You wouldn’t come to Siem Reap because of Siem Reap. At least, I hope you wouldn’t – it’s a gawdy place full of bars and partypackers. The reason people come here – indeed, the reason Siem Reap is on the map at all – is because of the myriad temple ruins that surround the town, the biggest, most famous and most iconic of which is Angkor Wat.
Built in the 1300s, initially as a Hindu but later as a Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat today remains an utterly spectacular place. From the moment you first see the imposing spires reaching up amid the trees across the site’s encircling moat, you start to appreciate just what a remarkable place this is. It really is magnificent.
Angkor Wat is in fact only one of a dozen or more temples and ruinous sites in the area, and you’ll end up visiting a string of them. Two in particular stand out: Bayon, technically just around the corner from Angkor Wat, is potentially even more interesting than its more famous neighbor, with crooked spires stabbing towards the sky.
Also notable is Ta Prohm, which is where Angelina Jolie filmed some scenes as part of the Tomb Raider films. You’ll know which bit of the temple was used in the film: just look for the several dozen Chinese tourists gathering around an otherwise nondescript spot, and you’re pretty much there.
You can spend a day, or two days, or three days temple hopping around. It really is up to you, and its simply a case of how long you want to spend pondering the ruins. If you can manage to get out of bed early enough then the view of the sun rising over Angkor Wat is supposedly spectacular (alas, this was just one step too far for me. I stayed safe and warm in bed).
There are also meant to be some good sunsets, although the one we went to try and see, from the top of the Pre Rup temple, was a bit of a let down, partly because it was cloudy, and partly because the view was obscured by distant trees, making you wonder why on earth this is a renowned sunset spot at all.
I guess in a way, as well, temple fatigue sets in after a while. I met up with a girl in my hostel named Lucy, and we hired a tuc tuc for the day to take us around the circuits of temples. After four or five temples – and having got the major sights out of the way first – I suppose they did all begin to fade into one another, and we spent more time chatting away about anything other than temples. I think we potentially did it wrong here: we should have started with the smaller temples, and then built our way up to the bigger ones for a grandstand finish. Indeed, if you’re trying to do it all in a day, this is what I’d suggest.
It is a very worthwhile trip though. So often these major monuments turn out to be a bit of a letdown. See my thoughts on the Great Wall of China and the Army of Terracotta Warriors to get a sense of how often these things don’t quite match the billing, or else how tourism and insensitive restoration has impacted negatively.
But there is not a sense of this here, either from Angkor Wat or from any of the temples that surround it. Any restoration work has been done sensitively, with a view to preserving the sites whilst keeping them accessible, and as such there is plenty to do. You could spend a busy day here, or a leisurely week, or anything in between. I’d say its highly recommended.