Cambodia (Siem Reap And Angkor Wat)

The roughly 15-minute ride from the heart of Siem Reap to Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia is a swirling cacophony of tuk-tuks, cars, buses, scooters and bicycles, along with a side order of dust and automobile exhaust. The traffic flows both with a sense of purpose and in a seemingly chaotic progression as drivers jostle for position within their designated side of road. Despite the fumes, it’s a circus of life and an exhilarating prelude before reaching the intended destination: the famed Angkor temple complex, one of the world’s largest religious monuments and archeological sites and, increasingly, a must-see for travelers.

As the gateway to Angkor and its reservoir of Cambodian history, Siem Reap is a tourist magnet. Beyond the touristy core lies an authentic and gritty experience that’s more than just Angkor.

But it is the ruins at Angkor Archaeological Park that draws millions of people from around the world (more than 4 million annually, according to UNESCO), with the focus on Angkor Wat, the 12th-century temple built by Suryavarman II. Angkor Wat was built at a time when the Khmer civilization was in full flower, spanned across a sizable chunk of Southeast Asia and was perhaps the greatest empire of its time. Today, that history is little known among most Westerners.

Angkor Wat generally gets the most press and the most tourists within the temple region, so perhaps it’s appropriate that it’s the first major temple that greets visitors coming north from Siem Reap to the Angkor complex.

My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the entrance area to Angkor Wat. As part of the deal, he would hang around and wait for my return. I bought my three-day entrance pass to the Angkor Archaeological Park the day before and was ready to dive headlong into one of the planet’s most famous man-made objects. It was a little incongruent when, among the numerous vendors selling food and beverages and souvenirs, one vendor near the entrance to the long sandstone bridge spanning the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat was blasting obnoxious uptempo Asian pop . . . it was sort of a dose of the profane before stepping onto sacred ground.

It was early December and the air was warm and muggy, with a touch of contrasty haze. The long bridge over the moat leads to the entrance of the temple grounds, and ahead lies another long amble leading to the stone temple itself. After passing through the first section, a corridor empties onto the courtyard in the middle section of the temple. Time and the elements have covered a good part of Angkor Wat with a blackened patina, and some sections exist in a state of crumbling disrepair.

The word “Angkor” is derived from “Nagara,” which means “city” in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. The architecture of the Khmer Empire took its cue from the Indian subcontinent, with Khmer cultural embellishments added to the mix. Angkor Wat, which means “temple city,” was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu before later becoming a Buddhist temple. It’s a three-tiered structure with five lotus flower-like towers, with the roughly 210-feet tall central tower bracketed by four smaller towers in a square-like formation. The temple is surrounded by a large, square 650-foot-wide moat, and the entire complex was modeled after Mount Meru, the mythic center of the universe in Hindu lore where the gods reside.

Somewhere within the temple’s main building, two young monks in saffron robes performed a blessing ceremony for a family. The man and wife seemed reverential with hands in supplication as one of the priests chanted something and splashed water on them, and their young son seem enraptured with the moment even as his little sister’s face wandered off with her mind seemingly in another place.

The temple walls are covered with an impressive array of bas-relief sculptures of asparas, which are beautiful dancing girls from Hindu mythology. Steep steps led to the top of the northeast tower, which left most tourists huffing and puffing for breath in the humid air when they reached the top. Upon descending the tower, they grabbed the rails with a sense of caution as they returned to earth in a slow, painstaking manner.

As I gazed over the landscape from atop the tower, I contemplated the construction of this and the other temples in the Angkor complex during the pre-industrial age——the vast scaffolding used for both men and material as the temples rose into the air; the labor expended to haul the sandstone over great distances from the Kulen Mountains north of Angkor; the craftsmen chiseling their exquisite religious figures and secular scenes onto the walls and towers.

