The temples of Angkor are breath taking in every sense. To just think that at one point in time, Angkor the seat of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th century, boasted a population of more than one million people – the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The magnificent structures that exist today are the sacred remains of the political and religious beliefs of the most celebrated period of Cambodia’s history.
Mr Chet, our guide and survivor of the Khmer Rouge; went out of his way to share with us the beloved temples of this lost Kingdom. The uniqueness of these incredible masterpieces is that they are very much part of their natural surroundings. Many of these temples were abandoned to the jungles after the Khmer Rouge and some have only recently been discovered and cleansed from the landmines that made them forbidden territories.
Temple hopping your way through the archaeological site of Angkor is as much invigorating as it is exhausting. Marvelling over the carvings of “the churning of the ocean of milk” at Ankor Wat, being fronted with the enormous stone faces of the enlightened bodhisattvas at the Banyon temple, trekking through lush green jungles to find 1000 11th century lingas in the Kbal Spean river beds and reflecting on the incredible skill and craftsmanship it must have taken to create the intricate carvings of the citadel of women at Banteay Srey is well worth fighting through thousands of Chinese tourists in 36 degrees heat, to get your unobstructed picture perfect view of the temples of Angkor. Well, it is worth it when you know you are going back to a peaceful oasis to rest your tired sweaty feet.
My husband and I had the pleasure of staying at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort. Oh, that moment when you walk through the wooden framed glass doors at the reception and are welcomed with a fresh blast of air conditioning, the smell of lotus flowers, cold towels, and the smiles of the most accommodating staff. The walk from the grand reception hall to the room, is so relaxing – that it almost removes the weight of your heavy camera bag. The bird cages slowly swing to the pianist in the lobby bar, tea cups clinking as guests sip away on afternoon tea on the stunning French colonial veranda, which overlooks the central lagoons, and in the distance splashes from the swimming pool tempting you to dive in.
Thai architect Choochart Polakit has created a place of calm, in this French, colonial style resort. Whilst the resort has 238 rooms, they are spread across 6 hectares of land; thus at no one point in time did we feel like we were in a large hotel – far from it! Taking hints from Khmer and French architecture the rooms are high ceilinged, with timber floors, double height windows, and wrap around terraces. The rooms are elegant and styled in a sophisticated manner – cream fabrics against warm wood furnishings.
The great thing about Cambodia is that everything is cheap. There most definitely is an over supply of massage venues in Siem Reap, which allows you to get a 30 minute foot massage from anything from $1 to $4. We often went to Pura Vida in Siem Reap to get immediate short-term relief for out tired aching feet. $4 for a mediocre massage from a woman whose attention is probably elsewhere, in a clean venue is not bad; especially if it allows you to walk from the restaurant to a bar. Though lying down next to 20 other people with loud music pumping from the surrounding backpacker’s bars is anything but relaxing. I would highly recommend having a massage at the Sofitel So Spa in the VIP massage room: perfect for a couple’s massage. A large bright room, which over looks a private tropical garden; pin drop silence, the full-undivided attention from the masseuse and the soothing smells from the L’Occitane range of products – all the ingredients for a relaxing massage. At $50 for a full body massage I felt rebalanced and relaxed. All the knots from my back were released and I was ready to hit the temples of Angkor.
The Sofitel has an excellent breakfast spread. I was particularly impressed with the careful labelling of all the food items, stating what is vegetarian and what is gluten free. The Sofitel proudly claims to be the first hotel in Cambodia to have HACP certification – so you can carelessly eat to your heart’s content without worrying about getting food poisoning. I have to admit I wish my husband and I had not ventured afar to watch the Apsara dance show at the Belmond La Residence Hotel. Whilst the food there was fantastic, the performance and the in-door ambience was rather disappointing. I would have much rather watched the Apsara dance show at the Sofitel – in the outdoor restaurant, which overlooks the stunning lagoons.
Whilst the Sofitel’s restaurants are great, I would highly recommend venturing into Siem Reap, absorbing the vibrant atmosphere and eating at any of the very affordable restaurants the city has to offer. For a very casual lazy lunch Peace Café offers an extensive, purely vegan menu which you can enjoy as you lounge on the chill-out futons and cover your feet in sand. Chanrey Tree was by far the best restaurant we dined at. There is a vegetarian menu, which boasts authentic Khemer cuisine. The salads are exceptional – try the Pomelo and Spinach Salad or the eggplant salad with sesame dressing. Siem Reap has a wonderful selection of restaurants that recruit disadvantaged youth, and in effect operate as social enterprises. Many of them offer a great menu and some even experiment with traditional recipes. Marum, for example offers Lotus, Jackfruit, and Coriander Hummus. At the other end of the spectrum Siem Reap has a few fine dining restaurants. We had the pleasure of enjoying a rather expensive private three-course dinner in a traditional stilt pavilion over a lotus pond at Soujourn Destination Dining.
The temples of Angkor are otherworldly and are a must on any culture lover’s list. Four days in Siem Reap is ample time to soak in the rich history, enjoy the great cuisine and have some down time getting pampered. Just 15 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes form the temples of Angkor, The Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort is the ideal luxury hotel to reside at during a temple hopping holiday.