Ancient temples, monkeys, a floating school on a lake - the Cambodian town made famous by the action film Tomb Raider has all the ingredients for an action-packed family adventure.
Siem Reap offers plenty for non-treasure hunters, too
"Angels," I gasped. "Celestial. Beings. Can't. Talk. Anymore."
It was nine in the morning, and I was labouring up our third set of stairs at Bayon temple in Siem Reap's enormous Angkor Thom complex. At the top of the unbelievably steep flight, I could see my husband laughing at me. He'd already reached the highest tier of the 12th-century temple, known for its giant stone faces and second only to Angkor Wat. My eight-year-old had just overtaken me, nimbly climbing on all fours like a mountain goat despite his flimsy flip-flops. Supoth, our Cambodian guide, was directly behind me. He sighed gently as I stopped for the hundreth time. It was our first temple of the day, and we had two more to visit.
Our morning in the sleepy town of Siem Reap, about 300 kilometres from Phnom Penh, had started pleasantly enough. We had spent the night in a very comfortable spa suite in the stylish Hôtel de la Paix and, after an excellent breakfast, stepped out into the surprisingly hot January sun to meet Supoth and the tuk-tuk that would cart us around Angkor Thom. After warm smiles all around we were off, the motorcycle-drawn carriage bumping its way at remarkable speed towards Angkor's South Gate.
Our three-day tour of Siem Reap, my husband took care to tell us over and over again, was going to be an amazing adventure, the memory of which would be preserved with his expensive camera. "Yeah," Calvin said. "And I have my sketchbook and pencil. I can't wait to begin."
Now, finally at the top of our first temple in Angkor, holding my aching back, I understood what they were on about. The landscape fell away on all sides - dense jungles, black ruins and ant-sized tourists determinedly making their way over grey collapsed walls and smooth honey-coloured boulders. Ahead, gigantic faces carved into the limestone towers peered at us through half-closed eyes, their serene features thrown in shadow. Shivering, I turned to look for Calvin, and found him sitting cross-legged in the cool darkness, examining bas-reliefs and drawing in his grimy book.
"He's such a tourist," muttered my husband, adjusting the cane hat on his head. "What are you smirking about?"
I turned away to tune in to Supoth, who was telling beautiful stories of the old Khmer dynasties, of far-sighted Hindu kings who dreamed of impressive empires, of Buddhism in Cambodia, and epic tales from the Ramayana, especially of Shiva and his legendary third eye. "Which will open at the end of the world and then we'll all die," Calvin said cheerfully to the shocked guide as we prepared to descend the precarious steps.
A five-minute tuk-tuk ride later, we arrived at Ta Prohm, made famous by the extremely lithe Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Calvin, who hasn't seen the film, stopped short when he entered the courtyard.
"It's a captive temple," said Calvin, staring up at the enormous jungle of trees twisting around the ruined temple. "I wouldn't like to be here after dark." But he enjoyed swinging upside down from the low branches, laughing as a group of monkeys, sitting in the treetops several feet above us, began to pelt us with fruit. After an hour, we noticed that Supoth was getting fidgety.
"If you've had enough of the monkeys," he said primly, "Angkor Wat is waiting for us."
It was high noon by the time our tuk-tuk trundled to a stop outside the complex's pièce de résistance. Roasting in the scorching sun, we slowly made our way around the magnificent "mountain-temple", admiring the five lotus-like towers, the stunning "Churning the Sea of Milk" relief in the eastern gallery, the great moat and the long walkway with its broken, carved banisters. These we ended up paying a lot of attention to because Calvin nearly toppled into the water while looking for crocodiles.
After our temple explorations, we headed back to the hotel for a traditional Khmer lunch - pumpkin curry with chicken, rice, barbecued spare ribs and fruit juice. Then we ventured out again, this time to Angkor National Museum, Cambodia's biggest, in a quest for more information about the architecture we'd been clambering all over that morning. It was an afternoon well spent. My favourite gallery contained a thousand Buddha figurines, lit so beautifully that they looked alive. Calvin went off to check out the ancient costume display and refused to come out because he'd found the "most beautiful apsara in the world".
That night we went out in search of mosquito repellent and stumbled upon Angkor Night Market, just round the corner from our hotel. It turned out to be an open-air tourist bazaar, alive with traditional music, cheap restaurants and soft-spoken but tenacious touts who provided excellent practice for my bargaining skills. After Calvin had splashed around in a one-dollar fish spa, we returned to the hotel and got a good night's rest for our next expedition: a visit to a school on a boat in Chong Kneas, a floating village on Tonle Sap.
We made an early start, the tuk-tuk cutting through the cool dawn air and offering glimpses of emerald-green paddies, fishing villages and gaudily painted "amphibious" houses - half-built on land with their backs jutting out over the water and supported by stilts.
Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia, and we began to fully appreciate this only when our boat, jumping like a flying fish, headed towards the middle. Suddenly, there was no land in sight, just us and, as far as the eye could see, miles of water shimmering blindingly in the sun. Then the boat veered sharply to the left and a grassy bank appeared. Moored here were rows of houseboats draped with fishing nets. Babies slept in makeshift hammocks on the prows while their mums sorted shrimp in the back. Then Calvin spotted the school. It was a large blue boat with a sign that said International Amity Vietnamese Association and about 40 children who quickly dropped their pencils and began shouting as we pulled up alongside.
Stepping aboard, we found ourselves in a tiny "classroom" jammed with worn wooden benches and tables. The teacher, a tired-looking Cambodian woman, came up to say hello and her students, bright-eyed and dressed in faded uniforms, erupted around us, pushing, laughing, trying to touch Calvin. We were offered cups of hot tea and sat down to chat. Calvin, who had begun a riotous game with a sullen, bare-footed five-year-old boy called Liang, ran up to us now and then to listen solemnly to the conversation, asking questions and falling silent when told that the school was set up for the children of poor Vietnamese immigrants who live on the lake. As we prepared to leave at the end of the day, Calvin stopped by the donation box at the front of the boat and pulled out all his pocket money, which he'd been saving to buy an apsara painting. "So that Liang can buy shoes," he explained as he stuffed the crumpled dollar bills into the box.
Our last day in Siem Reap found us at Artisans d'Angkor, a small "village" on Stung Thmey Street where underprivileged Cambodian youth, heads bent in concentration, work hard at turning out everything from stone idols to silver-plated ornaments. Leaving Calvin watching a teenager sculpt a life-size Buddha from a block of teak, we sneaked into the souvenir shop and bought him a beautiful detail of a dancing apsara in gold on polished black wood. Liang, which is what Calvin named her, will always be a wonderful reminder of the amazing adventure my husband had promised us, especially since he hasn't downloaded a single photograph yet.
If you go
The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh2,695. Return flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap on BangkokAirways (www.bangkokair.com) cost from 10,810 Thai baht (Dh1,300). Prices include taxes
The hotel Double rooms at Hôtel de la Paix (www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com; 00 855 6396 6000) in Siem Reap cost from US$300 (Dh1,100) per night, including breakfast and taxes
The sights The services of an English-speaking tour guide cost $20 (Dh73) for a day. A tuk-tuk costs about $5 (Dh18) for a full-day hire. A one-day pass to Angkor Thom costs $20 (Dh73) for adults; children under 12 enter gratis. Entrance to Angkor National Museum costs $12 (Dh44) for adults and $6 (Dh22) for children under 12. A round-trip boat ride down the Tonle Sap river costs from $20 (Dh73) for adults and $10 (Dh37) for children