Bayon head feature, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Close to Tonle Sap lake, the town of Siem Reap is the centre of operations for those wishing to visit the vast historic sites of the Khmer Empire, the most famous, and consequently busiest of which is Angkor Wat. 

Visitors mostly come to enjoy the astonishing structural achievements, but the site also draws ufologists and new age enthusiasts, partly fuelled by the mystical speculations of theoretical writers, linking the site to Alien visitations, who have accorded the site an air of the legendary status personified by the pyramids of Egypt and Central America, a comparison that is certainly architecturally entirely deserved. 

Siem Reap, originally a modest village, has grown up and developed around the tourist trade to Angkor, and is comprised of a mix of French colonial and modern buildings.

The sheer popularity of the amazing Angkor monuments have allowed the town to become well endowed with shops and galleries and provides a wealth of accommodation choices all the way up to outright luxury, and even to have its own flourishing international airport. 

Despite the immense influx of tourists to Siem Reap, the sheer popularity of visits to the renowned UNESCO World Heritage site, covering the architectural complexes of the ancient Khmer Empire spread out over vast swathes of the surrounding countryside, ensure that by day the town remains largely peaceful. When the monument hunters return, the town has a thriving nightlife, particularly evident around the vicinity of Psar Chas, the ‘Old Market’.  

The town also has three international standard golf courses, the Sofitel managed Phokeethra Country Club, the Faldo designed Angkor Golf Resort, and the Booyoung County club.

TONLE SAP

Another alternative or complement to visiting the temples is provided by a boat trip on Tonle Sap lake, Southeast Asia’s largest, with its floating villages and internationally important water bird sanctuary.


The villagers are adepts at surviving upon one of the world’s most unique and peculiar aquatic systems, with the lake annually fluctuating in size between 2,800 square kilometres in the dry season (November to May), and 15,000 square kilometres during the rainy season June to October), which is accompanied by a dramatic rise in water levels from 2 metres to 14 metres in depth upon their stilted houses.

stilted village on Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap, Cambodia

The effect is not solely due to local monsoon rainfall, but is greatly amplified by the waters of the Mekong River, which push back upon its tributary, the Tonle Sap River, resulting in a complete flow reversal of the normal watercourse.

For the inhabitants, contending with such extremes is compensated by the extraordinary abundance of fish that accompanies the phenomenon, of inestimable importance to Cambodia’s well being, and was also a crucial element in the success of the earlier ancient Angkor Empire, who, doubtless inspired by this natural phenomena, themselves became masters of water management.

ANGKOR

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

The immense ancient Angkorian monumental building complex covers a vast area of 300 square kilometres, and is the legacy of the once great Khmer empire which once ruled almost the entirety of Southeast Asia, is the main focus for most visitors. The closest and therefore most popular monuments are those of Angkor Wat, the city of Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom. 

Angkor Wat, the largest and most contemporarily famous of the Khmer empire’s huge structures, covers an area of one square kilometre, and is truly a masterpiece of architecture and art, and is beyond compare with any other structure on earth.

carving detail, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
 

The accumulation of such a sheer quantity of masonry, equivalent to that of the Great Pyramid, formed into such a highly developed and symbolically complicated multi-levelled architectural structure would in itself be beyond remarkable, but a closer look at the monument also reveals a hallucinatory riot of intricately detailed hand-carved Hindu iconography that almost entirely covers the whole edifice, placing Angkor Wat in a league entirely of its own.

detail of head, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia 

Next to Angkor Wat Lies the cittadel of Angkor Thom, built towards the end of the Khmer empire era, which reflects the arrival of Buddhism in some of the later detailing superimposed upon its Hindu substructure. 

The Bayon, Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia 

Surrounded by an 8 metre high wall and moat stretching around a square of three kilometre sides, the complex has five monumental gates leading in to its many monuments and temples. At the heart of the ancient structure, the intricate Bayon, the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King are the primary attraction for visitors’ attentions. 

Elephant Terrace, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Close to the east of Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom is a favourite site for photographers and fans of the blockbuster ‘Tomb Raider’ movie, who will at once recognise its wonderfully evocative profile, ironically treasured precisely for the ruinous state of its once mighty architecture. The temple was used to great cinematic effect as the main focus of the Cambodian scenes in the film, along with other features such as the Bayon and Angkor Wat itself.

Because of its visually evocative appeal, the site has largely been left in the condition in which it was found, and is characteristically defined by the penetrating tree roots that have sinuously overtaken the structure, perhaps all the more conceptually and poignantly fascinating as a possible premonition of the potential future of all human endeavour.

Ta Phrom, Siem Reap, Cambodia

There are a great many other significant temples and monuments spread across the landscape, the most often visited of which include Ta Keo, Pre Rup, East Mebon, the Rolous group, containing some of Angkor’s earliest structures, and Angkor’s most beautiful temple, Banteay Srei, which although small is the most richly and finely embellished of all the known structures of this truly amazing ancient world.

Carved detail, Banteay Srei, Siem Reap, Cambodia 

Within the Angkor historic area Phnom Kulen National Park provides a good place to explore the natural world of Cambodia and other archaeological features.

Phnom Kulen National Park, Cambodia

Here you will also find the Khmer river carvings, ingeniously sculpted under the flowing waters at Kbal Spean.

Kbal Spean, Cambodia

The 8km x 2km reservoir of West Baray, is a testament to the Khmer empire’s outstanding water and irrigation techniques, at the heart of the empire's phenomenal wealth and success.

 

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