Kidding aside, I’m so glad to have finally visited Siem Reap and its various temples (“wat”). This quiet province is one of my more travelled sister’s favorite places and for good reason. As a UNESCO world heritage site, the various temples pay homage to the once great Khmer Kingdom with incredible displays of architecture similar to the pyramids of Egypt or Chichen Itza in Mexico (which I also hope to visit in the future). The city itself is quiet in the morning but comes to life at night with various night markets (10 at the moment of writing) and an busy night life along Pub Street. Its laid back atmosphere and warm people are icing on an already amazing package of archaeological wonders.
We were eased into what I call the temple run on our first day in Siem Reap. Our very knowledgeable and friendly guide Kim Soryar gave us a taste of some of the local industries in Cambodia at the Senteurs d’Angkor and the Artisans Centre. At Senteurs d’Angkor we saw how different spices and body products were produced from native ingredients obtained all throughout the country. We even had a chance to taste some of their products (tea & coffee) at the end of the tour and of course, we couldn’t resist buying a few of the spices on display. At the Artisans Centre we observed actual students working on different media under the supervision of trained instructors. The beauty of their program is that all the students are from poor communities throughout Cambodia. After their training they are given the choice to stay and work as a teacher or start their own shops. Its a great way of passing on their traditional skills and providing work and training to the less fortunate. I admit, seeing the outputs of the students made me feel a bit jealous of the skill with which they work their material whether it be stone, wood, metal or silk. They were really good!
The next stop was to buy out temple passes. There are three kinds of temple passes you can get depending on the number of days you want to see the different temples. A one day pass will cost you 20 USD, three days for 40 USD and seven days for 60 USD. We got the 3 day temple passes which are printed with a picture of the tourist. Do NOT lose this as it will be required at every temple and it can be very expensive to buy a new one.
After securing our passes we went to our first set of temples in the Rolous group: Preah Ko, Bakong and Lo Lei. These temple were the first set to be built in Siem Reap. Preah Ko was built by King Indravarman I and consists of 6 towers, the larger three in front dedicated to his grandfather, father and father in law while the smaller three at the back dedicated to his grandmother, mother and mother in law. The “gender” of the towers are also supported by corresponding male or female guardians surrounding it.
Bakong was also built by the same king but this time as his own, with only one central tower with several towers surrounding it. It’s surrounded by a large moat, still intact, and is much larger than Preah Ko. What caught my attention was Soryar’s story that the temple was actually built by the people for their king of their own volition. Its a very different story from the construction of the Great Pyramids.
Lo Lei was built by King Yasovarman I, the previous king’s son, as a tribute to the royal family. It isn’t as big as the Bakong or even Preah Ko but what a site it must have been in those days. It was built on an island in the middle of a man made reservoir and the only way to get to it was via boat. Also found beside the latter two temples are Buddhist temples, the one in Lo Lei is said to have a monk that can predict the future quite accurately.
The final stop of the day was the huge lake of Tonle Sap. This is the largest lake in Southeast Asia with part of the flow from the Upper Mekong River feeding into it. On the way to the lake we passed by one of the several villages around the lake, Kom Pong Pluk. The houses here were built on stilts, similar to what I’ve seen in the Badjao villages of Tawi-Tawi but they were much, much higher. Soryar explained to me that the stilts are actually built for when the lake increases in volume during the rainy season. I was floored by this image because the houses were three stories high! Imagine the huge amount of water entering this lake! While waiting for the sunset, we were taken on a tour of the mangrove forests via raft. Again, this would be even more amazing during the rainy season because of the much higher water level such that you would be closer to the canopy. Finally as the sky turned orange, we headed out to the lake and watched the great ball of fire sink into the horizon. Absolutely beautiful.
At the break of dawn we did what all tourists have to do at one point during their trip: see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was still pitch black when we got to Angkor Wat but to our dismay a TON of tourists had gotten there first. Most were crowded on the left side of the West Gate (best view of the sunrise) so we decided to head over to the much less crowded right side. By 630 AM the temple was already visible but still there was no sun. We thought the view was still great so we snapped up a lot of pictures with the reflection of the temple after moving to the left side as some of the tourists also gave up on seeing the sun as well. As luck would have it, while getting ready to leave the West Gate, the sun rose. By this time we were so far out that we couldn’t get any close up shots anymore. Argh! But still, it was an amazing sight so we climbed up as high as we could and took some more shots of the real sunrise.
While it was still early we were brought to Ta Prohm, or as our guide Bou calls it, the Tomb Raider Temple. This was where said movie was shot with the temples getting overrun by huge trees. Its probably one of the least restored of all the temples we visited but somehow the reclamation by nature made it one of the most compelling temples as well. Hard to believe that Angkor Wat was in a similar state when it was rediscovered.
After breakfast and some rest we headed for the Angkors (Wat and Thom). Angkor Wat of course, is the most popular of the temples in Siem Reap and with good reason. Its a beast of a structure! Encompassing a huge area, surrounded by a huge moat, with the distinctive lotus style towers. Its also the second highest temple in Siem Reap, being bested by Bayon by only 2 meters. To ensure that this temple would never be under the shadow of other structures, the government has imposed a limit to the height of any buildings being build in the Angkor area. Its walls are decorated by intricate depictions of Hindu mythologies and histories of the Khmer Empire from the 12th and 16th centuries (with the former considered as the superior works of art). It was at this point that I truly appreciated the value of having a guide with us. So many stories can be told by the series of carvings! I don’t think I will ever be able to absorb all the different intricacies of Hindu gods but they are very interesting to say the least. After seeing everything in Angkor Wat I felt physically tired but very intrigued.
