The once sleepy provincial capital of SIEM REAP (pronounced See-um Ree-up) is Cambodia’s ultimate boomtown, its exponential growth super-fuelled by the vast number of global tourists who now descend on the place to visit the nearby temples of Angkor.
The modern town is like nowhere else in Cambodia, packed with wall-to-wall hotels, restaurants, bars, boutiques, tour operators and massage parlours; its streets thronged day and night with tourists, touts and tuk-tuk drivers in a giddy bedlam of incessant activity, with endless quantities of hot food and cheap beer, and a nonstop party atmosphere.
It should be tourist hell, of course, but what’s perhaps most surprising is that Siem Reap has somehow managed to retain much of its original small-town charm. It’s easy to spend much longer here than planned, wandering the city’s lively markets, colourful wats and peaceful riverside walkways by day, and exploring its restaurants, bars and boutiques by dark. Major attractions in the town itself may be thin on the ground, but there’s much to enjoy apart from the oligatory temple tours. The nearby floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake shouldn’t be missed, while there are plenty of other activities and attractions to keep you busy, from horseriding and quad-biking through to cookery courses, apsara dances and shadow-puppet shows.
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.
Shopping in Siem Reap is second only to the capital for variety and quality, and in some ways it’s much easier to shop here since the outlets are much closer together. The city abounds in inexpensive souvenir stalls selling all manner of goods, including T-shirts, silk tops and trousers, and traditional Khmer sampots in Western sizes (although note that many of the textiles here, such as the fabric used to make the cotton sarongs with elephant motifs, are imported from Indonesia).
No visit to Cambodia is complete without at least a quick glimpse of women performing the ancient art of apsara dance, as depicted on the walls of Angkor’s temples. Wearing glittering silk tunics, sequinned tops (into which they are sewn before each performance to achieve the requisite tight fit) and elaborate golden headdresses, performers execute their movements with deftness and deliberation, knees bent in plié, heels touching the floor first at each step, coy smiles on their faces. Every position has its own particular symbolism – a finger pointing to the sky, for instance, indicates “today”, while standing sideways to the audience with the sole of the foot facing upwards represents flying.
You can hardly move in central Siem Reap without insistent calls of “massage?” following you down the street, particularly around Sihanouk Boulevard, Hospital Street and at the Angkor Night Market. While these are all bona fide establishments, the cheapest places, though usually clean, will probably give you your massage on a reclining chair or in a room with several massage couches, sometimes in full view of the street. Paying more you’ll get relaxing surroundings, a robe and a private room.
Most of the cheaper places offer traditional Khmer-style massage – neck, head, back, full massage and so on, with or without oil, while better places (see Kong Kea Spa) offer the full range of international massages, from Thai to Swedish, along with other spa treatments. A growing number of places are offering “Seeing Hands” massage, given by blind masseurs, while there are around a dozen “fish massage” places set up on pavements where you can sit with your feet in a tank for twenty minutes while shoals of little fish nibble the dead skin off your feet.
Many hotels and guesthouses have swimming pools, while some allow non-guests to use theirs for a fee (or if you take drinks or a meal). Unfortunately the spectacular sunken pool at the Raffles Grand Hotel is out of bounds except for guests, although the lush pool at the Victoria Angkor runs it a close second and is sometimes open to non-guests if the hotel isn’t too full ($13). The Angkor Village Resort is another option ($10, free if you have lunch). Cheaper pools can be found at the Siem Reap Hostel ($6, including $5 bar credit), La Noria ($3) and the Kannell restaurant (free with a meal). Alternatively, do as the Khmers do and head to the West Baray where you can swim, picnic and lounge about all day for nothing.
Amrita Spa Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Siem Reap’s most upmarket spa, offering opulent massages (including Thai, Khmer, Swedish, aromatherapy and four-hand) plus facials, pedicures, manicures and herbal baths (from $60/hr).
Bodia Spa bodia-spa.com. Traditional and aromatherapy massages, wraps and facials (from $25/hr).
