Looking across the flooded outer compound to Angkor Wat temple. Picture: Andrew Shipp

From a distance, the towers of Bayon look like a decaying pile of rubble. The beauty of the Cambodian temple, reaching into the sky behind the stone walls of the outer gallery, only becomes apparent as you get closer.

On each of the remaining towers - there were originally 54 - the faces of Buddha gaze benignly across the landscape, some crumbling away or obscured by vines, others remarkably preserved and detailed.

The faces express the four sublime states of Buddhism - charity, compassion, sympathy and equality. There is a serenity surrounding the temple which envelopes visitors.

Clambering through and over the multi-level temple you come across beautiful reliefs, especially along the outer walls, which depict warriors and elephants in battle, naval duels, birds and animals and everyday life.

Bayon stood at the centre of Buddhist King Jayavarman VII's capital Angkor Thom, now part

of the Angkor Archaeological Park.

The park also includes Angkor Wat, known throughout the world as the jewel in Cambodia's crown; Ta Prohm, made famous in the movie Tomb Raider and seemingly held together by the roots of trees; the Elephant Terrace; the vast pool at Srah Srang, and myriad smaller temples and terraces which can be explored.

Just outside Siem Reap, the park is easily accessible by bike or, if you're feeling a bit less energetic, by tuk-tuk. The beauty of riding is that you're able to travel and explore at your leisure, and get further off the well-worn track.

Angkor Wat, the symbol and pride of the country, is the big tourist magnet of the park and the picturesque 12th century temple, surrounded by a 190m-wide moat, draws thousands of people across the causeway each day to venture inside the 12th-century structure.

It's only when you pass through the outer enclosure that Angkor Wat truly reveals itself. The classic image of the temple with its towers is reflected in pools either side of another 350m causeway and stands against the brilliant blue sky dotted with clouds.

Raised on a terrace so it overlooks what was once a city, the outer galleries house intricately carved reliefs and columns, and deep pools which fill during the wet season.

At the centre sits another towering complex. Visitors can climb a steep staircase to a labyrinth of galleries and niches filled with statues of Buddha. The outer hallways provide spectacular views across Angkor Wat and the surrounding forest.

Next to Angkor Wat, but built about 50 years later, is Angkor Thom, the Khmer capital until the early 17th century.

The "Great City" is bounded by a square moat, each side of which is 3km, and then by 8m high walls. Riding over a bridge flanked by 54 asuras (demons) and 54 devas (gods), both pulling on a naga (serpent) to churn the Ocean of Milk, you pass through the Victory Gate and under the benevolent gaze of Buddha.

Inside the decaying city walls sit the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King, as well as Baphuon, a tiered temple which was restored and opened again to the public in 2011.

But Bayon, in the centre, is a commanding presence. With so many towers and levels, it's easy to get disorientated within the walls. Each turn brings another breathtaking perspective.

Outside of Angkor Thom sits Ta Prohm, famous for being literally held together by the roots of kapok trees. While restoration work continues in the central tower, much of the temple has been left in its original state and the encroaching jungle adds to the atmosphere of the place.

Doorways and walls are simultaneously being split open and held together by the roots which snake over the structure. Even bigger roots supporting giant trees cascade over colonnades like melted plastic. While the carvings of the temple aren't well preserved, it's the abandoned, newly discovered appearance which takes the breath away. If you were there alone, you could easily imagine yourself to be the first person to step inside the outer walls for centuries.

Further out from Angkor Wat is Banteay Srei, a 10th-century Hindu temple built from red sandstone and covered in elaborate and well- preserved carvings. About a 90-minute ride from Siem Reap, the site is well worth the trip.

The beauty and the simplicity of the temple is a drawcard for many tourists and the single-storey structure is a break from clambering over the multi-level edifices of Angkor Park.


  • fact file *

·One, three and seven-day passes to Angkor Archaeological Park are available. The one-day pass is $US20 ($21.50), the three-day pass (which can be used over the course of a week) is $US40 and the seven-day pass (valid for a month) is $US60. The multi-day passes allow visitors to dip in and out of the park and prevent temple fatigue.

·World Expeditions' 12-day Ho Chi Minh City to Angkor Wat cycle tour includes seven days of riding and 11 nights accommodation in hotels and guesthouses. There are fortnightly departures throughout much of 2014. Visit worldexpeditions.com or the new dedicated cycle website worldcyclejourneys.com, which has bike trips for all abilities and regions. In Perth, World Expeditions is on Level 1, Windsor House, 324-332 Murray Street (corner of Queen Street), or phone 9486 9899.

·Thai Airways flies daily from Perth to Bangkok in just under seven hours and there are connections to Ho Chi Minh City. See thaiairways.com.au and travel agents. Bangkok Airways flies from Bangkok to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. bangkokair.com.

Andrew Shipp travelled courtesy of World Expeditions, Thai Airways International and Bangkok Airways. See Andrew Shipp's video feature filmed on the tracks and trails of Vietnam and Cambodia at thewest.com.au travel.

The West Australian

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