Siem Reap, Cambodia Part 1

Siem Reap under water

Siem Reap under water

February 6th, 2021

Today we’ve arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia for a virtual visit to Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. Enjoy!

More tomorrow,
Kelly

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.

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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.

Paul, Tour Guide

Paul, Tour Guide

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

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.

Angkor Wat colonnade

Angkor Wat colonnade

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.

Quincunx of Angkor Wat

Quincunx of Angkor Wat

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.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

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.

Angkor Wat bas-relief

Angkor Wat bas-relief

Apsara

Apsara

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.

Angkor Wat bas-relief

Angkor Wat bas-relief

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

View from atop Angkor Wat

View from atop Angkor Wat

Apsara

Apsara

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.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

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.

Find the face

Find the face

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.

Lunch at Bantay Srei

Lunch at Bantay Srei

Lunch at Bantay Srei

Lunch at Bantay Srei

13 comments

  • So incredibly impressive in every way. Like some of the Mayan ruins and other ancient places around the world, it is so amazing the way it just rises up out of jungly vegetation.I hope that by the time I get there, it is not inundated with people the way it had gotten in recent years. Your photos suggest that you had it somewhat to yourselves!

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    • Yes, we were lucky to visit here nearly a decade ago. I think even in the past ten years, it has probably gotten much more crowded (like everywhere). But it may take awhile for tourism here to return after the pandemic? Might be a good place to start?

      Liked by 1 person

  • Your pictures and commentary are fantastic and bring back wonderful memories from the first overseas trip Annie and I ever took. I love waking up to your frequent posts from past trips. They invariably brighten up my morning.
    Thank you.

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    • Your comment brings a smile to my face. THANK YOU, Steven! That is my intent — add joy and a little bit of escape during this bizarre time in history. So happy to know you are enjoying my posts. Thanks again!

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  • A wonderful journey back. And as usual your photos do justice to this remarkable place. When western explorers first “discovered” Angkor and the other temples in the whole complex they thought it must be Roman because “civilization” in SE Asia could not produce such magnificence. Incredible arrogance.
    We had a week in Siem Reap and I’m so glad we did covering Angkor, Bayon, and some of the other temples, a boat trip to a wetlands bird sanctuary and floating village, and other places – can’t remember but the name Phnom Kulen sure rings bells.
    Alison

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    • Roman! How self-centered and inaccurate! Angkor definitely holds its own among the great historic sites of the world. I would argue that SE Asia’s temple architecture is more elaborate and more richly decorated than anything Roman. 🙂 Happy you enjoyed revisiting Cambodia through this post, after visiting yourself. It is such a special place. Thanks Alison!

      Liked by 1 person

  • I agree with you on the overwhelming impression that Angkor Wat leaves on a long period of Indochinese history. It took a strong power over a vast region to mobilize such a workforce capable of raising such a monument. During my week in Siem Reap I came back there almost every day, at different times, with sunsets being my preference. In spite of the large number of groups, there are always quiet courtyards where the visiting monks sometimes pass by in orange robes.

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    • Wow, every day for a week? That sounds heavenly to be able to see Angkor in different light, from different places. Funny, I saved one photo I have of Cambodian monks in orange robes. When I reach one year of blogging every day, I may trim down to a photo each day (like you) since I’m running out of longer content! I will share this photo at that time.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I kept the same tuk-tuk driver for the week and he quickly understood my routine, so wherever we were at the end of the day, he would drive back through Angkor Wat for my end of day meditation. Entering from behind there is a different point of view and less people.

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  • We were truly fascinated by the colonnades, the bas reliefs, and the structure that was built without our modern machines. It took an incredible force of humans to build Angkor Wat, and I’m glad it has been “found” and opened for tourism. These are treasured places, for sure.

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    • Can you imagine what an effort it must have been? And what a sight to see? And it turned out so beautifully. To have that GRAND vision and bring it into reality back then… wow. I wish we could know who the visionaries and artisans were.

      Liked by 1 person

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