“Wonders of the World” and “Bucket List” are terms that are often used in the travel industry, often inappropriately. But there’s no doubt that Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s top tourist destination, easily qualifies for both. In terms of ruins and man-made sites, there are few in the world that can compare. I’ve been to most of the major pyramid complexes in Mexico, Machu Picchu, the Colosseum, and other special sites, and I would put Angkor Wat above anything I’ve seen in that vein. It’s also much bigger, so it’s worth a special trip.
Over the past two years, I’ve long predicted an increase in Bucket List travel, as the pandemic has helped people realize that life is short and unpredictable, and the things you put off don’t happen. will possibly ever feature – plus, who knows what the next shoe to drop might be? Travel is getting easier again as things reopen from pandemic shutdowns, so if Angkor Wat is one of those places you’ve been planning to see “one day” – and it should be – you might want to do it someday now.
It has also become cheaper and easier. Cambodia only reopened to tourism in November and last month Bloomberg reported that 83% of the Cambodian population is fully immunized, among the top ten countries in the world, and noted that “There has never been a better time to visit Angkor Wat…In Siem Reap, Cambodia, travel have just begun to reopen, creating glimmers of hope for locals and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors.Opportunity of a lifetime!
Why go? For starters, the scale of Angkor Wat is incredible, far larger than most people who have read about it or seen pictures would expect. The name literally translates to City of Temples, and it is not one building, or even a group of buildings, but rather several sites containing around 1000 pieces of architecture spread over 154 square miles – either seven times the size of Manhattan! It was built over a period of 500 years from the 9and at 14and centuries, and the Angkor Archaeological Park has plenty to see, of which the namesake temple of Angkor Wat is just one – but vitally important – piece. It is the one reflected in the lake opposite that appears on the postcards. Angkor Thom is technically a different ruin city nearby, but also a must-see. The same goes for Ta Prohm, the overgrown temple in the jungle famous for the filming of the original Tomb Raider movie. There are many other important temple sites including Ta Som, Ta Nei, Preah Khan, Preah Ko, Pre Rup, East Mebon and Banteay Srei among others, some of them hidden gems and local secrets, rarely visited by western tourists and very empty. alternatives to the often crowded main events. You get the idea – I was there for a few days, and while hitting the highlights I left a lot of things unseen and I plan to come back, you could easily spend a week in the region.
The area is largely misunderstood by tourists who expect it to be a blockbuster wonder like Machu Picchu or Giza, go for a day, snap some selfies. The gateway to Angkor Wat is the modern city of Siem Reap, also fascinating and much bigger than you might expect with tons of hotels, shops, restaurants, other interesting sights such as floating villages, a silk farm, cultural centers and even a pretty good golf course. In between you are talking about an area, not an “attraction” or landmark, and it can be part of a larger trip to Cambodia and/or Thailand or a great holiday destination on its own whole. Even though there are luxury hotels here, Cambodia is an inexpensive place, and park entry, guides, and food are all excellent values.
So what’s up? During my visit I stayed at the Anantara Angkor Wat and loved it. I chose it because Anantara is one of those foreign luxury brands hidden off the radar of many American tourists, but not for long. Owned by a former American pizza tycoon, the Thailand-based luxury chain has grown by leaps and bounds and has just expanded into Europe with a luxury golf resort in Portugal and top city hotels in Rome, Dublin and Budapest. They also own NH hotels, including the new NH New York, and some of Anantara’s most famous properties are the Royal Livingstone in Victoria Falls, The Palm in Dubai and Natadhu Private Island in the Maldives, while the flagship Siam hotel is easily Bangkok’s best luxury palace. Anantara was one of the first players in the growing culinary tourism niche and the first luxury chain to roll out a company-wide cooking school program, Spice Spoons, which in each locality offers courses based on local food. I have stayed at Anantara resorts from Bali to Africa to SE Asia and have never been disappointed so chose them for Angkor Wat and it was brilliant. Now it’s better.
While many of the best hotels here are found in the crowded urban bustle of Siem Reap, this resort sits outdoors in a peaceful and secluded tropical setting, just minutes from the Archaeological Park. It offers excellent food, its own activities, and when you return from a long day of exploring – which often begins before sunrise – it is a haven of relaxation, with spacious and expansive accommodation, restaurants and outdoor bars, large upscale spa, and gorgeous pool complex. It offers Spice Spoons cooking classes focusing on Cambodian Khmer cuisine and four dining options.
Now that Cambodia is back online, the Anantara is wooing visitors with its first all-inclusive package that’s both user-friendly and incredibly value. The all-inclusive Angkor discovery package includes accommodation, daily breakfast, choice of chef’s special tasting menu for lunch or dinner daily, afternoon tea or bespoke dinner (private meal on extent) at the Jungle Temple (Lunch or dinner set up at 900 years old ancient temple in the jungle which is off the beaten path and very private, a memorable and unique experience) per stay, one guided quad bike (ATV) adventure at the sunset one day, a guided countryside bike tour one day, and most importantly, daily excursions to the Angkor Archaeological Park by private car with an English-speaking guide, including temple passes. All of these are for two people, and the good thing about the package is that it’s customizable, available in any duration from three nights or more. The package starts at $565 per night, which is a lot with meals, rooms, and full-day guided tours of the ruins, plus other features — all for less than many luxury hotels now charge a premium. room with nothing at all.