siem reap, cambodia part 1
While making last year’s holiday plans, it appeared we had a few days to spare after Bangkok. So there it was, staring me in the face, the chance to fulfil a ‘bucket list’ dream and see Angkor Wat. Whether it was time or money, the chance had always eluded us and we weren’t going to get any closer than being in Bangkok! A quick Bangkok Air (who run a monopoly over the route) flight to Siem Reap and we were there. In the hotel transfer car we got our very glimpse of Cambodia, a vastly different world from the big city we left an hour earlier.
The yellowing fields and kids on bikes quickly gave way to the manicured and spotless road into town. (Interestingly the road connecting the airport to the hotels and main attractions are incredibly well maintained – the rest of the roads, not so much.) Later in a tuk-tuk, we learn the hard way that pot holes are a chronic problem riddling every other paved and unpaved road in Siem Reap. Sitting in a tiny tuk-tuk trailer, we hung on for dear life, our imaginations rife with rollover scenarios. Somehow the tuk-tuk drivers manage the potholes and from then on we relax, deciding to trust the driver and travel insurance.
Travelling on the fringes of the city, the disparity between the seemingly rich tourists and the local population is startling. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia. Obviously the tourist dollar is extremely important, so it’s no wonder that Siem Reap has a pub, fish pedicure and spa on every corner. There was even a North Korean barbecue for North Korean (and curious) tourists. Despite the tourist trap nature, the locals are honest and resilient people, doing the best with what they’ve got with a smile. Due to the Pol Pot regime, Cambodia is missing a generation. If you look around, people over 50, even 40 years of age are a rare sight. The country is young, full of energy and potential – and a coming of age is due soon.
Angkor Archaeological Park
We woke up the next day to meet Sothy, our tour guide (his details are at the end of post). With ‘Thy’ and our tuktuk driver, we sped off to the park just down the (again, perfect) road and got our tickets. Now, if you are at the ticket booth without a tour guide, you have to be quite careful as to which queue to join. We got the three day consecutive ticket, but there are also single day, consecutive three or seven days and non consecutive three or seven day tickets to choose from with different queues selling them. The ticket includes entry into Angkor Wat and other temples in the park – like Ta Prohm, Bayon and Preah Khan – which we soon discover are all as arguably beautiful and enigmatic as Angkor Wat.
A national icon, Angkor Wat is remarkably well preserved as it was never abandoned. It’s still a place to importance for Theravada Buddhists, so covered shoulders and knees are a must.
Left: Entering the outer wall of Angkor Wat from the sandstone causeway with our guide, Sothy (dude in pink bandana). Right: The reflection pool of Angkor Wat.
One of the libraries of Angkor Wat.
For its size, Angkor Wat is unusual because it was not destroyed despite the change of faith from Hinduism to Buddhism. Commissioned by Suryavarman II in the 12th century as a state temple and his mausoleum, Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The building layout of increasing quadrangles reflect the Hindu universe. At its apex and centre is Mount Meru, the most sacred of mountains. Literally Ankor Wat was meant to be heaven on earth.
The photos of Angkor Wat fail to do it justice. It’s more magnificent in real life and far more beautiful up close. Looming over us like the skeleton of something that once was plush, the complex stands proudly with thousands upon thousands of carvings lingering like a tattoos of a forgotten past.
We peer at the endless bas reliefs, running our hands over the thousands of devatas and apsaras that dance and pose provocatively. Each apsara is unique, some have midriffs, different positions, others smile. Sothy tell us there is unusually only one that shows her teeth.
The many bas reliefs depicting legendary events. Some are better restored than others.
A Buddhist altar in the Gallery of 1000 Buddhas (Preah Pean). Hardly any buddhas remain, instead graffiti of numerous good deeds line the walls and pillars.
The Gallery of 1000 Buddhas is particularly beautiful with curved roofs and four galleries of deep pools. It was here we are reminded Angkor Wat is a living, breathing, significant place of worship. Incense smoke soaks the air while a fortune teller plies his trade to willing tourists and pilgrims. Within dark sanctuaries, we found locals prostrate, praying to golden garbed statues with only candles for illumination.
