Siem Reap, Cambodia
One of the world’s premier architecture sites, Angkor’s temples and monuments encompass an area of about 40 square miles in north-western Cambodia. The capital of the powerful Khmer Empire from A.D. 800 to approximately 1200, the site was abandoned in 1431following the conquest of the Khmer kingdom by the Thai kingdom. Today Angkor is enjoyed by more visitors than ever thanks to the extended peace following the dark days of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979).
Angkor’s grand scale means it’s still possible to experience your own private slice of centuries-old Khmer grandeur. The area’s uncontested highlight is Angkor Wat, a vast temple complex built at the beginning of the 12th century. It took 25,000 workers more than 37 years to complex, but after the fall of the empire it was unknown to the outside world – and remained so until 1860, when French botanist Henri Mouhot stumbled upon it deep in the jungle. Cambodians revere the site, whose iconic profile is featured on the national flag, and it’s especially important to Buddhists. Teenage monks are a common sight here, their vibrant saffron robes standing out from Angkor Wat’s austere gray stonework and the shadowed waters of the moat surrounding the main temple.
At the heart of nearby Angkor Thom is the Bayon, the last great temple built at Angkor, mimicking the sacred Mount Meru at the center of the Hindu-mythology universe, the Bayon rises through three imposing levels with numerous towers featuring multiple carvings of massive, serene faces at the top. About a mile east of the Bayon, the much photographed Ta Prohm temple complex is a labyrinth of porticoes and halls that is slowly being entombed by the massive roots of ancient trees.
Before the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge period, Angkor was a favored destination for colonial French travelers. Now the nearby town of Siem Reap is a travelers’ hub with a growing number of new resorts and boutique hotels. But the restored 1930s colonial splendor of Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor – featuring an inviting spa and a grand pool set within 14 acres of gardens – is still its greatest historical throwback. Though its 120 rooms make it one of the town’s largest colonial hotels, the service is still personal.
The riverside La Residence d’Angkor is built in traditional Khmer style, and it is one of the resorts nearest to the temples. With 62 balconied rooms and suits, a lush walled garden with a pool an its center, and a highly rated spa. It’s an enticing oasis located right in town. A more intimate boutique option is the Pavilion d’Orient, with 18 tastefully furnished rooms in a French Colonial-style mansion from central Siem Reap.
WHERE: 196 miles/315 km northwest of Phnon Penh.