If Cambodia is the Kingdom of Wonder, then the Temples of Angkor are the jewels in the crown.
Our first view of Angkor Wat was overwhelming, for the sheer magnificence of its scale and setting alone. We stood at the entrance to the wide stone causeway that spans the lake sized moat, with our mouths open, as our local guide reminded us that we were only at the entrance to the temple complex. Five ornate tiered gateways (two of which were designed for elephants) lead to the main Wat or temple. Angkor Wat is crowned by five tall graduated towers of relief-carved sandstone that seem to reach out of the jungle behind, truly deserving to be one of the man-made wonders of the world (and, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Angkor Wat is the most well known temple, and the national symbol of Cambodia, however it is only one of over 250 temples in this region alone. As you drive around you are a little overawed by the ambitious temple building programme of the Khmer Kings. There are so many in fact that we bought a three day pass to try to see as many as possible, starting in the mornings or evenings when it was a little cooler to walk around. Ben even got up at 4am to see the sunrise over Angkor and walked up a steep hill to see the sunset too one afternoon – the lengths he will go to in order to get the ‘shot’! He challenged the boys to take some pictures too and they came away with some fantastic photographs, as you can see. It is hard to explain but Angkor really gets under your skin. And there is just so much of it to see!
Ta Prohm was one of our family favourites, as it has only been partially restored and still retains some of the ’jungle’ growing through it, as Angkor Wat was when it was rediscovered in the 1860s. Ta Prohm was also used as a location in the Tomb Raider movie due to its almost magical ambiance.
The largest temple is Angkor Thom, that is actually a 10 km2 city of temples built by King Jayavaman VII in the late 12thC, including the mysterious Bayon Temple covered in huge Buddha faces, and the Baphuon Temple which has an enormous reclining Buddha as one of its sides.
Siem Reap, the town that supports Angkor is also a revelation – it’s a city of two halves. Yes, it’s full of tourists and bars, markets and restaurants, there’s even an area called Pub Street, but it’s also quite charming with its river, wide avenues and gorgeous public gardens. We stayed in the Wat Bo Village area, a short tuk-tuk ride from the centre of the action, in a Khmer owned small boutique hotel called Suon Angkor, and our room was the original family home, a two bedroom traditional wooden house (a smaller version of the Ancient Houses of Battambang) nestled within the new hotel complex – unusual but interesting. From here we discovered the temples by day and enjoyed all that Siem Reap has to offer at night. As those of you who follow Facebook will already know, it’s also where we walked passed Angelina Jolie and some of her family one night, out for their own stroll around the town (sadly without Brad), a ‘ wow’ moment for us all.
To better understand the Khmer culture we visited the Angkor National Museum, which included an incredible display called the Gallery of A Thousand Buddha’s, the boys just loved it (sadly no photos allowed). We also went to an Khmer barber shop where Ben got the shortest haircut of his life, after which Ollie refused to have his hair cut at all – but we made him, 3 dollars a cut was a bargain after all! Cameron got his ‘spa’ fix by having another massage and charmed all the stallholders in the market place to get the best deals on his souvenirs.
So, if you are looking for somewhere different for your next holiday could I suggest Siem Reap? It’s got a bit of everything, amazing temples, lovely people, great markets & nightlife, is still very good value for money and it even has an international airport – what are you waiting for?