. The seven-course tasting menu includes fine-dining delights such as sun-dried fish with watermelon, beef lok lak and crisp fermented pork with roasted aubergine and papaya slaw. After dinner, we headed up to the relaxed Bensley’s Bar for some modern cocktails and booked a rejuvenating treatment at the on-site spa (top tip: try the popular Khmer Coffee Scrub for a local twist, which combines white clay and organic Cambodian coffee beans from the hill tribes of Ratanakiri Province, which borders Vietnam).
In December the hotel launched a super-luxe collection of ten private villas (shintamani.com). The exquisite twostorey villas feature lush gardens, spacious accommodation, private pools and butler service, plus service add-ons in the form of fast-track immigration at the airport.
FOOD, DRINK AND NIGHTLIFE
If not for the temples at Angkor, Siem Reap would likely have remained a small, unknown Cambodian village. However, the treasured heritage site has seen the town blossom since the end of the political troubles in the late 1970s. While once there was little to do apart from temple tours, Siem Reap is developing its tourist appeal fast, with a raft of new hotels, fine-dining establishments, cultural activities and entertainment on offer.
The heart of Siem Reap’s nightlife emanates from the spirited Pub Street – a collection of bars and restaurants that merges happily with the customary Southeast Asian night market. One more distinctive addition – not for the faint-hearted – is the presence of food stalls selling local snacks in the form of scorpions, snakes, crickets and fried tarantulas. If, like me, the latter is the stuff of nightmares, bragging rights can still be gained by posing for a photograph for a very reasonable US$0.50. For a more upmarket serving of such critters, visitors can head to the Bugs Café (bugs-cafe.e-monsite.com) for
Food stalls selling snacks in the form of scorpions, snakes, crickets and fried tarantulas are not for the faint-hearted
some insect tapas or perhaps a scorpion salad. The café is open from 5pm till late.
Alternatively, try ducking down one of the quieter streets to find more highend options. The vivid red interiors of Miss Wong (misswong.net), located on The Lane, beckon to those looking for an atmospheric cocktail lounge, with a modern drinks list and selection of food. Fine-dining establishments can also be found in the centre of town: The Steakhouse, just off Pub Street, offers a refined setting with prime cuts of meat and a great wine list.
CULTURE AND THRILLS
These days adrenaline junkies can find an array of options to satisfy them, from quad biking or horse riding through the countryside to ultralight flights over the temples and Tonlé Sap lake. Zip lining through the trees and trekking to little-visited waterfalls are also on the itinerary for the adventurous. Anantara Angkor Resort (angkor. anantara.com) has recently launched a range of 45 curated activities to help visitors extend their stay beyond the typical 48 hours. More cultural tastes can also be satisfied. A slew of ecotourism
ABOVE: Sunrise at Angkor Wat