Make no mistake, Angkor Wat is a magnificent temple-city ruins that one should- and I mean should- visit when traversing around the world. However, Cambodia holds far more grandeur that is left unappreciated. For those looking for a less- "tourist-infested" places in near Angkor Wat, here are places that could help you find that inner peace amidst of unadulterated nature.
Being the town closest to the Angkor Wat, people tend to take no heed of the seemingly laidback pace of Siem Reap. Not only does the booming place located in midst of Cambodia's best tourist spots, it is also bordered with restored colonial buildings lodging cafes, pubs and bars alongside its tree-lined streets. This quaint town sure does offer the best commodities where people can relax and refresh themselves after a hard day of trekking and trudging around temples. Taking a long walk next to the Siem Reap River will be enough to recharge you for the next day.
Before starting your day, be sure to pick up your free Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide from the hotel or guesthouse you're staying in. It contains lots of information on Siem Reap and Angkor, including hotels, bars, restaurant and shop info, travel info, maps, etc. that will be much helpful to a visiting tourist. For the eco-sensitive tourist, check out Stay Another Day: Cambodia, a detailed guide with local spots that support the environment and community.
A short drive from Siem Reap could land you to Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The lake is especially unique for two reasons: one, it changes its water flow twice a year and two, the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. Nevertheless, the lake is shallow enough to hold many villages that are built on stilts out in the open waters, most of its residents are Vietnamese immigrants. It was declared by UNESCO as an ecological hotspot and UNESCO biosphere in 1997, partly because it was a haven for wildlife. The lake was visited by millions of migrating birds, even more so in the months of December through March.
There's a "toll" of sorts payable by tourists on the road from Siem Reap to the lake costing US$1. The going rate for a boat and guide around the lake itself and some of the floating villages is US$10. A stop at one of the floating fish farms turned restaurants and souvenir shops is usually included. These places usually have an elevated platform that is strategically placed to capture the best angles of Tonle Sap. However, there is a "cost" of using these platforms, usually the purchase of a drink costing US$1 no matter what you order.
Around 25 kilometers north of Angkor Wat lay what most revere as "the jewel of Khmer Art" because of its sculptures' highly intricate level of detail, using pinkish sandstone instead of the gray stones used for the big temples, Banteay Srei is translated as "Citadel of Women/Beauty", mainly because it was assumed that the cravings are made by women rather than men.
What makes it so unique is that the temple wasn't built by a monarch; it was spearheaded by Yajnavaraha, a Brahmin counselor to king Rajendravarman. It was primarily dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, the reason why Yajnavaraha originally named it Tribhuvanamahesvara- meaning Great Lord of Three-fold Law.
If you want to visit this jewel on your own, a visit to Banteay Srei can be combined with a trip to Kbal Spean and Banteay Samrei, a temple around 5 kilometers away from Banteay Srei. Built by Suryavarman II between 1150 and 1175, it contains well-preserved bas-reliefs depicting scenes of the Vishnu and Krishna legends. Surrounded by moats, it is a rare fortified temple. You can even add Beng Melea for a full day trip. However, note that although Banteay Srei is removed from the main Angkor Archaeological Park, you must still posses a valid admission pass to visit Banteay Srei. If you don't have one, or yours is expired, you can purchase a one-day only pass at the temple for US$20. Banteay Srei closes every day at 5:00 PM.
Up on Kulen mountain, about 12 kilometers past Bantaey Srei, a natural stone bridge crosses one of the small streams that pour out onto the plain below. From this bridge, and for about 100 meters downstream, the ancient Khmers carved linga images, reportedly reaching to 1,000, into the exposed stone riverbed. The linga is a simple phallic shape, the symbol of the god Shiva and his powers of creationIn addition to the lingas along the riverbed, there are bas-relief carvings in many of the boulders along the stream. The carvings end in a small but pretty waterfall that apparently was once used as a ritual bathing spot by the king. Kbal Spean boasts not only of the spectacular lingas, but also of the landscape around the stream. The rocks take many fantastic forms, and there are a few good viewpoints along the walk up to the stone bridge.
From the parking area, it's about a 45 minute hike up to the carved area. While most of the walk is a gentle slope uphill, there are two rough spots that require some steep climbs. Like in Banteay Srie, you must still posses a valid admission pass to visit Kbal Spean. Kbal Spean closes every day at 3:00 PM.
The remote temple of Beng Melea was built just before Angkor Wat, by the same king. The temple has undergone minimal restorations, much as it would have been when westerners first visited it early in the twentieth century. Everywhere you look, roots and strangler vines entwine stones and sculptures. With restoration work begriming at Ta Prohm, Beng Melea may be your best bet for great tree in temple shots. Few people bother to make the trip here, so you may have the place almost to yourself.
Beng Melea is about 63 kilometers east of Siem Reap. The road is relatively good in the dry season, but your guide and driver will probably ask extra for the trip. As indicated earlier, you can make a circuit of Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Beng Melea in one long day. You do not need your Angkor temple pass to visit the temple, but there is a separate US$5 admission fee. There are also road tolls of US$1 each way.
Great was the grandeur of Angkor Wat, yet it wouldn't hurt to take mini-detours along the way. After all, what's a vacation without making the most out of it? Take pleasure in the hidden Cambodia!