The main – and for some people the only – reason to visit Cambodia is to experience at first hand the world-famous temples of Angkor, a stupendous array of ancient religious monuments virtually unrivalled anywhere in Asia (only the roughly synchronous temples of Bagan in Myanmar come close). The majestic temple of Angkor Wat, with its five iconic corncob towers rising high above the surrounding jungle, is the chief attraction, rivalled by the magical Bayon, embellished with superhuman images of the enigmatically half-smiling Avalokitesavara, and the jungle-smothered temple remains of Ta Prohm, with crumbling ruins squeezed between the roots of enormous trees and creepers. The sheer numbers of tourists descending on these sites may have eroded some of Angkor’s prevailing mystery, although with judicious planning the worst of the crowds can still be avoided – and whenever you visit, the ruins will leave an indelible impression.
Headline monuments aside, Angkor has an extraordinary wealth of attractions. Literally hundreds of major temple complexes dot the countryside hereabouts, spread over an area of some four hundred square kilometres, and for many visitors it’s at these lesser-known destinations that the true spirit and magic of Angkor can still be found. Even a cursory tour of the more outlying temples of Roluos gets you somewhat off the beaten track, while the intricately carved shrines of Banteay Srei are also within easy reach. Further afield the magnificent temple-citadels of Beng Mealea and Koh Ker can be conveniently combined in a single day-trip (perhaps with a visit to remote Preah Khan (Kompong Thom). Further north, the memorable temple of Preah Vihear, perched on a mountaintop overlooking Thailand, has finally re-entered the tourist mainstream after years of Khmer Rouge occupation and cross-border squabbles. It’s easily combined with a visit to the border boomtown of Anlong Veng, famous for its Khmer Rouge associations, and as the site of Pol Pot’s death. Further east, the affable little town of Kompong Thom provides a convenient jumping-off point for visits to the great pre-Angkorian temple complex at Sambor Prei Kuk, along with other nearby sites.
Gateway to the temples is Siem Reap, a former backwater town that has reinvented itself as Cambodia’s tourist honeypot par excellence. It’s crammed with tourists and touts, but remains one of the country’s most enjoyable destinations – if you don’t mind the fact that it bears increasingly little resemblance to anywhere else in the country. Siem Reap is also the starting point for visits to the remarkable floating villages on the great Tonle Sap lake and to wild Phnom Kulen, at the borders of the Kulen Mountains, which divide the lush lowlands from the barren north.
Three days is enough time to visit most of the major sites in the vicinity of Siem Reap, although adding a day or three allows time to visit one of the nearby floating villages and to take a more leisurely approach to the Angkor archeological site itself – temple-fatigue can set in surprisingly quickly if you go at the ancient monuments too fast, and the slower you approach the vast treasury of Angkor, the more you’ll gain from the experience. This is one of the world’s great sights, and well worth lingering over.