Once a small market town, Siem Reap has undergone one of the fastest periods of growth in Southeast Asia, and is still growing.
Now a gateway to Angkor - and home to all the hotels - the town has a surprisingly sophisticated selection of good restaurants and bars, but you do not have to look far to find a more authentic Cambodia, for example, on the stalls of the fascinating local market.
Travellers from far and wide congregate in a small corner of northwest Cambodia to marvel at this truly staggering collection of temples. Scattered throughout a huge area of forest, together they comprise one of the world’s greatest man-made wonders. Though often used to refer to the entire complex, Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, but to see even this you should allow several hours and will probably want to return.
Built between 1113 and 1150 A.D., this is the world’s largest religious monument, with countless towers, cloisters, courtyards and carvings. As the most famous, it attracts the most visitors and its main avenue can become crowded with photographers at sunset. However, in the immediate area there are more than 50 other temples to explore.
The 'Grand Circuit' comprises the walled city of Angkor Thom, the centrepiece Bayon temple decorated with over 200 intricately carved faces, the former Buddhist university Preah Khan, and finally Ta Prohm. Engulfed in jungle, this temple remains much as Henry Mouhot would have originally found it when he rediscovered the deserted temples in the 1860s.
Beyond the Grand Circuit are many other temples, often more overgrown and almost deserted, sharing 360 square kilometres with a dense forest of tall, majestic trees. Our favourites include the Rolous Group, a collection of early Khmer temples built in the 9th century; Banteay Srei, a charming early Hindu temple; and the recently opened Beng Melea. Less visited, these provide the seclusion to take in the splendour and vastness of this lost empire’s achievement.
A great excursion is on Tonle Sap Lake, a vast body of water that, when the Mekong floods, is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. A boat trip on the lake reveals rural Cambodian life as it co-exists with the seasonal floods, with floating and stilted villages where communities dwell in an aquatic world.