Every so often, a place you travel to for the first time makes such an impression that it lingers in your head for months and begs you to go back, understand more, see more, be there again. For me, this place is Cambodia. There are so many reasons why, but mostly it’s because it’s a small country (the size of Missouri) with massive relics of ancient history and horrific recent turmoil that is still visible as you walk the streets. It’s astonishing how much has happened here and yet so few people visit and so few people know about Cambodia’s devastation of the last 50 years.
We flew into Siem Reap mid-October. From the air, it was incredibly green and covered in water. It wasn’t until we got to our hotel that we learned we had arrived the morning after a once-a-year relentless night-long downpour that had left much of the town under a foot or more of water. Staying there, the hotel manager explained, wouldn’t be so enjoyable so they upgraded and transported us to their sister hotel that was on higher ground. This gesture by the hotel made for a wonderful stay at Angkor Village Resort. Loved the pool! Loved the room service! Staff were super friendly.
We were only in Siem Reap for two nights, and we should have stayed for at least a week. We went to Angkor Wat on our first full day and were confronted by one of the most magical, mystical temples I’ve ever been to. It would take several days or even weeks to really see and understand this place. We were introduced to it by our local guide Paul who did his very best to help us understand some basic facts and theories about its history.
The Angkor World Heritage Site as a whole covers 400 square kilometers with 70+ temples. The site is profound and yet-to-be-discovered evidence of the Khmer empire’s rule over Southeast Asia for five centuries. It seems to have weighed heavily in the minds of some Cambodians (namely the Khmer Rouge) that the region was once so powerful and prolific, and yet today’s Cambodia is so poor and uneducated. I’m learning that a great deal of reading and research is required to understand what’s transpired between 900 and 2011.
Back to the future — we focused on seeing three temples: Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm with a jungle hike to Phnom Kulen. Built for the king by the Khmer people in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat (the main temple and the largest religious building in the world) is in remarkable shape — a photographer’s dream of structure, texture, shape and the occasional festooned equine. After crossing the moat surrounding the temple, we approached a side entrance and were greeted by an enormous stone Vishnu. It is thought that Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple, but because it faces west rather than east it may have also been built as the king’s funerary temple.
Bas-relief carvings cover nearly every flat surface throughout Angkor Wat. They are infinitely detailed and in surprisingly great shape considering centuries have passed since their creation. Most of these carvings depict beguiling apsaras, or “celestial nymphs”, with extraordinarily curvaceous proportions and ornate medallions on their heads. The female form is overtly displayed, if not worshiped — the sensuality undeniable.
There is great story-telling going on in other bas-reliefs decorating the long galleries around Angkor Wat. These depict battle scenes and significant victories of the era. From the galleries you can walk to the center of the temple and ascend a frightening staircase (remarkably similar to Chichen Itza) and view the whole site from the central sanctuary.
Our introduction to Angkor Wat was followed by a late afternoon walk up to Phnom Bakeng. Hot and crowded, it offered a pretty view of the sunset but little peace and quiet to enjoy it. We returned to the hotel and hailed a moto tuk-tuk for a ride into town. Siem Reap is a cool little hotspot – definitely up and coming while still embraced for being down and dirty. We had a no-frills dinner at the food stalls lining the main street. You can get a great meal here for less than $5 USD. And if you don’t like what you order just try something else. Just make sure you get a cold beer to cool the heat.
The next day we hired a driver for the whole day (car + AC + driver x 8 hours = $25 USD). What a deal. He drove us out of Siem Reap toward the jungle where we embarked on a sweaty foray to see Phnom Kulen. It is so hot in Cambodia and jungle hiking, honestly, is miserable — there’s no way to remain even slightly presentable after an hour-long uphill trek. Drenched, we cooled off next to the stream (hubby stood under the waterfall) and looked around to figure out what we were supposed to be looking at. A young girl eventually helped us out and guided us around the banks of the stream, pointing out the carvings in the rock surfaces under the water — not so remarkable in their artistry but remarkable for being so remotely located, showing no bounds to the wide dispersal of Angkor relics.
We hiked out, grabbed a bite to eat at the shack at the trail head and hopped back in the car to go to Banteay Srei. This site is created from a different stone than Angkor — red sandstone, which makes the whole temple glow with a rusty hue. Banteay Srei’s carvings, too, are incredibly ornate and well-preserved and a long stone path leads to the quaint temple at the other end. This site is fun — not too big, some big spiders hanging around, and great fried rice and banana pancakes at the food stalls near the entrance.