The Angkor area is said to have been the largest city in the world, with estimates ranging from 750,000 to 1 million people. It must have been a swarming, teeming beehive of activity. How did the common folk live? What did they eat? What were their joys and pains? Their wooden homes long ago disintegrated, and aside from the stone temples that have survived the centuries in varying states of repair and disrepair, the vast city that once was great is now mainly covered by tropical evergreen forest.

Given the tourist crush at Angkor Wat, particularly during the cooler, dry season when I was there, it’s hard to have your own personal Angkor Wat “moment.” But that doesn’t detract from the experience, and it’s still possible to slip away into the nooks and crannies of Angkor Wat and get lost in appreciation for the opportunity to visit this global treasure.

There are two ponds on the grounds in front of the western front of Angkor Wat, and the one on the left (the northern pond) is where people gather to take photos of the temple and its reflection in the water.

More Than Angkor Wat

The Khmer people who built the temples emerged from the mists of ancient Cambodian history around the seventh century A.D. The Angkorian period when the temples were built began in 802 with the founder of the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman II. The empire reigned until the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya took Angkor in 1431. But the intervening centuries saw a steady construction of stone temples built by various Jayavarmans up to and including Jayavarman VII, along with numerous other “Varmans.” These temples were built with either Hinduism or Buddhism devotion in mind, and sometimes switched allegiances depending on the ruler.

Given its history, reputation, construction and styling, Angkor Wat is spectacular. Nearby Angkor Thom, particularly Bayon, is probably more visually impactful. And it’s certainly less crowded. Angkor Thom (“great city”) was built in the late-12th and early-13th centuries during the reign of Jayavarman VII. The square, walled and moated city served as a Khmer royal capital. The highlight is Bayon, a large temple in the center of Angkor Thom that from a distance in the murky late-afternoon light looked like one of those sandcastles where towers made with globs of wet sand take shape as crenelated formations. Upon closer look, Bayon is marked by 37 textured towers, with most decorated with sculptures of large faces sporting serene smiles. It’s thought that the faces might represent Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

The bas-reliefs at Bayon depict a mix of battle scenes and snippets of medieval Khmer life. But it’s the large carved faces, which give Bayon an Easter-Island-meets-Southeast-Asia-exotica feeling, that makes it one of history’s funkiest structures.

Nearby is Ta Prohm, another temple built by Jayavarman VII that’s in the forest—literally. In what could be a scene from sci-fi horror flick where giant trees devour buildings, the massive roots of huge fig, banyan and kapok trees have grown up along, are intertwined with, and wrap around certain sections of walls and buildings like humungous octopus tentacles. It is very photogenic and atmospheric, yet the trees are wreaking havoc with the structural integrity in the areas embraced by their roots. Some trees have been removed as part of ongoing restoration efforts, with others left in place as a defining characteristic of the “tree temple.”

Depending on their interest level, a visitor could spend many days at the Angkor World Heritage Site, a sprawling area of nearly 155 square miles north of Siem Reap. Temples radiate in scattered formation in the forest beyond from the core Angkor area (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Ta Keo). I had four full days in Siem Reap——plus parts of two other days——and used only two of the days allotted for my three-day Angkor ticket because I had other plans during my time there. In hindsight, those two days seem kind of rushed. When I was there I consciously tried to soak in the moment and appreciate the history and cultural significance of the place. I now realize that wasn’t enough time to properly take it all in, particularly from a photographic perspective.

Darker History

The Angkor complex represents the apex of Cambodian civilization, but a brief moment at Ta Prohm was a reminder of the nadir of Cambodian history. As I walked along a dirt pathway that lined the perimeter of Ta Prohm I came upon a four-piece band playing traditional Cambodian music. Two of the musicians played a tro khmer, a stringed instrument with a long wood neck and a sound box made of coconut and covered with snake or cow skin. As they ran their bows across the strings, another musician played a takhe, a string instrument that lays flat——one hand runs up and down the strings while the other hand plucks them. The fourth musician clanged chhing finger cymbals and occasionally sang. The singer and one of the tro khmer players both had stumps for left legs, and their prothetic legs rested against the small stage. The singer, who was blind, used his prosthetic right arm to play the cymbals.

