Extravagant hotels and budget backpacker guesthouses. Street food stalls and expensive restaurants. Extensive night markets and specialist boutiques. Taxis and tuk-tuks. Street-side massage parlours and luxury spas. Siem Reap, Cambodia, offers everything you’d want to find in a south-east Asian destination. But this town’s real draw card is that it is the gateway to one of the world’s greatest wonders; the Angkor temples.
Words cannot do justice to the beauty of Angkor, which literally translates to 'Holy City' or 'Capital City'. The temples of Angkor provide a journey back in time; to an ancient world of kings, empires, regal architecture and life constructed around the religion and beliefs of the day. The majestic ruins represent the height of Khmer architecture, art and civilization; when the area had a population of more than a million, when Khmer kings ordered the building of grandiose temples and advanced water systems and when Angkor was dominant over Cambodia and large areas of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos in military, economy and culture (The Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide, 2011). It is hard to imagine a time like, which makes the experience of exploring these magnificent ruins all the more powerful.
Do a little research before you set off. The experience will mean so much more to you if you understand some of the history. Wake up at dawn and watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. You will not be disappointed as the visual impact is stunning. The sun rises behind the temple so that all one can see is a silhouette of its towers against the early morning light. Rent a bike or hire a tuk-tuk for a day or two or three and visit as many temples as you can. Buy fresh fruit and ice cold drinks from vendors all around the temple grounds. Take thousands of photos. You’ll find it hard to stop taking pictures and actually enjoy the moment.
The temples of Angkor deserve weeks of exploration. Often situated many kilometres apart, each ruin offers something completely different. But if you only have a limited period of time, it is recommended that you make sure to see the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Angkorian empire; Central Angkor Thom (Bayon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King); Ta Prohm, a huge monastic complex; and Angkor Wat, constructed in dedication to the Hindu god, Vishnu.
The town of Siem Reap offers a little something for every kind of person. It is a place still getting used to the influx of foreign visitors; which means the locals are polite and excited to meet you (even if only to make a quick dollar), they appreciate it if you make an effort to learn a couple Khmer words, like 'hello' and 'thank you' and they are proud of how far they have come. Be quick if you are planning to visit because things are fast-a-changing in this tourist hub. The night markets are getting bigger, the streets busier and the hawkers more persistent. But for now, Cambodia is certainly the destination in south-east Asia, a destination you won't regret ticking off on your bucket list.
By: Philippa Francis