Day One: Angkor Wat's Must-Dos
Arrive on an early morning flight today so that you can pack as much into the day as possible. (If you arrive later we will shift things around so that nothing is left out of your visit.) After a stop at your hotel, you and your guide enter the Angkor complex through the south gate of Angkor Thom, the city-fortress that contains the temple of Angor Wat. At the time of its construction, this was the world's largest human settlement with as many as one million inhabitants. Among the places you will visit today are the Bayon, with its towering stone faces. Nearby are the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants, with its gigantic friezes that depict the importance of these beasts in daily Khmer life. Most of the day is devoted to the temple that has come to be known as Angkor Wat, the spiritual nucleus of an empire that once across Southeast Asia. Centered within a mile-square moat, it is the largest religious monument ever built. If you like, climb the steep steps to the very zenith of the temple for a glorious view. But do not overlook the portico that surrounds the temple and its mile of stone reliefs depicting the Ramayana epic and the military conquests of the god-kings who built Angkor. After lunch you wander through the ficus root-engulfed temple of Ta Phrom, built to house the divine image of the Queen Mother, then visit Ta Keo, where five towers rest atop a five-tiered temple, Srah Srang, a ritual bath large enough for a thousand women, and the Eastern Mebon, which was once an island in a man-made lake larger than all of ancient Rome.
Day Two: Way Off the Tourist Trail & a Floating City
Today we begin to leave the most-visited tourist sites behind us, beginning with a visit to Banteay Kdei. This is an intimate and seductive temple dedicated devotees of apsara dancing, and still an active place of worship for local people. The naga-ringed entry porch is largely complete, as is the hall of dancers, with pillars graced with exquisitely stylized performers striking magical poses.
Preah Khan was built in 1191 to honor the father of great King Jaravayaman VII. It is a huge site, almost as large as Angkor Wat, although it is still being reclaimed from the engulfing jungle. Gigantic fig trees have strangled a maze of chambers that once sheltered more than 500 gem-and-gold-encrusted statues of the Buddha, which were eventually removed or defaced by Hindus.
Diminutive Neak Pean was the Trevi Fountain if its day. Within the temple stands a large square pool with a central island of entwined nagas that once supported long-disappeared statues. Water flowed from the island into the pool, then into smaller pools in pavilions on each of the four sides of the main pool. It does not take much to imagine how spectacular this place probably was.
After lunch you take a break from toppled stones to enjoy an interesting trip to nearby Tonle Sap, the giant body of water that connects Siem Reap with the Mekong Delta. Board a small boat to see what life is like in the floating villages on this vast inland sea. Later you relax in a floating restaurant, where you can snack on a platter of shrimp and a frosty Angkor beer, if you like. You can read more here.
Day Three: The River of 1,000 Lingas
Begin the day with a drive into the lush countryside to the foot of the only mountain you can probably see in any direction. Along the way you will get a close-up look at life in the little villages that appear along the road.
A winding mountain road takes you to the top of Phnom Kulen, the mountain you saw in the distance. This ancient hilltop retreat that is still a mystical and holy place for the Khmer people, and among the favorite places for people living in Siem Reap to hang out on their days off. Water played an important role in the spiritual live of the people of Angkor, and most of it came from Phnom Kulen. This was the personal spiritual retreat of King Jayavarman II, who built the Angkor temple. He had almost two kilometers of stone stream bed carved with more than 1000 lingas (stone phalluses significant as symbols of fertility) and many other Hindu religious images to bless the water as it cascaded to the cities below. You can read more about Phnom Kulen here.
After lunch at a local restaurant you visit Banteay Srei, which has come to be called the "Temple of Women." Re-discovered in 1914, this distant jewel-like temple is unique in many respects. While most of Angkor's temples are of massive proportions, Banteay Srei was built on an intimate, human scale. Its profuse and gloriously ornate architectural details and mythical beasts with human heads, are exceptionally well preserved. Its pink sandstone and elaborate ornamentation Banteay Srei has even been compared to a wedding cake.
Day Four: Almost Alone at Two of Angkor's Best Temples
Get an early start this morning for one of the most eventful days of your adventure at two major city complexes that could be reached only by helicopter or on foot until recently. We drive deep into the countryside beyond Phnom Kulen to the ruins of Beng Melea. The sprawling temple/fortress covers over one square kilometer and is partially eaten by the surrounding forest, which gives it a Hollywood lost-in-the-jungle feeling. While many of the buildings are in total ruin, others are almost intact and many who see Beng Melea consider it to be the most spectacular site the see.
Farther along the same new road is the awesome Koh Ker complex. Nearly one hundred temples (nobody knows what is still buried and undiscovered) were constructed within a very small area and some of them are still in remarkable condition. They are largely untouched, except by teams removing Khmer Rouge land mines. You will have a chance to visit and explore as many of the smaller temples as you like. Wear sturdy shoes since this may involve climbing over large toppled stones.
Koh Ker Temple is the only pyramid-shaped temple yet to be discovered in the Khmer Empire. Built to worship Treypuvanesvara, the god of happiness, Koh Ker is simply breathtaking. Its seven tiers are taller than Angkor Wat. There is a massive garuda carving and many Sanskrit inscriptions near the top, which can be reached by a newly-built stairway. Equally impressive is a compound of smaller libraries and sanctuaries connected by a causeway built with immense undulating nagas on either side. Perhaps the best part is that you may not see any other foreigners here at all. Pause in the shade for a few minutes to contemplate how Koh Ker and nearly-identical temples in Mexico and Indonesia all appeared around the same time. Is it really possible that ancient visitors to Earth had a hand in engineering these impressive structures?
Day Five: Poke Around the Old Market, or Soar Above Angkor
Your morning is free until your transfer to the airport. If you have seen and done everything and your flight departs late in the day there is time for a well-deserved spa treatment, some shopping in the Old Market, or an unforgettable
by helicopter or even a hot air balloon flight.
by helicopter or even a hot air balloon flight.