We arrived in Siem Reap
and were met at the airport by our local guide, Wong Kimsien (Kim) who would be with us for the last few days of our Indochina Tour which ends in a few days. Our new guide Kim also had a sad story to tell of his family’s experience during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. As in Phomn Penn the people living in Siem Reap was ousted from their homes and sent into the countryside. Kim said that when he was six he lived with his mother who had to work in the fields all day and he was left alone to fend for himself. He said he quickly learning how to look after himself, he was always hungry but learnt which plants he could eat and which would make him sick. His father was also working in the fields but further away but eventually fell ill from poor nutrition and was expected to die. The Khmer Rouge allowed him to return to his wife who cared for him and to the surprise of everyone he gained some health. Once up on his feet he started to grow some plants around his home for food but
was reported to the authorities who came and took him away - he never returned home.
After a short journey from the airport we arrived in the centre of Siem Reap
which is a bustling tourist destination due to its proximity to both the ancient Khmer national capital city of Angkor
as well as Tonle Sap Lake
. The area surrounding Siem Reap is dotted with palaces and temples which were built on a sprawling alluvial plain to the north of Tonle Sap Lake and which now attract tourists into the area. We were looking forward to spending a month here, staying on after our Indochina tour ended in three days time to visit many of these sites.
Angkor literally means ‘Capital City’ or ‘Holy City’, whereas Khmer refers to the dominant ethnic group in modern and ancient Cambodia. In modern times Angkor usually refers to the capital city of the Khmer Empire that existed in Cambodia between the 9th and 12th centuries - the temple ruins are the remnants of those ancient Angkorian cities. Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious monument,
in addition to being the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia.
Our guide Kim said that big improvements in infrastructure and the clearance of land mines have made many remote areas safe to travel and we were going to head out to one of these outer temples after lunch. Although we were advised not to travel on our own to any remote areas without a guide as there was still a risk from unexploded mines. It was about an hour’s journey from Siem Reap to Banteay Srei
and on the way we passed through many small hamlets with farmers tending their fields. Most were working by hand but a few luckier ones had a couple of water buffalo pulling a plough or a small cart. Massive pointed hay stacks stood towering above little stilt houses all along the route, it was like a scene from rural England many years ago. Many locals were selling fruit and vegetables from makeshift stalls which were dotted all along the roadsides. Kim stopped at one stall and bought some corn for us to try that had just been baked in a huge pot on the side of the road. It was piping hot and delicious - the lady who served him had a
huge grin on her face as he bought all her supply. Cambodian people are known for their friendliness and warmhearted smiles, despite their extreme poverty. We soon encountered this with children waving frantically just to get our attention and be rewarded with a smile whilst they continued to play happily on the dirt tracks surrounding their homes - in return their smiles were enough to capture your heart.
We arrived at Banteay Srei,
a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and considered by many to be the 'Jewel in the Crown' of Angkorian art with exquisite carvings. We were soon surrounded by local children, some very young indeed, these were not waving but still smiling but trying to sell us postcards and books. When I asked them why they were not at school they just smiled and started to count the postcards out loud as if to prove that they did go to school and could count very well in English, although they usually only got up to ten. The reason being that they were selling the postcards for ‘one dollar’ each but if you did not buy they increased the amount up to ten for the dollar
- again their smiles melted your heart but you had to be careful otherwise you would end up with a suitcase full of postcards that you did not want!
The temple was located on the edge of a rice field and nearby were three very young monks who were visiting the temple with their father who stopped to chat to us as we walked through the first entrance. Straight away we noticed that the temple was cut from stone of a dark pinkish colour and had some very intricate stone carvings that covered the walls as well as the doors as we walked through the archways. You could get up close to most of the carvings although some areas had been roped off. Kim said that in Khmer, Banteay Srei means ‘city of women’ and is one of the jewels of Khmer art due to the outstanding quality of its sculpted décor, carved from sandstone and we could see why. It was built under the reign of two Angkorian Kings in the late 10th century and half of it is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva and the other half to the Hindu god Vishnu. Its ruins
were only discovered in 1914 and its first restorations began in 1931, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site as recently as 1992. There were not many visitors around and we had most of the temple to ourselves apart from a couple of guards wandering amongst the ruins. If you gave them a dollar they would let you through the roped off areas to get up close to the walls and to see some of the hidden carvings up close. These were usually in excellent conditions due to not being too exposed to direct sunlight.
