Siem Reap & Angkor
Story by Charlotte Shalgosky
Pictures by Charlotte Shalgosky
& Justin Eeles
Viewed from above, the majestic
temple complexes of Angkor reveal
not just the scale of the ancient
Angkorian kingdoms, but also hidden
secrets of the region’s past.
In 1923, an English writer travelling in Asia
came across one of the world’s most majestic
stone temple complexes lying in the heart of the
jungle. In a novel written in 1930, he described
its stone galleries as “embroidered (with) many
beautiful inventions...carvings of unimaginable
variety...they are interminable; they are world
famous.” The author was writing of Angkor Wat;
his name, William Somerset Maugham.
Dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, Angkor Wat
is just one of many temples – both discovered and,
it is believed, undiscovered – covering hundreds
of acres of peaceful woodland and jungle in
northwest Cambodia, scattered around the once
backwater, now booming, Siem Reap.
It is a gigantic monument; imposing and
magniﬁcent, and one that has lasted for over
1200 years. Its sudden, inexplicable decline
around the tenth century has drawn scholars
from all over the world to debate its silent past.
The tall, four-towered main complex is
surrounded by labyrinthine corridors leading
to airy quadrants decorated with intricate
carvings of Apsaras, sensual celestial dancers.
In some areas, red pigment and gold leaf can still
be seen, prompting one German stone expert to
claim that the temple would once have been a
riot of colour.
Much of the area surrounding Angkor Wat was
mined during the Pol Pot years, but the lethal
ordnance among the ruins still did not stop
the wholesale pilfering of large stone statues,
most of them crudely hewn from the ancient
sandstone. Examples of the beautiful Khmer
workmanship now lie hidden away in private
hands or in the awesome public collections at Le
Musee Guimet in Paris.
Continued on page 36
This page, top: An
to the ‘jungle temple’
Bottom: A maze-like
Following page: Ang-
kor Wat reﬂected in an
[Donald’s] aerial antics earned him a
Khmer nickname, which translates as
The landmines have also meant severe
restrictions for scientists and archaeologists,
whose access is limited to ‘safe’ or cleared areas,
and well-trodden jungle paths. Yet today, one
small group of men have found a way of exploring
Angkor’s treasures without disturbing the
sacred ground on which they were built.
American Donald Cooney’s experience in Asia
started – in unenviable fashion – as a young
soldier in Vietnam. Undaunted by those
memories, for the last three years he and a
two like-minded pals have been volunteering
their services for several months a year to the
scientiﬁc community in and around Siem Reap.
Cooney is an experienced hang glider and pilot,
and regularly ﬂies a self-assembly two-seat Micro-
light aircraft over the region; undertaking aerial
surveys and photography for a long list of world-
class experts that range from ornithologists and
archaeologists to hydrologists.
Though he may be sorely tempted to turn the
volunteer work into a commercial venture for
paying passengers, Donald, one soon ﬁnds out,
is not that kind’a guy. Impassioned by a love for
Asia and a need to ‘give something back,’ this
swashbuckling airman is living up to his word;
on the side, he runs a small makeshift clinic
next to the cow pasture that masquerades as his
His team spend three months in the dry season
(December to March) ﬂying with their various
scholars; plotting new sites, charting bird nests
or migration patterns over the giant Ton Le Sap
Lake, or surveying what could be the discovery
of Asia’s oldest trade route, a long highway lying
between Angkor Wat and Bantei Srei. Donald
believes this was used by teams of elephants to
bring cargo to and from what was the largest
city in the pre-industrialised world.
Continued on page 38
This page, top: Bird’s-eye
view of Angkor Wat
Bottom: Airman and clini-
cian, Donald Cooney
Following page: Hovering
...a stark reminder of the architectural
and aesthetic superiority of the
Up, Up and Away!
…more aerial options
Khmers as long ago as the 8th century,
Apart from the non-commercial micro-lighting,
when most European kingdoms were helicopter ﬂights over Angkor and the Ton Le Sap
Lake have been running for some years. Andrew,
deep in the Dark Ages. an affable Kiwi pilot conducts the trips on an ad
hoc basis from Siem Reap, and has even had the
pleasure of ﬂying Tomb Raider’s Angelina Jolie
over the same region.
He explains how the barei, or man-made watering
holes along the route would have been the Unlike the micro-light, helicopters can cover
‘ﬁlling stations’ for thirsty elephants, and how more ground in less time, but the noise and
the reliance and consumption of such a huge enclosed space make it an entirely different
megalopolis on local water supply probably lay experience from the open-to-the-elements micro-
at the root of the city’s downfall. light. Helicopter tours can also take in the Ton Le
Sap’s many Vietnamese and Cambodian ﬂoating
The resounding success of Donald’s aerial work villages which have existed for centuries.
is testament to his generosity and diplomacy.
