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October 10, 2011

The Allure of Angkor Wat

Cambodia’s ancient temple of Angkor Wat has turned the Siem Reap area into a global destination.

Across the moat from Angkor Wat, the legendary 12th-century temple in northwest Cambodia, is a restaurant alternately known as Chez Matthieu or Chez Sophéa. Matthieu Ravaux, a curmudgeonly sixty-something Frenchman, is the proprietor, chef, maître-d’, sommelier and waiter. Once a professor of photojournalism in France, he was sent by the Musée Guimet—a Parisian museum of Asian art—in the 1980s to take pictures of the temple ruins. He fell in love with the country, its monuments, and a Cambodian woman named Sop’Héa, eventually setting up a restaurant in her name. As it happens, she moved on. But he remains—the bare-bones restaurant doubles as his home—and it is here that he turns ducks and spices into a confit that rivals any France has to offer.

Like so many things in Cambodia, the experience of dining Chez Matthieu—in the shadow of a lost civilization’s greatest monument—is disorienting, laced with enchantment, full of incongruities. Here, the splendors of the past complicate the realities of the present. The feats of engineering and the heights of artistry evident in Angkor Wat, the most famous of the roughly 290 ancient temples packed into a 150-square-mile area, defy the senses, and even more so in light of the state of modern-day Cambodia. As journalist Joel Brinkley points out in his recent book Cambodia’s Curse, Angkor Thom, the 13th-century metropolis adjacent to Angkor Wat, was the largest city of the preindustrial world, and its irrigation system was so advanced that rice farmers were able to produce four crops a year. In the 21st century, most Cambodian rice growers depend on rainfall. In a good year, they produce one crop; in a bad year, none at all. Three decades on, the trauma and chaos stemming from the Khmer Rouge’s radical societal upheaval and genocidal practices continue to haunt this country of nearly 15 million people, most of whom live in rural areas and suffer extreme poverty. It’s a place where the airports have free WiFi but the majority of the population survives without electricity, their black-and-white TVs powered by car batteries.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that most Americans’ knowledge of Cambodia is similarly disjointed, coming as it does from two completely mismatched films: The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé’s 1984 dramatization of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the 2001 video-game spinoff in which Angelina Jolie kickboxes her way through Ta Prohm, an Angkorian temple overrun by tree roots. If The Killing Fields symbolizes Cambodia’s tragic past, Tomb Raider, oddly enough, might point to its future. It certainly introduced a whole new audience to Angkor’s moody, mythic ruins, giving them an air of Hollywood glamour and popularizing them as a tourist destination. And while it’s hard to quantify how substantial the Angelina effect has been—she continues to lend the country her star power, shooting a Louis Vuitton ad there last spring—what is clear is that after years of strife, a decade of relative peace has spurred a remarkable increase in visitors to Cambodia, from less than half a million in 2000 to more than two million ten years later.

The majority of these tourists, Angkor-bound, are flooding into Siem Reap, the town outside Angkor’s gates. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s boomtown, the country’s fastest-growing urban center, and to try to divorce it from the Angkor experience would be disingenuous. It’s impossible to visit Angkor without visiting Siem Reap, and it’s just as important to know where to go in town as it is to study up on the temples. The capital of Siem Reap province, it’s still centered around the early-20th-century French quarter. Now, with its mix of local Cambodians, expat NGO workers, student backpackers, Chinese and Korean tour groups and well-heeled Amanjunkies, it has developed a certain Wild West–meets–spring break feel, especially in the central Pub Street area, near the Old Market. It’s easy to be disheartened by the sign on a Mexican restaurant announcing that it has sold the most frozen margaritas in town, or the myriad foot-massage parlors featuring tanks of fish—“No piranhas!”—that nibble at your toes. Chez Sophéa’s duck confit requires a bit more searching out.

Of course, the temples are the main focus of any visit, but to outwit the tropical heat (and growing crowds), the best time to explore is at the first light of dawn. By early afternoon, the scorching sun sends all but the most obsessive diehards scurrying back to the pool. At that point, exactly which pool one uses to cool off becomes important. The number of hotels in Siem Reap has increased dramatically in the past decade. The five-mile stretch of highway from the airport to the city center is lined with cookie-cutter properties, some half-finished, some deserted in the wake of the global economic crisis, and there are any number of places that cater specifically to tour groups. Among these are a few that are truly world-class.