The next day we began our tour of the temples within Angkor Archaeological Park
stopping first to buy our entrance tickets. Kim suggested that we buy a ‘seven day entry pass’
as we were staying on after the tour ended and was a better option for us. There are dozens of temples in the Siem Reap area with most of the significant ones within the park itself. However these are spread out over a large area with some over a kilometer apart, so you needed ‘wheels’ of some sort to be able to get around and more importantly to get out of the
Our first temple of the day was the incredible fortified city of Angkor Thom,
constructed in the late 12th Century with the state temple called the Bayon at its centre. We arrived at the South Gate which was flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side of the bridge which crossed the river into the city. One side was the divas
and the other side was the demons
(we would come across these at many temples) and we walked pass these huge statues and walked through the gate with its giant carved head towering above us. We were surprised as the traffic also passed through the gate but I must admit we were delighted to hop back on our air conditioned bus after even such a short walk. There are five entrance gates to city, one for each cardinal point, plus the Victory Gate
leading to the Royal Palace area and each of the gates is crowned with four giant faces.
A little further on passing forested areas on both sides with yet more ruins we arrived at the Bayon
also with its own giant stone faces.
These faces have become one of the most recognized images of Angkor Khmer Art throughout the world. There are 37 standing towers with most but not all having four carved faces oriented towards the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is still a matter of debate - are they of Buddha or the King or a combination of the two? As we climbed into the centre of the temple our guide pointed out the bas-reliefs on the walls, some of which contained real life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and Cham. We thought that even more interesting though were the extensive carvings revealing scenes of every day life interspersed amongst those vivid battle scenes including, birds, animals, cockfighting, chess games and even childbirth, you could spend ages trying to make out all the different images. Some walls had collapsed, whilst others had been reconstructed, others were just a jumble of different carvings with the result looking like a giant jigsaw puzzle! I must admit that The Bayon alone was worth the journey to Cambodia and if you do come it’s a definite must see. It was here that we chatted to an elderly lady who was
visiting with her husband and granddaughter. She was quite noticeable as she had jet black teeth and our guide said that a lot of older women in the countryside had stained teeth, due to years of chewing Areca (betel nut), which is a mild stimulant chewed as one would chew tobacco.
We moved on to visit the Elephant Terrace
which was used as a giant viewing platform for public ceremonies and served as a base for the King's grand audience hall but as these were made of wood they have not survived. The middle section of the retaining wall was decorated with lions and life size garuda,
a large mythical bird or bird like creature that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
At either end of the platform there was a giant parade of elephants with stone steps on to the platform guarded by yet more life size stone carved elephants. As you descended from the platform it joined the Terrace of the Leper King
, and amazing engravings could be found hidden down a narrow trench with a zig-zag walkway. The walkway was extremely narrow and running between two six metre high walls filled with
bas-reliefs of outstanding quality probably due to where they were hidden between the walls - you could easily miss this section if it was not pointed out to you.
We continued to Ta Prohm
, undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin here. Unlike the other monuments it has been left largely as it was rediscovered in the early 21st century, to be swallowed up by the jungle. Giant Strangler Figs and lovely Silk Cotton or Kapok trees have entwined themselves around most of the ruins with their roots bursting apart even the most thickest of walls. Yet at the same time their clinging embrace, weaving a web around the walls has prevented most of them from total collapse. Although this ruin had been left as it was found, the Archaeological Survey of India have recently started restoring some of the temple in the back of the complex one brick at a time to prevent further collapse and to ensure safety to visitors. Unfortunately the day we visited it was rather crowded as it has become one of the most popular temples to visit since the filming of Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie in the year 2000. Even
today some thirteen years later, local restaurants sell a Tomb Raider cocktail (Cointreau, lime and soda – said to be Jolie's tipple of choice) and we came across this later when we visited the Red Piano in Pub Street in the centre of Siem Reap.
