02 Jul 2012
At the turn of the millennium, when Cambodia was still reeling from decades of civil war, one could spend hours walking around Angkor Wat Archaeological Park without seeing a single foreigner.
But Cambodia today -- and the 12th-century temple complex that sits at its geographic, historic and spiritual heart -- is awash with tourists.
More than 640,000 visited in the first three months of 2012, with archaeologists claiming the UNESCO World Heritage Site is being loved to death.
Yet there are dozens of Angkor-era temple complexes in Cambodia that receive a fraction of the visitors Angkor Wat gets, some of which you can have all to yourself.
These are four of the most impressive.
Start training now. To get to the top of Phnom Chisor, visitors have to climb 412 steps.
Set on a hill not far from Phnom Penh, with knockout views of the fertile deltas and emerald green rice fields of Cambodia’s deep south, this small but impressive Hindu temple predates Angkor Wat by 100 years.
It’s also where the party scene in Matt Dillon’s 2002 thriller "City of Ghosts" was filmed.
The old monks who live here are especially friendly, as are the neighborhood kids who’ll gladly take you down the ancient staircase to see the ruins of two additional sandstone temples built on the flats.
Getting there: Hire a taxi and driver for a half-day trip to Phnom Chissor for about US$20.
Alternatively, hire a moped for US$5 a day and follow Highway No, 2 south to Takeo. Turn left just before the 52-kilometer mark and follow the dirt road for four kilometers to the base of a hill. Entrance fee is US$2.
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Sambor Prei Kuk
The centerpiece of Sambor Prei Kuk is a gigantic three-sided, serenely smiling face, much like the one adorning the famous Bayon temple of Angkor Wat.
The site of the ancient kingdom of Chenla, this 1,400-year-old city is home to a whopping 140 temples and monuments.
Without the maintenance crews that sanitize Angkor Wat, the square stone walls, shiva lingmans, lion sculptures and octagonal towers of Sambor Prei Kuk are fighting a losing battle against the jungle.
But that adds to the rawness of exploring it and also keeps the masses away.
For those seeking an Indiana-Jones experience in Cambodia, Sambor Prei Kuk is it.
Getting there: The nearest town, Kampong Thom, lies roughly half way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Motorbike taxis from Kampong Thom’s central market take about two hours to reach the ruins 30 kilometers to the north. Expect to pay US$5-10 per person.
Until 2004, Koh Ker was extremely difficult to reach, but a road linking it to Siem Reap has put it on the map.
Built in the 10th century, this lost city was the Angkorian kings' last seat of power before they relocated to Angkor Wat and met their demise.
There are about 50 temples at Koh Ker, most of which remain ensconced in jungle.
The two most impressive are Red Temple, named after the color of the bricks and home to King Jayavarman IV’s old thrown room; and Kohmpang (Prasat Thom), a dazzling 65-meter-high semi-pyramidal temple structure and replica of mythical Mount Meru.
Getting there: Kok Ker lies 130 kilometers north of Siem Reap. Taxis charge anywhere from US$50-100 for a day trip, with fares depending on the state of the vehicle. Air-conditioning, four-wheel drive and working suspension cost more but are definitely worth it.
Entry is US$10.
There are a few basic food stands in front of Prasat Thom here but no accommodation, so you'll need to bring a tent or hammock if you want to stay the night and get the most out of the arduous journey.
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The 900-year-old Preah Vihear has belonged to Cambodia since a 1962 World Court ruling, but ownership remains disputed by many Thais.
Atop a 525-meter-high cliff in the Dangkrek Mountains demarcating the border between northern Cambodia and Thailand, Preah Vihear (or Prasat Phra Viharn to the Thais) is claimed by the governments of both countries.
Their war of words escalated into a troop buildup when the site received UNESCO World Heritage Listing in 2008 and tourists were banned from visiting.
The most recent hostilities in 2011 saw a wing of the main temple destroyed by artillery fire.
While the situation remains tense this year, Preah Vihear is once again open to visitors.
Built between the 9th and 12th centuries, its stone buildings and courtyards are spread across several levels interconnected by ancient stairways. They lead to an eagle’s nest precipice, where the view into Cambodia seems to stretch out forever.
Getting there: Preah Vihear lies 200 kilometers north of Siem Reap. The going is slow, so you may want to stay the night at a guesthouse in the nearby town of Anlong Veng.
When your taxi reaches the bottom of the cliff, you’ll need to pay US$5 at the ticket. The fee includes box a motorbike ride up the steep winding road to the temple.