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Luxury tourism in Cambodia is not uncomplicated: At the top end, room rates sometimes surpass the average citizen’s yearly income of $600. Many of the best hotels make a real effort to hire and train local staff, providing them with solid jobs and a degree of upward mobility. Involving guests in local charities—arranging for them to teach English in nearby orphanages or facilitating donations to programs that supply village women with sewing machines—has also become de rigueur.

The Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (rooms, from $420; 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Kum; 800-768-9009; raffles.com) was the original Angkor stopover, built by the French in the early ’30s. Located across from the Cambodian royal summer palace, it has seen no end of illustrious guests, from Charlie Chaplin to Charles de Gaulle, pass through during their visits to Angkor. (In the ’70s and ’80s, it also served as a makeshift bunk, first for Khmer Rouge militants, then for the Vietnamese soldiers who ousted them.) In 1997 Raffles purchased and renovated it, building an addition that eventually increased the number of rooms from 64 to 119, including six suites and two two-bedroom poolside villas. (The addition recently had a facelift of its own and reopened in September.) With their four-poster beds, wicker armchairs and claw-foot tubs, the accommodations exude old-world elegance and nostalgic charm. All rooms look out on either the deep blue of the 115-foot swimming pool or the lush green of the French-style garden on the side of the property. For visitors who want the classic Angkor experience, complete with a colonial-era wooden-cage elevator, this is the place to be.

In 1962, Norodom Sihanouk, the current king’s father and the royal leader who has been involved in every political twist and turn of the last seven decades of Cambodia’s history, built a retreat for state visitors to Siem Reap. Designed in the New Khmer Architecture style, of which Sihanouk was a great proponent, it was a low-slung temple to modernism. It went on to serve variously as a state-run hotel, a Khmer Rouge encampment, a Vietnamese military garrison and once again, in the ’80s and early ’90s, an official guesthouse. In 1997 it was abandoned completely to the elements. Amanresorts purchased it in 2002 and soon reopened it to guests as Amansara ( rooms, from $800; Road to Angkor; 800-477-9180; amanresorts.com). In keeping with the architecture, all 24 suites, 12 of which have their own private plunge pools, are outfitted in sleek midcentury style. Sihanouk’s former screening room now serves as the dining room, with lizards skittering across its white-domed ceiling. It’s the details that put this place over the top: Guests are fetched from the airport in Sihanouk’s ’60s fin-tail Mercedes, each room has a dedicated tuk-tuk and driver, and the rates include temple tours with excellent guides such as Yokohama, a personable, passionate ex-journalist. (The general manager, Siddharth Mehra, who was something of an institution, recently moved over to Bali’s Amandari and left his successor big shoes to fill.)

Newer to the scene, with a trendier vibe, the 107-room Hôtel de la Paix (rooms, from $195; Sivutha Blvd.; 855-63/966-000; hoteldelapaixangkor.com) opened in 2005 on the site of a former French property of the same name. In a nod to its history, architect Bill Bensley’s design mixes Art Deco stylings with Khmer influences, like bas-reliefs in the public spaces. In the rooms, crisp white walls and linens contrast sharply with the dark-wood furniture and moldings. The largest of these, the 1,160-square-foot duplex spa suites, feature massage tables and outdoor terraces with large tubs. Just off the small lobby, with its 60-foot-high atrium, the spacious Arts Lounge and adjacent Thev Gallery feature the work of local Cambodian and Asia-based artists, curated by longtime British expat Sasha Constable, a descendant of painter John Constable. The Khmer tasting menu at Meric, the hotel’s restaurant, has inventive touches, like a heaping soup spoon of fried rice flakes mixed with ground pork. The pool wends its way from indoors to outdoors, past private alcoves and under the marble footbridge that leads to the Spa Indochine, where traditional Khmer massages are expertly administered.

The design of La Résidence d’Angkor ( rooms, from $185; River Rd.; 800-237-1236; residencedangkor.com) borrows many elements from traditional Khmer style: The outdoor stairways are made of koki, a wood commonly used by Cambodian boat builders, and exiting the double-height lobby, guests cross a stream suggesting the temple moat. La Résidence opened in 2002 as a 54-room hotel; eight expansive suites and a spa were added in 2009. Outfitted with rattan cabinets, campaign desks and terrazzo tubs, the 485-square-foot rooms, some of the largest in Siem Reap, have all been refurbished for fall 2011. The 1,075-square-foot suites, where a palette of gray, orange, white and black dominates, have a more modern look: Bathrooms are floor-to-ceiling granite with walk-in showers. Views of the pool and garden are lovely from the second-floor Martini Lounge.