The last of our temple visits for the morning was the magnificent 12th century Angkor Wat
, the jewel in the crown and the one temple that I really wanted to see. This temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia and is the symbol now depicted on the national flag
of the country.
Angkor Wat took thirty years to build and represents the Khmer civilisation at its grandest. It is also the best preserved temple with fascinating decorative flourishes and extensive bas-reliefs around its huge galleries. It is a massive three tiered pyramid, crowned by five lotus like towers rising 65 metres, all surrounded by a wide moat which forms a giant rectangle with a sandstone causeway entrance crossing the moat into the temple. We entered from the East Gate, as the light was better at this time of day and our guide said it would be less busy. Our
first glimpse of Angkor Wat itself was indeed memorable as we slowly walked down through an avenue of trees to enter the building. We climbed up some wooden steps that eased the way into the Eastern Gallery.
This is where the Hindu creation myth ‘the churning of the sea of milk’
, is shown in a giant bas-relief panel depicting a huge serpent being pulled back and forth by divas and demons in a giant tug of war.
We walked through the long gallery which was a nice reprieve from the hot mid day sun - it was surprising how cool it was inside these stone walls. We continued up some steps and out into a large courtyard with carved walls all around us. Straight in front, leading to yet another level where some immensely steep narrow steps - apparently reaching the kingdom of the gods was no easy task! These steps reminded us of the sheer steps at Chichen Itza in Mexico, a large pre-Columbian city built by the Mayan civilization which we visited a few years ago. I can remember getting to the top but then being unable to get down as it felt like you
were walking out on to nothing. This upper level known as the Bakan has been closed to visitors for several years, but it is once again open to a limited number per day with a queuing system. We were lucky (or not) as there was no queue so we were able to proceed up and reach the summit. It was a very steep climb but so worth it the extensive views out over the jungle as well as the rest of this magnificent building were great. It was not however quite so easy climbing down mainly due to the narrow steps. Some of the people walking down in front of us did struggle - before you ask, I was fine, but did follow Paul very closely. We really enjoyed Angkor Wat particularly the gallery and the numerous apsaras
(heavenly nymphs) individually carved into its walls. Each of them is unique, and there are apparently 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to check out and copy (Sue you might like to let Stacy know). Many of these apsaras
were damaged during Indian efforts to clean the temples with chemicals during the 1980s but they are now gradually being re-restored. Around the
temples we came across many nagas
, seven-headed cobras, which is not surprising because the naga represent prosperity and are a common decoration on Cambodian temples usually found on bridges and balustrades at the entrance to temples. We came across several though that only had five heads! In one temple there was a ‘gravestone’ collection gathered together in one area, hopefully to be restored to their original location if it was known - an on-going project in nearly all the temples we visited. Angkor covers such a huge area and we would have liked to have stayed longer to see so much more of this splendid temple............. However it was time for the group to ‘move on’, so we had to go, but we would definitely be back before we left Cambodia that’s for sure.
At lunch that day we were to enjoy the best food I have eaten on this trip at a local restaurant called Khmer Charming - a very apt name. Not sure what it was though but a huge bowl of chicken soup arrived with several other side dishes that you then added to the soup as tastebuds dictated - the flavours
were just magical and each one complimented the other - should have asked for the recipe but I didn’t. The owner later showed us around and said to come back at night when the atmosphere was good and the food would also be just as good - hopefully we would.........