From the start, he knew he had to win over Two years ago, the Apsara authorities allowed a
sceptical locals: everyone from the villagers to tethered hot air balloon to be set up a kilometre
the police and air trafﬁc controllers. He did this from Angkor Wat’s west gate. Though the ﬁfteen-
by taking them up in the air! minute ride is relatively short, the views over
the main complex can be fabulous if the weather
Donald soon found out that none of them had complies. Midday summer haze, and especially
ever been in a plane before, let alone strapped the effects of burning rice ﬁelds around February
into a ﬂimsy contraption that looks like a cross or March, can hinder the essentially great views.
between a lawn mover and a hang glider! His
aerial antics soon earned him a Khmer nickname, The balloon’s silent ﬂight is one of the major
which translates as ‘Motor Hawk.’ advantages over the noisier motorised options,
but it does only give limited views of the main
It is a heady experience ﬂying with Donald on a site and is liable to last-minute cancellation due
steaming hot day; buffeted only slightly by the to inclement weather. CS
warm thermals, the micro-light moves almost
unnoticeably above the vast green jungle below.
Donald banks steeply to take in the symmetry
and staggering scale of the rose pink temple of
Bantei Srei; in the distance, the towers of Angkor
Wat can just be seen peeping over the verdant
canopy. The scale is incredible. Tethered Hot Air Balloon
Cost: USD 12
The magnitude of the stone complex seen from
above is breath-taking, while the buildings’
layout from the air is a stark reminder of the
architectural and aesthetic superiority of the Cost: USD 68
Khmers as long ago as the 8th century, when
most European kingdoms were deep in the Dark Tel: +855 12 814 500
Donald’s team hopes to return each year
– pending private funding – to continue the
important aerial work over Cambodia, and with
his assistance it is very possible that new temples
will be slowly opened up to archaeologists. In
years to come, the public may ﬁnd itself walking
through stone ruins that were ﬁrst spotted from Ballooning over natural and
the air by the Motor Hawk. By that time, Donald
Cooney and his micro-light team will be part of
the legend of Angkor.
Angkor’s spectacular ruins is a
designated UNESCO World Heritage
site, whose preservation, in the last
turbulent decade, has attracted
huge attention from over a dozen
international teams of stone conser-
Over the centuries, as the seasonal rains swept
through the porous outer sandstone structures
into the pock-marked pink laterite, moss, fungi
and damp have crept into Angkor’s nooks and
crannies, weakening surfaces and causing
Further destruction occurred through the vain
attempts of early Indian conservators who,
knowing no better, sadly used concrete as a quick
ﬁx, causing whole chunks of masonry to collapse.
Groups of (better informed) masonry experts
from Germany, China, France, Italy and Japan
have all been working round the clock to halt
the inevitable deterioration caused by a variety
of factors, human and natural – including the
caustic effects of bat droppings, which eat into
the precious stone carvings.
The German Apsara Conservation project (GACP)
is one such group who, for nearly a decade, have
assisted in the consolidation and preservation
of a huge portion of Angkor Wat’s breathtaking
stone murals, undoubtedly saving many precious
art pieces from quite literally turning into dust.
In the last six years, experts have helped invent
special epoxy resins that can coat fractures
internally without impeding natural contractions
in the stone caused by differences in humidity
and varying temperatures.
Using digital technology, experts have also
archived every one of the temple’s carved apsaras,
the same sandstone carvings that Maugham so
delighted in, to preserve the delightful works for
the future. The question now might be which will
last longer: digital technology or the 1200 year-
old stone relics. Will the temples enjoy yet another
millennia, or will Angkor crumble from the
ravages or tourism and commercial exploitation
long before then? CS
Experts from the German
Apsara Conservation project
work to save Angkor’s
heritage from eventual
The Spa Community
Shinta Mani is a luxury boutique resort
with a difference; showing a genuine
concern for the local community, and
encouraging its guests to ‘experience’
rather than simply ‘see.’
18-room Shinta Mani (a Sanskrit phrase meaning
‘the gem that provides everything one desires’)
is not just a luxury, boutique spa resort, but also
an institute of hospitality providing non-fee
paying hotel education to young, underprivileged
Cambodians, funded by proﬁts from the resort.
Working closely with various local NGOs and
charities to select students from the most under-
privileged areas of the community, besides free
education, students receive meals, uniforms,
study materials and a monthly stipend to help the
families of students survive.
The ﬁrst nine-month curriculum provides
theoretical and practical kitchen education, and
training includes English language, life skills, and
the skills required for students to ﬁnd employment
upon graduation. Future curricula will include
vocational education in guest service, as well as
exposure to spa service skills. Guests of the resort
are encouraged to visit the school and become
acquainted with the aims of the project.
As well as being a leading advocate of responsible
and community-based tourism, Shinta Mani’s
philosophy is that visitors to this retreat should
not simply ﬁnd a beautiful and pleasant place to
stay, but embark on a journey of active enjoyment:
especially in the spa arena.