This band, as well as a similar musical outfit in another section of Ta Prohm, were partially made up of members who lost limbs from land mine explosions. They sought donations while displaying a sign that brought attention to the country’s land mine victims. I listened to the band for a short while, put a $10 bill into the pot and asked if I could take their picture. (The U.S. dollar is essentially the de facto currency in Cambodia; the official national currency, the riel, is often used for small purchases.)

Anti-personnel mines were a vestige of the civil war that enabled the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by the notorious Pol Pot that took root in Cambodia’s northeast region in the 1960s and eventually ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, and other cities and moved everyone into the countryside to create an agrarian utopia of peasants——essentially, a giant collective farm. It declared the nation was starting anew at “Year Zero.”

Intellectuals, artists, bourgeoisie, people with wealth, monks and anyone else who were deemed a threat to the new order were murdered. In all, an estimated 1.7 million people, or 21 percent of Cambodia’s population were either killed, starved to death or worked to death during this period, leading to the infamous “killing fields” containing the mass graves for the victims. Land mines were used by all sides in Cambodia’s civil war, but they were especially prized by the Khmer Rouge, who were eventually driven into exile by Vietnamese troops who invaded the country after a series of border clashes.

At the Wat Thmey monastery in Siem Reap there’s a glass-encased, red-painted memorial stupa crammed with the skulls and bones of people who died during the Khmer Rouge period. Photographs from that era line a corridor on the temple grounds, and as I read the descriptions beneath them that describe life during the Cambodian holocaust I was approached by three young monks who looked to be about 10 to 12 years old. One was rather brazen, if not cocky in a humorous way, as he rattled off a few words in English and flashed an impish grin as he stuck out his hand to imply he was looking for some kind of handout. They gladly posed for a photograph, and I wondered if they fully understood the enormity of the Khmer Rouge period, which must seem like ancient history to them.

As a first time visitor to Cambodia who remembers reading about the Khmer Rouge period as it was happening during my teen years, this terrible nightmare does seem like a long time ago. It’s almost surreal that it happened at all. I was in Cambodia for just six days, but during that time I was impressed by the friendliness of the people and the country’s energy and vitality. Several times I stopped myself and thought, “How did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge happen? How could they have hijacked this country and implemented a regime of fear and murder?” It’s almost inconceivable, until you stare at the skulls and bones that fill the glass-encased memorial at Wat Thmey. Or, until you talk to people impacted by those years.

The thirtysomething tuk-tuk driver I hired to be my personal driver for three days, Saroeun (pronounce sa-rún), was born after the Khmer Rouge were defeated, but he said he still feels the after effects. He said his parents owned land that was confiscated by the Khmer Rouge and was never returned to them, and they never recovered economically. “I grew up poor, and I’m still poor,” he said as we talked about his life in the parking area at Angkor Wat, with the temple’s famed towers visible in the distance——a juxtaposition of ancient and living Cambodian history. He added he’s still trying to support both them and his family on a tuk-tuk driver’s meager wages.

 

Tonle Sap

During my time in Siem Reap I stayed at the Golden Temple Residence, a fabulous hotel that earns massive kudos on Trip Advisor (some highly rated places in town, particularly restaurants, proudly hung signs touting their lofty ranking in the Trip Advisorsphere). There are many reasons why Golden Temple gets a lot of love [see below in the “Travel Tips” section], and among them for me was a small thing——free use of a bicycle.

I put in my request for a set of wheels the night before at the front desk, and after breakfast went next door to a small shed to pick up my bike. It was great fun weaving through the Cambodian traffic in both town and country. I went south into the countryside and veered off on a couple of side roads to see a pace of life that seemed hundreds of miles away from the tourist crash in Siem Reap——farmers working the rice paddies; two small boats setting off into a flooded plain where trees poked through a wide expanse of brown water; small villages where people went about their lives.

