As soon as you enter Cambodia, you know you are in the Angkor Wat country. The banners, the cafes, the guesthouses, the decorations, and even the beer will have not-so-subtle allusions to the grand temple complex that has put the country firmly on the travel map. The two have become so synonymous with each other, that most people make the mistake of just flying in to Siem Reap, spending three days discovering their inner Indiana Jones and simply flying out. With Air Asia revolutionizing air fares in that part of the world, it even starts to sound like a doable weekend itinerary. Travel styles differ with each person, but this particular idea does not speak to me in the least. Especially after having been there.
Cambodia is a country that boasts an incredibly textured history. The glory years of the Khmer Empire in the 12th and 13th centuries resulted in the explosion of temples in what was at the time the world's grandest complex of temples, forts and moats. However, a visit to Phnom Penh and the nearby Killing Fields is a sobering reminder of how equally destructive the human race can be. Descendants of the very same race that dreamt up the impossible scale of Angkor were responsible for one of the bloodiest periods in human history - the Khmer Rouge. This rich patchwork past all lies carefully curated in the different museums around the capital city, making for the perfect introduction to Cambodia and the Khmers.
Start with Phnom Penh, allow yourself to cringe at the full cruelty of Pol Pot's regime and the complete disregard for human life under it. With those images in your head take the long trip up to Siem Reap, and brace yourself to be overwhelmed in quite different a manner. If you have a day at the temples, hit the 'big four' -- Angkor Wat, The Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan -- but know that you're cheating yourself. If you have three, go visit the other smaller temples and revisit old favourites. If you have a week, enjoy the luxury of spending entire days at the temples that really speak to you -- read a book, take a nap, beat the crowds by reaching at odd hours, and take in the sunrise from a different temple every day -- every single part of Angkor is so quirky and different, that the temple fatigue you have been warned about won't have the time to even raise its hand. Make sure you stay hydrated and find a way to cheat the infamous heat. There will be times when you will be unsuspectingly hit by the realisation that there was one man who had the power, imagination and foresight to be able to order construction on this unprecendented scale. Account for that intensely humbling moment. It will define your whole trip.
Photo credits: Shashwat Sridhar
PS: I have listed the Angkor temples in the order we visited them in, which was basically the most commonly trodden route. To beat the crowds, hit them in a more haphazard manner. Even if you can't beat them, trust the grandeur of the surrounding monuments to drown them out. Don't sweat it.