The Sanctuary Spa runs regular ‘Masters in
Residence’ programs, where international experts
teach a variety of disciplines, including Thai
Massage, Yoga, Swedish Massage, and Tai Chi, and
seeks to combine holistic healing treatments with
more traditional therapies.
Shinta Mani is managed by holistic resorts’
operator, Sanctuary Resorts, which also manages
The Bale in Bali, and recently opened La Flora
in Khao Lak Thailand. The Racha, a Sanctuary
Resort, opened in June of this year. Hotel de la Paix,
Sanctuary Resorts’ 107-room and suite resort in
central Siem Reap will open in Nov 2004. DB
Index Siem Reap Siem Reap
Where to Stay Now safely in the custody of Rafﬂes International, the company has been careful to keep
true to its historical past with the original hotel’s cage lift, and wonderful, chessboard-tiled
corridors. This is where the likes of latter-day celebrities such as Jackie Kennedy, Charlie
Luxury hotel junkies will be relieved to know that accommodation in Siem Reap is no longer Chaplin, and indeed Somerset Maugham all stayed, en route to the magniﬁcent temples.
restricted to dingy wooden guest houses. Since 2002, a host of swanky hotels have opened,
and the number of rooms recently reached 5000, catering to the 320,000 visitors in 2003.
Where to Eat
Soﬁtel Royal Angkor
The tranquil Soﬁtel Angkor Wat is the nearest property to the World Heritage Site. The vast FCC Angkor
lake and pool here simply have to be seen to be believed. 214 rooms and 24 suites are set email@example.com, www.fcccambodia.com
among tropical gardens, and the Angkor Spa provides smoothing relaxation for travellers. With the same menu as Phnom Penh, the FCC Angkor has quickly earned a reputation for
The ﬁve restaurants here include the expansive Mouhot’s Dream, which serves both Oriental consistantly excellent food and unmatched service. Enjoy lunch on the terrace or dinner in
and international cuisine. the garden. For days travelling overland or lunch at the temples, take a gourmet sandwich
made from freshly baked home-made bread and the ﬁnest meats.
firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sanctuaryresorts.com The Bopha Angkor Hotel, Restaurant & River Terrace
The gorgeous sister-property, 18-room Shinta Mani with its courtyard spa is not just a www.bopha-angkor.com
luxury, boutique spa resort, but also an institute of hospitality providing non-fee paying Draped in Khmer silks, this is the place to sample the ﬂavours of old Cambodia. The cooks
hotel education to young, underprivileged Cambodians, funded by proﬁts from the resort. here offer a variety of traditional Khmer dishes. There are even ten tea selections, blended
with traditional ﬂavours and aromatic leaves. Refreshments, cocktails, barbecues, ice creams
and a large selection of crêpes are also served on the river terrace.
Located next to the Royal Residence
The well-loved FCCC (Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Cambodia) has added a chic boutique
hotel to its already gloriously swish bars in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Casually
elegant, the FCCC Angkor is set within the grounds of the French Governor’s holiday home
encompasses a large open bar and restaurant, outdoor dining terrace, BBQ area, and small
arcade of shops set amidst a green, riverside location.
What to Read
Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art by Bunker & Latchford
The latest, mega-chic Aman boutique resort, the Amansara lies quietly (and namelessly)
This book is a celebration of the artistic achievements of the Khmer peoples who
behind huge black sliding gates, going for a more understated presence, hosting an eclectic
founded Cambodia. The stone, bronze, silver, and gold objects discussed are drawn from
range of clients from British ex-politician Sir Michael Heseltine, to British ex-rocker Mick
major museum and private collections in Cambodia, UK, Thailand and the United States.
Angkor: A Tour of the Monuments by Thierry Zephir
The Pansea Angkor From very rare historical accounts, a few ﬂeeting ‘snap-shots’ among bas-relief carvings,
email@example.com, www.pansea-angkor.com but above all from an architectural heritage that is unique in the world, we have a
The luxurious Orient-Express Group is sprucing up the recently acquired Pansea, an elegant testimony to the brilliance of Khmer civilisation at the time when Angkor was the most
resort with open-plan rooms and pool-sized bathtubs. Surrounded by majestic old trees, the powerful empire ever to exist in Southeast Asia. Angkor is once again a magnet for many
Baray-inspired pool here is ﬁnished in handmade tiles. visitors.
Grand Hotel D’Angkor
How to Get There
The mother of all Siem Reap hotels must be Grand Hotel D’Angkor. This Grande Dame of
There are now direct ﬂights to Siem Reap from Hong Kong, Singapore, Hanoi, HCMC,
colonial ediﬁces opened in 1926, its design inspired by a French colonial residence. Behind
Bangkok (Bangkok Airways), Phuket, Kunming, and Vientiane.
the exquisite, custard-coloured facade lies a magniﬁcent hidden garden of frangipanis, with
probably the largest, most superb pool in Asia.