Body Tune Spa bodytune.co.th. Highly recommended Thai spa offering affordable Thai, oil and aromatherapy massages, plus facials and scrubs (from $12/hr).
Kaya Spa Traditional herbal and aromatherapy massages, plus scrubs, facials and wraps (from $20/hr).
Kong Kea Spa La Résidence d’Angkor. Luxurious spa at one of the city’s top hotels – signature Khmer and Indochina massages, scrubs and facials (from $70/hr).
Taking a cookery course offers a great way to learn more about Cambodian cuisine. Classes typically last around three hours, starting with a visit to a local market to buy ingredients, after which you get into the kitchen and start cooking under the guidance of a trained chef, finishing off by eating the meal you’ve just prepared.
Asana Cambodian House asana-cambodia.com. Learn to create your own Khmer-style cocktails at the lovely little Asana bar, with an introduction to the use of local herbs and spices, and to sombai, a classic Cambodian tipple made with infused rice wine. $15.
Beyond Unique Escapes beyonduniqueescapes.com. Cooking classes (twice daily) with a difference, held just outside town and swapping the usual market visit for a walk through a rural village to see local food production at first hand and the chance to meet a village family and learn about Khmer cooking in a Cambodian home – after which you head to Beyond’s purpose-built cooking pavilion in the village to have a go yourself. $22 half-day, $35 full day.
Cooks in Tuk-tuks therivergarden.info. Classes at this lovely hotel start with the obligatory market visit, before cooking up a lunchtime feast with the produce you’ve purchased. $25.
Royal Khmer Cuisine Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkorraffles.com/siemreap. The most exclusive (and spectacularly expensive) course in town, held at this grand hotel. After a market visit with the chef, you’ll learn about ingredients and how to combine them, before cooking a number of dishes that are served at lunch with a complimentary glass of wine. A cookbook, certificate and Raffles apron complete the day. $100.
Le Tigre de Papier The original Siem Reap cooking class, running since 2003 at this Pub Street restaurant. Classes include a market visit to buy ingredients for a three-course meal that you prepare and eat; proceeds help support students at nearby Sala Bai Hotel School. $14.
Shadow puppets are made of stretched, dried cowhide, the required outline drawn freehand onto the leather and pared out, after which holes are carefully punched in designated areas to allow back light (traditionally from a burning coconut shell) to shine through onto a plain screen. Once cut and punched, the figures are painstakingly painted using natural black and red dyes under the strict supervision of the puppet master. Two sorts of puppet are produced: sbaek thom and sbaek toich (literally “large skin” and “small skin”). The sbaek thom, used to tell stories from the Reamker, are the larger of the two, around 1–2m tall, and lack moving parts. By contrast, sbaek toich puppets have moveable arms and legs, and are commonly used to tell folk tales and stories of everyday life, usually humorous and with a moral ending. Both types are manipulated from below using sticks attached to strategic points.
There’s a super-abundance of accommodation in Siem Reap – although it always pays to reserve in advance if you’re set on staying in a particular place, since the more popular establishments can fill up fast. At the top end of the scale the city offers some of Asia’s most alluring accommodation, from colonial landmarks such as the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor through to super-chic contemporary boutique resorts including Amansara and La Résidence d’Angkor and more intimate hideways Sala Lodges and Angkor Village. There’s also a huge supply of comfortable, if not always particularly characterful, mid-range hotels, and plenty of inexpensive and often excellent guesthouses, though really cheap beds for under $10 a night are relatively thin on the ground, and most rooms come with a/c, whether you want it or not. Accommodation is scattered all over town. Many cheaper places can be found around Psar Chas, which puts you in prime position for the city’s eating, drinking and nightlife, while there are further clusters of guesthouses east of the river, particularly in the little enclave around Street 20. Larger and more upmarket establishments (including an increasing number of big five-star international chains) tend to be located further north of the centre along Airport and Angkor Wat roads.
