Somehow I’ve waited for eight years of being in Asia before visiting Siem Reap and its superstar attraction Angkor Wat. What got in the way? Babies, mostly! Thankfully last weekend we finally made things right and after depositing said babies (now not so little!) into the capable hands of one grandma and one helper, we were off on our way for a whistlestop 48 hours in Angkor.
We flew with SilkAir, leaving from Changi early on Friday morning and returning on Sunday afternoon. The flight time is just under 2 hours, and Cambodia is one hour behind Singapore time. We were lucky enough to be staying at Amansara in Siem Reap, part of the ultra-luxurious Aman Hotels and Resorts group.
I’m afraid I can’t even pretend to be objective when it comes to Aman properties – I think they’re just hands down the best hotel group I’ve ever stayed with and verge on fangirl about them as I ooh and aah over every little detail. The signature Aman thrill was delivered straight away when we were picked up from the airport in a 1965 black Mercedes driven by two white liveried chauffeurs. We helped ourselves to ice cold water and lemongrass-scented towels as we began the 20 minute journey into town, and enjoyed the open-mouthed envy of other travellers. Yes, it’s not nice to gloat, but damn, it’s fun to travel in style!
When you arrive at Amansara you are whisked through a discreetly marked sliding black door in a brick wall and into a hidden courtyard world behind. The property was formerly the summer getaway of King Sihanouk and was built in the 1960s. Aman have really embraced the vibe of the architecture, but mixed it up with their signature minimalism to create a pared-back, modernist hideaway. Black bowls of white crysanthemums, single lotus flowers in tiny vases, incense burning, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes just hanging out on a futon – it’s an absolute feast for the eyes and senses.
We headed to our room with its own little walled garden complete with private pool to settle in and were taken through the itinerary that had been prepared for us. As we had a few hours before beginning our temple hopping, we decided to pop out for lunch and some shopping (always a priority!). There are a LOT of fabulous shops to hit up in Siem Reap, so here’s a quick run-down of what not to miss:
Siem Reap Shopping Itinerary
- Louise Loubatieres – a tiny treasure trove of curated handicrafts from Cambodia and Vietnam run by an achingly hip ex-Londoner who is happy to hand out tips on what’s cool around town. Also check out Trunkh next door and The Little Red Fox Espresso for a pick-me-up and to check out the Siem Reap hipsters
- The Old Market – yes it’s tacky as all get-out, but you’re going to need to pick up pressies for the peeps back home and this is where to do it. Sharpen up those haggling chops!
- The Shops at FCC – a little cluster of boutiques below the Foreign Correspondent’s Club including McDermott’s Gallery where you can get a souvenir black and white temple print.
- Artisans d’Angkor – if you run out of time these guys have a shop at the airport which we hit up for last-minute spending, but the workshop is a fun visit, and it’s a worthy organisation to support.
With a few purchases under our belts we grabbed lunch at Chanrey Tree, which serves amazing modern interpretations of traditional Khmer fare, then felt keen to move on to the culture. We headed out in one of Amansara’s jeeps, accompanied by a guide to start with Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple.
The Basics of “doing” Angkor
What I didn’t really realise before we came to Angkor is that it is actually a vast park (protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site), stretching over 400 square kilmometers and including the remains of countless temples, palaces, sculptures and monuments built between the 9th and 15th centuries. Access to the park is by 1-, 3- or 7-day pass, which you can pick up on your first day and then flash at guards at each site — very efficient as you only need to pay once (U.S. Dollars are the preferred currency).
Angkor Wat is the jewel in the crown of Angkor and is the largest and most highly-restored temple complex; the traditional way to “do” Angkor Wat is to watch the sunrise there, so make this the centrepiece of your plans as it involves a 5.30am start. For all the religious sites, you’re required to have your shoulders and knees covered (both men and women) but remember it is also hot as hades, so think thin, natural fabrics. Bring a hat, plenty of water and infinite quantities of mosquito repellant. Don’t get stressed by remembering the details of each individual temple – they do tend to blend into one mass after a while… Just wander, marvel, snap pics and soak up the peaceful, spiritual vibe. Peak season is November – March, April and May are hot and dry, and then the summer months are low season and very wet.
Once back at the hotel we treated ourselves to a swim and a G&T and then headed to the swimming pool, where Amansara had arranged a performance for their guests of “Life is struggle, life is hope”, a simple production by Cambodian landmine victims and Polio sufferers about the everyday hardships they endure. Having been immersed in the ancient world all afternoon, it was a poignant reminder of Cambodia’s turbulent modern history. Following the show we enjoyed an amazing dinner at the Amansara restaurant then headed to bed for an early night.
Bright and early the next morning we were woken with a light breakfast at 5am and headed to watch the sun rise over Ankor Wat from the main temple. Once again, Aman hook you up with something special, as you get to access the grounds before anybody else, from the rear of the site before the temple is officially open. The magic of watching the sun appear from within the ancient structure reminds you why this is considered the “eighth wonder of the world”.
With our knowledgeable guide to talk us through the many amazing features of the stone carvings and features, we spent a couple of happy (sweaty) hours exploring, before heading off by tuk-tuk to the most picture perfect breakfast ever at a traditional Khmer village house. Then, I must confess, we pretty much fell back into bed at the hotel for a few happy hours of snoozing before some more temple-hopping in the afternoon.
Although our time in Angkor was relatively short, we felt like we got a very strong sense of the place, mostly through the superb itinerary planning from the hotel and the fact that they whisk you past crowds, arrange all your transportation effortlessly, and generally treat you like royalty during your stay. We’d definitely head back to Siem Reap to explore more temples and head deeper into the jungle, but I can’t imagine staying anywhere other than Amansara if we did so.
Amansara Suites start from US$1,100++ per night; Pool Suites are US$1,500++. There is a compulsory daily half board and touring charge of US$170++ per person, per day.