The sun was setting on the town of Siem Reap as I clung to the back of my moto driver. Threading our way through traffic, we rode out until town finally gave way to forest and we entered the Angkor site. In front of us were the iconic lotus-bud towers of Angkor Wat, looking like giant pine cones, resplendent in the light. Sunset is the best time to view west-facing Angkor Wat, from the top of nearby temple-mountain, Phnom Bakheng, when the greying stone of the towers glow red under the glare of the dying sun.

The secret of Angkor is to explore the galleries and enclosures at your own pace. Wander the corridors and you’ll stumble across aged monks performing blessings on curious tourists; wafting bundles of burning incense over their bodies and loudly clapping a cupped palm across their backs. The outer walls of the temple are covered with bas-reliefs retelling stories of Hindu battles and mythology, whose intricately etched bodies are worn smooth by thousands of hands. And all around is the echo of children playing in the cool passageways and juvenile hawkers who sell cold drinks and trinkets out of plastic carrier bags.

The next morning I went back to see Angkor Thom, with its lichen-covered towers revealing exquisite faces carved into rock: fat, curvaceous lips smiling benevolently beneath half-closed eyes. Thick jungle once shrouded this lost twelfth-century Khmer kingdom. Its painstaking restoration involved numbering and cataloguing each and every stone block before setting it back into its original position.

The destructive force of nature and time on stone is no more evident than at Ta Prohm, the temple left to the jungle. Here huge tree trunks, hard as cement, spill out over the scattered blocks like the creamy bellies of snakes. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place, and once you’re done exploring the doorways and the curious shapes of the forest entwined with boulders, sit back, kick off your shoes and listen to the insects whirring in the sun and birds squawking in a soothing blend of background noise.

The Angkor site is 5km from Siem Riep; to visit you need a pass valid for one, three or seven days.

 

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