On my first trip to Asia with Insider Journeys, I explored the Vietnamese city of Saigon before crossing the border to neighbouring Cambodia. In Cambodia, I discovered a country of charming and friendly people, explored some of the most iconic temples in the world, cruised along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, and relaxed in coastal Kep. One of the things I was most excited about was visiting Angkor Wat and the other famous temples of the Khmer Empire. I will never forget the two wonderful nights I spent in Siem Reap, enjoying the hospitality and comfort of the Shinta Mani resort, and a full day from sunrise discovering the temples of Angkor...

Discovering Angkor

Angkor Wat is one of the most iconic temple complexes in the world, with its distinctive lotus-shaped towers. For me, the fact that this trip visited Angkor was one of its biggest draws. After two days in Saigon, we transferred to the airport to fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a two-night stay at the Shinta Mani resort. We arrived in Siem Reap at dusk, and headed to our hotel. Thanks to the fame of Angkor Wat and the other temples nearby, Siem Reap is a thriving tourist town, and the roads are lined with hotels – although this, of course, makes Siem Reap as a town seem a little inauthentic. Upon arrival at Shinta Mani, we were greeted by the friendly and welcoming staff, who offered us refreshing cool towels and a glass of sparkling wine with a mango. I was bowled over by their warmth and hospitality, and impressed with the chic beauty of the hotel, but by far the hotel’s greatest asset was its staff. The hotel’s décor is mostly monochrome, offset with touches of Buddhist orange with cushions and plush seats, and artwork reflecting Cambodia’s Khmer heritage, while tranquil ornamental ponds, colourful lotuses and verdant trees add a sense of serenity. On our first night at the Shinta Mani, we ate at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Kroya, enjoying a number of mouth-watering courses which were beautifully presented, and featured a tasty fusion of ingredients, including various fruits such as mango and papaya. We were warmly hosted by the staff at Shinta Mani, and it was a fabulous first night in Cambodia, filled with warmth, friendship, and great flavours.

With great anticipation and excitement, I went to bed soon after dinner, as it was an early start the next day. When my alarm went off shortly before 4am, I’ve never jumped out of bed so quickly – no need to hit the snooze button this morning, I was ready to go! Heading to the reception where we were meeting, I tucked into some of the pastries and a cup of tea on offer, before we started off on our tuk-tuk ride to Angkor Wat. It was still dark outside, and it was thrilling riding through the streets of Siem Reap in a tuk-tuk, feeling the balmy night air across my face. We stopped at the shiny, brand-new ticket office for our day passes, and then continued by tuk tuk, surrounded by dense trees, and hearing the intense sounds of the crickets, and smelling the musk of bats which added their own sounds to the dawn chorus. It was unforgettably atmospheric, and slowly the sky began to lighten up. Leaving our tuk-tuks, we entered the quieter, lesser known Eastern Gate, passing a dark and crumpled ruin of a building. In the near distance, the silhouette of Angkor Wat could be made out, and we headed onwards, the sky getting lighter still. Finally, as we arrived, we could admire the famous façade of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, and still grand at 800 years old. As Bun, our local Cambodian guide for Siem Reap, showed us round the temple, I was even more impressed by this staggering monument that I had expected. The intricate carvings which cover the buildings show off astonishing and painstaking craftsmanship, and the beauty and artistic endeavours of the once great Khmer Empire live on, despite the passages of time. Extensive bas reliefs telling the epic story of Ramayana, Sanskrit etched onto the stone, and its design to represent the Hindu mythological Mount Meru, home of the devas of Hinduism, reflect Angkor Wat’s origins as a Hindu temple when it was first built by Suryavarman II, before it was completed and transformed into a Buddhist temple by the great Khmer King, Jayavarman VII.

