Despite exponential growth, Siem Reap retains a degree of charm, and the nearby temples are still astonishing. Angkor itself is one of those extraordinary places, such as Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal, that simply has to be seen, even with 2 million annual visitors. The golden age of Angkor came during the reign of King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), when the city controlled an empire covering much of Southeast Asia. Abandoned in 1431, the enclave slowly disappeared into the jungle, only to be rediscovered (for the West) in 1860 by Frenchman Henri Mouhot. At least three full days should be set aside to appreciate the dozens of temple complexes: the otherworldly Angkor Wat, with its five pagodas; the colossal enigmatic faces carved into the stone columns of the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom; and the jungle ruins of Ta Prohm, where ancient temples are gripped by the python-like roots of strangler fig trees.
Cambodian food has been overlooked in the pantheon of Asian cooking, but it shouldn’t be. To experience the wonderful flavors of this underrated cuisine, give yourself over to Siem Reap Food Tours, which will take you, via tuk-tuk, on a four-hour eating excursion at multiple food stands and restaurants. Expect green curry sea bass roasted over hot coals, barbecued beef with prahok (fermented fish sauce), rich duck soup, and, if you’re game, sausage-stuffed frog on a stick. Most notable — and colorful — is the stop at the fair and food market on Road 60, commonly called Picnic Lane, where families come to eat at their favorite food stalls on pallets next to the street.
The exceptional Artisans Angkor boutique was the culmination of an effort begun in the late 1990s to help talented young people in rural areas find honest employment. The project has the parallel goal of ensuring the survival of traditional Khmer arts and crafts. Nowadays, Artisans Angkor operates 48 workshops in the province and employs more than 1,100 people, of which around 800 are craftsmen and women. The shop abounds with beautiful objects, and you may well face the dilemma that we did — what not to buy. The exquisite silk scarves are made from fabric that is produced on Artisans’ own silk farms. The carvings, especially those of Apsara dancers, are especially hard to resist.
Travel in Comfort
To see Angkor Wat in comfort, be sure to hire a private guide and car. The sites are far enough apart that walking isn’t feasible, not to mention you’ll appreciate the cold towels and air-conditioning they offer. To avoid the crowds, we like to get to Angkor Wat as early as possible. The site opens at 5 a.m., about an hour before sunrise.