Cambodia felt like the first place that we ‘really’ visited (as opposed to Bangkok which was more of a forced stopover along the way). Again, this part of the trip was mainly because of Michael’s interest in seeing Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. I actually had no idea before the trip, but apparently Angkor Wat was on his top 5 places to visit. It seems that I learned something new about Michael! It was never on my radar, to be honest, but after going once, I am ready to return to Cambodia as soon as possible! Sadly, that probably won’t be too soon.
So, a few logistics – getting to the Angkor Wat area is an easy flight from Thailand and other places in Asia. (A quick note – you can also travel via bus to a lot of the places that we traveled by air, but, honestly, we felt pressed for time as it was and didn’t want to spend 8 hours on a bus.) So, we left Saturday, December 19th early afternoon and quickly arrived in Siem Reap. Compared to Bangkok, which does feel modern in many ways, it seemed that we had stepped into a vastly different world. First of all, in getting our visa, they charged us an extra ‘fee’. Ah, corruption at work. Although I write about in a joking tone, apparently the level of corruption in Cambodia is highly problematic. However, we made it through security and customs without much of a hitch and were soon on our way into town.
We stayed at Soria Moria, a small hotel that is fairly well-located in Siem Reap and that prides itself on doing business with a social conscience. The hotel sent Vuthu, a tuk tuk driver, to pick us up from the airport, and he ended up taking us everywhere over our stay in Cambodia. The ride from the airport to town is just a quick jaunt, and it gives you a taste of the mix that is Siem Riep – plenty of tuk tuks and mopeds, cars and trucks, but also lots of bikes, and then plenty of cows on the side of the road. It seemed to be a mix of attempts at development and of acceptance of a more traditional way of life. Siem Reap is a fairly small city but well-equipped to handle the tourists that are there for one reason: to visit the temples. It is the jumping off point for the temple complexes. Michael just knew of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom before we visited, but there are dozens of temples in the general area. Some are quite a distance from Siem Reap, but even to visit the closest temples, most people go via tuk tuk or some sort of hired transportation. I felt a bit uncomfortable about having a driver initially, but we realized that this is how the ‘system’ works – and it gives quite a few people employment. Additionally, it was great to talk to Vuthu about his life and family, and he certainly knew more about the temples that we did!
We spent the afternoon wandering around Siem Reap – exploring the Old Market area, having some refreshments and getting a sense of the city.
Just a few more notes about Siem Reap, and then I’ll move on to the temples. Again, I liked the Soria Moria, although it was on a busy street so at times it seemed a bit loud. There are plenty of places to stay – cheaper and vastly more expensive. It also offers options for evening entertainment. There is a wide variety of restaurants that range from high-end European food to Mexican (which we did not try) to plenty of budget places serving Khmer (or local) food. Cambodian food, by the way, is excellent – very similar to Thai, but maybe a bit more Vietnamese influence? In addition to eating well, there are also plenty of places to drink – from cheap beers (which was our main choice) to expensive cocktails to excellent coffee (that was another surprise in both Cambodia and Thailand – how good the coffee was). There are several markets where you can find traditional handicrafts or, if you want counterfeit goods, you’re also in luck there.
We spent time on the rooftop bar of the Soria Moria and caught the sunset once or twice. While it wasn’t a ‘knock-your-socks-off’ sunset, it was a fun way to talk about the day’s activities and to relax.
Probably our favorite two non-temple activities were seeing an Apsara dance performance and going to Phare, which is the circus (but not really a circus). For the dance performance – Apsaras are females spirits and there are a LOT of representations of them all over the temples. The dance performance is a traditional Cambodian dance and they often represent Hindu myths and also other Cambodian traditions.
Phare, the circus, as they billed it, is a unique experience. There aren’t any animals and it’s more performance art, dance, acrobatics and contortion and it is HIGHLY entertaining. I think that we were all on the edge of our seats throughout the night.
In addition to entertainment and eating and drinking, we also spent the good part of a morning at the Angkor National Museum which gave us both a better understanding of and appreciation for the history of Cambodia and also the temples that we visited. The exhibits were quite good, detailing different aspects of Khmer culture and civilization, but especially focusing on the religion.
So, the temples. As I said, there are dozens of temples in the Siem Reap area. You can opt for a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day pass. We opted for the 3-day pass which cost a whopping $40 (everything is in dollars in Siem Reap). I’m jesting when I say “whopping” – considering all that it allows you to see, the price seems quite minimal. In addition to the temples around Siem Reap, they have started to excavate more temple sites that are further out. We did not visit any of those, but… again, on our return trip we will!
Vuthu picked us up bright and early on our first full day (after we had enjoyed a large buffet breakfast – the fruit was SO good!), and he recommended that we begin with a visit to Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider Temple”. I don’t think that either Michael or I knew what to expect – a common theme throughout this trip – but the temples really do defy any sort of superlative that you can give them. There is so much to see, to explore, to take in, and it’s impossible to fully appreciate everything. So many of them are in a state of disrepair and decay, some of them seem to be waging war with the elements around them (the jungle, mainly), and they also remind you of a vast empire that built these structures, often quite quickly, to demonstrate their power and/or to venerate the gods or the family. I’m not sure what surprised me the most – but perhaps the sense that you really could just wander through the temples and explore them at your own pace. While some were more crowded than others, with only one or two exceptions, I never felt very crowded or pressed to see something. Michael’s observation of the temples in general is that they seemed to be more interested in the outside space rather than interior space, which western cathedrals focus more on.
From Ta Prohm, we visited a few smaller temples that, despite their size, were still interesting:
After these temples, it was time for the big show – Angkor Wat! Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, and to say that it is impressive would be an understatement. Also, while Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei felt very much like ruins, Angkor Wat, although it has lost its former glory, is still used and you can appreciate how it continues to play a role in people’s day-to-day life. That, at least, was the sense that I had while visiting.
Approaching the temple complex:
A moat surrounds the temple, which was fairly common for the construction of the temples, and then you *really* enter the temple and appreciate the structure. Lots of oohs and aahs.
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th Century, and people think that it served as a mausoleum. Its different levels represent the universe – the heavens, earth and hell. While the physical structure of the Angkor Wat impresses visitors, you have to focus on some of the smaller details, such as the bas-reliefs around the galleries. There are entire books dedicated to them, so I won’t go into great detail, but some people probably spend days looking at the carvings. Many of them represent Hindu legends, myths and battles, so it was fun to try to find Vishnu (although not hard – he was everywhere!) and Shiva. One of the most famous myths represented is the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” – a battle between demons and gods as they try to produce amrita, the nectar of immortality (Source: the Moon Guidebook to Angkor Wat). What we found so interesting about this myth is that we then saw it depicted time and again, throughout Cambodia and also some in Thailand. Amrita, the nectar, is produced by a serpent, or naga – which is both a positive and negative symbol.
We explored Angkor Wat for a few hours, walking through different levels of the temple complex and the grounds of the structure too. There were plenty of visitors, but, again, it never felt crowded with people.
My musings and photos really can’t begin to capture the awe that Michael and I felt touring the temples, especially Angkor Wat. It was exciting and somewhat overwhelming to take it all in, but we are also aware that we just had a glimpse of Cambodia’s culture and beauty – both past and present. Still, what a glimpse it was!
Coming up, more temples!