Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, is the highlight of any visit to Cambodia and its incredible temples are a truly awe-inspiring sight. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries the city of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century after being invaded by the neighbouring Siamese. Over the following four centuries the tropical jungle reclaimed the temples and it was not until the 1860s that the French naturalist Henri Mouhot stumbled upon the ruins of the fabled city. Today there are over 400 surviving structures scattered over a huge area and the best known and most spectacular of these is the breathtaking Angkor Wat.
Without witnessing the temples first hand, it is impossible to gauge the enormity of the task faced by the builders of the time. And the fact they are so complete after all this time is further testament to the advanced construction techniques employed nearly a millennium ago. Everything is built on a massive scale and one can only imagine the awe felt by ancient visitors during the period when the civilisation was at its peak. It is estimated that over one million people lived there, making Angkor the largest metropolis of its time.
Angkor Wat is the cultural home of Khmer people, its form has appeared as an icon in various guises and today it is easy recognizable in the centre of the national flag. Neither words nor pictures can do it justice. Angkor Wat is a legacy of the might that was once the Khmer Empire, a detailed history of which has been carved into the many walls of this fortified temple. The temple is accessible by a giant stone causeway across the hundred and ninety metre wide moat, an incredible feat of engineering in itself.
Cambodia's greatest builder, Jayavarman VII, built Angkor Thom. An eight-metre high wall encloses this ten square kilometre city, which is encircled by a moat, said to have once been inhabited by crocodiles. There are five twenty-metre high gates, one in each of the north, west and south walls and two in the east wall. Access is via causeways over the moat that are flanked by statues of Gods on the left and devils on the right, all seemingly engaged in a tug of war!
The Bayon, in the geographical heart of Angkor Thom, is a remarkable 54-tower temple. Initially the temple appears to be a shapeless mass of grey and brown stone, but it is only as you get closer that you realise every tower has the carved face of Avalokit-esharva on it. The Bayon is easily the most popular sight after Angkor Wat and no visit is complete without a trip to this unique temple.
Another must is the 12th century Ta Prohm temple, with its enormous fig trees and giant creepers embracing the temple ruins. While clearing back the forest archaeologists decided to leave the vegetation of Ta Prohm in place to serve as a reminder of how the original discoverers found it and the other Angkor temples. Many of the trees have grown around and through the remains and soar high above the temple. Ta Prohm, the Bayon and Angkor are the top three sites for visitors to Siem Reap.
While some of the temples are impressive because of their sheer size, Banteay Srei stands alone in the quality of its construction and decoration. Its pink sandstone walls are decorated with what some consider the best carvings of all, and still in an amazing state of preservation. Built in 967 A.D and dedicated to Brahma, it is located twenty-five kilometres north of Angkor Wat.
Phnom Bakheng served as the Temple Mountain of the first city of Angkor when the capital was moved from the previous centre of Roluos, some 10km away. The capital, built on a lone hill, offers panoramic views of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the surrounding areas. It is best visited in the late afternoon for a spectacular sunset or in the early morning for sunrise over Angkor Wat.
Phnom Kulen is widely regarded as the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire and is some 48km from Siem Reap. The hilltop site has the country's largest reclining Buddha and it was here that the King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java. It has only just returned to government hands after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and is now again accessible, although the road is in poor condition, especially in the rainy season. Cutting through the area is the river of 1,000 Lingas. Just five centimetres under the water's surface over 1,000 small carvings are etched into the sandstone riverbed while further downstream larger blocks of stone are carved with apsaras, Vishnu and other figures. All sandstone used in the construction of Angkor was quarried here. Just 6km from Phnom Kulen, and offering a good alternative is the ruined 12th century Boeng Mealea shrouded in jungle and surrounded by an enormous moat. A visit to Phnom Kulen or Boeng Mealea is best combined with a trip to Banteay Srei.
The Roluos Group was the site of the capital of Indravarman I from 877 to 889 AD. The three temples of the Roluos Group, Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei, differ from other early temples in that they are made of brick with carved plaster reliefs. Many of the later structures in the Angkor group however had their designs based on these earlier temples.
The pleasant provincial capital of Siem Reap has undergone something of a hotel building boom over the past couple of years as new hotels have opened up to meet the increasing demand from overseas. The recent introduction of an open-skies policy and direct flights from around the region has made Siem Reap and Angkor much more accessible and opened up many new possibilities. Siem Reap can now boast some of the finest accommodation in the region.
An interesting (temple-free) day trip from Siem Reap is to take a boat from Chong Kneas on Tonle Sap Lake to visit the Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve, the most important breeding area for many of South-East Asia’s rarest waterbirds (see the birdwatching section for more info). Even for non-birdwatchers there is plenty of interrest to do including visiting floating villages and the magical flooded forest. Prek Toal is best visited at the end of the rainy season between January and March.