Not quite a year old, the boutique Samar Villas & Spa Resort ($ rooms, from $160; 115 Group 7, Phum Tropeang Ses Khum Kochok Srok; 855-63/762-449; samarvillas.com) is for visitors who want something on a more intimate scale. Tucked behind an ornate wooden fence in a residential neighborhood, it’s further off the beaten track than the centrally located big-league hotels, but closer to the entrance to Angkor. Built according to traditional Khmer design, with pointed roofs and intricately carved trim, but furnished in high East-meets-West style, the hotel consists of five suites, two villas and an apartment, most of which overlook an oval-shaped pool. Just off the airy lobby, which features an open-kitchen restaurant, sits a classic barber’s chair where male guests can go for a daily complimentary shave. Treatment prices in the adjoining two-room spa are kept purposely low (massages are $20, for example) to encourage repeat visits. Across the driveway, in a renovated Khmer home, is the apartment and the hotel’s other dining room, Fou-Nan. TVs are by request only, and there’s a certain calm to the place.

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Cambodian food has less of a global reputation than that of its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand. Though it does share certain traits with those cuisines, like frequent use of chile, ginger, lemongrass and coconut milk, it has its own distinctive flavors, such as the pungent prahok, a fermented fish paste that’s the base of many dishes here, and the spicy notes of Kampot peppercorns, grown in the country’s southern coastal region. Amok, a fish curry served in banana leaf, is often cited as the national dish. (Crickets, spiders and other insects are also commonly eaten—a legacy of periods of famine.) In Siem Reap, the two outposts of Khmer Kitchen ($ Mondul I, Sangkat Svay Dangkum; 855-63/964-154; khmerkitchens.com) clustered near the Old Market serve an excellent rendition of amok, along with other dishes like a ground pork–and–green bean lab salad and sautéed chicken with morning glory shoots. Another favorite for Cambodian home cooking is The Sugar Palm ($ Ta Phul Rd.; 855-63/964-838), on the road around the corner from Hôtel de la Paix.

Though France relinquished control in 1954, Cambodia is still home to a prominent French expat community, and some of the more inventive restaurants in Siem Reap have French chefs and owners. One such place is Abacus (855-63/966-156; cafeabacus.com). It’s been around for several years, but in 2009 it relocated to a brand-new space and took on chef Pascal Schmit, formerly of La Résidence d’Angkor. Schmit offers both French-inflected dishes and a smartly prepared Khmer tasting menu that changes with the seasons. The outdoor bar is a favorite after-work spot of local hotel managers and NGO staffers.

Barely six months old, Joannès Rivière’s Cuisine Wat Damnak (between Angkor High School and Psa Dey Hoy market; 855-63/965-491; cuisinewatdamnak.com) is perhaps the most exciting example of a French chef taking on Cambodian cuisine and its great mix of influences: Cham Muslim, Vietnamese, Chinese. Formerly the executive chef at Hôtel de la Paix, Rivière struck out on his own last year to open this charming restaurant in an out-of-the-way neighborhood. He’s an avid locavore, always seeking out indigenous ingredients like rare mushrooms from nearby temples, Siem Reap sausage and Mekong lobster, which he pairs with new- and old-world wines and dry cider from Brittany (look for Rivière’s book Cambodian Cooking, available on Amazon.com). Dining here, it’s not unusual to hear a mix of Khmer, English and French spoken by the loyal clientele—“C’est très joli chez vous!” a guest was heard complimenting Rivière’s partner, Carole Salmon, who runs the place.

And then of course there’s Chez Sophéa ($ across from Angkor Wat; 855-12/858-003; chez-sophea.com), where in addition to the brilliant confit, there’s steak with prahok sauce, barbecued river fish, amok and chocolate mousse for dessert. The restaurant technically closes at 7:30 p.m., but those who reserve for a later time are usually accommodated (and may find that they have the equivalent of a private dining room).

