Siem Reap is a dusty, growing, frenetic town-city. It’s not a full-blown city, but it’s not a town either. If it weren’t for it’s location within striking distance of one of this world’s most impressive testaments to the strength, ingenuity and inspiration of the human race, then I imagine Siem Reap would have remained a dusty little town forever. However, as luck would have it, the ruins of the ancient Khmer city of Angkor were “discovered”by a Frenchman named Henri Mahmout in 1860, and everything changed.
The folkloric days of exploring this lost city, parts of which are still succumbing to the whim of the jungle that surrounds it, on the back of an elephant and with only a few other intrepid travelers around are long gone. Angkor-mania is in full swing. Air-con tour buses roll in from far-flung places like Phnom Penh and Bangkok and cart their load of passengers from one temple to the next for 1 or 3 or 7 days and then quickly rush them back across the border to Thailand, or back to the airport so that they can say they’ve seen Angkor, but so they feel like they were lucky enough to “skip” Cambodia. Everyone comes to Angkor. Japanese, Chinese, French, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Czech, Americans, Dutch, Spanish, Germans, Finnish, South Africans, Mexicans, Peruvians, Norwegians…even Khmers [Cambodians]. And for good reason. Regardless of how you got there, how you travel from site to site or where you come from, Angkor is a place that has the power to level the playing field. It is impossible not to be awed by some part of Angkor. It’s a place that makes you yearn for the ancient past, while at the same time, makes you revel in the present moment and your great fortune to be witnessing this truly special place in the world.
Contrary to popular belief, Angkor Wat is just one of the myriad temples that remain scattered throughout the jungle of Northwestern Cambodia, and not the city itself. Angkor Wat is certainly the most famous, the most photographed and the most visited, but a trip to Angkor is so much more that just that. From the walled in 11th century city of Angkor Thom, to the temple, Ta Prohm (made famous by Angelina Jolie when a scene from the movie Tomb Raider was filmed there), to the lesser known temples of Preah Khan, Ta Som and Banteay Srei, there is magic to be found all over Angkor.
If you are disciplined enough to endure the crowds where it’s worth it and clever enough to escape the crowds for places off the beaten path, you will be rewarded. As a lover of archaeology and ancient civilizations, I was thrilled to catch my first glimpse of Angkor Wat at daybreak. We spent two days riding in style with a TukTuk driver from our guesthouse driving us from site to site and patiently waiting for us to soak up the atmosphere in each place. Our third day, we rented bikes and did it ourselves. We mostly revisited places we’d discovered in the first two days, but the 40km round trip was a much needed day of exercise after so many days of sitting on buses and in TukTuks. There is always something so satisfying about powering yourself from point A to point B and back again.
Sadly, my pictures (or anyone’s, really) don’t do Angkor the justice it deserves, but here are a few of my favorites nonetheless:
Angkor Wat, as viewed from the West Gate Causeway.
Ta Prohm. You just have to laugh at this sign…
Detail. The temple at Banteay Srei is one of the most well-preserved in Angkor. Here, the delicate and intricate designs carved in the sandstone are every bit as splendid as the once were.
I hope this finds you all well. On Sunday, Jess and I head for Phnom Penh, and then I will back track up into the northeast of Cambodia. I imagine Siem Reap is an anomaly in Cambodia. I look forward to really discovering this country in the coming weeks.