Siem Reap, Cambodia Part 1
February 6th, 2021
Today we’ve arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia for a virtual visit to Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. Enjoy!
Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.
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 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 deluge 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.
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 met with 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 Angkor Wat. We were introduced to it by our local guide Paul who helped 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 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. Much has changed and a lot has transpired in Cambodia between the year 900 and present day.
Built for King Suryavarman II by the Khmer people in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat (the main temple; the largest religious building in the world) is in remarkable shape — a photographer’s dream of structure, texture and shape. Across the moat, outer colonnades surround the center quincunx comprised of five towers. With its symmetry and balance, Angkor Wat is an example of classical Khmer architecture. The site’s position is also aligned with the annual solstices and equinoxes.
After crossing the moat surrounding the temple, we approached a side entrance and were greeted by an enormous stone statue of 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. It was converted to a Buddhist temple in the late 12th century and remains Buddhist today.
Bas-relief carvings cover nearly every flat surface throughout Angkor Wat. They are infinitely detailed and in surprisingly good shape considering centuries have passed since their creation. Most of these carvings depict beguiling apsaras, or “celestial nymphs,” with curvaceous proportions and ornate headdresses and jewelry.
The long galleries around Angkor Wat depict battle scenes and significant victories of the era. From the galleries you can walk to the center of the temple and ascend a steep staircase (similar to Chichen Itza) and view the whole site from the central sanctuary. The formality and accomplishment of the architecture contributes to an inescapable feeling that this site must have been astounding in its heyday.
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. Make sure you get a cold beer to cool the heat.
The next day we hired a driver (car + AC + driver x 8 hours = $25 USD). He drove us out of Siem Reap toward the jungle where we embarked on a sweaty foray to see Phnom Kulen. It is HOT in Cambodia and jungle hiking is miserable. Drenched, we cooled off next to the stream while a young girl pointed 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, or Citadel of Women. This Hindu temple of Shiva was built from red sandstone in the late 900s, giving the whole site a rusty hue. Banteay Srei’s carvings are incredibly ornate and well-preserved. The pediments leading through the concentric gates and walls are richly detailed with scenes from Hindu history. A long stone path leads to a small sanctuary at the far end.
Our second day in Cambodia was a memorable view of Khmer culture and architecture, with great fried rice and banana pancakes to end the afternoon.