Look beyond Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm: Appropriately chosen as a movie location for Tomb Raider. Images: Sandra Burn White
Ta Prohm: Appropriately chosen as a movie location for Tomb Raider. Images: Sandra Burn White

The most striking thing about the series of temple complexes within easy day-tripping distance of the western Cambodian city of Siem Reap may be that Angkor Wat, widely regarded as the jewel in that particular crown, may not be the most impressive of them.

Sure, to stand at the reflection ponds or at Srah Srang Lake at sunrise and watch the familiar silhouette - it's used in all the tourist literature - emerge from the gloom of night, forms one of the absolute high points of any visit to Indo-China.

The lake, incidentally, is some 900 years old and was used by the royal family as a bathing spot.

An ancient stone walkway at Angkor Wat: a marvellous way to go.

An ancient stone walkway at Angkor Wat: a marvellous way to go.

Watching the sunrise from there has been described as a spiritual experience - and it most surely is. But you will be jostled and you certainly won't be alone.

And equally surely, nothing at Angkor Wat can possibly be as beautiful as the huge smiling faces that adorn Bayon, built in the late 12th or early 13th century and the state temple of Jayavarman VII, arguably the country's greatest monarch.

The 216 faces that decorate 54 towers all belong to Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva (anyone on the path to Buddhahood) who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. And, yes, they are stunningly beautiful - a reflection of one man's vision and ego.

Just as surely that nothing at Angkor Wat can be as imposing as the overgrown grandeur of twelfth-century Ta Prohm, appropriately chosen as a movie location for Tomb Raider.

Angkor Wat at sunrise is a spiritual experience.

Angkor Wat at sunrise is a spiritual experience.

It's not hard to imagine, while wandering though here, being dropped on by a fat, hungry anaconda or being stalked by a vicious tiger.

But let's get back to Angkor Wat, which is why most visitors come to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is one of the world's largest religious monuments and the complex, which probably dates from the early 12th century, takes up more than 160 hectares not far from Siem Reap, whose name means 'defeat of Siam'.

As has already been mentioned, the silhouette of the multi-towered temple is quite well-known through its use in tourist literature - and indeed in stylised form on Cambodia's national flag - to represent at least Siem Reap, often the country as a whole.

The Hindu-inspired bas-relief at Angkor Wat seems to go on forever.

The Hindu-inspired bas-relief at Angkor Wat seems to go on forever.

And take care wandering through the place because it is a Buddhist religious shrine of great importance.

Highlights of my visit included a seemingly endless Hindu-inspired bas-relief, and a stroll - it was too hot and humid to manage in any other way - along the magnificent walkway leading to the main temple itself.

Not to mention a few minutes resting at the top of an ancient stone block.

But that's like a male dog picking a tree in the forest.

Angkor Wat has just so much to offer and thoroughly deserves its status as a wonder of the world.