By: Laurel Delp
First Stop: Cambodia
Second Stop: Thailand
Thailand has more than 2,000 Khmer ruins, including some spectacular hilltop sites along the Dangrek Mountains forming the border with Cambodia. One of these temples is believed to have inspired Angkor Wat, and the Classical Era (11th to 12th century) carvings at others rival those of the Angkor structures. Stepping out among these archaeological sites you’ll have an entirely different experience: Instead of tourists, you’ll find a few local families having lunch or sometimes no one at all.
Road conditions and tricky border relations make driving to Thailand from the Angkor region pretty much impossible. But it’s easy to arrange a car and driver from Bangkok (and the ambitious can pack in a side trip to Ayutthaya, the Thai capital during the Khmer Empire’s decline). Highway conditions are excellent along the 136-mile route to Nakhon Ratchasima, also called Khorat, northeast Thailand’s largest city and a gateway to the region.
Scholars believe the dynasty of King Jayavarman VI originated in this area (Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, was a descendent), which may account for the many temples, including the lovely early 11th-century Prasat Phimai at the end of the Royal Road from Angkor Thom. Today, it’s about an hour’s drive northeast of Khorat, near the Mun River. Some say Prasat Phimai was the model for Angkor Wat, but it’s unique in its use of contrasting layers of white and red sandstone, and the sanctuary is surrounded by galleries of bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Ramayana, a Hindu epic.
The magnificent temple Prasat Phnom Rung is 70 miles southeast of Khorat. Once serving as the halfway mark on the Royal Road, it occupies a peak (phnom is Khmer for hill), with sweeping views of the Khorat plateau and the Cambodian plain to the south. Here you’ll find carvings from the height of the Khmer Empire’s Classical Era. The approach to the temple is awe-inspiring: Long causeways lead to five sets of stairways lined by nagas. Like Angkor Wat, the main sanctuary is tiered with multi-headed guardian nagas and antefixes.
A few miles away, at Prasat Muang Tam, see full moats and ponds – features that have silted over or disappeared from most other temples. Four lotus-filled ponds lie inside the walled temple, each with a surround carved like the body of a rearing naga. Much of Prasat Muang Tam leans crazily, and the temple has none of the majesty or intricate decoration of Prasat Phnom Rung, but it’s still very beautiful.
One of the most alluring temples, Preah Vihear, was closed to visitors until recently while the Thai and Cambodian governments argued over ownership (a situation exacerbated by UNESCO’s naming it a World Heritage Site). Limited visits are now allowed. Another haunting treasure, Ta Muen Thom, on the lowland border, remains under dispute. Both temples have been wantonly looted and are pocked with bullets from 20th-century wars.
As daunting as this two-pronged journey may sound, taking a detour from our tumultuous world and being able to stand before these elegant stone temples, silent amid tropical forests, is a gift.
Seeing More of Southeast Asia
Making it Happen
Getting There and Around
Thai Airways flies to Bangkok from New York and Los Angeles (www.thaiair.com). From there, take Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) to Siem Reap. You won’t need a visa for stays in Thailand lasting less than 30 days, but you will for Cambodia. Obtain one at the airport in Siem Reap (bring a spare passport photo). You’ll need a pass to visit the Cambodian sites. Stop at the ticket booth on the drive from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat; you’ll be photographed and issued a laminated pass (a 3-day pass costs $40). No such pass is needed in Thailand, where all sites are free.
Where to Stay
In Siem Reap, Hotel de la Paix (from $185/night; www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com) is a chic 107-room design hotel with a spa, a striking pool area, and a lounge that displays the work of local artists.
On a tile-paved passage near the Old Market, The One Hotel (from $225/night; www.theonehotelangkor.com) offers just a single sumptuously furnished suite, with a rooftop Jacuzzi and lounge area.
Affiliated Hotel Be Angkor (from $95/night; www.hotelbeangkor.com) has three rooms, each showcasing the work of a different Siem Reap artist, and two with rooftop lounges.
La Residence d’Angkor (from $175/night; www.residenceangkor.com), reflects Khmer style with hand-carved wood accents and a shady pool surrounded by flowers. Many Siem Reap hotels, including Hotel de la Paix and La Residence d’Angkor, encourage guests to donate to and visit local organizations such as orphanages or sewing schools. We recommend doing so.
Set on the edge of Khao Yai National Park in Thailand, 125 miles northeast of Bangkok, Kirimaya (from $200/night; www.kirimaya.com) is a beautiful design resort and a popular golf retreat with a spa. All rooms come with terraces or balconies.
Also in Thailand near Nakhon Ratchasima, the Dusit Princess Korat (from $40/night; www.dusit.com) is a great value three-star hotel.
Hiring a Guide
Tourists typically locate guides through their hotels. Prices vary, but at The One Hotel and Hotel Be Angkor, the typical charge is $40/day for a car and a driver-guide; extra fees apply for sunrise trips or travel to more distant temples. (Tip about 10 percent.) Buses are available to some sites, but they tend to be uncomfortable and their schedules erratic.
Where to Shop
At Artisans d’Angkor (www.artisansdangkor.com) in Siem Reap, tour the workshops and then shop for all things silk (from scarves and handbags to pillows) as well as wood carvings, sculpture, and wall art. Another shop with high-end style at reasonable prices is Khmer Attitude (www.raffles.com) in the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, which sells gift items and the work of top Cambodian designers, as well as Carol Cassidy’s silk shawls woven by survivors of land mines in remote Preah Vihear province.
When to Go
November to April is the dry season and peak tourist time, with elevated rates and temperatures in the 80s. May to August, the rainy season brings periodic downpours and 100-degree spells. In late spring and early fall you’ll find bearable weather and (virtually) tourist-free temples.
Proper Temple Behavior
Visit responsibly – resist the all-too-human impulse to touch the carvings (admiring hands are wearing away reliefs in Angkor Wat and elsewhere). Never buy looted goods: Any artifact for sale has been looted, and for every lintel in a Singapore antique shop, there’s a crude gash on a temple. For more information, consult UNESCO (www.unesco.org) or the World Monuments Fund (www.wmf.org).