Siem Reap is a backpacker town, dedicated to serving the millions of tourists who visit to see the Angkorian temple ruins.
If you haven’t heard about Angkor Wat and the hundreds of temple ruins then here’s a brief history lesson.
Dating from the 9th to the 16th century, the Khmer empire ruled most of South East Asia (encompassing parts of modern Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand). Setting up its base in and around what is now the most extensive temple ruins worldwide at Angkor Wat.
When the western world was still living in the middle ages, massive empires were being built, what was an utterly alien land. The equivalent of finding a martian empire today!
The site was lost, or ‘hidden’ after the Siam empire overthrew the Khmer regime in the 16th century. Angkor Wat was re-discovered by Henri Mouhot (albeit controversial) in the 1860’s
Brilliant detail on a door lintel
Banteay Srei – Citadel of the Women
We also got to see another of the magical sites at Banteay Srei, which although small has some fantastic carvings. The best of the Angkor sites?
It is a small site, but very informative with separate buildings housing an explanation of the site. It is one of the most intricately carved places and makes for some great detailed shots
Look at this fella’
Cambodian landmine musicians giving a recital
Oversaturated? I know, but best to bring out the detail!
Phnom Kulen (P’nom Koo’Lun), AKA Mountain of Lychees, is the location of K’bal Spean riverbed. We didn’t make it here, as it’s a trek which we didn’t want to do with the young girls. We did get to the animal sanctuary here – although a trek, we’d recommend this and the landmine museum on return to Siem Reap.
Particularly harrowing painting of the effects of mines
Apopo Humanitarian Demining – on the way to Angkor Thom: Mine detection using Rats
The area of the Roluos group of temples was the starting point of the Khmer empire, where Jayavarman II from the mid 9th century built. These are Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko.
If you go here, then some people also make an excursion to see the stilted houses and floating villages on the coast of Tonle Sap lake, a 30-minute drive south. It is only advisable during monsoon season. Otherwise, the water level is too low.
Figure 1 Bakong and Wat
Bakong Peak from the wall
Bakong Wat Fauna
Ancient and New
Ancient Khmer script is similar to Sanskrit
Most disappointing due to being under cover
Lolei Buddha within temple on grounds
Angkor Wat became the capital of the Khmer empire and is the largest religious temple in the World. Built as a Hindu temple by Suryavarman II in the 12th century, it later became a Buddhist temple or Wat in the late 12th century, which it remains today.
It is a temple within a temple, as the inner temple resembles Mount Meru, the kingdom of the Hindu Devas (Gods). A 3.7km wall & moat surround the outer galleried temple built later.
It is a fantastic site and well worth spending a couple of days viewing and exploring.
Ancient and New
The reality of crowds
The churning of the ocean of milk
The Galleried temple holds a series of detailed Bas-reliefs dating back to the 12th century. It shows the king Suyavarman II going into battle. It is amazing that such a site still exists, even though it has gone through an extensive renovation project.
We spent the best part of a day just browsing through here.
Vishnu is surrounded by the Asuras (demons) and Devas (Gods) and fortunately the heavenly Apsara dancers providing much-needed encouragement obviously proved too much for the hot-blooded demons and the good willed out.
From the churning of the primordial soup was nature created
Battle of Kurukshetra
The signpost states: “The reliefs sculpted on the southern section of the western gallery represent the concluding episode of the Mahabharata, a renowned Indian epic tale. The Battle of Kurukshetra, when the Pandava and Kaurava clans meet in final deadly combat. Interestingly the Mahabharata is virtually unknown in modern Cambodia. Unlike the Ramayans, which continues to permeate all aspects of Khmer culture, the Mahabharata would seem to have faded from cultural practice and memory with the decline of the Angkorian Empire.”
Heaven & Hell
The sign-post at the entrance to Hell reads, “The reliefs sculpted on the eastern section of the southern gallery represent the 37 Heavens and 32 Hells derived from Indian traditions. The Hells on the lower registers are pictured in greater detail than the Heavens above. Each hell is in fact identified by an accompanying inscription. Thius we read “Avici”, “Raurava”, etc., names still known and feared in Cambodia today.”
It’s also suggested some of the graphic scenes were used as models for torture by the Khmer Rouge.
Hell for the poor buggers!
Graced in Heaven
Passes, what to see, when to go
I won’t go into so much graphic detail with any history lessons. This has been one of the highlights of our Asian trip. Enough information exists on the internet which is better suited for research. I hope you like my photo gallery of the site.
We got a seven-day pass, which is the maximum you can get without having to buy again. We made this last two weeks, as it is easy to become ‘templed out’ if you visit every day. The mid-day heat in Cambodia is not forgiving. As we had Amelie and Soraya, we went early morning for 8-9am or mid to late afternoon.
There was a lot of debate over the 70+% price increase before we arrived, as the prices had not increased in 10 years or so. The main debate surrounds who benefits from this.
Cambodia is struggling in many areas, such as the hospital which relies largely on charity donations. It would be ‘criminal’ if the proceeds only go into an offshore pot somewhere!