Out from the darkness and into the light and through throngs of tourists we eventually make our way to the Bakan Sanctuary, the very, very top of Angkor Wat. After a hair raising climb up some steep stairs (which were only built because people fell to their deaths on the even steeper, original stairs) we’re rewarded with a view of the whole complex. Being high up, it’s the hottest up here (Sothy wisely waited with the other guides in the shade) but we get up close to the lotus bud towers that give Angkor Wat its iconic symmetry and beauty.
The exterior of Bakan.
Initially housing a statue of Vishnu, the sanctuary was converted into a stupa in the 16th century. With four Buddhas of the past, facing a central Buddha of the future, the stupa was completed by sealing off the sanctuary’s doorways. During restoration, the southern doorway was removed and archaeologists discovered a sarcophagus – possibly Suryavarman II’s.
Inside Bakan Sanctuary. A sarcophagus found by archaeologists supports the theory Angkor Wat was built as a mausoleum.
Left: One of the many. many monkeys of the park… Apart from being very curious, they also love candy. Right: Heading out the eastern esplanade.
We exit out the eastern esplanade and it’s surprisingly quiet, absent of camera snapping tourists (except us). It’s certainly not as glamorous as the western gate but it’s just as lovely, brittle and lonely. As we duck and weave through passages we see a cheeky monkey hoping to get a snack from us! It’s not a good idea to get too close to these cheeky buggers as they can bite. Apparently the whole park is full of monkeys, who were captured and relocated from Tonle Sap to save them from poachers. (We visited Tonle Sap the next day – it was quite eerie with not an animal in sight.)
The eastern gate undergoing restoration.
An advantage of having Sothy as a guide was the more casual, fast tracked tour. I can never do a group tours. I find them awfully boring and not being able to explore on my on terms for fear of being separated is simply, not enjoyable. Plus there is always, always one person in the group that’s either a smartass or asks too many questions! If this sounds familiar, I’d highly recommend hiring a private tour.
Sothy also knew where and when the crowds would be and planned our day so we would miss the worst of them. In some cases they were plain unavoidable but he always kept an eye on me as I wandered off (and got lost).
The east gopura of Ta Prohm.
After a ride in the tuk-tuk, we arrived at a rather famous and popular temple called Ta Prohm. Featured in Tomb Raider the movie, Ta Prohm is crowded every hour of the day. When Ta Prohm was excavated, a conscious decision was made to leave it in a ‘natural state’, revealing gigantic figs growing spectacularly in and out of the ruins. The trees are both a blessing and a curse, slowly destroying the ruin as well as supporting what is left.
Tree roots among the crumbling ruins.
A strangler fig reaching up to the sky. This fig is extremely photogenic – there were about 200 tourists crammed into the small gallery trying to take this shot…
A mixture of natural and man made scaffolding hold up many parts of Ta Prohm.
In the mood for a quick lunch, we made a beeline for a cluster no-name open air stalls set up between the temples. Though the food is targeted at tourists, it was filling, basic and if you looked hard enough at the picture menu, there were authentic dishes to be found. I had beef larb which was spicy and so good with a pile of white rice. K, had a coconut juice because (I think) he was perturbed by the lack of running water… Sothy had samlor, a sour fish soup, which I jumped at the first chance to taste. Even in the hot weather was refreshing – incredibly tangy and wholesome.
It was a seriously hot day so the second half of the tour was thankfully, mostly in the shade. We headed on to Angkor Thom, another ancient royal capital within the park. Angkor Thom housed about one million people (!) until the capital was moved in the 17th century. New king, new capital or temple was the way to go it seems.
Preah Pithu moat.
Preah Palilay, all alone in the forest.
With not a tourist in sight (Sothy said most had either gone back to their hotel or were on bus tours scheduled at Angkor Wat) we explored ruins half hidden in a forest of skinny trees. Preah Palilay is a stunning simultaneous Buddhist and Hindu structure – built when a King Jayavarman VII had a late change of heart towards Buddhism. With two breathtaking trees anchored to its crumbling chimney, Preah Palilay appears to soar towards the sky. Absolutely stunning.
Heading towards the Royal Palace and its bathing pools, Sothy tells us that one theory behind the city’s exodus was leprosy in the water. Legend has it that at least two kings suffered from leprosy and hence the aptly named (nearby) Terrace of the Leper King. (Rest assured there is no leprosy in the water now.) The king and queen had separate bathing ponds, both within handy distance to the their royal celestial temple called Phimeanakas.
