Published: August 19th 2006August 6th 2006
Located almost in the middle of the country, Siem Reap, literally translated as "defeated the Siam (or Thais)," is Cambodia's second largest city, with over 1 million residents, and is the home of some of the most incredible temples in the world. These temples are easily near the top of the list of the coolest things that I've seen in the whole world, let alone this summer trip. If you find yourself in Southeast Asia, I highly recommend stopping in for at least two full days (which is plenty of time) to check out these treasures. If you have an extra day, you can venture farther out to one of the fishing villages to get a feel for how Cambodians really live.
The country is extremely poor--one of the poorest in the region if not the world--and still suffers from the effects of Pol Pot's brutal regime and mass genocide, which accounted for the murder of millions of Cambodian's. It didn't exactly put the country a step forward by specifically targeting and killing "intellectuals," the definition of which was stretched to people that wore glasses. The adult literacy rate is significantly below that of its neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand, and
there are thousands of orphans around. The economy is largely based on agriculture, with rice being the primary crop. Unlike Vietnam, which has three of four harvests a year, Cambodia has only one because of the weather conditions. Despite these hardships, I noticed that the many people would often have smiles on their faces. This was particularly noticeable coming straight from Vietnam. Like Vietnam, prices are quoted in US dollars. The difference is that the primary currency is US dollars. You even get US dollars from the ATM. I thought it was funny that I could take out cash from an ATM on the other side of the world for no fee, but an ATM a couple blocks from my apartment in San Francisco might charge me $2 for the same transaction.
The main through roads of the city of lined with all types of hotels to support the throng of tourists coming through to see the temples. It had a very similar feel to Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal. There are so many hotels in such a concentrated area that you almost forget that there are also a tons of people that live in the surrounding
areas. Accomodations range from $3/night guesthouses to the boutique Amansara, which used to be the home of the king of Cambodia. On a friend's recommendation, I stopped in there for a drink. It was a whole different level of luxury. The decor was very modern, and it was lit beautifully at night. With only 24 suites, 12 of which have their own private pools, service is extremely attentive. They were kind enough to let me take a look at one of the vacant rooms. Wow. All meals and almost all drinks are included in the price, which starts in the $650/night range. I wasn't exactly about to book a room, but I learned that the Aman group has similarily luxurious hotels throughout southeast Asia. Hopefully I'll have a reason to stay in one of their hotels at some point!
Now, for the main event...the temples. Angkor Wat is the crown jewel of the temples, and it has become the logo or symbol of the country. Just take a look at their flag. Although Angkor Wat's name is probably the most well known around the world, in my opinion, the most incredible in my opinion is Ta Prohm
(see multiple pictures) because of the tree roots that are slithering over the temple walls. There are actually something like twenty temples in the whole area and some that are a little further away. The temples were built hundreds of years ago, but they were unknown to the Western world until the 19th century when they were "discovered" by the French. Many of the temples are in ruins, but what remains in nonetheless breathtaking. One day ($20), three day ($40) and one week ($60) passes get you access to almost all the temples with only a few exceptions.
My first day of touring I hired a guide and a tuk tuk driver to take me around the inner loop of temples. There are hundreds of certified guides, who have passed a test that qualifies them to show tourists around the temples. For $20 you can aquire their services for the entire day. You can hire a car to drive you around or an open air tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is a motorbike which is linked to a small carriage, which in Cambodia could fit up to four people facing each other. Ten dollars gets you one all day,
including a trip back into to town for lunch.
The first stop was Angkor Wat, which you access through a long bridge that takes you over a moat. As soon as you cross over, you can see the famous spires shooting up above the temples. Just off to the left side in front of the pond, you can get a nice unobstructed shot of the temple. The inside walls are covered with carvings that describe various histories and beliefs, including the documentation of wars and punishments believed to be enacted in the afterlife. For instance, women who had abortions would have hot stones held to their stomachs. Having a guide to explain all the carvings is really handy. You can climb up some very steep stairs to get to the area surrounding the central spire, which overlooks the whole complex. The steps are about a foot and a half high and maybe six inches out, so they moved up very quickly; you are literally climbing the stairs.
