I had always wanted to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In my imagination, I’d constructed an entire temple complex full of swinging vines, crumbling edifices and open-mouthed stone-carved faces gaping from the sides of jagged, moss-covered walls.
Of course, this was a Hollywood-inspired vision, so I prepared to be underwhelmed when I finally planned a trip to visit the real thing. “Maybe if I just see one monkey, I’ll get that thrill of ancient exploration,” I thought.
What I saw, though, was beyond my wildest expectations: a world-respected tourism destination that surprised and delighted at every turn and was made even better by the pandemic-induced pause in tourism.
Anantara Angkor Resort
My friend and I flew into the small and tidy Siem Reap International Airport, quickly completed the customs process and were greeted by our car transfer sent from Anantara Angkor Resort. We gushed our appreciation to the driver, who gave us chilled towels for our hands and faces and had the air-conditioning set to a frosty level. I can still recall the lemongrass scent of those icy towels, which became indispensable to us that week.
Siem Reap can be described in 100 different ways, and all are true; Cambodian history is intense, as the genocide happened less than 50 years ago. Siem Reap is also a popular backpacker destination and home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the Angkor Wat temple complex. Pre-pandemic, more than 2 million tourists visited Angkor Wat each year, and even now, the site is finessing its tourism-magnet position.
During the earlier days of the pandemic, the government took advantage of the quiet to take special care of its crown jewel: Conservation of the temple is underway, there is the utmost care paid to environmental concerns, and nearly all the population is vaccinated. (Locals told us excitedly that the government used the COVID-19 pause to install street lights, sidewalks and new paving throughout Siem Reap, making it much safer and easier to navigate.)
At Anantara Angkor Resort, we pulled up to a beautiful entryway featuring wide stairs and open pavilion halls. An outdoor saltwater pool and Chi Restaurant & Bar are the focal points of the hotel, which feels tranquil, intimate and traditional despite being an all-suite luxury resort with 39 Khmer-style suites. Anantara Spa — a must at any Anantara resort — includes three spa suites, two Khmer massage rooms and a foot massage room, where my friend and I received a welcome treatment with lemongrass tea.
It was obvious from the moment we arrived on site why Anantara Angkor Resort was included on the 2022 “Travel+Leisure” list of top 500 hotels in the world. Our suite was grand yet warm and inviting, with traditional Khmer furnishings and pillows, luxe robes and a selection of delicious Cambodian snacks — including spicy peanuts roasted with lemongrass — to welcome us. Complimentary tuk-tuk transfers and an attentive concierge service meant we could sequester away from the intense hustle-and-bustle of the central streets but seamlessly access all the sites and activities when we desired.
The highlight of our stay was a private sunrise tour of the Angkor Wat temple complex. At 4 a.m., our Anantara driver transported us (complete with boxed breakfast) and our temple guide to a beautiful lookout area. My first glimpse of Angkor Wat was seeing the sun slowly emit a glow over the stony temples. Our guide ensured the tour was leisurely, informative and beautiful — away from the crowds, but with enough time to soak up the unique energy of the complex.
FCC Angkor by Avani
After our stay at the Anantara property, we checked into FCC Angkor by Avani, located in the Old French Quarter of Siem Reap. The renovated neo-colonial mansion has an incredible history — hosting everyone from foreign correspondents and archaeologists to celebrities and dignitaries.
At The Mansion, the hotel's open-air second-story restaurant, I felt like a correspondent of old as I sipped a cocktail, listened to live music and looked out over the river.
The property features 80 rooms and suites that surround a central courtyard with a saltwater swimming pool shaded by banyan trees. Our suite had intriguing decor that nodded to the mansion’s roots, including a vintage typewriter and historic photos. If you’re craving a bit of city action, the hotel is in a prime location to stroll to the market, Pub Street or artisanal shops like SATU.
Activities and Tours in Siem Reap
Both Anantara Angkor Resort and FCC Angkor can set up activities for both leisure and adventure travelers. Nature lovers can visit Kulen Elephant Forest Sanctuary, which provides a refuge for elephants used for tourism in the old Angkor Wat days. With Siem Reap Quad Bike Adventure, we navigated muddy roads, rice fields and traditional villages — and dodged herds of elegant Cambodian cows — while local children waved at us. Our zipline tour with Angkor Zipline inside Angkor Archaeological Park was so thoughtful and well-designed, from the guide’s explanation of local lore to the use of solar panels and elimination of single-use plastics. (Pro tip: Choose an early zipline tour to swing alongside the area’s elusive gibbons.)