Tired as I was our day wasn’t over yet. Next came the largest city at its time, Angkor Thom. Its entrances are lined by a seven-headed snake on each side being pulled by demons and gods on opposite sides. The Terraces of the Elephants and Leper King were our first stop in Angkor Thom. The former was a place for watching elephants fighting on the field right in front of it. The wnning elephant would have the honor or being the king’s vessel. The latter, as Bou explains might have been the sight of cremations. The Leper King is actually a statue of the Hindu god of justice, Yama, overlooking a narrow maze which could be a reference to hell. It was mistakenly identified as a leper king due to the missing fingers and mossy cover of the original statue when it was discovered.
Built by the greatest king in the history of Cambodia, Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom’s central piece is Bayon, dedicated to Buddha. Two other temples, Phimeanakas and Baphuon, were incorporated into the Royal Palace and several of the king’s pools are located adjacent to these. As I later discovered, the latter was converted from a Hindu to a Buddhist temple with a reclining buddha built on one side (which explained why it had a very prominent curvature different from the other sides). The former is a three-tiered pyramid with few sculptures, owing to its construction from volcanic rock as opposed to sandstone.
Bayon is the grandest of the temples inside Angkor Thom and you will never mistake who its dedicated to. With each tower having four faces of buddha and with dozens of towers inside the temple you can’t turn around and not see one of the smiling faces. This structure was built after the retaking of the city by King Jayavarman VII from the muslims, along with the construction of the moat surrounding Angkor Thom. This was also the most recently built of all the famous temples in Siem Reap.
For our last day in Siem Reap we again started a bit early. At 7 AM we headed out for Banteay Srei or the lady temple. This was one of the smallest yet most intricately carved temples in Cambodia. The pink sandstone used is also uncommon and probably contributed to the smaller size of the temple. Its color is also most beautiful in the early morning or late afternoon light. It was fortunate that we got here early as bus loads of tourists started arriving the minute we left. In places like Angkor Wat that isn’t a problem due to the sheer size of the temple but here it may have been more like sardines in a can.
Our next stop was at Banteay Samre, named after the people living around the temple. The people here are from the mountains where the sandstone was originally quarried and up to now are considered different from the other people in Siem Reap. Bou and Soryar both admitted that even though they speak basically the same language, they still have a lot of difficulty understanding the dialect of the people around Banteay Samre.
Pre Rup is another temple dedicated to Shiva, done mostly in brick. As such, it doesn’t contain a lot of sculptures or bas reliefs aside from those made from sandstone at the towers. This may have also been a crematorium with the buildings near the base serving as storage units for the unburnt remains for later disposal. At the top of the temple you can see another temple close by that we weren’t able to visit.
Neak Pean is another island temple, located at the center of a large reservoir. This is the only temple we weren’t able to enter and was only recently accessible to the public after a flooding event last year. There are four large pools with a shrine each surrounding a central shrine. The water within these pools were considered as medicine which the king used to cure various ailments. Like Lo Lei, the only way to reach this temple was via boat back in the day.
The last temples on our itinerary were Ta Som and Preah Khan and are two of the least restored temples (along with Ta Prohm). The former is a temple similar to Ta Prohm with trees growing on the walls. Only one of its exits was paved or cleared, with the other leading to the jungle. Bou says that this was used for quick escapes during the war and to funnel opponents into a clearing while the Khmer soldiers attacked from the cover of the trees. The latter is a large structure with several walls and corridors having collapsed already. Its also one of the flatter structures we visited, with a path from East to West easily traversed at ground level. By this point, Bou already had a bit of difficulty speaking due to the insane number of stories he had been telling us over the past two days. We were also quite exhausted from all the walking under the sun we had been doing to we decided to end the tour early and get a nice massage to cap off our temple run.
Before our flight we passed by the old market to pick up some souvenirs and had our last dinner in Siem Reap. With the rich history of Cambodia, its impossible to see everything in just three days so I shall definitely be back sometime soon.
Siem Reap can be as cheap as you want with several options for accommodation, food and tours. The Bou Savy Guest House where we stayed charged us 16 USD per night inclusive of airport transfers and free breakfast and drink. Food can cost anywhere from 2 USD to 20+ USD in the more expensive restaurants, but the average prices for our meals were at 4-7 USD.
As for tours, there are a ton of options from bicycle, tuktuk, atv, cars, or even ox carts. Bou Savy offered us 12 USD for a whole day tuktuk tour. We opted to go with my sister’s recommended tour operator, Soryar (email add: email@example.com, mobile no: +85512221883, +85598221883), who arranged for our itinerary including A/C transportation (car or van) with free flowing cold water (a godsend after hours of walking under the sun), tour guide, a buffet dinner with cultural show, temple passes, boat ride, 90 minute massage and airport transfers. All of these for 345 USD for two people or 172.5 USD. Its definitely more expensive than say a tuktuk tour but we never felt short changed especially with the roads of Siem Reap covering some of the tourists with dust while we were comfy in our A/C car. I highly recommend him for those wanting a hassle-free experience with a knowledgeable local.
One last note, for those coming from the Philippines, if you plan on going to Cambodia have enough money exchanged to USD before heading here. The USD is commonly used here and the exchange rates were horrendous! I’ve never felt so bad about the buying power of the Peso until last weekend. The best rate we found was 1.9 USD for every 100 PHP with other going as low as 1.4 USD. If you have enough USD I guarantee you will enjoy Siem Reap, especially if you like shopping in the night market.