Onsite Review: Angkor Wat + Siem Reap = A Longer Stay

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Carved in stone, warriors and devils, nymphs and gods stand guard over Angkor Wat. (Carla Hunt)
Carved in stone, warriors and devils, nymphs and gods stand guard over Angkor Wat. (Abby Hunt)

More than four decades ago, the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, which was opened by the French in 1932, was almost the only and certainly the most colonial place to stay in the sleepy town of Siem Reap. The property was once an important trading center and always the gateway to the magnificent temple complexes of Angkor, as well as the capital of the Khmer Empire from 800 to 1200 A.D.

I stayed there back in 1970, and 45 years later, the landmark property is now the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, carefully restored and full of original treasures, surrounded by landscaped French gardens, and sporting a state-of-the-art spa, as well as the country’s largest swimming pool. The Raffles International restoration added luxury suites and 2-bedroom villas, plus the original heritage building now hosts four Personality Suites, complete with claw-foot tubs and named after explorers and discoverers associated with Angkor.

Indeed, Siem Reap has grown into a full-fledged resort town, outfitted with all-comfort, all-charm accommodations from luxe to boutique. The most recent addition to a substantial inventory of deluxe resort-style hotels—Sofitel, Meridien, Aman and Belmond are here—is Design Hotels’ member Phum Baitang. Sitting on eight lush acres, its layout resembles a Khmer village, with 45 wooden villas, a tranquil spa temple, yoga pavilion, a pool with bar, two restaurants serving rice from the surrounding paddies, and nearby golf. Among this exceptional retreat’s first guests were Angelina Jolie and family, in residence while making a film.

Cultural Experiences
Like the other more than two million visitors last year, my daughter and I came to gape at Angkor Wat, the Khmer temple complex that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest religious monument in the world. We came ahead of our departure with AmaWaterways’ handsome river-cruiser, AmaDara, sailing the Mekong River between Cambodia and Vietnam. People here live on and along the rivers, and cruising affords an unbeatable perspective on everyday life.

However, this corner of Cambodia deserves more than the usual 3-day visit, mixing more temple-hopping at Angkor mixed with hanging out in Siem Reap—a colorful and comfortable place, full of pretty colonial buildings, welcoming cafes and restaurants, and lovely people. While here you can explore the city’s food markets and street food stalls, learn to cook fish amok, or sample locally inspired flavors of ice cream at the Glasshouse Deli-Patisserie in the Park Hyatt; shop away in quirky boutiques at the thrice-weekly Well Made in Cambodia Market, or at Artisans d’Angkor; enjoy a sunset cruise among the fishing villages on Tonle Sap Lake or go earlier for kayaking and birdwatching; have a cocktail at Miss Wong; savor Khmer cuisine at Cuisine Wat Damnak; or check out the party scene in the Pub Street district.

Staying awhile, the Siem Reap experiences fold in nicely around touring Angkor—spread over an area of about 60 sq. miles. First visit the Angkor National Museum, a state-of-the-art showplace for Khmer civilization, then continue on for hours and hours of exploring the temple city of Angkor Wat and the nearby fortified city of Angkor Thom with Bayon, the last great temple built at Angkor. And that’s just the beginning of a vast and mysterious wonderland populated by warriors and devils, celestial nymphs and giant snake-gods carved in stone—an artistic composite of a place first created in the name of Hinduism and appropriated a century later by Buddhism. Our favorite, and less crowded early in the morning, is crumbling Ta Prohm; and later going for lunch at the more distant, elaborately carved, red sandstone temples of  Banteay Srei.

Tips for Visitors
I’d go back in a heartbeat, but would pick a cooler month than August. Peak season is November to March, and I’ve heard April is the month to avoid. In any season though, Angkor Wat calls for good walking shoes, a wide-brim hat, water bottle, binoculars to see the carvings up-close, and a flashlight for friezes in dark corners. Also good to know before you go: Cambodia works best in
U.S. dollars.

Contact Information
Phum Baitang: phumbaitang.com
Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor: raffles.com/siem-reap
Tourism of Cambodia: tourismcambodia.com