Bayon is another one of the most famous temples. It is best recognized for the large faces that are on each of 54 towers, each representing one of the former Cambodian
provinces, many of which are now part of Vietnam and Thailand. (I believe there are about 22 remaining.) The entrance to this complex is lined with "giants" who are all pulling some sort of rope. After passing by the giants, you enter one of several huge, ornate gates. Again my guide came through with some good tips on places to take photos (see attached).
For me, the highlight of the temples was Ta Prohm. Instead of stopping for lunch, I pushed on to the temple, hoping to avoid large tour groups that I guessed would be eating. As far as I could tell, this was a good move because the place was relatively empty compared to crowds that I had seen elsewhere. The way that nature has mixed so beautifully with such an incredible man made temple has an other-worldly kind of feel. The roots are so long that the trunks of the trees seem to begin about twenty feet above the ground at the top of the walls. Some of the roots look like snakes wrapping themselves along the walls, while others somewhat resemble elephant trunks. I could have just stared at all the different roots entangled with
the walls for hours. This alone was worth the stop in Cambodia.
My second day, I visited some sites that were farther away. This time I hooked up with a guide, Koon, who a friend of my from college had used when he visited. Koon spoke better English than my first guide, and had seven years of experience which definitely showed.
One stop was the river of one thousand "lingas" where are phallic symbols that represented the male. The river itself was man made after many linga and other etchings were carved out of the stones along the way. After a 30 minute hike and an hour long drive down a pot-hole filled road, I didn't think it was worth the trip. We visited a few other temples which were interesting but not as impressive as Angkor, Bayon or Ta Prohm. The highlight of the day was watching the sunset over the nearby lake from the top of one of the temples near Angkor.
That night, I met up with Winston, an American that I had met in Hanoi the week before, and four Germans from Munich. One of them, Johanna, was sitting next to me on the plane from Saigon and happened to be staying in the same guesthouse. We went in to the center of town for dinner and ate at a place called the Red Piano, which was a favorite hangout for the cast and crew of Tomb Raider. Looking down at the street from the balcony, I saw the busy intersection lined with steet vendors, tuk tuks and restaurants. I could hear live music blasting out from the bar across the street. Overall the scene reminded me of something out of an Indiana Jones movie. It seemed like at any moment that there might be some kind of commotion or action outside. Afterwards, we stopped for a drink at one of the many bars that line "bar steet."
For my third and final day, Winston and I decided that we had seen enough of the temples and went of a tour of one of the far off fishing villages. We were specifically counseled not to visit the float market where people would be trying to sell us things from the second we stepped out of the tour van. After driving for an hour in a tuk tuk, we hopped in a thin river boat that had one of those propellers that barely sits under the water. The small riverway was just big enough for two boats to pass each other. It was such a relief not to have kids surrounding us and selling things when we finally got to the village. There were not more than 15 other tourists in the village, where all the houses were built on stilts to keep high enough for when the river rises. There were lots of kids, and they seemed to be just as interested in checking out the strange tourists as we were interested in seeing them. Quite refreshing compared to the "you buy something from me" line repeated over and over at the temples.
After seafood lunch in one of the village family's homes, we went out in a canoe on the river. Just before the entrance to the lake, there was a large "floating forest" where trees grew up from underneath the water. Dispersed among the trees were various bamboo walls, which were used for crab traps. Off to the side, we came across large bamboo cages, where crocodiles are farmed. Visiting the fishing village gave me a better sense of how the Cambodian people actually live, and it was a nice change of pace from the temples. Next stop, Thailand. Travel tidbits:
- Bring a passport sized photo with you for your visa ($25), which you get when you land at the airport. Or better yet, use the new eVisa option, which just became available recently.
- Contrary to what the guides say, there ARE plenty of ATMs in Siem Reap.
- Be ready to pay a $20 departure tax at the aiport.
- Two Dragons Guesthouse is a nice inexpensive place to say in town. I paid $12/night for my airconditioned room with private bathroom. It's owned by an American named Gordon who is nice and very knowledgeable about Siem Reap and Southeast Asia in general. His website is at talesofaisa.com.
- Amansara: if you can afford $650+ per night, this place is amazing. Worth stopping in for a drink just to check it out otherwise.
- Temple Bar seemed to be the most packed place in town the night we went out. Plenty of drink specials and a dancefloor.
- Sokkhoeun "Koon" was a great guide for the temples. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise that his spoken English is better than his written English.