Cambodia 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.
This pair of Phnom Penh sites, Tuol Sleng prison and Choeung Ek killing field, vividly commemorate the abuses and the victims of the nightmarish 1975–79 regime of the Khmer Rouge, during which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians—20 percent of the population—were executed or perished from disease or famine. At Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge converted a former high school in the south-central suburbs into an interrogation and torture center. Of its estimated 17,000 prisoners, only a dozen were spared death; one of the survivors, artist Vann Nath, chronicled the horrific electrocutions and waterboarding sessions in graphic paintings now displayed at the museum. More haunting are the black-and-white mug shots taken of each prisoner, including young children; doomed detainees gaze at the camera with looks of fear, fatalism, anger, and even nervous grins. After "confessing," they were trucked 10 miles south of the city to an old fruit orchard in rural Choeung Ek commune, beaten to death with hoes (bullets were considered too expensive), and buried in mass graves. Eighty-six of the site's 129 death pits have been unearthed, and the bones of their 8,985 victims are now housed in a vaulted, glass-sided charnel house. The wooded grounds are oddly tranquil—until you learn the executioners smashed babies against the trunk of a flame-of-the-forest tree. Troubling, yet unforgettable, the site is marred by a tacky gift shop selling the usual tourist-oriented bric-a-brac as well as banned wildlife items like tiger teeth. The two sites can easily be toured in a half-day; it's best to visit Choeung Ek first, in the cool of morning.—Christopher Cox
Choeung Ek open daily 8 am to 5 pm.
Tuol Sleng open daily 7 am to 5:30 pm.
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).
Corner of Streets 13 and 178
Tel: 855 23 211 53
With its wide-ranging collection of Cambodian antiquities, the fetching National Museum of Cambodia is an ideal adjunct to the monumental ruins of Angkor. Dedicated in 1920, the red sandstone, Khmer-style structure holds a trove of artifacts, organized chronologically in a series of open galleries surrounding a lush interior courtyard. Visitors are greeted by an immense, 10th-century statue of a winged garuda from Koh Ker, a remote temple in the north-central plains. Other treasures include an 11th-century reclining Vishnu (one of the largest bronzes ever cast in southeast Asia), and a 13th-century statue of the Leper King from Angkor Thom, now the centerpiece of the harmonious courtyard. There are also several rescued pieces, such as a 12th-century bas-relief plundered from Banteay Chhmar temple in western Cambodia and returned by the Thai government in 2000. The inventory also includes 19th-century ivory-and-wood elephant saddles and several venerated images, such as a 15th-century Buddha, still worshipped by devout Cambodians who bring offerings of flowers, incense, and money (imagine that happening at the Met). English-speaking guides are available, although most signage is in English, French, and Khmer. Just north of the museum, Street 178 is lined with numerous art galleries, should you yearn for your own bust or portrait of Jayavarman VII, the king who built the Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Srah Srang.—Christopher Cox
Open daily 8 to 11 am and 2 to 5 pm.
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).