Day One: Rub Elbows With the Bus Tourists
Arrive on an early morning flight today so that you can begin to see the basic essentials first. 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. These are the most-visited places in the Angkor Archaeological Area, but are not to be missed. If you have already seen them more than once, we can customize your program to take you elsewhere, like Kbal Spean or you can poke around Siem Reap, do some shopping, and hang out by the pool with a frosty Angkor Beer.
Day Two: Avoid the Buses
Before we take you to see two temples that the bus tourists have not found yet, you have a couple of options. First, the Angkor Museum, which is an oddity since everything on display is, well, fake. Since Angkor is a UNESCO World Herritage site, nothing can be moved, so the artifacts on display are replicas. They have quite a good film that will give you some of the history of Angkor. An equally unusual option is the Angkor Panorama Museum, which is the product of a humungous art studio in North Korea. Hundreds of artists painted spectacular painted tableaus of life during the heyday of the Khmer Empire, including scenes of battles, village life, and the construction of Angkor's major monuments. Since these are options, admission cost is not included, but may be worth the bragging rights.
Next, you head to Banteay Thom Temple, which is obscure, somewhat isolated and difficult to find. Because it is overgrown with vegetation it will immediately remind you of the kind of place where India Jones might hunt for treasure. You won't find any since the place was picked clean long ago, but having such an unusual monument all to yourself will be pretty special.
Ta Nei Temple is next. You may see other visitors there, but it is unlikely they will be on a two-day bus tour since it is fairly obscure, even though TripAdvisor mentions it and awards it four and a half stars. After walking about 1km to get there you will be rewarded with a photogenic and miniaturized version of Ta Phrom, which is always crouded.
The third jewel of the day, if you have time, is Baphuon Tample. Originally a Hindu temple, later Buddhists removed one face of the carvings the decorated the temple to replace them with a Buddha carving. This is one of Angkor's earliest temples, and not constructed with the same precision and engineering skills of structures like Angkor Wat. Consequently, it deteriorated over the years. A French team of archaeologists drew up detailed plans to reassemble thousands of numbered stones. However, they narrowly escaped the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed the plans. After being closed for many years, Baphuon was finally reopened in 2011 as "Angkor's newest temple."
Day Three: A Mountain That Was Once an Island
This morning you drive into the lush countryside to the foot of one of the only two 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--houses on stilts, farmers tending to their rice paddies, pigs on motorbikes, and kids at play.
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. We strongly recommend hiring a local motorbike driver to take you into the wilds of Phnom Kulen to see some of its unbelievable secrets.
Next, you are off to Banteay Srei which sits at the foot of the mountain, with a lunch stop on the way. Banteay Srei 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. But you can't take a slice away. Taking anything from Kulen or Banteay Srei, except for the water that is blessed as it crosses the carved lingas, could result in a life-long curse.
Day Four: The Road to Preah Vihear
You leave Siem Reap early this morning for what will probably be two of the most rewarding days of your adventure here. You drive westward on a road that did not exist a decade ago towards one of the Khmer Empire's most magnificent treasures. By mid-day you reach the bottom of the mountain on which sits the crown jewel of the Khmer Empire--Preah Vihear. You will switch to a four wheel drive vehicle driven by an experienced local driver to navigate the winding road to the top. You may see soldiers as you approach the summit. Preah Vihear sits almost on the border of Thailand and territorial disputes over the temple complex have erupted into shooting wars on and off as recently as 2008. However, the United Nations has several times decided that Preah Vihear is indeed in Cambodia.
Preah Vihear sits on the rocky edge of a steep cliff that seems to preside over the vast Cambodian plain below. Work began in the 9th century on the first of the temples dedicated to Shiva. It took three hundred years for all of the structures to be completed. Many generations of Khmer god-kings made their contribution to what was intended to be the empire's ultimate Hindu place of worship. Consequently practically every style of Khmer architectural is represented there.
The temple complex is not only a cultural treasure but a Unesco World Heritage Site. Very large parts of the "ruins" remain intact. You can walk through the only vaulted colonnade that has ever been found in a Khmer structure, and explore temples that are still considered sanctuaries today. You will probably see no more than a dozen other foreign visitors. Buses cannot make the trip the mountain, and it is so far away that visitors have to go to considerable effort to see what many have described as the most impressive of all of the temples they have seen in Angkor Wat.
This is one of the largest archaelogical sites in Asia, so you will want to take time to see everything. Since there are no restaurants nearby, we take a boxed lunch along. Local people sell cold beverages in and round the temples. At the end of the day you drive back down the mountain. Not far away is the surprisingly delightful Preah Vihear Hotel, where you will spend the night. The beer is cold and you will probably be ready for a swim in the pool before dinner.
Day Five: Space Aliens Probably Built It
Begin your leisurely return to Siem Reap this morning. The first stop is Koh Ker Temple, which is simply breathtaking. It is the only pyramid-shaped temple yet to be discovered in the Khmer Empire. Built to worship Treypuvanesvara, the god of happiness. 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. 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?
Nearly one hundred temples 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 make stops at as many of the smaller, including one with a linga so massive that those who became rich looting many of the region's priceless statues and carving could not carry it away. Perhaps the best part is that you may not see any other foreigners here at all.
Later you continue to Beng Melea, a sprawling temple/fortress that is almost precisely one kilometer square, neatly nestled in the dense surrounding forest. You might expect to see someone like Indiana Jones appear inside. While many of the buildings are in total ruin, others are almost intact. Several years ago a French film crew built wooden ramps over some of the massive stones that have toppled from once-grand walls over the centuries. This makes it easy to see most of the site in relative ease.
You arrive back in Siem Reap in late afternoon. You will check out of your hotel the day you depart for Preah Vihear. If you want to keep your room during your absence we are happy to arrange that. There will be an extra night cost.
Day Six: Fascinating Odds & Ends
Continue your adventure early to take advantage of the cool morning. You will no doubt see busloads of tourists being herded about and will appreciate having your personal guide all to yourself as you wander, awestruck, through the ficus root-engulfed temple of Ta Phrom, built to house the divine image of the Queen Mother, Ta Keo, where five towers rest atop a five-tiered pyramid, Srah Srang, a ritual bath large enough for a thousand women; and the Eastern Mebon, a terraced pyramid that was once an island on a man-made lake larger than all of ancient Rome. Tonight, why not enjoy a culinary adventure in one of Siem Reap's traditional garden restaurants, where a feast can be had cheaply?
Day Seven: Time to Reflect. Or Shop. Or Fly!
Your day is free until we deliver you 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 scenic flight by helicopter or hot air balloon. You can stay longer, of course. Who would not want an extra day around the pool and one more tasty Angkor Beer?
Kindly note that we may change the order of places visited if necessary due to weather affecting road conditions or hotel availability or other factors.