After a few days of towers and carvings, temple fatigue can set in, and suddenly Siem Reap’s other diversions, like shopping, grow in significance. Most of the best shopping in Siem Reap is not actually found in the traditional shopping areas around Pub Street or at the FCC Angkor along the Siem Reap River. To be sure, there are places of note in each of those destinations. Downtown, two highlights are Garden of Desire ($ The Passage, Pub Street Alley; 855/1231-9116; gardenofdesire-asia.com), a shop carrying designer Ly Pisith’s silver jewelry made with Cambodian gemstones, and Citadel Knives ($ 157 St. 7; 855/2388-0014; knives-citadel.com), where hidden among daggers and swords are handsome sets of kitchen knives handmade in Phnom Penh from German steel, with carved rosewood or local sror lao-wood handles. The FCC Angkor (Pokambor Ave.; fcccambodia.com), in its mod, round-windowed shopping complex, hosts outlets of Eric Raisina Haute Texture (see below) and Jasmine Boutique (855-63/760-610; jasmineboutique.net), a Phnom Penh–based fashion house that specializes in jewel-toned silk dresses.

But the best shopping is farther afield, down bumpy red-clay roads, past traditional stilt houses. Case in point is the appointment-only atelier of designer Eric Raisina ($ 53 Veal Village, Kok Chork; 855-63/963-207; ericraisina.com), which is located on the ground floor of his home. Originally from Madagascar, Raisina studied textile design in Paris, where he received training in crochet and embroidery, and set up his studio here in 2004. Both Christian Lacroix and YSL have used his fabric in their pieces. The majority of Raisina’s designs are made from silk woven on site and subjected to a special softening treatment. In his workshop, seamstresses patiently stitch the signature crocheted rosettes that cover his flirty dresses and border his elegant blouses. Though he has a growing international reputation—with a number of sur mésure clients in the United States—he’s still often on hand to show visitors around.

Raisina’s house was designed by Theam Lim, a painter and designer who has his own studio and showroom, Theam’s House (25 Veal Village, Kok Chork; 855/1271-2039; theamshouse.com), practically around the corner. Lim spent more than ten years as artistic director of Artisans d’Angkor (Stung Thmey St.; artisansdangkor.com), an organization that trains Cambodians in traditional arts ranging from stone carving to lacquer painting, then sells their products at its large Siem Reap store and other outlets. Last March he opened Theam’s House, where he follows a similar model, supervising a team of young artisans who produce items of his design: ceramic elephants in bright colors; lacquer paintings inspired by Angkor bas-reliefs; sculptures in native neang noun wood.

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The string of shops at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor are impressive in their quality and depth. Nathalie Saphon Ridel, a Cambodian-French woman with a doctorate in Khmer civilization, runs two of them: The first is Khmer Attitude, featuring American Carol Cassidy’s Laotian silk scarves, exclusive pieces from Phnom Penh–based designer Romyda Keth, silk elephants for children and silver jewelry. More recently, Ridel and a partner opened Galerie Cambodge, which sells silk-strap leather sandals, cotton T-shirts with lotus-flower patterns and lacquered bamboo bowls. Next door to these spots, Angkor Heritage offers reproduction antiques from the National Museum, gold jewelry and temple photographs. All in all, it’s a well-curated collection of the best Siem Reap has to offer.

Attached to a shopping center, the four-year-old Angkor National Museum (968 Vithei Charles de Gaulle; angkornationalmuseum.com) can’t help looking like a mall itself. Inside, however, the gallery of 1,000 Buddha statues is certainly impressive, and the exhibition videos are an entertaining refresher course on the successive Khmer emperors and the interplay between Buddhism and Hinduism that informed the construction of the Angkor temples. Trickier to arrange is a visit to the Angkor Conservation Office, or Conservation d’Angkor. (Cazenove + Loyd is often able to schedule tours for its clients; see “Top Asia Tour Guides.”) Founded by the French in 1907, it was once the site that ran all the excavations and restorations of the Angkor temples. These days it no longer holds the same power, and the former apartments for archaeologists, built midcentury in the New Khmer style, sit abandoned, seemingly burned out. Still, in the courtyards and storerooms filled with endless temple relics, conservationists continue the painstaking work of repairing and re-creating the Garuda, nagas and other mythical creatures that populate the ancient wonders nearby.

It is these wonders that, despite their ancient origins, make modern-day Siem Reap the place it is, with all the positives and negatives of an international tourist destination. Some argue that the increasing influx of visitors is unsustainable, that the place has lost its mystique. But like the early-morning mist off the moats at Angkor Wat or the wail of the cicadas at dusk, there are still many otherworldly moments to be found. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

Home Brew: Launched last October, Phnom Penh–based Kingdom Breweries (kingdombreweries.com) aspires to put Cambodian craft beer on the map with its signature Clouded Leopard Pilsener, made from German hops and malt on the banks of the Tonle Sap River.