Phimeanakas, the celestial temple. Once upon a time, there was a golden spire on the apex.
A short distance from Phimeanakas is Baphuon, the ‘temple mountain’. Possibly the world’s worst jigsaw puzzle, the temple was taken apart by Ecole Francaise, only for records of the 300,000 disparate stones to be lost in the ensuing civil war. Baphuon is huge, with one entire wall an epic depiction if Buddha lying down.
As we walked past the temple mountain, we came across maintenance workers having lunch. Some I think, were bemused at why we were walking in the worst of the heat. It was damn hot!
Maintenance workers at Baphuon. Keeping the rainforest out of the ruins is no walk in the archaeological park…
Saving the best for last, Sothy leads us to the rear of Bayon. The most enigmatic and creative of Angkor Thom’s sights, the temple itself looks like a jumble of rocks, but up close its strange faces come into definition.
Bayon from a distance.
If Bayon looks familiar, it’s because it was also in the Tomb Raider film. Another one of Jayarvarman VII’s creations, there are about 216 smiling faces (said to resemble the king – what an ego) looking down from the 34 or so towers left. When archaeologists hacked the jungle away they realised Bayon was at the exact centre of Angkor Thom, thus it was the state temple.
The temple is like a maze, with lots of ups, downs and turns. There’s also a distinct feeling of being watched… The bas reliefs are said to be quite interesting, depicting a day in the life back then, but we were content to stop and stare, watching those watching us.
The smiling, scheming faces of Bayon’s towers.
Pretty carvings line almost every surface of Bayon. There’s said to be 1.2km of carvings in the temple alone.
Okay I’ve rambled on about the Angkor Archaeological Park enough. If you’ve ever wanted to go – just go! It’s worth the effort and is so, so much more spectacular in real life. Photos don’t do it justice. If you aren’t a temple fanatic (we certainly weren’t), it’s worth seeing even for one day. As you can see, we covered more than enough in a day.
Victoria Angkor Resort
We stayed at the Victoria Angkor Resort, which despite its handsome colonial look, is relatively new. Being close to town (but not too close), the resort is a good base for sightseeing. To be honest, at first sight of the hotel’s facilities we decided to we stay as much as we could – a good sign for a hotel if any. The lobby opens up to the most gorgeous pool surrounded by arching frangipane trees, perfect for dips in the afternoon heat. It’s even more breathtaking at dusk when it’s lit by lanterns.
Skilled spa technicians (couples massage!) and a great range of pay TV (which kept K happy – ESPN I love you) kept us very happy between temples, cooking school and a tour of Tonle Sap. The only slight, slight negative was the hotel buffet breakfast. It wasn’t half bad, but not as fantastic as the five star rating of hotel would imply.
Going out was extremely easy. The hotel has its own rank of tuk-tuk drivers. (We thoroughly recommend tuk-tuk no.9’s driver, who took us down some really potholed dirt roads.) (In the dark.) You can walk to the city centre but it’s a dusty trek, so it’s better to support the economy and pay $2 USD for a tuk-tuk ride.
There’s a really nice old world feel to the hotel which made us feel like we were really on holiday, which is what you want in the end, really. And yes, the hotel was so beautiful, we didn’t snap a single photo of it!
Stay tuned for part 2. We visit Tonle Sap’s ‘Flooded Forest’, Kampong Phluk – a village on stilts – and of course, there’s some eating involved.
We organised our private tour through Beyond Unique tours. The price of the Angkor Discovery tour includes the guide and a tuk tuk driver. The entrance tickets are not included. We found Beyond Unique to be accommodating and considerate, plus their office is near the Old Market which made payment convenient.
Beyond Unique Escapes
Cnr of Sivutha Bvld and Alley West
T: +855 (0)77 562 565
Sothy is a freelance tour guide (who is occasionally hired by Beyond Unique). I thoroughly recommend Sothy especially if you want a faster than usual tour. Though if you want a more in depth day, Sothy is incredibly knowledgeable about the ruins, their history and legends. He has a true passion for the Angkor ruins plus loves travelling.
Mr Sothy Thoeum
No.0201, Krom 9, Phum Wat Damdak, Khum Salakamroek, Siem Reap, Cambodia
T: +855 12 963 446, +855 15 558 889
Victoria Angkor Resort
Opposite the Royal Park, Sivantha, Siem Reap, Cambodia
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