City of Temples, Siem Reap

We flew from Kuala Lumpur directly to Siem Reap – the gateway to Angkor – and we stayed at the Steung Siem Reap Hotel located in the Old French Quarter within walking distance to the markets, restaurants and Pub Street. Conveniently located next door to our hotel is an orange vivacious-looking cafe serving Tex-Mex and Cambodian food. This was our hang-out in the evenings to have pre-dinner drinks with delicious nachos and tacos 🙂

We did not want to dive in straight into temple exploration on our first day because we were lacking sleep due to an early start in the morning for our flight (why do low-cost airlines love to fly at dawn?!). Instead we took it easy by going on a boat cruise on Tonle Sap.

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia and is an important lake and river system to Cambodia. It’s also unusual for two reasons. Tonle Sap flow changes direction twice a year – from November to May (dry season), it shrinks and drains into the Mekong River but expands and reverses again to form an enormous lake during the wet season starting in June.

Interestingly, Tonle Sap is home to many ethnic Vietnamese who have emigrated to Cambodia over a period of fifty years or more. They live on houseboats on the lake which then form a real community living on water. There are homes, schools, grocery shops and a church on water.

*Also Read: Experience Legendary Houseboats of Kashmir

siem reap tonle sap

This Floating Village has become one of the popular tourist attractions so much so that Vietnamese-Cambodian kids are ever ready for a photo op for US$1. Picture this: A kid (six years old or a little younger) paddling away in a water tub on the lake. Tourists see the kid and say “Aaawww, isn’t he cute?” and whip out their cameras to capture that moment. The kid sees the tourists snapping away and paddles closer to the tourist boat. Once the kid reaches closer to the boat, then gestures with an index finger and says “One dol-lar!”. Later on we found that the going rate for touristy knick-knacks and photo ops was invariably…“One dollar!”

siem reap tonle sap boy in tub

The ever graceful apsara

No visit to Cambodia is complete without watching the apsara performance. In the evening, our driver recommended us to watch the apsara performance at the Angkor Village Theatre. It was a dinner cum theatre performance. Rows of buffet tables with an amazing spread of local Cambodian and Western cuisine served at the venue. Guests (mainly tourists) ate while watching the apsara dance on stage.

The apsara dance is the Khmer classical dance. Originally it was performed exclusively for the royal court but was later introduced to the public post-French independence as part of celebration of Khmer culture. The Khmer classical dancers do not sing or speak but use graceful curving movements and hand gestures to convey meaning and to narrate classical myths or religious stories.

siem reap apsara dance

The apsara dancers wear brocade typically made of silk and pleated at the front. Their costumes are adorned with gold-coloured copper ornaments and beaded designs. The dancers also wear an elaborate headdress and together with bracelets and ankle jewellery, the entire ensemble depicts the devatas on the bas-relief of Angkor Wat. They looked absolutely beautiful, and so slender and graceful when they danced.

*Also Read: Six Days in Ubud

US$0.50 or US$1 beer?

There are lots of night-time hangouts in Siem Reap and especially right in the heart of the Old Quarter is Pub Street. Restaurants and bars line this street, and the Night Market is right at the end with vendors selling food and the usual tourist souvenirs.

What I liked about Siem Reap’s Pub Street is the absence of sleaze. The atmosphere is safe and relaxed – none of those a-go-go bars and prostitutes along the street – and the road is cordoned off at night, thus no traffic to worry about especially if you are staggering around past midnight!

Food and drinks in Siem Reap are amazingly cheap. At Pub Street, beers are sold for as cheap as US$0.50 or US$1.00, and the total cost of dinner for, let’s say, four people with orders of four dishes of food and a couple of beers, is around US$8-10! My friends and I joked about how we were spoilt for choices – shall we have the US$0.50 or US$1 beer? 🙂

The smile of Khmer

The next morning, we decided to do our exploration a little differently. Most tourists would head off right away to Angkor Wat at the start of the day followed by Angkor Thom and Bayon but our driver advised us otherwise. This is because we wanted no rush in our exploration as we wanted time to read up on the history behind those ruins and appreciate them. Therefore, he advised us to start off with Angkor Thom where there’s lesser crowd in the morning compared with Angkor Wat.

Angkor Thom is said to be the ultimate achievement of Jayavarman VII, the greatest of all the Khmer kings. Also known as the “Great City”, Angkor Thom was constructed in the late twelfth century and probably had supported a population of one million people in it. According to the Moon Spotlight guide book, the entire city is a representation of the Hindu universe with its high walls and a moat, symbolizing the mountain ranges and ocean surrounding Mount Meru.

We entered the city via a raised road above the moat which is lined by 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right with each group holding a naga snake. All roads running through the main gates lead towards the Bayon, the heart of Angkor Thom.

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Bayon is the state temple of Angkor Thom and many visitors would associate it with the mystery faces carved on the towers of the temple. There are more than 200 faces on 54 towers following every visitor around the temple. The faces – the smile of Khmer – are mysterious because there are several hypotheses on what they represented. Some researchers believe the face belongs to the bodhisattva of compassion while others think the face represents Jayavarman VII, the king himself. There is a possibility that the two hypotheses could be correct – Jayavarman would have regarded himself as a devaraja (god-king).

