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Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Lost to the jungle

Nothing fully prepares you for the temples at Angkor. Especially not the total pants movie Tomb Raider. But you need to watch this clip, otherwise you’ll get to ‘that spot’ in Ta Promb and wonder why everyone’s taking selfies with a tree trunk.

King Jayavarman VII, by the way, mastered the selfie in the 12th Century, with his image plastered all over his social media estate. The difference being that his face was carved from stone blocks. And his estate was real.

 

It seems J-man liked to build things - big things. He knocked up Ta Promb to honour Angelina Jolie (well, maybe his mother, actually) and Preah Kahn to honour his Pops. Then he built the Bayon to honour Buddha. Around it he created Angkor Thom, a city a monumental four times the size of Vatican City.

 

Only temple buildings survive today, (the rest being of wooden construction), so it’s hard to credit that Big-J actually built one of the world’s first mega-cities. He ‘encouraged’ the population to centralise, built over 100 hospitals and developed what’s regarded as the first welfare state. 

Whether J-7 was a genuinely good man or just good at ‘man stuff’, he certainly had a grasp of modern politics. He realised it’s no good just doing good, you need to be seen to be doing good. Hence, his face in everyone’s face, branding his many achievements.

And boy, what a face! Serene, masterful, wise, dignified, determined, human - I’m pretty sure I even clocked a wry smile in one carving. Though you need patience to catch it. 
 

Sadly, most visitors to Angkor don’t venture further than those temples I’ve name-checked, ushered ‘shrine-blind’ around the Grand Circuit by their babbling guide, pausing only to snap that requisite selfie. But, as with all my recommendations, it’s important you take your time and take it all in.

 

The temple complex is, well, ... complex. Extending over almost 400 square miles.  Although most is within 20 minutes of Siem Reap.  You can’t expect to see it all, but please do allow more than a day.

 

The coolest way to see Angkor is by bike.  (You want air conditioning? Peddle faster!).  Having your own two wheels liberates you from the tyranny of the guide and the itinerary. And there’s no more intense way to experience the ambiance than to linger in silence for as long as you fancy.

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A wry smile

When I say silence, it’s obviously ‘jungle silence’, so think canopy sounds.  But in some of the more remote temples, I painted for twenty minutes without seeing a single other soul. 
 

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If you want some less well-trodden ‘must sees’, I’d suggest; Preah Kahn, Ta Som, Ta Nei, the Eastern Baray (lake), and East Gate. You can actually walk atop the walls of Angkor Thom from Victory Gate to East Gate. Both are less busy and more rewarding than South Gate, which gets inundated by coach parties of selfie-snappers.

 

After getting thoroughly hot and jungly, it’s imperative to retire to a cool hotel, with a cool pool and ice-cold beer. Fortunately, Siem Reap is well supplied with all three. I took up residence at the FCC, the Foreign Correspondents Club, now an Avani hotel, clinging to its legacy as the hang-out where journalists typed-up and telex-ed their reports. There’s still a manual typewriter in every room and a faint whiff of intrigue in the lofty dining room.   

 

I’d also recommend the Shinta Mani for its designer flower designs. Oh, and breakfast on a swing.

Dawn chorus

On the subject of dining, Cambodian cuisine is a bit like Thai, but with most of the flavour and spice missing! I discovered several bougie places, with food that looked good on the plate, but on the palate was just a bit meh.

 

But ever resourceful, I persevered and identified three notable exceptions;

 

At Cuisine Wat Damnak, I savoured possibly the best meal of my life. Certainly top 5. It's Cambodian / French / Michelin fusion with an 8-course tasting menu. After a sublime supper, I lingered to watch the kitchen in action. Picture Gordon Ramsay full-throttle, full-expletive, then imagine the exact opposite. This kitchen is managed and staffed entirely by women. The result is harmonious, balletic and poetic. If any friend wants to meet me there for dinner, I’ll happily fly the 6,078 Air-Miles to take them up on the offer.

 

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Almost next door, JOMNO is nearly as good, at almost a third the price. The vibe is pure hang-out perfect. And the street food elevated way above the street.

 

Note: When you get to the street in question for both these gems, you'll be thinking 'Where on Earth has Richard sent us?'.  It’s distinctly ‘outskirtsy’ (5-10 mins by bike), particularly after dark. Don't hesitate, but do book.

However, if you are feeling adventurous, lots of charming noodle carts set themselves up along the western side of the Siem Reap River in the evening, catering for romantic locals. Just point at what you want and they’ll wok it up for a couple of dollars a go, smiles included.

 

My third treat is, predictably, the AmanSara. Pricier than Wat Damnak and nearly as good, you get to sample Aman perfection, while saving 1,000 bucks a room.

 

Is this the way?

Inscrutible

In case it's not already evident, irrespective of what Angkor Wat offers, Siem Reap is simply a charming place to hang out.  With the distinct exception of Pub Street, which is exactly as the name implies, but far worse.

J-man may not have had Instagram to share over, but he and fellow kings created a place of immense mystical
 and sharable beauty that time, and the relentless invasion of the jungle have only made more photogenic.  As always though, there's no substitute for seeing, smelling and hearing it for yourself. 

 

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Angkor Trees.  Very Mixed media.

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Angkor Scenes. Very Mixed media.

A Few Links and Practicalities

(Just sharing the love. I absolutely don’t get paid for these.)

 

The Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC Avani): www.avanihotels.com/en/angkor-siem-reap

 

Shinta Mani:  www.shintamani.com/angkor/

Cuisine Wat Damnak: www.cuisinewatdamnak.com/siem-reap/

They also have their original restaurant in Phnom Pehn

 

Jomno: https://jomnostreetfood.business.site/

 

AmanSara: www.aman.com/resorts/amansara/dining

 

Most good hotels will lend you a bike. Maybe come prepared with some lights for those black runs home, having lingered ‘till dusk at your favourite temple.

 

If you don’t fancy cycling the temple complex. It'll be fairly easy to get a tuk tuk / driver / guide to take you.  Chances are your airport taxi driver will offer.  Just make sure you have flexibility on where you choose to go and avoid a ‘group tour’.

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Don’t miss;

The bridges over the Siem Reap River lit up at night.

 

The puppet theatre, if it’s operating. Fascinating, beautiful and supports local craftspeople.

 

You’ll be heavily sold the dawn sunrise at Angkor Wat. But I'm definitely not sold on it.  Over-crowded and under-whelming.

 

Hindu cemeteries. Colourful and strangely uplifting.

 

Pub Street.  (Only joking!)

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