The temple of Angkor Wat is one of the most visited sites in the world, a destination for mass tourism — hidden behind a perimeter wall that could almost be an army barracks but opens out to reveal geometrical patterns of green fields and water
A visit to the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom will take you one day and two nights based at Phum Baitang Siem Reap. The complex is located outside the city, in countryside blemished by housing for the poorer classes, roads, sports grounds and fields. You get there down a dirt road, bouncing up and down in your seat, as a cloud of red dust billows out behind you. Expect a meagre greeting from the lanky cattle while a younger calf hurries away.
Your car stops in front of a gate that has to be opened by hand – and finally, on the other side of the walls that almost have the look of an army barracks, you get to see acres of the real Cambodia – or at least part of it. The main building is like a welcome corridor – and you immediately realize that it is all made out of local wood with wickerwork details. There is a shop selling linen clothes made in Cambodia – it is a thick fabric and as soft as the best quality you will find in Europe.
Phum Baitang stretches out alongside the rice fields. The different levels are marked out by parallel lines of green and mirrors, with water flowing from one level to the next. A wooden walkway is suspended over the fields. To the west, an infinity pool blends into the lawn – for the breakfast terrace. Seen at sunset, armchairs from a colonial era, suspended in time. You get around by bicycle.
Each room is a separate villa – always raised up off the ground on stilts. Some have their own private swimming pool, alongside a private patio hidden among the flowers. The bedrooms and bathrooms are roomy – clad in local wood, with long and vaguely undulated floorboards that are shiny and warm under your feet – a detail reveals a flaw: standard stainless-steel taps that feel like an afterthought in a project on such a grand scale as this hotel. Phum Baitang is a little pricier than the other hotels in the area – there are many alternatives available, including chains like Belmond, and smaller residences that mimic luxury, bearing in mind that Angkor Wat is one of the most visited sites in the world.
Phum Baitang costs less than the Aman, which feels a bit over the top: in Cambodia, the postmodern design of the Aman feels strained and maybe even a bit pretentious given its primary purpose of providing accommodation for those visiting the temples.
You can visit Cambodia all year round: November is high season and the rains are less frequent. In November, the climate is cool and the sky is bright blue – but there will be crowds of tourists from China. Temperatures rise in March, and by April soar past 40°C: the only time of year it is best to avoid is when it is spring in Europe. The rainy season is back by summer and brings high humidity and the low season (but don’t think for a moment you will get to see Angkor Wat all by yourself).
A tuk tuk is a better option than a car with aircon: in Cambodia, the breeze, whether it is cool or heavy with humidity, the warm Asian rain, is something you have to experience creeping over your skin. You can cross the city – which is not worth a stopover or visiting on foot – from Phum Baitang. Hinduism is a religion based on prayer, whereas Buddhism is based on teaching. For Buddha, prayer is respect, without asking – explains the Buddhist guide, as you enter the eastern gate of Angkor Wat.
95% of the people in Cambodia today are Buddhists – a region once devoted to Hinduism. The temples were built for three Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – broadly simplified as the gods of birth, life and death. Three animals – a snake, a lion, and an eagle. Every king built three temples – one for his ancestors, one for his own family, and one for his people. So, if you count three temples per king, there must be the ruins of more than three thousand temples in Cambodia today. They are almost always unfinished, because the king generally died as they were being constructed and his successor was far more preoccupied with building his own three.
Temples were built in stone whereas royal palaces were built in wood and so nothing remains of them today – after being abandoned for five hundred years, the timber was reduced to dust by termites. You enter Angkor Wat by climbing a set of stairs placed at one side: there isn’t a central staircase because the king would arrive riding an elephant and so steps would have been redundant. The echo of the antechamber: thump your chest with your hand and the sound will ring out like a bell, but only if you make your hand into a fist. If you clap your chest with your open hand, the sound will be dull. Angkor Wat’s foundations were built into the wet sand. The inner building is made of porous, volcanic stones clad in sandstone, which was easier to carve – each stone has two holes used to anchor and transport it.
The beehives hanging from the branches of the ancient trees can be over a meter in diameter; they are empty because the bees fly to the mountains during the rainy season and build new ones on their return. Black bees live underground and their honey is a darker color. Spunk trees are hollow and the wood is only good for feeding the fire for cooking – Fig Trees cover and kill them, parasite trees growing on top of the ancient stones – when their seeds fell to the ground and were washed by the rain, they germinated to become shrubs in just a few months. Today, they have formed a network of roots that can shift boulders and invade every crack. The dens of tigers and snakes, where monkeys play.
Neelka Way, Krong
Siem Reap, Cambodia