One of the most magical days of my time in Cambodia was my visit of two temples about 10 minutes from Siem Reap – Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. To visit both, you head to the main Angkor Wat Park admission gates, and purchase a pass (with your picture on it!) for $20 CDN/day.
Angkor Wat is truly majestic and my photos do not do it justice! The complex goes as far as the eye can see – the moat around the temple area is five miles. As soon as the walls and towers that are shaped like lotus flowers come into view, it truly takes your breath away. How on earth did 6,454 engineers build Angkor Wat in 1152, carving and pressing stone on stone (without mortar)? It is so incredibly beautiful today, it would be a wonder to see in the 12th century in all of its glory.
It is also amazing to think that this religious temple (which began as hindu, becoming buddhist in the 18th century) was taken over as a military base in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. You see bullet holes and the remnants of bombings in parts of the comnplex to prove its shift to a political/military building. Thankfully today it has returned to its roots as a religious building (though an argument could be made it is simply a tourist stop). Buddhist monks, in their colourful orange robes, look so at peace throughout the complex, and many are praying near individual shrines. It truly snaps you into a different time and place.
While Angkor Wat is the most famous complex in Cambodia, Angkor Thom was, to me, the most special of the two. The Bayon Temple (the centre of the ancient Angkor Thom city) is also known as the Buddha Faces temple, with 54 towers still in tact, each with four large buddha faces carved on each side (216 faces in total). The peaceful half-smiles and slightly closed eyes of each face (carved slightly differently than the rest) is so calming and joyful.