For my countryside ride I followed the main southerly road out of town that leads about nine miles to the northern shore of Tonle Sap, a massive 23,000-square-mile lake that’s the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The homes in the villages along the road are mainly built on stilts. Much of the domestic activities——cooking, eating, watching television, mending fishing nets, fixing machinery and the like——take place in the space beneath the buildings.

In the pecking order of things to do in Siem Reap, a boat tour of the villages along Tonle Sap——some floating, others on tall stilts——is probably the second most popular option after the Angkor temples. And according to comments on some travel sites, it’s the biggest tourist trap in town. I guess it’s all in how you approach it. That said, there is a potential scam factor, which I’ll address shortly.

Plenty of places in Siem Reap advertise Tonle Sap tours, and a place near my hotel had an offer of $17. Saroeun said he could arrange a private Tonle Sap tour for $30, plus his tuk-tuk fare. I took the bait. The closest entry point at Tonle Sap is Chong Khneas, a floating village and mixed community of Cambodian and Vietnamese. I met Rhon (pronounced Ron) the boat guide. As we sailed through the channel toward where it enters the lake he explained what life was like in the floating village, how the buildings rise and fall with the tide, how most of the villagers support themselves through fishing, and how overfishing of catfish by the villages along the lake hurts the local economy and makes it hard to make a living.

Homes, shops, grocery stores, mechanics garages and everything else in the village floated on water. Tour boats navigated alongside local denizens who went about their business in their vessels——most of which were long and narrow. The beauty of traveling over water is that it doesn’t kick up any dust.

We stopped at a lakefront restaurant. Rhon, Saroeun and I went up to the upper deck, and from that vantage point Tonle Sap was a wide-open expanse of coffee-colored water with a seemingly endless horizon. Saroeun bought a plate of cooked, whole shrimps and five cans of Angkor beer. On the deck, both Saroeun and Rhon talked about the difficulty of making a go of it in Cambodia.

For Westerners, Cambodia is cheap on the budget. For the average Cambodian, at least as they described it, it’s expensive. Rhon, 26, was born with both feet turned inward and he walks with a hobble. He said he lives off of tips from being a boat guide, but he’s in a queue and must wait his turn to guide. He’d like to find steady work elsewhere, but said that with his bad feet and limited education he wonders about his future.

As we headed back to the dock, Rhon kept talking about the floating orphanage school for children who lost their parents during the area’s frequent floods. And that it would be very helpful if I could buy a bag of rice to donate for the school. My scam radar went up when he mentioned that because I fell prey to a similar come-on in India years ago. But he assured me this was legit. I guess I got caught up in the moment because I bought a one-kilo bag of rice for the school for $50. The guy who sold it to me tried hard——in a polite way——to get me to buy two bags. When I told him I didn’t have the cash, he said some tourists pay for it with credit at the dock. I told him to be happy with the one bag I was buying.

We boarded the school and delivered the rice. The children gathered around the bag for a cheap photo opp; they seemed rather disinterested in the whole thing and it had the feel of a staged event that they’d been through many times before. The kids looked to be pretty well-fed and clothed as they ran around a classroom while a teacher lay on a hammock and fiddled with his cell phone while seemingly oblivious to what the kids were doing. Was this a scam, as is implied from comments left on various travel sites from people who did the Tonle Sap tour that I read after I returned home? Was I a sap on Tonle Sap?

Probably.

Would I have been better off paying just $17 for a group boat tour versus paying $90 for a private tour? ($30 for the tour, plus $30 for Saroeun’s services and a $30 tip for Rhon . . . I felt sorry for him and wanted to help him out.) And had I gone on the group tour I probably wouldn’t have bought a $50 bag of rice. Certainly, I would’ve been better off financially, but there were intangibles that make me not regret significantly overspending for the private tour experience.