There are tours aplenty in Siem Reap, although many budget outfits offer identical temple or Tonle Sap itineraries, with rushed schedules and large group sizes. Rather than booking the first tour proposed by your guesthouse or hotel it’s well worth checking out the operators below, both for general sightseeing and other activities, which frequently offer far more rewarding insights into local culture and history than you’ll experience sitting on a tour bus. In addition to tours of the floating villages on the Tonle Sap, specialist activities include hiking, camping, cycling, dirt-biking, kayaking, horseriding, quad-biking, jeep tours, boat trips, birdwatching, yoga, meditation, photography trips and more, plus cookery classes, massage, spas and swimming. Note that some activities (riding, quad-biking and ziplining, for example) may not be covered by your insurance policy, and you may be asked to sign a liability waiver when you sign in.
There’s an astonishing number of places to eat in Siem Reap – you could stay a year and still not devour everything the city has to offer. As you’d expect, pride of place goes to Khmer cuisine, ranging from inexpensive cafés serving homely versions of local classics through to numerous more upmarket places offering innovative modern takes on the national cuisine, often with a fine-dining twist. There’s plenty of Western food too – although much of what’s on offer is pretty stereotypical – as well as some good places specializing in Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese and Mexican cooking (although surprisingly little in the way of Thai food). There’s also a burgeoning coffee-house scene, with sociable Western-style hangouts mushrooming across the city, serving up top-notch blends, and often good food as well.
There’s a hangover-inducing glut of places to drink in Siem Reap. Much of the city’s drinking and nightlife is fairly down-at-heel – epitomized by the raucous, wall-to-wall drinking holes lined up along Pub Street, although more characterful and laidback bars can also be found here. Booze is cheap (and regular happy hours make things even cheaper) – draught beer (usually Angkor) is widely available at $1 a glass (sometimes even less) and cocktails usually go for just a few dollars. It’s also worth trying some of the more unusual Asian-style cocktails available at places like Asana and Miss Wong, as well as sombai (made using rice wine infused with herbs and spices, available at Asana, the New Leaf Book Café and elsewhere).
The city is a prime place to experience traditional Cambodian arts, including shadow puppetry and apsara dancing, while the stomach-churning acrobatics performed at the intimate Phare circus are also well worth a look.
Little is known about the history of Siem Reap, said to mean “Siam defeated” in commemoration of a battle that possibly never happened. Sprawling to east and west of the river of the same name, the town has only recently grown large enough to acquire its own identity. Visiting in 1935, Geoffrey Gorer described it as “a charming little village, hardly touched by European influence, built along a winding river; the native houses are insignificant little structures in wood, hidden behind the vegetation that grows so lushly… along the river banks.” The only hotels at the time were the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, then “a mile out of town” according to Norman Lewis, who stayed here in 1951, although it’s now been swallowed up by the expanding town, and its sister establishment, the Bungalow des Ruines, opposite Angkor Wat. Siem Reap remained relatively undeveloped during the first tourist rush of the 1950s and 1960s, and much was destroyed when the town was emptied under the Khmer Rouge, although the Grand, the shophouses of the Old Market, Psar Chas, and the occasional colonial villa escaped unscathed.
Temples aside, you shouldn’t leave Siem Reap without exploring the fascinating string of lakeside villages (both floating and stilted) on the nearby Tonle Sap, the massive freshwater lake that dominates the map of Cambodia. The majority of these lake’s inhabitants are fishermen, mostly stateless ethnic Vietnamese who have been here for decades, despite being widely distrusted by the Khmer. Most live in extremely basic conditions, their livelihoods increasingly threatened by the government, which has awarded large fishing concessions to wealthy businessmen at the expense of local villagers and who now have to either practise their trade illegally or rent a share from a concessionaire.
The ever-increasing numbers of tourists visiting the Tonle Sap villages has provided an important new source of revenue, although the downside (at least from the visitor’s point of view) is the steady erosion of traditional local life and increasingly theme-park atmosphere, particularly at the coach-party honeypot of Chong Khneas, while even formerly quieter villages down the lake such as Kompong Phluk and Kompong Kleang are no longer wholly immune. For a more authentic view of the Tonle Sap, head to the floating villages near Pursat and Kompong Chnnang on the opposite side of the lake.
