t’s an overcast night and the moon is behind the clouds, casting a dim light over the thick forest. At 5.15am our group of six climb out of a tuk tuk at Angkor Wat’s back gate. Our guide’s small torch provides a light to follow and we meander in silence up the tree-lined road into the darkness.
There is not a single person to be seen as we walk through the massive stone gate and begin climbing the steps of the enormous 12th-century temple that was once the centre of a thriving kingdom. We make our way along the outer walkways, stopping to view the intricate bas-relief carvings by torchlight, listening to explanations of what the images depict. Tales of religious beliefs, wars, celebrations and daily life are intricately carved into the sandstone walls, a visual story of a civilisation whose demise remains open to speculation. We notice dawn breaking and walk quickly to the front of the temple to be greeted by thousands of camera-wielding people, all here to catch Angkor at sunrise. For the last half hour, we’ve had it to ourselves.
The figures say it all. Last year, the UNESCO-listed temple complex at Siem Reap in Cambodia’s northwest attracted two million people. Having visited it 12 years ago, when Siem Reap was more backpacker hangout than tour-group mecca, I’d heard it had become very busy.
But we proved that with a well thought-out itinerary, knowledgeable guides and in the right season, it’s possible to avoid the crowds and experience some special moments. With some of the best historic sights in the world, a remarkable culture and friendly, resilient people, it’s a destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list. And for us, it’s just a two-hour flight away.
Moats and boats
A sunset cruise on the large moat at Angkor Thom in a traditional rowboat feels like a step back in time. The boats seat four and, with a gin and tonic in hand, it’s an indulgently memorable way to spend the last moments of daylight. Smiling Cambodian oarsmen paddle at a gentle pace as we glide across calm waters, surrounded by a deep forest whose silence is punctuated by the calls of unseen birds.
Many of the larger temples have moats and there are also large reservoirs such as Srah Srang, where we had a quiet breakfast one morning. Fully operational, it’s a legacy of engineering methods that date back a thousand years.
Deservedly, Angkor Wat gets much of the attention, but there are many temples amongst the hundreds in the area that are rarely visited. An experienced local guide is the key to seeing the temples without the crowds. They know the peak visiting times for the popular temples, typically sunrise and sunset, and can suggest seeing certain temples in reverse. Entering from the back door and walking out to the front is a good tactic, but not so easy when you’re travelling independently. Guides can also suggest which of the smaller temples to visit for a unique experience; you will probably have them all to yourself. Raffles Hotel helpfully packed a picnic complete with croissants, yoghurt, fruit and a flask of coffee; the perfect breakfast while contemplating the jungle and ancient temple ruins.
Carved on temple walls, the apsara are an iconic symbol of Angkor. These are the female dancers who once entertained royalty and dignitaries at many of the temples, and their stunning forms are ubiquitous. Indeed, they are so popular that their prominent assets have become shiny from the lingering touch of thousands of hands. At the popular Ta Phrom temple of Tomb Raider fame, we walk in the westerly exit gate, avoiding the bulk of the tour group crowds. With his local knowledge, our guide ushers us over piles of fallen rocks, to one particularly voluptuous apsara. After capturing our attention, he points to her, saying, “She is my favourite, because her nose is perfect!”
A hotel with a chequered history, Raffles is the oldest in Siem Reap. It opened in 1932, but was closed on and off for many years due to war. Prior to the airport opening in 1966, visitors travelled by steamboat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and transferred to Raffles Hotel and the temples on their choice of elephant or ox cart.
Restored to glory about 15 years ago, it’s the ultimate place to rest after a long day at the temples. Stay for fantastic service, colonial architecture, beautifully renovated rooms, deep baths, Wi-Fi that even works by the stunning pool, a tennis court and a feeling of calm and tranquillity. Resident historian, Saravann, is on hand for visitors keen to know more about the hotel and about Cambodian history, and speaks candidly about growing up under the Khmer Rouge.
Five reasons to stay at Raffles Hotel
1. Best location in town, opposite the Royal Palace and a 10-minute walk from the town centre.
2. Inspired by costumes of the Cambodian royal family, the doormen wear different coloured trousers every day, which correspond to the traditional Cambodian colours of the day.
3. 24-hour butler service and a restored birdcage lift.
4. Traditional apsara dance and martial arts performance accompanied by a yummy barbecue dinner.
5. The Elephant Bar’s Apsara cocktail: a soothing mix of gin, vodka, pineapple juice, a hint of lime and a dash of blue curaçao.
Apparently, Gordon Ramsay dined at Sugar Palm when he visited Siem Reap, which says something about its reputation. The second-floor wooden restaurant catches a breeze through the surrounding trees and it’s a welcome haven for lunch after a hot morning of temple gazing. For the uninitiated, Cambodian food is a cross between Thai and Vietnamese, but without the heat. Good choices are fish amok, beef curry, banana blossom salad and green mango salad – washed down with the local beer, Angkor.e
Laughing schoolboys in crisp white school shirts cheekily latch onto our bigger boat and catch a ride as they row themselves home from school. The fishing village of Kampong Khleang on the edge of Tonle Sap lake floods every year, and on this bright, sunny day the water laps at the thresholds of the houses. The only way to get around is by boat, as the roads become rivers. From the vantage point of our boat, we watch daily life unfold as babies are bathed and people repair fishing nets and watch TV; the village got the gift of electricity only last year. Everything is on the water – there are floating vegetable gardens, petrol stations, and even a large signposted gendarmerie (police station). Just an hour’s drive from Siem Reap through rice fields and small market towns, this village is an insight into life on the water.
Make it happen
Country Holidays takes the hassle out of organising a visit to Cambodia (or any country). Leave it to them to arrange a customised holiday experience – from a quick, three-day getaway to a much longer adventure – complete with direct flights, knowledgeable local guides, activities for the whole family, hotels and hand-picked restaurants. Call 6334 6120 or visit countryholidays.com.sg.