I suppose something like the tour of Chong Khneas, or any of the Tonle Sap villages, straddles the line between voyeurism and an honest, sincere attempt to see how everyday folks in a foreign land live on a street-level——or in this case, water-level——basis. Then again, how does one define voyeurism? To me, the point of traveling to different countries isn’t to limit yourself to five-star hotels, the best museums and the finest restaurants. Rather, the point is to get out there and intermingle with the people, get dust on your shoes and get a taste——however brief——of a completely different existence.

And that’s what I experienced in Chong Khneas. People in the village conduct their lives on the front porches of their floating homes and in their boats that whiz along the water. Some travel sites say other villages further along the lake are more colorful and interesting than Chong Khneas. Perhaps, but it’s all the same regarding visiting a place to get a sense of a different way of life.

Was Chong Khneas spectacular? Not really. Was it interesting? Very much so. Did I get ripped off by the tourist infrastructure at Chong Khneas? Maybe. Do I care? At this point long after the fact, not particularly.

What made the Tonle Sap excursion worthwhile to me was the half-hour or so spent on the rooftop deck at the restaurant with Saroeun and Rhon as they talked about their lives while we peeled shrimp and drank beer. It was a temporary bonding between people from different sides of the planet and a brief education on this corner of the world. Those are the types of traveler moments I cherish.

Travel Tips

Getting Around
Particularly in the tourist district and near hotels in Siem Reap, tuk-tuk drivers are a dime a dozen and always hounding passersby (particularly tourists) to ask if they need a lift. Short hops around town are around $2 one way. Round trips to the Angkor temple complex are typically $15 to $20. When I met Saroeun and inquired about how much it would cost to hire him on a per-day basis for a few days, he replied almost apologetically, “$20, $25 . . . whatever you think is fair.” I ultimately paid him $30 a day for each of the three days he was my chauffeur because I sensed he needed the money and that I was a good payday for him. Plus, I got to know him a little bit, and I appreciated his insights on life in Cambodia.

Organized tours arranged by hotels——particularly in air-conditioned vehicles——can be pricy, so you’ll generally fare better costwise by finding tours run by local shops and/or hiring your own tuk-tuk driver. (That said, a vehicle with A.C. in the brutal summer months might not be a bad idea.)

Where To Stay
The Golden Temple Residence is a short walk to the heart of Siem Reap. It offers a great breakfast as part of the price (there are other perks included in the price), has very comfortable beds, much-needed air conditioning, and the staff is unnaturally polite. While I waited for the paperwork to be done at check-in, I was provided a tray with a moist, scented towel to wipe my face on a humid day; a refreshing glass of lemon iced tea; and a snack tray with fruit, three small cakes and spiced nuts. That was a great start to a great stay. My bill averaged $171 a night for my five-night stay, which is high by Siem Reap standards but I felt well worth the price. A comparable hotel in major North American, European or Asian cities would likely been twice that rate.

Where To Eat
There are many, many dining options in Siem Reap. Two particularly stood out. Flow has a sophisticated wine bar atmosphere without being snobby. The appetizer of pan-seared scallops with asparagus and bacon (I ixnayed the bacon) was delicious, and the broth was so good I got another order of bread to soak up the juice. The grilled vegetable medley with eggplant, zucchini, capsicums with smoked scamorza cheese was tasty and satisfying. The chocolate lava cake with ice cream was a perfect coda to my meal. The prices are very reasonable.

AnnAdya is open-air but covered with a bamboo roof. I thoroughly enjoyed the char-khreoung fish (it also comes with beef or chicken), a traditional Cambodian dish with wok-fried Khmer spice (don’t know what that entails), hot basil, coconut cream and peanuts served with steamed rice. It was filling and cost only US$5.75.

Angkor Wat
The main ticket sales office is the Angkor Conservation Area ticket booth on Charles de Gaulle Road that connects Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. All Angkor passes are available there. As of February 1, 2017, a one-day pass was US$37; a three-day pass was US$62 and a seven-day pass was US$72. Information about tickets can be found here and here. Visitors need to buy their ticket before they arrive at the Angkor Archeological Park.

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