The Ankor complex in Cambodia is a Unesco World Heritage site and within its boundaries houses roughly a thousand Temples dating back as far as 800AD. It was founded by the Khmer Hindu King Jayavarman who declared himself the Universal Monarch and "God King" and served as the capital of the Khmer Empire until the 15th century when it was sacked by Thai invaders. Researchers using satellite pictures and excavations have concluded that Ankor was in its time the largest pre industrial city in the world and at its height housed over 1 million people with an urban sprawl of 3000 sq kms. All this came as a surprise to me. I thought before going that it was one temple complex, Ankor Wat, and that it was Buddhist.
Over time Buddhism took hold in the region and the temples were converted but it's origins and the majority of its existence was Hindu.
The sheer scale of the area was a surprise. Today the main Ankor temples reside in a 400km National park with the majority of the most important complexes within striking distance (4 kms) from Siem Reap. Ankor Wat, the most famous temple of all is the biggest religious building in the world and photographed at dawn is the iconic symbol of the ancient Khmer Kingdom. Of all the temples in the Ankor region, three provide the "essential" tourist snaps.
Ankor Wat ( above), Ta Som below: and my favorite, Ta Prohm.I liked Ta Prohm best because it's a real life version of my romanticised vision of an over grown temple in the jungle. Its hard to describe the atmosphere of the humidity, sounds and green shaded light as you clamour through the jumble of thousand year old stones.
Very Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Or should I say Tomb Raider ( part of which was filmed here)Siem Reap is the jumping off point for Ankor. It has a shiny new airport and is easily reached via Bangkok (50 mins flt). You can get a Visa on arrival for $20, but be sure to come armed with a passport sized photo otherwise you'll cool your heels for the time it takes to process everyone else and likely be soaked an extortionate amount to get your picture taken.
The currency for tourists ( and everyone else as far as I could see) is US $'s, but apart from $30 or so in small notes, don't bring a wad of cash. Bills above $5 are worthless unless they are in pristine condition and will be refused if they look tatty. ATMs in town issue crisp "brand new" bills....something I found surreal. Change is given to you in combination of $'s and local currency in place of coins.
£1= 4000 local units ( Riels I think they're called).
Its best to arrange a pick up from your hotel as there have been reports of some nastiness with the airport cabs. It will cost about $10.
By the time you head home you'll have got the hang of it and will probably be delivered back to the airport by tuk tuk for $4-$5.
"Siem Reap" roughly translates into "Victory over Siam".
Though the Khmer Region historically encompassed a big slice of Thailand, the Thais controlled Ankor and Siem Reap for over 100 years until the French took control in 1907.
In the 1960s celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Jackie Kennedy beat a path to the town to visit Ankor until the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge threw all of Cambodia into the dark nightmare years of the "Killing Fields".
Millions lost their lives.
Siem Reap has two main markets. The "Old Market" is in the center of town and is a working hub selling food ( meat and veg) as well as the usual tourist "stuff".
Apart from the scary food section, there are stalls upon stalls selling Cambodian silk scarves, ties and bedspreads. It's very cheap but you need to bargain hard, with a smile and sense of humour. Even though you don't really need any of this stuff , you'll be surprised how much $20 will get you and the hour or so wandering around is hard to beat for fun.In terms of accommodation Siem Riep has all levels of the spectrum. If a guest house is your thing and air can is not essential then you're looking at about $12 a night. Four star accommodation runs between $50-$100 and there are a couple of 5 star operations running $250+. Food and drink is cheap and runs from Khumer curries ( think Thai) , to burgers and pizzas. You can eat well for under $5 regardless of what you choose. The main strip is a road called "Pub Street". Its a pedestrian thoroughfare at night and though pretty lively, felt a bit like a frat party to me.
A pitcher of local beer is circa $3.50 and a bottle of Heineken runs a cheap $2.
I found myself drinking smoothies and fruit juices everyday for less than the cost of a chocolate bar in the UK.
This is not tough travel.
The coffee sucked though. It's impossible to get a decent cup of joe in Cambodia.There are 3 million people in Cambodia and 4 million land mines still scattered around the countryside. Every day people are maimed or killed.Children and farmers seem to be bearing the brunt of the carnage. In the remoter parts of the Ankor reserve it is advisable to stay on the established paths as not all of the tourist areas have been cleared. As you can see below they're not easy to spot.