In the afternoon we visited Artisians Angkor
which is a Cambodian company, originally created to help young rural people find work near their home village and at the same time revive various ancient Khmer arts and crafts. The huge success of the company has helped many Cambodians develop skills and secure their future. The centre was much larger than we had expected and their internal guide showed us around the various workshops, dedicated to the preservation of such skills as silk-making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting. As we walked around the workshops the artisans carried on working as we watched. Sitting beside one lady artist who was painting was her young son who was trying to ‘help’ whilst she worked, he kept leaping up and sitting underneath the desk with a very serious expression on his face.........the next generation we hope. There were
a number of visitors at the workshops and we wondered how the artists could bear to work whilst being stared at by such an endless volume of tourists............... They all showed such tremendous skills and dedication and we were told that some of them are so talented that they have been selected for specialist restoration projects on many of the Angkor Temples sites. The huge success of the company has meant that they have now been able to open 42 workshops in the Siem Reap province and it now provides employment to over 1300 local people, including more than 900 artisans. We did end up purchasing a few things which we do not normally do as it only adds to our limited luggage weight
and the fact that we really are homeless at the moment with nowhere to keep such items so most will be gifts! It did bring up something though when we tried to pay for our purchases our money was rejected! In Cambodia any torn bank notes are rejected by most retail outlets....... That is any banknotes that are old, torn or have any markings on are refused, so you have to be careful when you are
given any change. One of our group even got money out of a cash dispenser and one of the notes was torn and no-one would accept it - in the end he had to make a trip to a bank to get it changed and apparently the bank can even charge for doing this!!!
Across from our hotel was a small monastery, Wat Preah Prohm Rath,
an idyllically situated Wat on the riverside right in the center of town. Founded in 1915, the main vihear was constructed in 1945. The grounds were well laid out and several gardeners were busy keeping them tidy, even in the heat of the day. A large colourful boat adorned part of the gardens as well as several giant horses and statues around the area - a small oasis to rest and visit.
The next day we headed to the local wharf to board a private boat to see the floating villages of Siem Reap. In the wet season The Tonle Sap
is one of the largest fresh water lakes in Southeast Asia and is home to a very different lifestyle than the rest of
the country. During the rainy season it can swell to 12000 sq kms and is one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish. Alas we were visiting in the dry season
and the lake had shrunk to 2500 sq kms, extremely low water, and so was the channel we had to navigate to reach the lake. Our Captain had to stop several times to let other boats maneuver through the central passage, the only place with deep enough water to navigate. Each boat that passed though tossed up huge volumes of muddy water which went straight over any smaller boats that were passing as well as some of the passengers on board! Once out on the lake though it was like being in another world with many floating villages containing towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, shops, schools, restaurants and a hospital, there was even a basketball court on stilts. An economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters. As soon as we approached the villages, out came little boats bobbing about in the water, most contained a mother and a child or children, complete
with a live snake
wrapped around the child’s neck - what a photo opportunity - very clever marketing......... see photos! We stopped and visited a floating village shop also incorporating a floating museum showing the various methods of fishing on the lake which also housed several crocodiles skulking in the water underneath the building. I must admit that we found the whole experience to be a little bit about tourism rather than about experiencing the ‘real floating life of these villagers’! Perhaps it was a better place to visit in the ‘wet season’ - having said that we handed over plenty of gifts and most of our group spent some money which hopefully benefitted some of the locals.
Back on dry land we set off to visit Beng Mealea Temple
, which dates back to the 11th century and was on my list of ‘must sees’ in the area. This sprawling jungle temple
is largely overrun by vegetation and was constructed in a distinctly Angkor Wat-style although it is a much earlier temple and some scholars say may have even served as a prototype for Angkor Wat itself. Due to its distance from Angkor there were not so
many tourists and it was very quiet in fact we were the only group visiting. It also lacked the usual array of children trying to sell you books and postcards. We did came across one young boy in the temple ruins who kept appearing from nowhere as we walked around the site - a regular little monkey, but he was quite delightful and happy just to watch us and chat away in English. This was the last temple of the day and in fact the last destination of our Indochina Tour.
Over the next few days we said goodbye to most of our group who were travelling home to Australia, South Africa and the UK. It was sad to say so many goodbyes but we were also excited about being on our own again
and seeing more of Siem Reap at our own pace - see you there.
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