I spent a wonderful few days exploring Siem Reap and the temples nearby. Siem Reap is fairly small and has a small downtown. I didn’t see many private cars, but there are many motor bikes on the road with some carrying entire families. There were small shops and roadside food stands with many people squatting and eating. The countryside was full of rice fields, palm trees and small wood houses. There were cows, water buffalo, wooden ox carts, dogs in every yard, naked children standing in many doors, a woman sweeping with a broom of switches and others wearing long sleeved shirts and scarves on their heads to protect them from the sun. It is a very poor but extremely colorful area.
The temples of Angkor were built between the 9th and 14th centuries, when the Khmer civilization was at the height of its creativity. They are considered among the foremost architectural wonders of the world and by far the most important archaeological site in South-East Asia. From here the kings of the Khmer Empire ruled over a territory that extended from the tip of southern Vietnam north to Yunnan in China and from Vietnam west to the Bay of Bengal. There are over 100 or so temples that made up this religious and administrative center. You can spend two days or four or five seeing these wonderful sites. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992.
I had my own guide and driver which was a great way to see the many sites. With your own guide it is easy to go back and see more of one temple or find the best light for photographs. I also recommend heading out in the morning to tour temples, then head back for a relaxed lunch and a rest and then heading out late afternoon again to tour more temples. In that way you get out of the sun for a few hours and besides your photographs will be better.
Of the temples I really enjoyed:
Angkor Wat: This is the largest and most breathtaking of the temples. It is thought to be the funerary temple for Suryavarman II who ruled from 1112-52. It is surrounded by a moat and has extensive decorative bas- reliefs depicting epic events. The central temple in the complex is three stories tall. I loved taking pictures of the Buddhist monks who live in a Monastery adjacent to the complex.
Angkor Thom and Bayon: Angkor Tom is actually a fortified city built by the king who ruled from 1181-1201. It has five monumental gates that are decorated with stone elephant trunks. In the center of the city is Bayon which is a collection of 54 gothic towers decorated with over 200 huge faces of Avalokiteshvara a bodhisattva. In addition to the wonderful heads Bayon is decorated with wonderful bas-reliefs incorporating over 11,000 figures. I loved taking pictures of the monks as well as the Buddhist nuns who were present at the site. Also in Angkor, in addition to the gates, I enjoyed seeing the Elephant Terrace which was used as a reviewing stand for public ceremonies and the Leper King Terrace both with wonderful carvings.
Ta Prohm: This site was very interesting to me as it was left to be swallowed by the jungle and today looks like most of the monuments looked at the time that the European explorers discovered them. There are huge tree roots that have taken over the site.
Ta Som: This is another 12th century Buddhist temple. Much of it is in a ruined state.
Preah Neak Pean: This temple complex consists of ruins of a square pool with four smaller square pools. In the center is a large central pool with a circular island.
Preah Khan: This is a lovely temple very similar to Ta Prohm except that it has been restored. You can then see the difference as to what restoration can accomplish.
Banteay Srei: This was by far my most favorite temple. It was built in the 10th century and is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. There are three central towers which are decorated with male and female divinities and beautiful carvings. The red sandstone color was really outstanding. It is located 21 km east of Bayon. I suggest going early in the morning before the tour buses arrive. It is really magical!
I also suggest visiting Tonle Sap Lake. After looking at temples I really enjoyed an excursion to the Vietnamese and Cambodian floating village. You can see many people repairing fishing nets or selling things to the residents from their boats. Near the dock I saw a funeral procession plus many people cooking fish, with others drying fish or selling fruit. You can see how the people were living on boats or in houses along the water on stilts.
I was also able to see a Buddhist Monastery which contained a stuppa filled with human skulls left over from Killing Fields and the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.