Angkor Wat is one of the great ‘bucket-list’ items, and to experience it the way I did with Insider Journeys makes the visit even more special. Arriving early, it was less crowded, and certainly by going through the Eastern Gate and by travelling by tuk-tuk certainly added a sense of adventure to proceedings. The Eastern Gate is not generally used by tourists, so it was a quieter and more atmospheric entrance, and our local guide gave us some terrific insight into Angkor Wat. After a couple hours’ exploring the temple’s corridors, central chambers, and upper terraces, we stopped for some breakfast, before leaving via the better known Western Gate. By this time, more people were arriving, and as we passed the Western Gate, I was glad that we had entered the other way, as due to the Western Gate’s popularity, it attracts lots of vendors selling their wares on stalls, so the atmosphere would’ve been very different!

Continuing our travels by tuk-tuk, we stopped by the impressive Angkor Thom gates – although we got off our tuk-tuks and walked the short distance to fully appreciate the splendour of these gates – and then continued by tuk-tuk to the famous temple of Bayon, renowned for its many faces. This is a popular temple (it’s easy to see why, thanks to the incredible hand-carved faces), and was by this time of day already quite busy. There was a short journey to the ruined temple of Preah Khan, built by Jayavaraman VII to commemorate his father, and while there were a number of crumbling stone structures, many parts of the temple are in remarkably good condition, as it’s being restored by the World Monument Fund.

After a brief break with a return to the hotel for a chance to relax and refresh after a busy morning of temple-ing, our afternoon later saw us visit two final temples. Travelling again by tuk-tuk (possibly one of my favourite methods of transport), we first visited Banteay Kdei temple, which was one of my favourite temples of the day. A quieter temple off the beaten track, our small group had Banteay Kdei practically to ourselves – except for a Buddhist nun who was looking after the statue of Buddha housed in the temple. Finally, we went the short distance to nearby Ta Prohm, sister site to Preah Khan, built by Jayavarman VII but dedicated to his mother (and slightly larger than Preah Khan, because he was more of a mummy’s boy). Enveloped in jungle, Ta Prohm is famous for the twisting tree trunks which grow out of its crumbling ruins, adding an eerie sense of atmosphere. Once home to some 2,740 monks, Mother Nature has taken over at Ta Prohm, and other than the growth of trees, time has stood fairly still since it was ‘rediscovered’ by the French explorer Henri Mouhot in the early 1850s. Ta Prohm is another popular temple, and was used in filming the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s – the iconic tree she was photographed by is a popular spot for posing, and we even managed to get a group shot, which is usually unheard of!

After visiting five temples, it was a long but fulfilling day, and it certainly feels an incredible privilege to be able to explore some of the most astonishing monuments ever built in such an intimate and insightful way. Travelling in our small group with our Western tour leader and our local guide, we weren’t a large mass of people getting in the way, and it felt less rushed. That night, our final night in Siem Reap, we enjoyed a meal at a local restaurant Sugar Palm, before heading off for an early night!

If you're interested in discovering the temples of Angkor or exploring Asia with Insider Journeys, contact us today!

01234 326 778

  • Angkor Wat

    Angkor Wat

  • Angkor Wat

    Angkor Wat

  • Angkor Thom

    Angkor Thom

  • Bayon

    Bayon

  • Bayon

    Bayon

  • Preah Khan

    Preah Khan

  • Banteay Kdei

    Banteay Kdei

  • Banteay Kdei

    Banteay Kdei

  • Ta Prohm

    Ta Prohm

  • Ta Prohm

    Ta Prohm

Read more about Amy's trip to Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys...
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Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part One, Motorbikes and Pho
Amy enjoyed the trip of a lifetime with her first visit to Asia, visiting Saigon and Cambodia - read all about her experiences in Saigon with Insider Journeys on the first part of her blog series!
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Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Three, the mighty Mekong in style
In part 3 of her blog series, read about the sights and experiences Amy enjoyed as she cruised along the mighty Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers aboard the Jahan on her Insider Journeys trip to Vietnam and Cambodia
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Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Four, Coastal Serenity
In part four of Amy's blog series on her trip to Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys, Amy heads to the coastal town of Kep to discover one of Cambodia's best-kept secrets and indulge in a taste of 'barefoot luxury'.

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