A mysteriously magical land known as Cambodia, is home to a beautiful culture that has created one of the most stunning temple complexes in history. A country nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia radiates an uninhibited charm and third-world appeal. Not fully developed and discovered, like many Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia is beautifully preserved. Visions of Buddhist monks in orange robes pass your periphery as you take in this amazingly scenic destination. Angkor Wat, an astonishing and ancient temple complex, is one of the main reasons adventurers travel all the way to this far away land.
Today, Cambodia has a very small and somewhat simple civilization, but centuries ago Cambodia and its capital, Angkor, was the most powerful and opulent empire in Southeast Asia. Until recently, Cambodia hasn’t been visited by many tourists because of its violent past with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In the 1970s Communist rule overpowered Cambodia and brought death to thousands of innocent lives, leaving its marks on Siem Reap. Today, the province of Siem Reap has slowly developed into a charming town with nice restaurants, hotels, and markets. With little remnants of its brutal past, Siem Reap is like any other tiny developing Southeast Asian town, except on the outskirts there are dozens of ancient temples which draw visitors from all over the world. The temples of Angkor were built in the 12th century by the Khmer people for their king, Suryavarman II. These temples exhibit true Khmer architecture and show a collision of religion, originally Hindu (dedicated to Vishnu) then morphing into Buddhism. These temples are so significant that they have become a symbol for the Cambodian people and are represented on their national flag. These spellbinding temples are mysteriously ancient, hidden amongst the jungle of Cambodia, they are surreal and magical.
Angkor is composed of over a hundred stone temple structures that are all unique and have a different story. Spread out over miles of Siem Reap, these temples will take days and days to explore. It has been said that the placement and architectural significance of the Angkor temples are based upon the stars alignment, so that there could be a connection between the earth and heavens. One of the most recognized and bewitching temples in Angkor is Ta Prohm, which is unpreserved and in the same condition in which it was found in 1947.The jungle ruins are covered with strangler fig roots and silk cottonwood trees, making it even more whimsical and picturesque. These ruins were featured in “Lara Croft Tomb Raider”, and were made recognizable to the world by Angelina Jolie. This temple was built by the king for his family to represent the “personification of wisdom”. The king was successful in creating wisdom because this temple exudes antiquity and ancient beauty. An Angkor scholar, Maurice Glaize, paints a life like picture for us by saying, “On every side, in fantastic over-scale, the trunks of the silk cotton trees soar skywards under a shadowy green canopy, their long spreading skirts trailing the ground and their endless roots coiling more like reptiles than plants.”
Once you have experienced this fantastic temple you must go to Angkor Thom. As you drive to the next temple complex, you will go across an amazing statue-lined bridge to Victory Gate and the beginning of Angkor Thom. The Bayon temple, located in this complex of Angkor Thom, is adorned with large smiling faces carved in almost every inch of stone and grand bas-reliefs. These faces belong to the bodhissattva of compassion, called Avalokitesvara. Interestingly enough, this Buddhist temple is covered in Hindu elements and cosmology. This harmonization of religions is quintessential at Angkor and shows the true beauty of this peaceful culture. This temple is unbelievable, you feel as if you’ve stepped into another world, it’s both eerie and calming.
With so many fabulous temples to explore in this region, it is crucial to visit the main temple of Angkor Wat. The temple is made up of galleries, towers shaped like lotus buds, and terraces, all surrounded by the temple walls and moat. The temple structure represents Mount Meru, which is home to the gods. The temple is covered in counter-clockwise bas-reliefs (etched carvings on the stone walls), which tell stories about the people. The impeccable design and achievement of Angkor Wat has been compared to that of ancient Greece or Rome. Built for their King, Angkor Wat is monumental and breathtaking.
Once you’ve had your daily dose of temple exploration you can leave the ethereal world of the ancient Khmer and return to the tiny town of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is full of hotels that will meet your every holiday need from budget accomodation, to resorts. Once a group of old villages, taken over by the French, this town is a mixture of old world Asia and European, colonial style. Siem Reap has many delicious restaurants and great opportunities to allow you toexperience true Cambodian culture. If you want a great local experience stay with, Journeys Within. This bed-and-breakfast is owned by a young Californian couple who have a love and passion for Cambodia, and want to share it with every visitor. This couple also runs a tour company from the location and will plan your transportation, and anything you want to do beyond Siem Reap. The home cooked meals at Journeys Within are delightful, and the experience is very special.They also run local charities that help locals in need. You can donate $100 to build a local well in the town that can help give fresh water to dozens of people. Above the well, they will put a placard with your family name and dedicate their clean water to you. It is quite special and very rewarding. If you are looking for more of a holiday catered hotel, stay at Le Meridien Angkor. With hotels all over the world, you know you can expect beauty and peaceful tranquility with this hotel chain. Having stayed at Le Meridien in various locations around the world, I have to say that this one is fantastic. The pool in itself is a masterpiece, and the property is gorgeous.
[Above: accomodation at Journeys Within]
For a special Cambodian evening visit the Angkor Village Theatre for dinner and traditional Apsara dance. Located in a beautiful old wooden theatre, you can sit and enjoy delicious Cambodian food and watch this local performance. This town is full of charming restaurants for you to choose from. From Cambodian, to French, to Vietnamese cuisine, the choices are plentiful. The nightlife in Siem Reap is scarce, mainly because people are keen on waking up at dawn to see the sun rise over the temples of Angkor. If you want a great breakfast nook to start your day, visit the Blue Pumpkin, north of the old market. This tiny little restaurant is very French, all white, and has the best omelettes, pastries, and coffee. You will feel like your in Europe. (They also have free wi-fi which is definitely a plus.) While your in the heart of town visit the old market where locals shop, and get a dose of their lifestyle. Another great shopping spot is Artisans Angkor. Here, you will find handicrafts, paintings, silk-woven clothes, statues, ceramics, all created by local people. Next to the shop, you see all the locals (many who are blind and handicapped) creating these works of art.
If you want to take an excursion outside of town, go take a boat down the Siem Reap river which leads to Tonle Sap Lake. Here, you can hire a long-boat and a local driver to take you down the river and see floating fisherman’s villages, old houseboats, and life on the outskirts of Siem Reap. As you cruise down the river you will constantly be followed by local boaters trying to sell you trinkets and food or water. This is a wonderful time to capture photos of Cambodian life in these tiny water villages. Children will float by you in large metal bowls, as they paddle with a small stick, hoping for some money. Mother’s and children will want photos taken of them for a small donation. At the mouth of the lake there is a floating store with a pit of crocodile that the locals have captured, and a tiny souvenir shop. This little boating experience is memorable and gives you a taste of poverty and simple life in Cambodia.
Highlights of Cambodia:
*Angkor Temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Bridge to Victory Gate.
*Journeys Within Bed & Breakfast and Tour Company [ http://www.journeys-within.com]
*Le Meridien Angkor [http://www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien/]
*The Blue Pumpkin Bakery, Siem Reap
*Angkor Village Theatre for Apsara Dance & Dinner
*Artisans Angkor Boutique
*Tonle Sap Lake & River cruise to see Floating Villages
*The Old Market in Siem Reap
Cambodia has a powerful effect over visitors, its surreal nature is captivating, and its temples are awe-inspiring. The entire experience will put a spell on you and your perception of antiquity and culture. Magical and unbelievable this far away land is worth the journey.