As well as the villages, twitchers are attracted to the lake to explore the Prek Toal Biosphere Reserve, home to numerous species of waterbird.
The Tonle Sap villages are often generically described as the “floating villages”, even though in fact not all of them are. Genuine floating villages, such as Chong Khneas – or those at Pursat and Kompong Chnnang – are exactly that, with houses built on bamboo pontoons bobbing raftlike on the water, meaning that the entire village can be towed to a new location on the lake according to seasonally rising or falling water levels, and allowing its inhabitants convenient access to the best available supplies of fish. Conversely, other lakeside settlements, such as Kompong Phluk, are actually stilted villages, and float only in a metaphorical sense, their buildings being constructed on top of raised platforms perched above the water on high wooden stilts (like a supersized version of the traditional Khmer rural house). Needless to say, these villages occupy a fixed position, irrespective of prevailing water levels, and come the height of summer are generally left high and dry as the lake waters recede, stranding them amid lakeside mud.
There are a number of options when it comes to touring the Tonle Sap lake.
Beyond Unique Escapes beyonduniqueescapes.com. This operator offers excellent value, excellent service, guaranteed departures and small groups, with tours to Kompong Phluk (or Kompong Kleang during the height of the dry season).
Osmose Nature Tours osmosetonlesap.net. Insightful lake trips run by this local NGO who specialize in the Prek Toal area of the Tonle.
Tara River Boat taraboat.com. The main tour operator for the lake, offering half-day tours on their big boat around Chong Khneas, plus sunset tours with free meal and unlimited drinks. They can also arrange trips to Kompong Phluk, Kompong Kleang and Prek Toal using smaller boats. Tickets for most trips can be bought from hotels and tour operators in Siem Reap.
The Tonle Sap is at once a reservoir, flood-relief system, communications route, home and larder to the people who live on and around it; even Cambodians who live nowhere near it depend on the lake as a rich food source.
At its lowest, in May, just before the rains, the lake covers an area of around 2500 square kilometres. Himalayan meltwater flows down the Mekong just as the monsoon rains arrive, causing the level of the river to rise so quickly that at Phnom Penh the pressure is sufficient to reverse the flow of the Tonle Sap River, which would normally drain the lake. As a result of this inflow, each year the lake inundates an area of more than ten thousand square kilometres, making it the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The flow of water reverts to its usual direction in late October or early November, the receding waters leaving behind fertile mud for the planting of rice, and nutrients for the fry that have spawned amid the flooded trees. February sees a bumper fish catch, much of it going to satisfy the insatiable Cambodian appetite for prohok.
This lake may not always be here though; its fragile ecosystem is under threat, as upstream on the Mekong the Chinese continue with the controversial building of dams.
It was at PHNOM KULEN, then known as Mahendrapura, that Jayavarman II had himself consecrated supreme ruler in 802 (a date that is regarded as marking the start of the Angkorian period), thereby instigating the cult of the devaraja (see The empire in the ascendant). Although ancient temples are scattered here and elsewhere in the Kulen Mountains, none of these can be visited due to the lack of roads and the danger of land mines. Instead, the main reason to visit Phnom Kulen, 50km north of Siem Reap, is to gawp at the massive reclining Buddha carved out of a huge rock in the sixteenth century – and once you’re here you may find yourself very taken with the piety of the Buddhist devotees who come to worship at a chain of shrines. Unfortunately, the Angkor pass isn’t valid at Phnom Kulen, and the high entrance charge coupled with the cost of getting here keeps all but the most dedicated explorers from visiting. Note too that the area was heavily mined by the Khmer Rouge and it has yet to be fully cleared. Don’t wander off to locations other than those described here unless you have an experienced local guide.
