To Buddhists, few spots are more revered than the spectacular, crumbling temples of Angkor Wat. Nestled in the soaring jungle surrounding the town of Siem Reap, this vast UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most inspiring wonders of the world — a place everyone should have on their wish list.
Quick history lesson: Angkor Wat was the seat of power for the ancient Khmer empire, which reached the pinnacle of its influence and creativity from the 10th to the 13th century, when this was one of the largest cities in Southeast Asia. Sometime in the 15th century, the temples and city were abandoned until their “discovery” by the outside world in the early 1860s by French naturalist Henri Mouhot. In total there are about 300 monuments reflecting Hindu and Buddhist influence scattered throughout the area, but only the largest have been excavated, and of those, only a few reconstructed.
Needless to say, present day Cambodia is still healing from their fairly recent war, but when you find yourself standing alone in the jungle surrounded by semi-toppled ruins and giant Buddha statues, you’ll experience the peace that the country now embraces. Even in the bustling town of Siem Reap — the gateway to Angkor and home to the hotels and restauarants in the area — there is a sweetness and openness amidst the chaos; a rarity in most Asian tourist hotspots.
Enough with the context, here’s my NewNowNext 9 for Siem Reap/Angkor.
A former guesthouse of King Sihanouk, Amansara is an oasis of serenity and luxury in the heart of Siem Reap. As such, it’s no wonder that it’s played host to the bold face names who’ve visited this part of the world — everyone from Jacqueline Kennedy to Charles De Gaulle to Brad Pitt has wined and dined somewhere in the elegant rooms and outdoor spaces of the hotel’s walled-in grounds. If your wallet is up for a splurge, this is worth it. Each of the hotel’s suites are elegant and minimalist with polished stone floors, private backyards and plunge pools. The dining rotunda was once the king’s screening room, designed in classic 1960s internationalist style — and boasts a menu that changes daily.
Guests enjoy private tours of the temples in hotel-owned “tuk tuks” which are essentially motorized buggies. The hotel is also well-situated to explore the heart of Siem Reap. Right out the door is the city’s best shopping, bars and entertainment. Upon arriving, you’ll be told that you are not a guest at Amansara, but that the resort is now your home. Somehow, the staff manages to fulfill this promise. You won’t be able to get enough of the tightly rolled, chilled hand towels. Upon arriving at breakfast, lunch or dinner or after a morning of touring the temples, nothing feels better! It’s the little things in life they say.
Pass over a small moat into the sanctuary of La Residence d’Angkor, another slightly more affordable hotel option in Siem Reap, where you’ll find a cool interior with dark vaulted ceilings and a grand Angkor-inspired reliefs. The rooms are large with all the amenities including giant bathrooms that are connected to the bedroom by a bamboo sliding door. Even if you don’t stay here, the world class restaurant, The Dining room, and the Spa are both well worth a visit. Also, after an afternoon at the temples, this is a great spot to grab a drink at The Martini Bar upstairs under massive ceiling fans. Owned by the same company that runs the Orient Express hotels around the World, La Residence d’Angkor not only provides a soothing, enjoyable sanctuary for travelers but also — it should be noted — works closely with local organizations that provide educational support to area orphanages.
3. The Temples of Angkor Wat
Here it is, the reason made the journey to Cambodia! One could spend weeks exploring the vast complex of temples that span the jungles surrounding the town but a few days will definitely give you a great sense of the scope of the work and artistry that went into building these grand structures. Plan on waking up at 430am on one morning to take a tuk tuk ride to the main temple, Ankwor Wat. Photographers will swoon as the sun rises behind the temple — the magic hours of the morning do not disappoint. If you can tough the climb to the top, the upper terraces of the temple are among the best for viewing. The woodland-surrounded Ta Prohm can be visited any time, though it is best photographed when cloudy, whereas the distant Banteay Srei is prettiest in the late-afternoon light.Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia. The four spires in the main temple are known the world over. Definitely arrange to have a guide explain the stories carved into hundreds of feet of stone wall surrounding the main temple — it’s well worth it.
4. Night Market
Angkor Night Market starts up around 6pm and goes to around 11pm. There are over 240 souvenir shops selling traditional Cambodian handicrafts from silk scarves to paintings, jewelry, and wood or stone carvings. Try a Dr. Fish foot massage — where tiny fish nibble at the dead skin on your feet! In the food court, fill up on Cambodian, Western or Asian cuisine or stop by Cafe Puka Puka to try some milk snow ice to cool off. Look for the thatched roof of The Brick House Bar where you can snag a giant bamboo chair to people watch your evening away.
Feel like a cool beverage after a day of Temple touring, or just want to check out some Cambodian drag queens? Then head over to Linga, one of the first gay bars in Siem Reap. On Saturday nights all are welcome to the weekly drag show. Traffic literally stops in the street to get a peek inside this open-aired cocktail lounge.
6. Miss Wong
Nestled between bustling boulevards in the backpacker part of town known as Pub Street, Miss Wong is a local favorite. The lounge is open to the street, though taking up just a sliver of space. It’s a relaxing place to mingle with locals and meet some fellow travelers from all around the world. Drink specials are served up daily — so be sure to ask about those. Park your bike close by for a wobbly ride home!
7. Le Bistrot
Feel like sampling some Cambodian/French (Indochine) fusion? Head over to the Victoria Angkor Resort for a seven-course gastronomic fanfare, complemented by the finest wines in the city. Dine indoors or outdoors alongside the town center’s Royal Park.
8. Il Forno
In a quiet alley next to Pub Street and the old market, you can enjoy an authentic Italian dish in a charming and intimate atmosphere. The owners have somehow recreated a little corner of Italy, in the heart of Siem Reap. Worth a try: the fresh bruschetta or the homemade papardelle.
Set within a traditional Cambodia stilt house, sleek Abacus serves up an impressive selection of Asian rice bowls along with a few western main dishes. The central bar is made of volcanic stone and is a great spot for a pre-dinner drink after a long day of temple exploring. ANd upstairs, the terrace seating is divided into various cozy rooms that are perfect for a group of four or more.