There on the path in front of us was a king cobra, its hood unmistakable. A baby, admittedly, not half a metre long but venomous all the same, slithering with such force that it kept leaping into the air as it made for the undergrowth.
That this close encounter should have happened at Preah Khan, the atmospheric ruins of a vast 12th-century Buddhist monastery 2km from Angkor Wat in north-west Cambodia, was oddly appropriate. Our guide had just been talking about nagas, the giant cobra-like serpent found in Buddhist and Hindu myths. Minutes before, we’d crossed a causeway whose monumental balustrades depict “Churning the Ocean of Milk”, a quest for the elixir of immortality in which teams of squat gods and demons engage in a thousand-year tug of war with a naga for a rope.
The most celebrated images of this myth are the exquisitely carved sandstone bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, the great 12th-century Khmer temple city, dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu, which draws millions of tourists each year. And no wonder – this 500-acre site is one of the world’s outstanding monuments with its five towering pagodas, shaped, depending on your point of view, like lotus buds or hands in a Namaste salute, its courtyards, its galleries and its immense 200m-wide moat.
But to “do” Angkor Wat as a day trip from Bangkok (a 50-minute flight away) is to miss some of the most extraordinary abandoned cities in existence. For Angkor Wat is only one of dozens of such sites within a 15km radius of Siem Reap.
I was fortunate to have as my guide the conservation architect John Sanday, field director for Global Heritage Fund, the US-based non-governmental organisation, who spent 12 years supervising the conservation of Preah Khan. This 140-acre complex is a good introduction not just to the mythology but to Khmer architecture and the dynamic between Buddhism and Hinduism.
Even recent Cambodian history makes its presence felt, with graffiti by Viet Cong soldiers from the 1970s. At the gates, a band of musicians, all of them maimed by land mines, played beautifully in an effort, explained their sign, “to raise money to support themselves with dignity”.
It’s hard to know which of the eight sites I explored was my favourite. At one of the earliest, 9th-century Bakong – a massive five-tier pyramid topped by a pagoda – I was charmed by the seven-headed nagas and the life-size statues of lions and elephants. Next, Banteay Srei, the so-called Citadel of Women, is just as the British traveller Harriet Ponder described it in 1936: “An exquisite miniature; a fairy palace in the heart of an immense mysterious forest ... too lovely to be true”, even when swarming with tour groups . The intensely overgrown Ta Prohm, where parts of Tomb Raider were filmed, is utterly mysterious, its temples both endangered and held up by the gigantic and ever-encroaching trees that threaten to strangle the site.
But perhaps the most striking things I saw were the 54 mesmerising “face towers” on the Bayon, the central temple at the “great city” of Angkor Thom. Every facet is carved with a huge serene visage, the shadow of a smile on its lips, assumed to be that of King Jayavarman VII. The king’s omnipresence extends well beyond Angkor Thom, though. The most prolific architect of Khmer temples, he also built Banteay Chhmar, the remotest of the 74 accessible sites, 102km north of Siem Reap, where again his beatific portrait gazes from the sandstone towers.
Rediscovered only in the 1950s, badly looted during the civil war that ran from 1970 to 1975 and only cleared of mines in 2007, it’s well off the tourist track and best reached by helicopter. Otherwise it’s a bumpy four-hour drive. According to Sanday, who is leading a Global Heritage Fund-sponsored project to restore it, it is “one of the great architectural masterpieces of south-east Asia”, with its 1km-long arcaded enclosure wall and 500m of outstanding bas-reliefs. Though much of it has collapsed into overgrown piles of stones, there is enough intact to get a sense of its grandeur and to spot references to other earlier works: not just the face towers, but a similar balustrade to the one at Preah Khan (as well as an Ocean of Milk mural) and other now-familiar motifs.
The Khmer temples are not the area’s only appeal. There is nature: not just snakes and monkeys, such as those we saw cavorting by the moat at Angkor Wat. After the rains, the vast Tonle Sap lake quadruples in size to 12,000 sq km and is home to 200 bird species and the world’s largest pelican colony.
Siem Reap itself is a relaxed town, full of inexpensive restaurants (Viroth’s and the Khmer Kitchen) serving Khmer food (think Thai but without chillis): clear lemongrass-infused soups and salads of papaya or mango, then amok, a mild coconut curry of a snake-like fish from Tonle Sap, or lok luk beef in garlicky oyster sauce.
It was too easy to idle away an afternoon people-watching from the terrace of Le Grand Café. And a lychee martini at Miss Wong, a kitsch but alluring bar, was the courage I needed for a late-night $3 fish pedicure – almost every street has somewhere offering them – where you sit with your feet in a communal aquarium full of diminutive carp called garra rufa that feed off dead skin. It’s unbearably ticklish at first but my soles have never been softer.
There’s good shopping, at least for Cambodian silks and buffalo-horn jewellery. The classiest shops are those by the FCC, or Foreign Correspondents Club (not that you need be a journalist to dine, drink or stay there), a superb modernist-colonial building, formerly the French governor’s house, all ceiling fans, art deco armchairs and airy terraces overlooking the river. The sprawling old market is fascinating, too, selling everything from textiles to pigs’ heads and aromatic Kampot pepper.
There’s no shortage of hotels, from an Aman Resort and a Raffles (both more of a tuk-tuk ride than a walk into town) to the more centrally located Hotel de la Paix, an independent, and Orient Express’s Résidence d’Angkor, with its spacious rooms, sweet staff and a large swimming pool surrounding by luxuriant gardens.
But my abiding memory will be the conversations I had with our other guide, Nhean Samban. One of 11 children, he was born in a village near Preah Khan, making him one of the “base people”, for whom the terror and genocide of the 1970s was, he said, marginally less terrible than it was for the “new people” who came from the towns.
He was seven when the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in 1975 and embarked on their plan to impose a primitive agrarian communal way of living – even cooking at home was forbidden. He was sent to work in the fields, collecting cow dung. He didn’t start school till he was 12, and his childhood memories are mostly of hunger. (One of his brothers died of starvation; another was killed by a land mine.)
In 1989 he found work as a waiter at the Grand Hotel d’Angkor (now Raffles), subsequently training as a guide when tourists began to return in the late 1990s. And when a university opened in Siem Reap, he was in the first intake, graduating the year he turned 40. Now employed by the tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, he supports not just a wife and three sons, but runs a dormitory for 20 children from surrounding villages so they can go to school in town and, along with his brothers, a project that has installed more than 300 wells in rural communities to reduce the prevalence of water-borne diseases.
He loves guiding, he says, because it lets him meet people from all over the world. For if ever there were evidence that tourism can be a transformative force for good, it is here in Cambodia – “this painful country”, as he called it.
In Banteay Chhmar, 50 people, from labourers to architects, are employed on the conservation project, which it is hoped will bring visitors and jobs to the area along, perhaps, with the creation of an eco lodge. (For the moment the only accommodation is some very basic $7-a-night homestays.) As the Global Heritage Fund’s slogan puts it, it’s about “preserving heritage globally, changing lives locally”. Tourism here may be little more than a decade old but for once the change it’s bringing is something to be proud of.
Claire Wrathall was a guest of La Résidence d’Angkor (doubles from $335; www.residencedangkor.com) and Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers five days at La Résidence from £1,925 per person, including flights and excursions. Qantas (www.qantas.com.au) flights to Bangkok connect with Bangkok Airways’ service to Siem Reap