Mostly hidden in rampant vegetation, the scrub-covered Hindu temple of BENG MEALEA, yet to be restored, gives a good idea of what the French archeologists found when they first arrived at Angkor. Locals claim that the temple was quite well preserved until being looted by the Khmer Rouge, although the pioneering French archeologist Maurice Glaize reported it being collapsed in 1944. Whichever history you believe, Beng Mealea is still relatively unexplored and atmospheric. Be aware of the possible danger of landmines, however – the site itself has been cleared, but it’s best not to stray into the undergrowth.
It isn’t known exactly when or why the temple was built, though stylistic features suggest that its construction probably dates from the late eleventh or early twelfth century, possibly during the reign of Suryavarman II. Just over a kilometre square, with a formidable 45m-wide moat, the site was clearly of some consequence, and it has been suggested that the temple was built as a precursor to Angkor Wat. Constructed on a single level, the temple once featured three concentric galleries and a central sanctuary tower, though the main attraction of wandering the ruins is to glimpse apsaras peering out of niches amid the jumbled stones.
One of Cambodia’s most remote Angkorian sites, 125km northeast of Siem Reap, KOH KER was briefly capital of the Khmer Empire in the tenth century, when Jayavarman IV – who was already ruler of his own state here when he ascended the imperial throne – decided not to relocate to Angkor, but decreed instead that the court should come to him, ordering the construction of a road linking Koh Ker and Angkor, on which the temples of Beng Mealea and Banteay Samre were later built.
Now practically engulfed by jungle, the ruins of Koh Ker have been heavily looted and badly neglected, but plenty remains, including more than forty major monuments spread across eighty square kilometres – although only a small proportion are open to visitors, and much of the area has yet to be completely de-mined. Mines still present a serious danger. Do not on any account stray from well-trodden paths.
Koh Ker is famous for its distinctive style of monumental sculpture, although most pieces have either been looted or removed for safekeeping to the country’s various museums.
Some 70km north of Kompong Thom, the temple enclosure of PREAH KHAN (KOMPONG THOM) is the largest in Cambodia, its central sanctuary featuring the earliest example of four huge faces looking to the cardinal directions, a motif that subsequently became almost synonymous with Cambodian temple architecture. Little is known about the temple’s history. The earliest buildings are attributed to Suryavarman I, and it’s believed that Jayavarman VII spent time here before moving to Angkor – the famous carved stone image of the king displayed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh was found on the site. In the 1870s Louis Delaporte carried off the temple’s prize sculptures (they’re now in the Guimet museum in Paris), while looters have also pillaged the complex in recent years, using pneumatic drills to remove statues – resulting in collapsed towers, crushed apsaras and the broken images that lie scattered on the ground.
Note that we have followed the common practice of suffixing Preah Khan with the province name Kompong Thom in order to distinguish it from the temple of the same name at Angkor. It’s also sometimes suffixed with the district name Kompong Svay, and just to add to the confusion, locals call it Prasat Bakan.
Ongoing road improvements are steadily improving access to the formerly remote provincial capital of TBENG MEANCHEY, around 150km north of Kompong Thom along NR64 and 100km south of Preah Vihear temple (note that Tbeng Meanchey itself is sometimes confusingly referred to as Preah Vihear or Preah Vihear City, and the temple itself as Prasat Preah Vihear). There’s not much to the town itself, which sprawls north for more than 2km from the traffic circle at its southern end, with wide, straight red-dirt roads laid out on a simple grid, although it makes a useful place for an overnight stop en route to Preah Vihear.
In the depths of Preah Vihear province, Chhep Protected Forest is home to three critically endangered species of vulture – red-headed, slender-billed and white-rumped. Trips can be arranged through the Sam Veasna Centre, and involve camping overnight in the forest, followed by a morning watching the vultures breakfast on a dead cow. The project is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs.org) and some of the fees collected go towards supporting livelihoods in the community.