Apart from the stone faces, Bayon is also known for their incredible bas-reliefs which cover an area of approximately 1.2 kilometres. I was so blown away by the skill and artistry of the bas-reliefs: they were just beautiful as every contour of a figure was retained at all angles and it looked so naturally done; and the hard work and sweat that went into those masterpieces. Does the world still have this kind of talent and skill in stonemasonry in today’s times?

siem reap bayon inside

The reliefs on the first level were probably accessible to the ordinary Khmer folks because they depicted daily life of the Khmer people during the Angkor era. However, the reliefs on the second level featured scenes from Hindu mythology and some battle scenes. These reliefs were likely available only to the king and his priests. Researchers have found the second level bas-reliefs to be inconsistent somehow: since Jayavarman VII introduced Buddhism to the Khmer empire, the Hindu mythology bas-reliefs were probably pre-dated several hundred years before Jayavarman’s rule or came into place a century later during Jayavarman VIII, a Hindu king.

siem reap bas reliefs bayon

Throughout the time we explored Angkor Thom and Bayon, I felt like I was having my history lessons again except that I was seeing these beautifully decorated temples in real life and not in the classroom. It was at the bas-reliefs which I took my time to admire the details and beauty of it – spending half a day there was absolutely worth it.

Tomb Raider

Ta Prohm was also constructed during the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries to serve as a Mahayana Buddhism monastery and university. It was home to many high priests, officials and dancers, and its vaults were said to contain lots of gold, diamonds, pearls and silk.

After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the seventeenth century, Ta Prohm was neglected and abandoned for hundreds of years, overgrown by brush and the jungle. The French explorers stumbled upon Ta Prohm at the turn of the twentieth century and about fifty years later, the French decided to leave this temple in the same condition in which it was found for aesthetic reasons. Much restoration has been done in this area and some parts of the jungle have been cleared and managed. But what was maintained was trees with enormous roots growing out of the ruins and sprouting across the temple, thus giving Ta Prohm a Lost World feel. And that’s the reason why some scenes of the movie Tomb Raider were shot inside the temple.

We visited Ta Prohm right after lunch, and the plus point about visiting the site during a hot tropical afternoon is the shade afforded by the trees.

*Also Read: Visit and Stay Outside Hoi An

siem reap ta prohm

siem reap ta prohm tree

The cosmic Mount Meru

Saving the best for last, moving on from Ta Prohm to the heart and soul of Cambodia, that is, Angkor Wat. By the time we reached Angkor Wat, it was already three o’clock in the afternoon and it was the best time to visit. Hordes of tourists started to leave by then and we had certain sections of the temple to ourselves to really enjoy the grandeur of this magnificent wonder.

Angkor Wat – initially a Hindu temple and then it was converted to a Buddhist temple – is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built during the reign of Suryavarman II in the twelfth century and took three to four decades to complete. Angkor Wat means “City of Temples” and just like Angkor Thom, is a classic temple-mountain replica of the Hindu universe. The five towers in the centre represent the different peaks of Mount Meru. Surrounding the towers are the walls which stand for the mountain ranges. And lastly, the moat symbolizes the cosmic ocean surrounding Mount Meru. Interestingly about Angkor Wat is that despite the fall of the Khmer Empire, the temple was somewhat preserved for many centuries due to the moat which provided protection against the jungle.

If I thought the bas-reliefs in Bayon were brilliant, I wasn’t prepared at the sight of the bas-reliefs that spread all around the galleries of Angkor Wat. It was truly astonishing. Almost every stone and gallery was covered with scenes of kings and battles, gods and demons, heaven and hell and other stories from the greatest Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. I felt like a dwarf standing in front of a huge bas-relief of battles between good and evil – every shape, form, curve, figure, line and pattern could be seen on those images – I must say, the stonemasons in those times really had an amazing eye for detail. And it’s even more beautiful in some galleries where pillars cast shadow patterns on the images, thus giving a certain mystic to it.

*Also Read: Wayang Kulit (Shadow Play) in Malaysia

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Apart from epic stories, there are bas-reliefs of apsaras (about 1,500 apsaras) which, in my opinion, celebrate the sensuousness of female beauty. The images show the curves of a true woman (yep, no anorexic and androgynous-looking figures here) and some people believe that rubbing the chest area brings good luck (which I don’t believe it!). That explains why only the chest area seems to be quite polished!

*Also Read: The Hidden Wonders of Orchha and Khajuraho

siem reap bas reliefs apsara

siem reap bas reliefs apsaras

To finish off our exploration of Angkor Wat, our driver recommended us to view sunset from Phnom Bakheng which is located on top of a hill. We were told that this site is popular for sunset because it has spectacular views of Angkor Wat in the middle of the surrounding jungle. Frankly speaking, the sunset experience sucked; in fact I didn’t understand what the big deal about this location was. Perhaps I was feeling disoriented by the sheer number of tourists clambering on this temple mountain and its steep steps; all pushing to get the best spot for picture-taking. The atmosphere was too loud to appreciate the sunset so much so I didn’t stay too long and opted to come down to the carpark much earlier.

However, the sunrise moment at Angkor Wat was beautiful. Initially it was a long wait so much so I thought to myself, oh no, this would be another disappointment like sunset the evening before, and my friend and I almost left the site, until we heard the oohs and the aahs from the crowd just when the sun began to peek behind the towers. When the sun rose up to the peak of the towers, we could see the reflection of Angkor Wat in the moat. It was postcard-perfect.

siem reap angkor wat sunrise


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