It's one thing seeing Cambodia's ancient Angkor temples up close and personal. It's something else capturing a bird's-eye view of the once-thriving kingdom aboard a helicopter.
We've strapped ourselves in and put on our headphones, which fail to completely suppress the whump of the chopper's blades slicing the air and whirling us into the clear, blue sky.
Our Aussie pilot Phil Butterworth's voice crackles through our earpieces: “You've chosen a great day to fly. The weather conditions are pretty much perfect”.
He outlines the itinerary of our 14-minute Helistar Cambodia flight. We'll eyeball seven temples amid this UNESCO World Heritage-listed area including the jewel in the crown, Angkor Wat.
No sooner have we taken off from the international airport at Siem Reap, the charming, French-influenced town at the doorstep of the temples, when Angkor Wat, reportedly the world's largest religious building, looms up.
Surrounded by a moat, it sits atop one square-kilometre of earth stamped out on thick green foliage. Built in the early part of the 12th century by then Angkor ruler Suryavarman II, this Hindu temple looks deceivingly miniature from the sky.
The sheer beauty of its architecture emphasises just how sophisticated the Khmer Empire was for its time. During its peak, it was arguably the most advanced kingdom in the world.
The Angkorian era stretches more than six centuries from the early AD 800s. The number of ruins is contested but it's said there are up to 1000 known sites ranging from piles of stone and rubble to Angkor Wat. The Cambodians believe there are more majestic treasures yet to be uncovered beneath the dense vegetation. The temples scattered through the region only hint at the vastness of this former behemoth that, at its most powerful, was home to one million when London was just nudging 50,000.
Due to the Khmer settlement's sprawled out nature, Angkor is devoid of an official boundary. Its size has been compared to modern Los Angeles yet it didn't enjoy the luxuries of cars and electricity.
Angkor Wat is the most famous of the temples. So much so some travellers are surprised to learn it's one of many temples.
Phil pulls us away, the helicopter gravitating towards some of Angkor's lesser known attractions, including Prasat Krayan, Prasat Bat Chum, Srah Srang, Prasat Pre Rup, Eastern Mebon and Prasat Ta Som.
In their varying sizes, shapes and stages of decay or restoration, each of the temples showcased during our flight is awe-inspiring.
Expensive, but less taxing
Albeit a more expensive way to see Angkor Wat, we have opted to fly by helicopter as we know it's less taxing. We also hope this sky-high view orientates us and enables us to gauge the distance between the temples.
Twice over Angkor Wat
Phil reveals his pick – Prasat Pre Rup – which he explains is featured as much as Angkor Wat in many documentaries and film shoots.
It's easy to see why. Its outer galleries are neat borders, ascending towards four towers guarding its large, innermost tower. It seems to be a royal tomb.
“It's best at sunset. Go down there with a few beers and relax,” Phil advises before we continue on to East Mebon.
On our way back to the airport we once again hover near Angkor Wat. From the opposite direction it cuts a darker, silhouetted marvel, backlit by the sun. As we touch down, Phil tells us Siem Reap has changed dramatically over the past few years, as hotels and resorts sprout up everywhere.
But its centre remains intact with quaint, French shop fronts, a sophisticated restaurant scene and leafy streets.
On the ground
The next day we immerse ourselves in the thick of the temples, battling the sweltering, stifling heat. Before Victoria Gate, en route to Bayon Temple, our tuk-tuk bounces along a bridge lined with statues. I can't help but notice the old bodies of men and gods with new heads. We learn the heads were lopped off by the Khmer Rouge during their four-year reign of genocide.
We reach Bayon Temple, which proves impossible to capture in one photo, no matter how far back you step. It features more than 200 stone faces, their facial expressions ever-changing depending on the sunlight's direction. Another highlight is Ta Prohm, its slabs of limestone pushed out of place by the power of huge tree roots. One of its claims to fame is being the backdrop to Angelina Jolie in the movie Tomb Raider.
We are shocked at how scores of tourists are able to simply crawl all over these archaeological gems. Surely the damage caused day in, day out is not sustainable?
The distance between temples via tuk-tuk really hits home the immensity of this temple trail. It's all much easier to navigate by helicopter.
Only rivalled by the likes of the pyramids and Machu Picchu in Peru, this ancient marvel is one to be admired from a distance.