Easily the highlight of any visit to Cambodia — and perhaps even South East Asia — the temple complex of Angkor is an ancient sentinel deep in the forests of Siem Reap province. At one point it was almost entirely lost to the trees, but following extreme reparations in the 19th and 20th centuries, it has become more than just a tourists’ dream; it is a startling testimony to the advanced Khmer Empire. Along with such wonders as Machu Picchu or the Great Wall of China, the crumbling majesty of this 12th century temple is an unforgettable experience. Remote, nearly completely lost and forgotten, the complex requires either your own wheels or hiring a driver or tour guide — but you will not be disappointed. No photographs can do it justice, no words can fully describe the peaceful aura of history emanating from its stones. I have visited twice and am still desperate to revisit Angkor as more temples are constantly being rediscovered, repaired and reconstructed.
The main attraction is, of course, the dramatically photogenic Angkor Wat. An entrance to the vast site for the majority of visitors, this temple is well-restored and simply spectacular to behold. Walk along the stone causeway among pools to enter the aged stones and admire carvings and bas-reliefs — and the sheer scale of it all. The best, most breathtaking view is born each day at sunrise as a sky full of fiery candy shades silhouettes the temple and reflects on pools strewn with lily pads, before morning’s first light illuminates Angkor’s dark stone towers and courtyards in all their faded glory. The first time I visited I was simply blown away and no less so upon my return. I feel quite lucky that my first visit was before the age of Instagram — I was able to simply soak it all in and not worry about the perfect selfie — but of course, it is stunning to photograph. It was also possible at one point to scale the steep, timeworn steps to the library towers in the centre of the temple courtyard and reach an incredible panorama, then enjoy one of the hairiest descents I’ve taken (especially given that I failed to spot a handrail on the back steps).
While Angkor Wat itself may be the classic image of the temple complex, it is far from all there is to explore. It is the largest religious monument in the world, its 16.2 hectares buried within the tropical jungle, and while seeing all of the sites in one visit would be almost impossible, I’ve compiled a few of my must-see temples to fill up at least a full day (or three!)
The collection of temples at Angkor Thom should be second on the list: Preah Pilalay stands like a lonely sentinel; ancient history breathes at the Royal Enclosure and Phimeakanas; at the Baphuon, crumbling faces watch silently over the visitors in a distressed serenity; timeworn trunks adorn the Terrace of the Elephants; and more await. You can lose yourself in the pools of Banteay Srei, or admire the moats and statues of the Ruolos. If you’ve ever seen the film Tomb Raider, it’s time to live out your Lara Croft fantasy.
Overlooking the site, Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple are Lara’s vantage points, and her tumbling entrance takes place at Ta Prohm where the trees simultaneously strangle and support the ancient stones. Ta Prohm was possibly my favourite for its representation of the human battle against nature in such wild terrain, for the way it perpetually balances between destruction and growth; it is perhaps even more beautiful for nature’s takeover.
Majestic, ancient and almost unbelievable, Angkor Wat is a constantly evolving site that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. My advice is to go, go again, and maybe even a third time — I know I’ll be returning at least once more in my life. It’s also worth having a game plan in order to avoid the tourists: think about the most popular hours for tours, which usually leave between 7-9am and last 9 hours on average; think about the most talked-about temples and try to avoid coinciding with the herds in order to feel the calm isolation; start earlier, stay later, visit some of the smaller, lesser-known temples and go further out to create your own unique experience. One final tip before diving into the unparalleled beauty of Angkor is to remember it’s still a Buddhist temple, so exposed shoulders or knees will mean you cannot enter the temples themselves. With that in mind, prepare to be blown away not only by its splendour, or the history radiating from its walls, but by the scale and preservation of an ancient magnificence once almost forgotten.