Aerial Views: Operating AS350B2 Squirrels piloted by New Zealanders, Helicopters Cambodia ($ $90–$4,755; helicopterscambodia.com) offers quick scenic flights or multiple routes out of Siem Reap, incorporating stops at far-flung temples like Preah Vihear, Banteay Chhmar and Koh Ker.

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Angkor Wat Field Guide

For 600 years, starting in the ninth century, the Khmer Empire dominated swathes of current-day Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma. A succession of Khmer kings built monuments to themselves in the form of temples, the best-known, best-preserved example being Angkor Wat. Constructed at the behest of Suryavarman II (r. 1113–c. 1150), it was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–c. 1220), the creator of neighboring Angkor Thom, gave it a Buddhist conversion. A 15,681,600-square-foot space, the sheer size can be overwhelming. A few tips and facts to keep in mind.

Passes to Angkor Wat are issued at the entrance gates. A weeklong pass is $60 (cash only) and valid for most of the neighboring temples as well.

The main entrance faces west, which is unusual for a Hindu temple (they normally face east). Entering through the back way, the eastern side, at dawn is best for avoiding the crowds.

The five lotus-shaped towers symbolize Mount Meru and its surroundings peaks, the center of the Hindu universe. The design of Angkor Wat was very much influenced by the architecture of Indian temples.

The stairways between the three levels are precariously steep and narrow. Representing heaven, the top level, Bakan, is only open certain hours, and only to the modestly dressed (skirts and shorts no shorter than knee-length; covered shoulders).

After the conversion to Buddhism, Angkor Wat’s second level came to feature the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, with stone Buddhas standing sentinel along the corridor. Some were decapitated by the Khmer Rouge, their heads eventually turning up on the black market in Thailand.

The nearly 2,000 apsaras, or heavenly maidens, carved into the walls have among them 36 hairstyles, which are copied by Cambodian women at their weddings.

Perhaps the most fascinating details are the elaborately carved bas-reliefs, especially the one depicting the “Churning of the Sea of Milk,” a myth from Hindu scripture.

Temples around Angkor Wat

Many of Angkor Wat’s neighbors are just as remarkable.

Angkor Thom: Built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom was once a thriving city of nearly one million inhabitants, the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Most famously, the towers at the entryways are topped by enormous faces staring out in all four cardinal directions. Bayon, Jayavarman VII’s state temple, features fascinating bas-reliefs that, instead of myths and parables, detail life in the 12th- and 13th-century Khmer Empire. Baphuon, one of the few Hindu temples within Angkor Thom’s gates, dates to the 1060s and was recently reopened after being restored. Partially overrun by undergrowth, 900-year-old Preah Khan was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father. At one point, around 1,000 Buddhist monks lived there; later, Hindu partisans scratched out many of the temple’s Buddha faces. The tenth-century brick towers of pyramid-shaped Pre Rup are a great perch for watching the sunset.

Ta Prohm: Ta Prohm got its Hollywood moment in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and justly so: It’s exceedingly dramatic. A tangle of tree roots sprouts from the walls and threatens to consume them. Built in 1186 in honor of Jayavarman VII’s mother, Ta Prohm is unsurprisingly popular with tourists; as with Angkor Wat, it’s important to visit early in the morning.

Banteay Srei: Because of the strength and durability of the stunning pink sandstone, Banteay Srei’s intricate carvings are exceedingly well preserved, despite being more than 1,000 years old.

Roluos Group: The site of the ancient city of Hariharalaya, the Roluos Group, about 15 miles from Angkor, has only recently become fully accessible, with the construction of a paved road. Dedicated to Shiva, Preah Ko is an early Hindu temple that was built in 879 by King Indravarman I. Neighboring Bakong was built two years later as Indravarman’s state temple.

Kbal Spean: About an hour’s drive northeast of Siem Reap, followed by a 45-minute hike up the mountainside, is the river of a 1,000 lingas, the phallic symbol associated with Shiva, carved directly into the stone riverbed. The water that rushes over these 11th-century carvings is considered holy.

Beng Mealea: Reaching Beng Mealea from Siem Reap was once a journey of up to six hours. Thanks to a new highway, it now takes an hour or so to make the 45-mile trip. The 900-year-old temple is mostly collapsed and overgrown, but it’s thick with atmosphere and refreshingly free of tourists.