At dawn, as if on cue, the silence at Angkor Wat is suddenly broken by the piercing trill of cicadas...
At dawn, as if on cue, the silence at Angkor Wat is suddenly broken by the piercing trill of cicadas (small native insects). Simultaneously, the first rays of the sun appear behind the darkened silhouette of the temple, slowly rising over the five lotus-bud-shaped towers and illuminating the long causeway. It is a magical moment in a mystical place witnessed each new day since the twelfth century. Aligned with the sun and the moon, Angkor Wat, with its towers, galleries, courtyards and moat, is currently the biggest religious monument in the world, a recreation of the Hindu cosmos, built by the Khmer king Suryavarman II as his mausoleum.
The morning light is the perfect time for taking in the vivid sculptures and bas-reliefs of mythical battles and Hindu beliefs. As you climb towards the central sanctuary, marvel at the detail of the exquisitely carved apsaras, the celestial dancers. More than 1,850 of them bring the temple to life, framed in floral decoration, with their voluptuous figures, towering head-dresses, ornate jewellery and enigmatic smiles.
After such grandeur, head for smaller temples, like Ta Prohm and Bayon. This jungle-covered temples, comprise of collapsing galleries swathed in huge silk cotton trees which prise apart the stones. Visitng these temples is like finding a lost city in the forest. Imagine then what it must have been like in the nineteenth century to have rediscovered the ruins of Angkor, which had slumbered in oblivion for over 400 years after the Khmer Empire’s decline.
Deeper in the forest lies an even older temple, Banteay Srei, a miniature, fairytale temple in red sandstone, covered with perfectly preserved tenth century carvings. At sunset, climb Phnom Bakheng, the temple mountain where, in the distance, you can see the five towers of Angkor Wat turn to gold in the fading light. If you are lucky you’ll witness the flight of the bats as they emerge from the temples and local caves to feed, before everything slowly disappears into the shadows.
Before the humidity and heat of the approaching rainy season, the springtime skies are brilliant blue and cloudless. Every detail of every monument is picked out with sparkling clarity. Walking on the forest paths around the temples is a delight – dry underfoot and perfect if you decide to hire a bicycle to explore the temples.
Here are our recommendations for spending five days in Cambodia:
Day 1 – Visit the oldest temples, 12km from Siem Reap, known as the Rolous group – Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei, which date from the ninth century. Later, visit Ta Prohm, Jayavarman VII’s temple, consumed by the jungle surrounding it. As a World Heritage Site, Angkor’s forest setting is protected as well as the temples.
Day 2 – Spend a morning at Angkor Wat, examining the structure, with five majestic towers symbolising Mount Meru, and the magnificent 216 head carvings facing in all four directions. Then travel through the South Gate, stopping to look at the gods and demons, devas and asuras, and go into the city of Angkor Thom. At its centre is the vast temple of the Bayon. See the Terrace of the Elephants, carved with elephants, horses and polo players, and the Terrace of the Leper King, with its depictions of spirits.
Day 3 – Head to Siem Reap for a lake trip on the Tonle Sap and some wildlife spotting. You’ll see the locals fishing for their daily catch and in the evening, enjoy a traditional dance, as you sample the regional delicacies.
Day 4 – Start early and visit Banteay Samre, with its fine bas-reliefs and stone-vaulted galleries, and then continue to Banteay Srei, a tenth century temple in the jungle. It is the most ornately and exquisitely carved of all.
Day 5 – Venture further afield to the jungle-strangled temple of Beng Melea, 40 km east of the Bayon, before returning to Angkor Wat for sunset and a tour of the 800m bas-relief surrounding the temple depicting the churning of the ocean of milk.
If you are spending a few more days in Cambodia, then we recommend travelling south to Phnom Penh where you can take a tour of the Royal Palace or learn about Cambodia’s chilling history at the Killing Fields.
With three main beaches to enjoy: Sihanoukville or mainland Kep and Koh Kong, Cambodia can offer you the tropical relaxation you’ll so sorely need after trekking through the jungle. Our favourite is Sihanoukville, a small peninsula jutting from the southwest coast of Cambodia. Nowhere offers clearer turquoise waters and stretches of soft, white sand. Take an evening stroll along the shorelines and visit a few of the thatch-roofed seafood shacks for a taste of local life.
Take a trip to the crown jewel of Cambodia’s king in Phnom Penh and wander around Cambodia’s Royal Palace with its iconic spires rising above the skyline. Take a few hours to explore its hidden treasures including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Buddha statues in the Silver Pagoda houses, the Moonlight Pavilion and the highly-decorated palace gardens.
Lastly, if you’d prefer more historical discoveries, then a trip to The Killing Fields is a sombre choice. These fields are where the Khmer Rouge executed over 1.5 million people between 1975 and 1979. The village of Choeung Ek holds the best known monument. Marked by a Buddhist stupa with acrylic glass sides and filled with over 5,000 human skulls, come here to get an insight into Cambodia’s saddening history.