Cam­bo­dia’s ma­jes­tic tem­ple ex­ceeds ex­pec­ta­tion

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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


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 (shin­ta­ 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.


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-mon­ 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 (miss­, 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.


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. anan­ 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

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