Perhaps it’s not surprising that Kyoto and Siem Reap both resonate with me so deeply—both are ancient capital cities lush with natural beauty and countless temples. Another similarity is the hospitality one feels during every interaction, no matter how small—from a smile on the street to incredibly accommodating rickshaw drivers who seem to transport you in time as well across town. The temples in Kyoto remain largely as they were when built, whereas those in Cambodia are scarred by a war-torn history but the inherent grandeur, wisdom and beauty in unmarred. Standing in the midst of such incredible architecture and longevity feels a bit like looking at the stars; it has a way of putting your life and your worries and troubles in the broader context of nature and humanity. The feeling is not one of smallness, but one of appreciation that there is a kind of magic in the world that transcends time and place. Touching carvings that are thousands of years old, you can’t help but feel connected to the people that stood there generations before you and spent the time creating works to share the stories of their lives—a reminder of the timelessness, simplicity and tranquility of the human spirit. If you have the chance to go, I am convinced it will touch your soul as it did mine. Here are a few of the places that I love most, and I hope you will share some of your favorite Siem Reap spots in the comments below.
Angkor Wat. Built in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat is infinitely worthy of its place as the 7th Wonder of the World. Its popularity makes it a magnet for tourists though, so avoid the crowds and enjoy a peaceful sunrise away from the fray by asking your guide to take you to the lake near Ankor Wat, not Ankor Wat itself. Another memorable experience is to take an elephant ride around Ankor Thom, just be ready for a bit of a bumpy time. The "driver" sits on their strong necks and “steers” by gently putting his feet on the back of the elephant’s ears. Our driver also whistled the “Happy Birthday Song” to keep his entertained and let us feed her some (whole) pineapples afterward.
Pavillon D’Orient. You cannot help but feel like you are living in a Colonial French home while staying at the Pavillon D’Orient. This charmingly intimate space welcomes you with libraries, tea settings and romantic mosquito net canopies over the beds. If you are on a honeymoon or after a more luxurious experience, you can’t beat Raffles Grand Hotel D'Angkor, a palatial former royal residence with more than 15 acres of landscaped French gardens.
Cuisine Wat Damnak. This is one of many delicious restaurants I was lucky enough to visit. A blend of both Khmer and Western fine dining traditions, the menu features locally sourced fruits, vegetables and fish that are amazingly fresh and tantalizingly flavorful. Some of the food is incredibly rare, like amarelle and kuy fruit, and many dishes incorporate fresh lotus seeds, wild liliy stems and a variety of edible flowers.
Artisans Ankor. Over the last 20 years, Artisans Ankor has opened dozens of traditional Khmer arts and crafts workshops in Siem Reap province to showcase Khmer workmanship from clothing to stone carving and silverwork. The craftsmen and women work in the shops, creating masterpieces before your eyes, using techniques handed down from the ages, just as in the many small artisanal factories I have discovered in Kyoto.