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Siem Reap: Cambodia’s most enigmatic attraction

Siem Reap, the ancient Cambodia township that is the gateway to the historic Angkor region, has been transformed over the last 20 years.  Back in times pre-Millennium, its market would teem with archeological enthusiasts, with a particularly bold – or lost – backpacker the only hint of tourism torrent to come. Today, such visitors arrive by the busload, their presence deterring the bolder jungle dwellers that used to linger on the town’s periphery, while drawing in a far less compelling species – a legion of multi-lingual(ish) tour guides, equally adept at highlighting a temple curiosity as spotting a gullible sightseer with too heavy a money belt.

Before you right the region off as irrecoverably spoilt, however, think again. Siem Reap and its locals have not lost their charm, it has just become a little less conspicuous. If you look, you will find it.

Siem Reap: Cambodia's most enigmatic attraction

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

A must see here is the site’s primary temple, Angkor Wat – spanning some 203 acres and neatly ringed by a wide mat. In total, it stretches across almost half of the overall site as it currently stands, although current archeological thinking is that vast tranches of this temple complex and its surrounding 12th century city remain submerged beneath the surrounding jungle.

Impressively, legend has it, the entire site was constructed without recourse to a single wheel, a technology that had apparently eluded its founders and architects. Fortunately, they had mastered the art of precision pachyderm-led engineering, with hundreds of elephants employed to shift the giant stones used in the construction of the site. As a testament to the contribution of these long-lost, long-tusked labourers, life-size sculptures depict their daily travails as they struggled to shift mammoth hunks of masonry into place.

Another must is Angkor Thom – “Great City” in the local language. Once past the ever-vigilant 54 demons that guard its southern gate, you can explore the wonders that lie within – the Naga (“great snake”) bridge that leads into the walled city proper.

Siem Reap: Cambodia's most enigmatic attraction

Angkor Thom, Siem Reap

The final unmissable of the site’s Golden Three is Ta Prohm. A photographer’s paradise, it’s sought as much for its famous ruin-wrapped giant trees, as for its lingering hints of architectural innovation.

While most travellers are happy enough to explore Angkor on foot, accompanied by one of the more reputable guides, this is far from the only option. As an alternative, you can take a guided bike tour through the original temples and out into the fields and small villages beyond the site’s bounds.

Taking in all the glories of Angkor Wat, however, is inevitably an exhausting process – with so much to see, the urge is to press ever onwards. As the sun sets over this most mesmerising of lost metropolises, however, you really do need a relaxing base to return to.

Siem Reap: Cambodia's most enigmatic attraction

Anantara Angkor, Siem Reap

One of the best is the Anantara Angkor. Unlike the larger hotels, crowding the strip from airport to temple, the Anantara is a boutique establishment, with its management keen to retain its local flavours, traditions and sense of place. Each of its 39 suites are resplendent in the grand Khmer style – all handcrafted teak furniture, rich local textiles and carved sandstone.

Almost all the rooms come with private balconies and ponds, while also offering a splendid view of the hotel’s sparkling pool and bustling courtyard. Just adjacent is the Chi Restaurant, Anantara’s in-house eatery. Here, Chef Kien Wagner prepares progressive Khmer cuisine to a standard that would satisfy even the most discerning of palates.

While it’s a sad inevitability that 20 years of tourism has taken its toll on Siem Reap, it’s heartening that so many of the changes – whether Wagner’s take on traditional fare or the chance to paraglide among the ruins – have been so ably incorporated into the local mix, heightening, rather than dulling, the overall experience. It’s clear that you don’t get to be 800-years old without learning a thing or two about surviving and transforming.

Before you start planning your next trip, please rest assured that while Siem Reap is most definitely on our list of travel destinations to explore, you might also want to check our guide to the top five places to avoid in 2018

The full version of this feature appears on Gafencu Magazine’s May 2018 print issue as “Carpe Siem” by Julienne C. Raboca. You can download the free app for digital editions of the magazine.


Photos courtesy of Anantara Angkor

2018-04-18T11:50:40+00:00 April 26, 2018|Travel|