Angkor See And Do
968 Charles de Gaulle Boulevard
Tel: 855 63 966 601
The Angkor National Museum, which opened in 2008, provides a fine primer on the Angkor archaeological park, especially if you're touring the ruins without a guide or only plan a short stay in Siem Reap. The eight galleries span nearly 2,000 years of Khmer culture, including such artifacts as a 7th-century sandstone Vishnu, but the museum justly focuses on the golden age of the Angkor Empire, from the 10th to the mid-13th centuries. Showpieces include a richly carved pink-sandstone lintel from Banteay Srei; an enchanting seated figure of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, from Preah Khan; and a graceful rendition of the multi-armed goddess Lokesvara from Angkor Thom. Special exhibits cover in detail Angkor Wat and its famed bas-relief, The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, as well as the challenges of contemporary conservation. The interpretation is far more comprehensive than at the National Museum of Cambodia; the $12 admission fee, however, is four times that of its Phnom Penh counterpart, which has a stronger collection.—Christopher Cox
Open daily 8:30 am to 6:30 pm.
The apotheosis of Khmer civilization, 12th-century Angkor Wat remains the national symbol of Cambodia. It's well worth spending at least half a day here. Make sure to see the Churning of the Ocean of Milk along the East Gallery, an epic bas-relief describing a tug-of-war between gods and demons to turn the ocean into an elixir of immortality. Like Ta Prohm and Bayon, Angkor Wat is on the heavily traveled tourist circuit. Ask your driver to take you to the eastern gates instead of the busier western gates.
Four hours' drive north of Siem Reap, Pol Pot's final bastion of Anlong Veng commands a dramatic escarpment along the Thai border. Adventure outfitter Terre Cambodge can organize overnight trips that take in Brother Number One's cremation site, and then continue on to Preah Vihear, a magnificent temple complex ascending a half-mile to the edge of a sheer, 1,000-foot-high promontory (63-964-391; www.terrecambodge.com).
The most exquisite carvings cover the Bayon. Like Angkor Wat, this masterpiece was constructed in the 12th century; it's topped by 54 stone towers, each bearing four smiling, enigmatic faces and clad with intricately carved bas-relief panels. The Bayon stands at the exact center of the walled city of Angkor Thom, the final capital of the Khmer Empire. To avoid the crowds, visit Bayon in the early morning or afternoon. For a total Lost City experience, proceed for one mile on the unpaved paths heading due east or west from the Bayon. They both lead through forest to massive, rarely visited gates crowned with the same happy faces. Well worth the brief detour.
As Cambodia's infrastructure slowly improves, formerly off-limits sites such as Beng Melea, a one-square-kilometer temple 40 miles northeast of Siem Reap, have begun to attract visitors. Completed in the early 11th century by the same king who would later erect Angkor Wat, unrestored and overgrown Beng Melea has an even wilder feel than Ta Prohm. Motos charge about $20 for a round-trip to the ruin, which requires a separate $5 admission.
Nearly every top-tier Siem Reap hotel has its own spa, but even budget travelers can indulge in the pampering Siem Reap offers. Reputable massage and reflexology parlors, as well as day spas, that cater to expat professionals and aching tourists alike can be found near the Old Market. Located near the Central Market, behind ANZ Royal Bank, Frangipani offers a full menu of body treatments for men and women, as well as aromatherapy and hot-stone massage, by experienced therapists (615 Hup Guan Street; 63-964-391; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.frangipanisiemreap.com). Bangkok-based Body Tune has set up a 22-room operation in an old French colonial shophouse along the river for those who want more ambience with their rubdowns, manicures, or body scrubs (63-764-141; www.bodytune.co.th).
Hilltop Phnom Bakheng lures thousands for sunset but is much more pleasant for sunrise. Experienced hikers can make a frontal assault on the incline in less than ten minutes, or there's a less-taxing trail to the south that takes about twice as long. Once you're at the temple base, negotiate the cliffs that pass for stairs to check out the views. Stick to the southeast side and you'll see the sun climb above Angkor Wat, the shadow of the sacred stones shifting by the second. Or, head five miles east to the landing terrace of Srah Srang, a large (nearly 2,300 by 1,000 feet) ceremonial pool that catches the dawn's first light. The uppermost terrace of 10th-century Preah Rup, a well-proportioned temple-mountain one mile east of Srah Srang, offers panoramic sunset views of the countryside and Angkor Wat's banana-bud towers without the aggro of Phnom Bakheng.
With its stonework strangled by vaulting silk-cotton trees, jungle-choked Ta Prohm will make any visitor feel like Indiana Jones. Even though it has been looted in recent years, Ta Prohm still looks like it must have when French explorer Henri Mouhot "discovered" it in 1860. (Tomb Raider fans should look out for the tree where Angelina Jolie picked some jasmine, the earth opened up, and she was dropped into a studio thousands of miles away for another ass-kicking scene.) Since most visitors enter from the west, avoid the throngs by having your driver drop you at the rarely visited eastern gates, the ceremonial entrance to most temples, and then walk through. The crowds at this popular attraction are thinnest in the early morning and late afternoon, when flocks of chatty red-breasted parakeets return to roost.
Just south of Siem Reap lies the Tonle Sap ("Great Lake" in Khmer), the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. One of the hydrological wonders of the world, the lake quintuples in size during the summer, when the monsoon-swollen Mekong rises so sharply that part of the torrent veers into the Tonle Sap River at Phnom Penh, actually reversing the current of this 60-mile waterway and raising water levels of the lake more than 25 feet. To handle the annual fluctuation, fishermen live in stilted houses or floating villages, complete with floating schools, police posts, temples, and crocodile pens. Local nonprofit Osmose (12-832-812; www.osmosetonlesap.net; email@example.com) offers day trips and overnight stays in Prek Toal, a large floating village, and bird-watching in its nearby UN Biosphere Reserve, a sanctuary for such rare species as the greater adjutant (a bird, not a military officer).