A lot of things might bring you to Siem Reap. There are the bars selling beer for 50 cents for starters, and then of course, there's the temples. Oh, the temples.
It's difficult to do textual justice to the complexes that fill the jungle just 15 minutes’ tuk-tuk drive from downtown Siem Reap. You can tumble out of a restaurant serving cold beer for said 50 cents at 11am (which you will because somehow the beer takes the edge of the brutal heat better than coke can, don’t ask why) only to be standing under two hundred gigantic, ancient, and (importantly if you have been enjoying more than one of those cheap beers) wonderfully serene, gentle faces of the Buddha at Bayon temple by 11.15.
Angkor Wat itself is so enormous that it shocks you despite the ubiquity of its silhouette as you wander around the country. As you explore the halls and admire the extraordinary carvings of kings riding elephants into battle under a dozen parasols, the shock might even cause you to lose yourself, imagining the royal processions across the causeway and over the wide hand-dug moat.
The region’s more recent history makes itself known in the bullet holes peppering carvings of dancing girls at the temple entrance. Clambering through the hallways of the relatively tiny Banteay Srei, you will keep emerging from dark passageways into sun so bright that you’ll struggle to focus on the impossibly delicate carvings of complex myths that adorn every pillar and arch.
Finding Ta Prohm and Ta Som half-swallowed by jungle will feel similarly unreal. If they feel like a film set it might be in part because, as every local will keep telling you, Lara Croft was filmed there, but it is more likely because of the whole trope of movie jungle temples that they obviously inspired. Like someone coming to Lord of the Rings too old, having read literally any other fantasy of the last 50 years, you might swallow a comment on cliche.
A day with a good tour guide will confirm that most of the monuments, like so many all over the world and throughout history, essentially represent a series of generations of violent men struggling to outdo one another.
A good guide - and every one I met or overheard was good - will point out details of a temple being rushed to be ready in time for a king’s funeral, describe how the terrace of Elephants would have been packed with ordinary people looking down on royal ceremonies and succeed in making the whole thing seem more human, and that's an essential factor when presented with something so wondrous.
(You can rent a tuk-tuk by yourself for the day for $15, or take a group tour in an air conditioned car with a knowledgeable, funny guide from Siem Reap Shuttle Tours for $13-15.)