Dedicated to Shiva in his manifestation as the mountain god Shikhareshavara, the magnificent temple of PREAH VIHEAR makes maximum use of its spectacular setting high up on the Dangkrek escarpment overlooking the plains of Cambodia and Thailand far below. The temple was built between the ninth and the twelfth centuries. Most of the work is attributed to Suryavarman I (r. 1011–50) who enlarged an old religious centre founded here by a son of Jayavarman II and installed one of three boundary linga defining the extent of his territory (the others were placed at Phnom Chisor and at the hitherto unidentified site of Ishanatirtha). Both Suryavarman II (r. 1113–50) and Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–1218) subsequently made further additions to the temple.
Constructed entirely of sandstone, Preah Vihear has an unusual layout for a Khmer temple, with four enclosures laid out in a row, rather than concentrically, as is usually the case, with each successive enclosure taking you higher and higher until you reach the summit, from where there are spectacular views along the jagged line of the Dangkrek Mountains.
Around 30km by road south of Preah Vihear, the formerly modest village of SRA EM (or Sa Em) has experienced a massive boom over the recent years as a result of military and tourist developments at Preah Vihear and now provides a useful jumping-off point for visits to the temple, with public transport, accommodation and places to eat.
Preah Vihear is often (and more precisely) referred to as Prasat Preah Vihear (Preah Vihear Temple) in order to distinguish it both from Preah Vihear Province and the provincial capital of Tbeng Meanchey, which is also commonly referred to as Preah Vihear, or sometimes Preah Vihear City.
Much more than a simple archeological site, Preah Vihear has been the subject of a bitter and often bloody tug-of-war between Thailand and Cambodia, as well as the setting for several landmark moments in the Cambodian civil war – although despite the fierce fighting that has regularly erupted around it, the temple itself has, almost miraculously, escaped relatively unscathed (although you might notice a few bullet holes here and there).
The roots of the Thai – Cambodian border conflict date back over a century. The area was under long-term Thai control until the intervention of the French authorities in Cambodia in 1907. Attempting to ratify the border between the two countries, the French produced a map claiming the temple for Cambodia, despite an agreement that the border should run along the watershed of the Dangrek Mountains – which would have placed the temple within Thai territory. Following the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in 1954, Thai forces reoccupied the site in an attempt to assert their rights to the temple, forcing Prime Minister Sihanouk to take the matter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague which, in a fiercely contested ruling, finally awarded the site to Cambodia in 1962.
Thanks to its almost impregnable location, the temple played a surprisingly important role during the civil war. In 1975, Khmer Rouge forces drove out remnants of the Khmer National Armed Forces who had taken refuge in it – the last place in Cambodia to fall to them. In 1978, Vietnamese forces recaptured the site from the Khmer Rouge – who then reoccupied the site in 1993 and continued to control it before finally surrendering in 1998; their last major stand. The temple was also the scene (in 1979) of a particularly brutal repatriation of Cambodian refugees by the Thai military government during which more than forty thousand people were driven back over the border. As many as three thousand died after being forced over the cliff on which the temple stands and driven through the minefields below.
Following the end of the civil war, the old border dispute flared up again in 2008, when Preah Vihear was awarded UNESCO Heritage status – which Thailand felt further reinforced Cambodian claims to sole ownership of the temple, and which they continued to dispute. Rising tensions ensued, followed by a series of increasingly violent clashes, with dozens of military and civilian casualties on both sides, culminating in 2011 in an exchange of long-range artillery fire. The case was again returned to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, who (in November 2013) once again ruled in Cambodia’s favour. Peace has subsequently returned to the temple following the new ruling, with access now open from both sides of the border, although the loss of the temple continues to rankle with many Thai nationalists and offers easy political capital for Bangkok politicians seeking a popular national cause, meaning that the possibility of future clashes cannot be ruled out entirely.
Despite the conclusion of hostilities between Thailand and Cambodia, the old border crossing at Preah Vihear has not yet fully reopened. Approaching from Thailand, visitors are allowed to cross the border to visit the temple ($10 fee), but not to continue onwards into Cambodia, and no visas are issued. Meanwhile, visitors from Cambodia are allowed to cross a few hundred metres into Thailand to shop at the border market (10 baht fee) but no further. Rumours continue to circulate that the border will reopen fully at some point in the not too distant future.