However, regardless of the politics surrounding this subject, the price is well worth it and makes the seven-day pass even more value than the one day and three-day passes.
My recommendation is have a quick guided tour of many of the main sites then drill down into where you want to concentrate more. We spent an extra day each at Bayon (The face towers) and AngKor Wat and tha Bas-Reliefs.
The tour guide is useful for $15 for two hours (a rip-off for Asia, but that’s the problem of USD pricing), but it’s also worth reading up a bit in advance.
Not forgetting we have a young family, they weren’t completely bored with the history lessons,
One of the other most famous sites is Ta Prohm, due to the ravages of nature, as creeper vines, strangler figs and other local fauna, strangle the temple ruins. They certainly make for some atmospheric shots.
Angkor Thom, sited just north of Angkor Wat is the site of the central city of Angkor. Built in the late 12th century under the rule of Jayavarman VII and housed up to 750,000 people at the height of its rule. The capital of the Khmer empire.
The main gate is approached, with the Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) each pulling the head of the mythical serpent, Naga, in a battle against good versus evil.
The head represents King Jayavarman VII in Buddhist ‘bodhisattva’ or enlightened pose.
Following on from the main gate is the famous temple known for its Buddhist pose heads on every column, Bayon. The centre of Angkor Thom.
It is another of those sites we could spend days touring around. It also shows a Bas-relief on the outside wall as well as the hundreds of heads facing the cardinal directions on each tower.
As Soraya says: Enfenfants!
Break time as it’s getting hot!
Amelie studying something….?
Amazing Window surround of Apsara dancers!
Terrace of the Elephants
The Terrace of the elephants, built by Jayavarman VII as a viewing platform for the King to review his returning armies. Attached to the palace of Phimeneakas, which is in ruins now, the Elephant bas-reliefs make for some great pictures.
The Terrace of the Leper King
The Terrace, named after the state of the discoloured and moss-grown statue on it. It is rumoured that it was also a tribute to King Yasovarman I who had leprosy.
The water level around the moat is what keeps many of the monuments from collapsing, as the water table supports the mass of many towers.
As with most of Cambodia, people are impoverished, so they congregate rapidly around this site. The level is under threat from over-use and unregulated pumping, which could cause a collapse of the temples. There are mass re-locations of built-up dwellings away from the area every few years.
If you have time, then definitely get a seven-day pass. If not a three-day pass, so you don’t get ‘templed out’ and visit the temples over a period with half days or so.
Visit the Angkor National Museum for some much-needed respite and research.
We also visited many places in Siem Reap, which is a Backpacker town serving visitors to Angkor Wat. There are enough highlights in Siem Reap to keep you busy during the evening.
From Pub Street, the Buddhist temples, such as Wat Bo to the locally made concerns training staff in skills (Senteurs d‘AngKor). We even went to a brilliant circus show. Phare – the Cambodian Circus, which gives Cirque du Soleil a run for their money!
While I was here, I gave blood to the local hospital. Something I’m always conscious of doing (being ‘O’ Rhesus neg). The hospital and other medical services rely on much-needed charity. The Swiss founder of the Hospital Dr. Beat Richtner, puts on his ‘Beatocello’concerts as a fundraising effort, but this can’t last forever. I would recommend visiting his site: http://www.beat-richner.ch/
Wat Bo – 100 Buddha’s
Amelie and the Cats (Wat Bo)
Kulen Apsara dance
If you plan on spending longer than one month in Cambodia, you don’t need to visit Phnom Penh directly. Get a local travel agent to organise it for you. We found out to our cost; it wasn’t any quicker to visit Phnom Penh.
Lowlights. Or how not to get scammed
We all want a bargain when on holiday. Western, wealthy visitors make easy pickings for Cambodian scam artists. Although the majority of people we’ve come across in Asia have been great, there’s always one rotten egg.
For a Tuc-tuc, ask the hotel/hostel you are staying with. The drivers should be English speaking to a basic standard. The hotels charge them a commission for pushing customers their way. After a couple of days, we took our driver & paid him the difference, less a discount, so we both won. The prices were $15 while the hotels kept $5. We paid $12 or $13 direct. We walked around the corner of the hotel to meet him.
Don’t ask the Tuc-tuc rider to take you somewhere for dinner. It will be at western prices, albeit reasonable quality but there is no need to spend $10 on the main course anywhere in Cambodia!
Be ready to politely and firmly say ‘No’, to the Tuc-tuc drivers as they do hassle you quite a bit. After living in the Middle East I’m not particularly ‘fazed’ by hassling hawkers, but others of a more delicate disposition might be.
In Asian terms, Cambodia (and anywhere which charges in USD for that matter) is expensive. You can still look around for some cheap, good quality food and lodgings.
We stayed at the ‘The Villa Siem Reap’, booked via Agoda. Great location, large family style rooms and a pool to cool down in. Good location for the town, but not too close that you suffer from the partying.
Next stop – Phnom Penh
After our visit to Angkor Wat & Siem Reap, we went to Phnom Penh. This was a hit and miss visit. See you next time!