1 We travel back in time to one of the earliest capitals in the Angkor area, Hariharilaya, now known as Roluos. We begin with a visit to the brick temple of Lolei, and then continue onto Preah Ko (sacred cow), named in honour of Shiva’s mount, Nandin. Originally coated in stucco and painted, there is still some of the ancient plaster visible on the rear towers. Finally, we encounter Bakong, the earliest of the Temple Mountains, which later became the signature of Khmer kings. It is a giant pyramid, its cardinal points marked by giant elephants. We climb to the summit for views over the surrounding countryside.
This afternoon, we visit the royal bathing pond of Sra Srang and walk to the first great Buddhist monastery in Cambodia, Banteay Kdei, built in 1186 by Jayavarman VII who was a Mahayana Buddhist. We continue to the large stone temple of Eastern Mebon, originally located on an island in the centre of the now dry Eastern Baray (reservoir). We then return to Siem Reap via the temple of Kravanh. Built entirely from brick and dating from 921, this temple was extensively restored in the 1960s. Inside the small towers are some of the best brick carving found anywhere in the Khmer empire, including a giant Vishnu.
2 We journey north to Kbal Spean, the original ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, Kbal Spean is an intricately carved riverbed deep in the foothills of the Cambodian jungle. The Khmers venerated its limestone bed with a riot of carvings, including the delicate deities Vishnu and Shiva with their consorts. Lingams are phallic representations sacred to Hindus as fertility symbols and hundreds, perhaps thousands, are carved into the bedrock here.
In the afternoon, we travel through the traditional village of Preah Dak to the 12th century temple of Banteay Samre. Built by King Suryavarman II, the genius behind Angkor Wat, this temple has been extensively restored. We continue further north to Banteay Srei, Angkor’s ultimate art gallery. This petite pink temple is the jewel in the crown of Angkor-era sculpture. The elaborate carvings here are the finest found in Cambodia and the name translates as ‘Fortress of the Women’, thanks to the intricate detail here, considered too fine for the hands of a man. We finish by experiencing sunset over the rice fields from the royal crematorium of Pre Rup, a classic view of the Cambodian countryside.
3 We rise early to travel to Ta Prohm in the dawn light. This temple has been abandoned to the elements, after it was ‘discovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhout in 1860. The tentacle-like tree roots here are slowly strangling the surviving stones, man first conquering nature to create, nature later conquering man to destroy. After soaking up the unique atmosphere of Ta Prohm, we continue to the giant pyramid of Takeo, one of the highest temples in the Angkor area. This morning we also visit the remains of an old Angkorian bridge which once spanned the Siem Reap river. Like the Romans before them, the Khmer kings built long, straight roads connecting the outposts of their empire and these included many magnificent bridges. There is also the option to visit the smaller temples of Chau Sey Devada and Thommanon for avid temple enthusiasts.
This afternoon, we travel to the mighty temple of Preah Khan or 'Sacred Sword', built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Sister temple to Ta Prohm, the cruciform corridors here are impressive and there are some wonderful carvings adorning the walls, including the spectacular hall of dancers. We then continue on to the elegant curves of Neak Poan. This petite temple is the ultimate ornamental fountain. We journey to the mountain temple of Phnom Bakheng to see the sunset cast its soft light over Angkor Wat. Please advise the guide if you want to experience sunset at a quieter location.
4 This morning we travel to Phnom Kulen, the sacred mountain that was the birthplace of the Khmer empire. It was here that Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java in 802, setting the stage for the glories of the Angkor-era that was to follow.
Wat Pre Ang Thom is a focus of pilgrimage for Khmers during religious festivals and the large reclining Buddha carved into a huge sandstone boulder here offers spectacular views across the lush jungle. Nearby are impressive riverbed rock carvings, including innumerable lingas and representations of Shiva and Vishnu. There is a classic waterfall further downstream which is the perfect place to cool off after exploring and nearby is a small, jungle-clad temple called Prasat Krau Romeas. We enjoy a picnic lunch before descending from the plateau.
Rising at the crack of dawn, we journey out to the Mother of all temples, Angkor Wat. Believed to be the world's largest religious building, this temple was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II. We stay at Angkor Wat to enjoy a picnic breakfast and then venture into Angkor Wat to enjoy its magnificence in peace and quiet.
In the afternoon, we travel to the Western Baray, the largest reservoir constructed during the Khmer Empire. Stretching an incredible 8km in length and 2km in width, this was a key element of the advanced hydraulic system that ensured the ancient Khmers mastered the seasonal cycle of water. We board a boat to reach a small island at the centre of the baray where we visit the ruin of Western Mebon temple from the 11th century. We return to Siem Reap to visit the Artisans D'Angkor where we tour the workshops seeing the artisans at work and then take the opportunity to visit their famous gallery.
We travel to the lost temple of Beng Mealea, the titanic of temples, a slumbering giant lost for centuries in the forests of Cambodia. It is the most accessible of Angkor’s lost temples, a mirror image of Angkor Wat, but utterly consumed by the voracious appetite of nature. Constructed by Suryavarman II (1113-1150), the builder of Angkor Wat, the forest has run riot here and it is hard to get a sense of the monument’s shape amid the daunting ruins.
We then head into the bush to the remote Angkor capital of Koh Ker. The history of Cambodia is riven with dynastic spats and political intrigue and one of the most memorable came in the 10th century when Jayavarman IV (928-942) fell out with his family, stormed off to the northwest and established the rival capital of Koh Ker. We visit the massive Prasat Thom, a seven-storey step pyramid, more Mayan than Khmer, with commanding views over the surrounding forest. Nearby is Prasat Krahom or Red Temple, and the five towers of Prasat Ling, each enclosing a giant linga or fertility symbol, the biggest and best found in situ anywhere in Cambodia.
Taking a break from the temples, we travel out to the mighty Tonle Sap Lake to visit the floating village of Chong Kneas, where everything floats on water from schools, to shops, to petrol stations and karaoke bars. For those that are interested, we can also make a stop at the Gecko Environment Centre to learn more about lake, which is like the heartbeat of Cambodia, providing sustenance to millions of Khmers.
In the afternoon we visit Angkor Thom, an immense walled city that was the masterpiece of King Jayavarman VII. After entering through the city gates, we begin our visit at the Terrace of the Leper King and continue along the Terrace of Elephants, originally used as a viewing gallery for the king to preside over parades. At the southern end lies the Baphuon, once of the most beautiful temples at Angkor, dating from the reign of Uditayavarman 1 in the 11th century. It has undergone a massive renovation by the French and is now once again open for viewing. Our climax is the enigmatic and enchanting temple of the Bayon. At the exact centre of Angkor Thom, this is an eccentric expression of the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s most celebrated king. Its 54 towers are each topped off with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion), which bear more than a passing resemblance to the king himself.
Hanuman is a member of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents and the Cambodian Community-based Ecotourism Network. Hanuman was cited in ‘The Guide to Responsible Tourism in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam'.