Some 140km north of Siem Reap, ANLONG VENG is of interest as the former home and death place of Pol Pot, and also makes a convenient jumping-off point for the temple at Preah Vihear. The town itself also has a certain surreal interest thanks to its proximity to the border with Thailand (in which gambling is outlawed), which has led in the past few years to a rash of casino construction attracting visitors from over the border and transforming this formerly dusty little backwater into something of a miniature Thai-Las-Vegas-in-Exile.
KOMPONG THOM, 145km from Siem Reap (and slightly further from Phnom Penh), straggles along NR6 and the Stung Sen River. The town used to be known as kompong pos thom, “place of the big snake” – apparently because the locals used to take offerings to a large snake that lived in a cave on the river, but this may be yet another Cambodian myth as no one now has a clue where the cave is. Most visitors stop over to visit the temples at Sambor Prei Kuk, 30km northeast, and the attractive Phnom Santuk religious complex; a couple of hours is quite enough to have a look around the town itself. Kompong Thom is also a possible jumping-off point for the remote Preah Vihear, two days’ journey to the north, though access is now easier from Siem Reap via Sra Em. Closer, but even more of an adventure to reach, is the massive Preah Khan (Kompong Thom) – go now before the tour groups do.
A workshop near Kompong Thom offers a rare opportunity to see traditional drums being produced. Look out for a small sign on the left 7km southeast of town on NR6. The small-waisted, vase-shaped skor dae, about 50cm tall, are carved here by hand from the heart of a jackfruit tree – the yellowish wood is valued for its resonant properties – and embellished with carved decorations; a dried snake skin is stretched across the head. The drums form part of the traditional pinpeat ensemble, a gamelan-style orchestra that plays at weddings and classical dance performances. Also made here are skor sang na, a kind of cylindrical drum, twice the height of skor dae, which are played slung over the shoulder during funeral processions. The welcoming family who own the workshop will encourage you to try your hand at drumming, and might give you an impromptu demonstration.
First port of call if you want to arrange a tour around Kompong Thom should be the Tourist Transportation Association Kompong Thom, or TTAK (cambodiattak.com), a rather grand name for a setup currently operating out of a tiny corrugated-iron shack opposite the Stung Sen Royal Garden Hotel. Mr Vothea and his friendly and informative team of English-speaking drivers can arrange transport to sights through the area by moto, tuk-tuk and car, ranging from local day-trips through to multi-day tours to Preah Khan (Kompong Thom), Koh Ker, Preah Vihear and elsewhere.
One of Cambodia’s most important pre-Angkorian monuments, the Chenla-era capital of SAMBOR PREI KUK once boasted hundreds of temples, although many of them have now been lost, perhaps smothered by the encroaching forest. Sixty or so temples remain, however, dotted among beautiful woodland, some of them now restored and sporting particularly fine brick carvings and decorated sandstone lintels and columns. It’s all relatively modest compared to the great Angkorian sites, admittedly, although the sylvan woodland setting and almost total lack of visitors more than compensates.
There are several interesting sights south of Kompong Thom, easily combined in a day-trip with Sambor Prei Kuk. Stretching for a couple of kilometres along NR6, the village of SANTOK (aka Samnak or Kakaoh) is instantly recognizable thanks to the long lines of stone carvings lined up along the roadside. An enjoyable half-day trip from Kompong Thom is Phnom Santok, a jaunty modern hilltop temple sitting atop a 180m-high hill, conspicuous in the pancake-flat countryside. The hilltop is a popular weekend destination, but quiet during the week, when you can often have the place pretty much to yourself apart from the occasional resident monk. The small, rural Wat Hat Nokor is notable mainly for the eleventh-century temple built by Suryavarman I. The temple was never finished, and it's assumed that either the architect died or war intervened during its construction.