At 660ft wide, the waterway was so big I assumed it was a river. It wasn’t. This was just the 3.4-mile long moat around the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
Our genial tuk-tuk driver Mr Chantol laughed when I explained my mistaken assumption and said “bigger things’’ awaited.
Indeed they did. As he swung around a sharp corner and the forest cleared, we got our first glimpse of the 12th century stone structure on the outskirts of Siem Reap.
“Bigger things’’ barely covered it and my wife Debbie and I stared in a reverential silence, trying to take in the scale of the temple-city.
Pack your superlatives, you’ll need them here.
So, some numbers: Angkor Wat, thought to be the world’s largest religious building, is on a 400-acre site, with a 2.2-mile long perimeter wall.
It was built on the orders of the Khmer Empire’s ‘god-king’ Suryavarman II between 1112 and 1152, using 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants, and created from sandstone and laterite blocks quarried 30 miles away and transported down the Siem Reap River.
Mr C had picked us up from our hotel in town, the luxurious and throughly excellent French colonial Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa – the hotel cars are vintage Citroens – and had first taken us to the Angkor Wat ticket office, which is en route to the Hindu-Buddhist temple (you cannot get entry on the gate. tourismcambodia.com US $37 one day, $62 three days).
Dropping us by the moat and checking we had plenty of water (absolutely essential as it was a cloyingly muggy 34C), Mr C arranged to pick us up later to see two more of the area’s temples, part of a 154-square mile Unesco World Heritage -listed archaeological park.
Perhaps 500,000-750,000 people lived in the park at the height of Khmer power, making it the largest city of the pre-industrial world.
And it is only when the human eye sees it that you truly appreciate the colossal scale. The stone causeway across the moat is being renovated, so we joined the throngs on the floating temporary replacement, the 6,720 inflated white polybags making it an amusingly bouncy experience.
Then we stopped and stared in wonder again (there is a lot of stopping and staring in wonder to be done at Angkor Wat) as we got our first proper view of the 770ft-wide entrance porch, before moving on to the central temple complex, reached by a 1,560ft grand avenue fringed by large ponds.
Finally… what must be the world’s grandest of grand entrances, to the temple proper.
And it is here, amid the ancient, black-stained stones awash with intricate carvings, that you truly feel the weight of time. Humans have a finite period on Earth but you do feel that this worn but defiant (and still functional) magnificence will be here for a thousand years yet, no matter what happens to mankind.
You have to queue for half an hour or so for the absolute high point (in every sense) – the 210ft Bakan Sanctuary is the heart of the complex and the stairs up are dizzyingly steep, befitting the Khmers’ challenging heavenly ascent to see their chosen gods.
It is a special place, so make sure you get in the queue for Bakan and do not miss it – this is an exhilarating high point in a place which is, whatever you think about religion, good for the soul and a triumph of the human spirit.
A rich king and an army of labourers helps, of course.
Temples abound in the Angkor area and Mr C also took us to Bayon, which is made up of 216 ingeniously carved stone faces, and Ta Prohm – used in the first Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider film – which is being reclaimed by the jungle in a startling way as trees grow right through the stone structures.
The selfie opportunities are stellar at both these sites and you will again feel the centuries enveloping you.
Siem Reap will be your natural base for any visit to Angkor Wat and it’s a decent spot.
The Victoria Angkor hotel proved to be perfect for us, and our stay was as part of an extension to a fabulous Lotus Cruises river sailing on the mighty Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Two nights at this delightful, high-quality hotel – I can still picture those happy hour cold beers by the gorgeous pool and our sumptuous suite with a four-poster bed – gave us ample time for the Angkor visit and the city too.
We drifted from deep cultural immersion at the excellent Angkor National Museum ( angkornationalmuseum.com $12) which takes you through the six centuries of the Khmer Empire via so many dazzling artefacts (there’s a good cafe for an al fresco lunch next door) to the less refined 21st century, but dazzling in a different way, charms of Pub Street.
It it what it is – pumping music, garish lights, an Angkor Wat-sized moat of booze, food ranging from pizza to Mexican via curry and many, many people milling about.
We had an excellent cheap street food-style Cambodian meal (tangy stir fried Khmer beef is my new favourite thing) on the periphery, declined the raucous milling-about bit and retreated to the serenity of the Victoria Angkor.Both the museum and Pub Street are walkable, though taxis and tuk-tuks are very cheap.
Before flying home, we had a day and night in Phnom Penh, the frantic, traffic-thronged Cambodian capital.
Again we lucked out with our accommodation, this time a stay in the Palace Gate Hotel & Resort, directly opposite the glorious Royal Palace complex, home to the Throne Hall and the mesmerising, opulent Silver Pagoda housing the Emerald Buddha adorned with crystal, gold and 9,584 diamonds, and a floor made of 500 silver blocks.
Unmissable, but expect crowds. ( cambodiamuseum.info $10).
The adjacent National Museum was less frenetic and, as in Siem Reap, there is a wonderful collection of Khmer artworks ( cambodia museum.info $5).
I also became mildly obsessed by Phnom Penh’s street-side power lines – an incredible spaghetti of black cables. They have to be seen to be believed!
As in Siem Reap, we succumbed to the temptation of happy-hour cold beers by the hotel pool and wandered into town for excellent cheap street eats (boring, I know, but it was tangy Khmer beef again for me).
Returning to the hotel, we also tried a nightcap at the lovely rooftop Orchid Sky Bar, which overlooks the floodlit Royal Palace at night.
Should you do the Instagram thing, this is your place. We would be prepared to suffer it again.
We were really smitten by Cambodia. The country endured the savage Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and 80s and is absolutely back on its feet, warmly welcoming visitors.
So, once the coronavirus outbreak is over, go if you can – it’s a terrific, safe, good-value and friendly destination, and Angkor Wat is worth the journey alone… a marvellous and magical place.
You won’t regret it.
- While the Riel is the official currency of Cambodia, the US dollar is widely accepted and generally preferred.
- You’ll need $30 in cash per person to pay for a Cambodia single entry 30-day visa at the arrival airport.
Thai Airways flies to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh from Heathrow via Bangkok starting at £579 return in October; thaiairways.com
Angkor Air flies from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in October from $74 one way; angkorair.com
More at tourismcambodia.com