Siem Reap and Angkor
As a nation that has come out of its shell, journeying to Cambodia came about more due to the “break” we sought from our just past life of being in Europe. Having “YOLOed” for three years in the old continent, it was time to look at Asian civilizations.
Siem Reap fits perfectly into this pent up want. In the tomb raider series, we saw Angelina Jolie rappel down the temples of Angkor in the original Tomb raider film in 2001. Well, we wanted that too. Except that we weren’t “game” enough to actually do it…
So, we spent 4 days on a leisurely exploration of the wonders of the former Khmer empire, spending long mornings and afternoons while slipping in a long lunch siesta in between.
From our good friends we had been given the name of a Tuk² driver (Mr Ou Hok), one whom we can trust not to rip us off. It costs us about US$12 per day for his services and we had “block booked” him for the entire length of four days.
Our arrangement had been : we’d do a morning ride out between 7-11am and retire to the comforts of our hotel for a long lunch. Then we’d continue from 3-6pm. Because the driver waits somewhere close, he loses some time and also gets back late.
So we paid a little extra in the form of gratuity at the end of the journey.
It was not free entry to the sites. A three day pass cost US$40 per person. We had ridden the Tuk² to the admissions point and bought our passes on day one.
Watching the sunset is a must on the list of “to do” when in Siem Reap. And we were there with so many other people! You see, the trouble is that we all (tourists I mean) gravitate to the same Phnom Bakheng hill, a reasonably arduous climb.
And because it is so popular, Mr Ou suggested that we set off for it already at 3:30pm! Partly due to the fact it will become congested with numerous taxis, scooters and Tuk², we heeded his advise and got there early. So early that when we climbed up, we were still being beaten by the near setting sun.
We believe that there are other vantage points these days as we rewrite this log, but that is something for the readers to find out.
Start from afar
Rather than to explore the nearby, we opted to go the extra mile well outside of the norm on our first full day into what was once the Khmer civilization’s capital city. Banteay Srei is an area about 35km to the north of Siem Reap. We were reaching out for the ladies’ temple. Now while we were not disappointed, we did note that the temple is rather small. Afterall, this must have been in the “suburbs” of the capital city in those ancient days past.
The children of workers employed to maintain the area probably play boringly, so we were more like a interesting distraction for them to pose photos with. Good thing they did not ask for money! Not sure if that’s the same now…
Pre Nup temple (sounds like Pre-nuptial huh?) is funerary temple and much larger. Definitely a lot more stone reliefs on the walls of the temple, probably donated by family members for their deceased loved ones.
The famed Angkor Wat has to be one of the most iconic, if not the iconic site for the country. Aside from movies making it renowned, it is indeed majestic. Just tell the crowds to get out of your way for a good crowd-less picture!
Our post card pic of the three-tower complex was taken from the moat pools at the main entrance. At least from that vantage point you will not have folks walking behind your photo model, unless they can walk on water.
As we said above, its crowded. And when the buses come, run!
This complex of temple was constructed at the height of Khmer power. There are said to be nearly 2000 apsaras relief carvings here. Some of them remain in relative good state of preservation as you will see they retain the red paint that once adorned them. In case you are not in the know, apsaras are female spirits of the clouds and water in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Sort of like fairies and pixies. They are frequently depicted in carvings and paintings.
As we walked within the temple complex, we saw the locals continue to give their respect to the deities. The country is still steeped in the traditions of old, which is slowly eroding.
Each one of the looming towers have an extremely steep flight of stairs. We climbed up one of them. The challenge is not climbing up, its making the descent. So halfway up, we gave up. Not nice, especially if you have another 20 folks below you…!
The real capital city
Now if you were to make the mistake of thinking that Angkor Wat was a capital (no it is only a temple complex), then you might not thinkg that Angkor Thom is the real one! At approximately 9km², this walled city was built around the same time as Angkor Wat. It came to an inglorious end in the late 13th century when the Thai attacked and sacked the city. Its abandonment lead to its disappearance into the jungles.
The most important monument in our opinion is the Bayon. This is a temple complex with Buddha faces carved and facing four directions. Come to think of it, we did not really notice that the faces were smiling.
Best time to roam about in the late evening, around closing time of 5:30pm. There will probably be not many people around like when we were there.
The royal palace ground in Angkor Thom is large but mainly a pile of rubble. Don’t expect too much. But there is a an elephant terrace that lines the palace. Remember that elephants are considered a symbol of royal power in Indochina, heralding the strong influence from the India sub-continent.
But the real gem here is Ta Phrom temple. This is a former monastic complex. It is also here we found the world famous photos of large trees growing over the temple buildings. Just added a few of our camera clicks… The same can be found at Banteay Kdei, another monastic complex.
The Foreign Correspondent Club
Our stay throughout the four days was with the FCC. Converted from the former clubhouse of foreign correspondents, only 24 units we consider it a boutique hotel. Every morning, we would have a steaming bowl of porridge with fish or pork garnished with Asian parsley and fresh lime. This is normally accompanied with spicy sliced chilies. At that time it cost US$120 per night including breakfast.
Not every day was spent at the monuments. We also spent time looking at the people side of Siem Reap. From artisan schools to jewelry makers (and sellers), we took time support local industry through the purchase of domestically made handicraft products. It is good to see that the nation is moving ahead and educating its young, though you will still see the rough edges of development in the following slide show.