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A Cambodian Adventure—Angkor Wat, Anantara, and a Birthday to Remember

Angkor Wat at sunrise; photo courtesy of Anantara

By Ruth J. Katz

I knew it would be a special birthday celebration: I (along with Jack Benny, in spirit) was celebrating yet another anniversary of my 39th natal day and I would be spending it in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with colleagues (they, corporeal). Angkor Wat (“Capital Temple”), long a destination on countless bucket lists, was the treasured prize.  While the Khmer Rouge devastated Cambodia and was responsible for the genocide of some two million people from 1975 to 1979, the country is stable today, some twenty years after the 1998 election that put Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodia People’s Party into power, and they still hold office. Our guide, the knowledgeable and scholarly Pech Vuthy, told us that in 1993 the glorious Angkor Wat complex of temples attracted a mere 7,000 visitors annually, but now, that number has mushroomed to two million.

It is for that very reason we head off before sunrise in order to stake a claim to an advantageous perch for dawn’s blush over the temple. Angkor Wat is about four miles north of Siem Reap and you must park quite a distance from the shrine, so bring a flashlight (a cell phone will do handily) and comfy walking shoes.  The sandstone causeway leading to the main western gate is over 800 feet long and the entire rectangular complex occupies some 500 acres; there are countless narrow steps, requiring vigilant navigation as you climb.

Carvings on the wall at Angkor Thom; photo courtesy of the author

The temple was designed to replicate Mount Meru, the mythological home to Hindu gods, and believed to have been the center of the world. The main tower is about 200 feet high and the outlying spires symbolize additional peaks, while the two-mile-long perimeter wall represents the foothills at the edge of the world, and the moats in between are the oceans.  The temple is awash with interesting architecture, bas-reliefs, and sculptures.  Originally built as a Hindu shrine, it slowly morphed into a Buddhist holy site.

Vuthy informed us that there are approximately 150 excavated temples in the area and it is believed that there are another 150 temples below ground, just waiting for a pick and spade to unearth them.  Angkor Wat is by far the grandest and best-preserved and it is likely the only one that has remained a major religious destination since it was built (first half of the 12th century). We learned from Vuthy that it took thirty years to complete and 6,000 elephants did the stone hauling.

A meal for two, organized by the Anantara staff, among the ruins of a temple; photo courtesy of Anantara

After Angkor, we headed to the picturesque ruins of Banteay Thom, hidden deep in the woods and accessed by dirt roads through scrublands. It provided a dream-like setting for a sumptuous, surprise (!) birthday feast; our hotel staff, from Anantara’s Angkor Resort, set up an amazing repast, replete with iced Champagne and cake.

A classic deluxe room at Anantara Siem Reap; photo courtesy of Anantara

The cossetting hands of the Anantara employees are ever-present at all of the company’s nearly 50 hotels, known for superlative service and exquisite settings.  On staff, also, are gurus who can attend to specific needs—even down to what kind of pillow you require for a blissful eight hours with Morpheus.

Anantara is the five-star hotel group of the Thailand-based Minor Corporation, which also has four other hotel brands, with properties on five continents.  Founder William Heinecke, the son of a US foreign service official, is Wisconsin-born and Thai-bred; he left home at 17 and started a business in Bangkok, and because he was too young to sign legal documents, he dubbed his fledgling operation the Minor Corporation. Today it is one of the largest hospitality and food conglomerates in Asia, boasting a network of some 2,000 eateries and hundreds of retail stores, in addition to its 150-plus hotels.

The central courtyard at Anantara Resort, Siem Reap; photo courtesy of Anantara

The hotel spa was the idyllic spot for relaxation after a day of tomb-trekking. The Thai Herbal Treatment—a warm herbal poultice, followed by a massage that mined all the jet lag out of me, capped off with an herbal treatment—was the prescription.

A spa treatment room at Anantara Spa, Siem Reap; photo courtesy of Anantara

After a lazy snooze, I headed to the “floating pavilion” in the middle of the resort, where the attentive staff had prepared another culinary adventure, a Dining by Design meal, a brand specialty—and ours lived up to its billing.  Our supper included a delectable mango salad, Kep crab cakes, seared scallops and pumpkin with caramelized pork and Khmer pesto, lamb Saraman curry with eggplant and basil, all topped off with a luscious, dark-chocolate cake.

Khmer dancers at the after-dinner performance on the floating pavilion; photo courtesy of Anantara

As if that were not enough, we were treated to a traditional Apsara dance show, with lilting Thai music and striking native costumes.  The next day we headed to Ta Prohm, perhaps best known as the exotic temple backdrop of the “Tomb Raider” franchise, with its otherworldly tree growth snaking indiscriminately over and through the temple structures, like arboreal ribbons.

Tree growth all around the stone temple at Ta Prohm; photo courtesy of the author

Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, this temple is particularly noteworthy because it has been judiciously restored, after hundreds of years of neglect.  It was, in fact, “adopted” by the Archaeological Survey of India and that effort has resulted in new, protective, wooden walkways, railings, and viewing platforms. (It is quite common for individual countries to assume responsibility for a specific temple and undertake its restoration.)

The Buddhist Bayon Temple, which features a baroque style of Khmer architecture, was next on the agenda and it, too, is quite notable for its wall carvings, featuring a plethora of surface decoration depicting mythological, historical, and mundane civilian life. The Japanese Government Team for the Safeguarding of Angkor has put Bayon under its auspices.

A typical Cambodian  house in the fields; photo courtesy of Anantara

The day’s codetta was a visit to the burnished pink Pre Rup temple—the color the result of a combination of brick, laterite, and sandstone building blocks—constructed in about 960. Cambodians commonly believe that funerals were conducted at the temple, but for us, it was a visit highlighted by sunset cocktails on the “summit” of the temple.  A storybook finale to an incomparable sojourn.

The Details:

For information on this resort and other Anantara properties, call 844-646-6724; anantara.com

EVA Air has several beautiful, comfortable lounges in the Taipei, Taiwan (your stopover), all with flavorsome Eastern and Western cuisine and gracious amenities geared to a sleepy traveler. Cabin service includes five classes—Royal Laurel, Premium Laurel, Business Class, Elite Class, and Economy Class.  800-695-1188; evaair.com/en-us

 

The author of five books, Ruth J. Katz was the style/travel editor of Promenade magazine for eight years.  She has written extensively for both The New York Times and New York magazine and has served as an editor or contributing editor at numerous magazines, including Redbook, Classic Home, Golf Connoisseur, and The Modern Estate.  She has visited over 80 countries (and counting).

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