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Siem Reap, in the northwestern part of Cambodia, is mostly known for its Angkor Archaeological Park. In this one location, 150 square miles in size, are hundreds of monuments and, most famously, about dozens of fortress-like temple compounds where the Khmer kings ruled from 800 to 1400 AD. Their scale and sophistication rank up there with the Pyramids of Egypt and Machu Picchu in Peru as great wonders of the world. For students of history and students of life, it’s moving to be there, among the physical ruins of the distant past. The more recent past of the Cambodian people, who were brutalized under the Khmer Rouge, will add to the poignancy of a visit.

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Lay of the Land

“Only the great lost cities of Asia have the power to induce in me this feeling of the cessation of history, a sensation with which Asians are quite familiar, and which Europeans fear.”
~Carsten Jensen

Cambodia’s most well-known tourist destination is located in the northern part of the country, along the Siem Reap River. The booming provincial city is known for its French-Colonial and Chinese-inspired architecture, as well as for the beauty of its surrounding rural areas, including silk farms, rice paddies and fishing villages.

Once a sleepy town, Siem Reap rose to prominence with the discovery of Angkor by French archaeologists in the 19th century, and the incredible temples of this UNESCO World Heritage Site remain the main draw today. Growth stalled during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, which ruled and terrorized Cambodia from 1975-1979. Tourism has made a steady recovery since the early 1990s, and today Siem Reap counts as one of southeast Asia’s most visited destinations.

The main luxury hotels line the road to Angkor, and the Wat Bo area is where most of the upscale restaurants preside. The compact city is easily navigated by tuk-tuk (make sure to agree upon a fare before accepting a ride; a few hours should not be more than $5-$10). Angkor Wat is a twenty-minute ride away, and the city’s famous markets are in the downtown area. We suggest going to the temples by car (roads can be very dusty or muddy and exhaust fumes thick), so save tuk-tuk rides for within town for short trips to shops or restaurants.

When To Go

The best time to visit Siem Reap is during the dry season between November and February, when temperatures are warm and comfortable (note: it is also peak season and the major sites will be crowded. The main temple of Angkor Wat receives between 2,000 and 6,000 visitors daily.) The wet season runs from May through October, and despite the obvious drawbacks, the Angkor temples are at their most beautiful in the summer months, and the city is significantly quieter. Rain showers usually only last an hour or so, and many locals think September and October are the best months to visit.

What To Know

It is imperative to bring comfortable walking shoes. There is talk that some of the main temples may soon be roped off to protect them from the heavy traffic of tourists but at present, you can still walk through the temples and they are large structures with stairs and impressive—and lengthy—entrance ways. You will also want to wear long, loose-fitting clothes to cover your knees and keep you protected from sun exposure and mosquitos. The best time to visit the temples is early and late in the day to avoid the extreme heat at midday.

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