Text and Photos By: Victoria Mendoza Fritz

Siem Reap Angkor Wat and beyond

Posted on May 20, 2011

I DIDN’T realize that visiting the temples would be a major workout for a sedentary person like me. My mother was grateful for her twice weekly two sets of tennis that prepared her for the long walks and numerous ascents and descents in the summer heat.

The centerpiece of any trip to Cambodia is of course a tour of Angkor Wat. The word “angkor” literally means capital city, while a “wat” is a temple. Still, this is just one of a series of temples dotting the entire Siem Reap province. The Angkorian period in Cambodian history actually spans about 700 years, from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

Angkor Wat itself was built in the early 12th century, by Suryavarman II.

The entire Angkor area has been well preserved, thanks to government’s prudence over the years (this must originate from the French colonial period). There are no new buildings in the area, and nobody from outside is allowed to resettle there. Only the original inhabitants may reside there.

The drive from Siem Reap town to the area is a pleasant one, on a road lined by tall shady trees planted by the French more than 50 years ago.

A few minutes later you catch a glimpse of an imposing stone wall surrounded by a moat. This is the perimeter fence of Angkor Wat, measuring 1.3 by 1.5 kilometers in length. From the entrance it is a 200-meter walk on an uneven stone path to the inner wall, and then another 300-meter walk to the temple. The temple itself is 1 square kilometer in size. So you are now getting an idea about the workout I mentioned earlier.

A good time to see Angkor Wat for the first time is after 2 p.m. The sun is slowly coming down on the westward facing temple, and the lines come out sharply. On the north reflecting pool, a pretty reflection of the five towers offers a good photo opportunity.

Upon reaching the main building, it is the elaborate bas relief on the walls that takes your breath away. On the first level walls, one section depicts stories and characters from Hindu mythology including the Ramayana, and the intriguing representation of the “Churning of the Sea of Milk” on the east wall. It is important to note that religion in Cambodia swung from Hinduism to Buddhism and back many times in its long history. Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, but became a Buddhist place of worship when that faith came into mode.

Going back to the bas relief, the victorious march of Suryavarman II and his army against the Cham people are portrayed on the south wall.

A guide will be most helpful in explaining the transforming scenery. At any given time, there is always cacophony of languages that can be heard, with guides speaking in English, French, Japanese, Russian and Chinese.

In the upper levels, both the inner and outer walls depict nearly 2,000 distinct carvings of Apsara or celestial dancers. This classical dance was developed for the kings of the Angkorian era, and was performed only for the royal household. Predictably, it suffered near demise during the Khmer Rouge era. Fortunately, the royal family, particularly Princess Devi who is a dancer, worked hard to revive this cultural heritage. The UNESCO eventually declared it as intangible heritage and earmarked it for protection. Today tourists can enjoy an evening performance in some of the larger restaurants and hotels.

Further up is the way to the towers. There are five towers in all, four corner towers, and the center and tallest towers. Visitors can walk along the wall and pass under the four corner towers, but the center tower is closed.

Angkor Wat should take up the entire afternoon for one to properly appreciate its grandeur. Most likely, you will be too tired after your visit for anything else anyway.

The next morning would be a good time to go see Angkor Thom, or Big Angkor. This is a walled city three square kilometers in size, or four times the area occupied by Angkor Wat. It was built in the later 12th century, just after Angkor Wat. This time, a Buddhist king named Jayavarman VII reigned. He built the Bayon temple (famous for the hundreds of Bayon heads) within, as well as his royal palace and structures for the royal household and his high officials. Unfortunately, the palace and other households were made of wood and did not survive the passing of time. Only the ruins of Bayon, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of Leper King remain.

Angkor Thom is likewise protected by a stone wall with five entrances or gates. There is one facing each direction, with two facing east. One of the eastern gates is the Victory Gate leading to the Royal Palace, for the exclusive use of the king. Most visitors enter through the South Gate, which brings them directly to Bayon temple. Each gate is capped by a Bayon-style tower with four giant faces. Our guide said the faces are the likeness of Jayavarman VII, but this is actually a matter of debate, with some quarters claiming they are of one Bodhisattva. Who cares? In the end, what matters is that these structures have been preserved to an astonishing degree for the benefit of all humanity.

Bayon temple itself has 37 standing towers. The lower level walls contain bas relief as well, this time depicting real life scenes from the battle between the Khmer and the Cham. One portrays soldiers in a boat rowing toward the enemy. After their decisive victory, the Khmer decided to hold a barbecue, much like one we would have today. This is charmingly depicted in another wall carving.

If you still have an hour left in the morning, head on to Ta Phrom. This is the temple of Lara Croft, Tombraider fame. The walls and walkways are overgrown with centuries old trees, and have been deliberately left that way to retain the jungle temple feel. Although I have never seen the movie, I have now put it on my “must see” list, for obvious reasons.

For people with more days to spend in Angkor, there are sites to visit further afield. 40 kilometers away is Banteay Srey (pronounced ban tey sry), more popularly known as the women’s temple. It precedes Angkor Wat by more than a hundred years, is much smaller, yet more intricate in its carvings and has an almost surreal pinkish hue.

Wat comes next?

After a respectable temple run of the three major stops, wat else is there to do?

The pulse of any city can be gleaned from their market, so after catching your breath from the temple workouts, visit the central market. If your hotel is nearby, a leisurely stroll along the Siem Reap River toward the market is highly recommended, giving you a wider view of daily life here. Among the different stalls you will find everything you’ve heard about on the grapevine: sapphires and rubies, silver, wood carvings, silk, scarves, clothing, and food. It is mainly geared toward the local population, therefore serving up fresh vegetables and meats as well.

Two most interesting visits we made were to the Senteurs D’ Angkor workshop and the Silk Farm.

The Senteurs tour takes only 30 minutes, demonstrating how plants and flowers like frangipiani, lemon grass, coconut, etc. can be infused into other material resulting in the most wonderfully fragrant candles, soaps, and oils. At the end of the tour, one is treated to a free drink of lemon grass coffee or cardamom tea, among other such choices.

The Silk Farm is 16 km out of town, and a free trip is available from the Artisans d’Angkor store in town. This is a delightful and educational tour, showing the silk making process from start to finish. From my own firsthand account, I swear the process is so tedious you cannot challenge any ridiculous amount they charge for their products. For example, an intricately designed silk scarf takes three days to finish.

Three days! And when you see the price, it’s actually very reasonable.

And don’t think twice about buying that raw silk shawl that is as warm as pashmina they say. My mother said with authority that “you will never find it anywhere else.” And she is right, of course.

Filipinos are devout Catholics in general, and if one finds himself here on a weekend, there are masses on Saturday evening in English, and Sunday morning in Khmer.

At night, the focus shifts firmly east of the central market, to nearby Pub Street. This uber popular street evolved slowly. Before 1998, it was a quiet street with no particular night appeal, until the first pub opened, named in jest as “Angkor What?” From then, one pub, restaurant or shop opened after another, until it became Siem Reap’s center of gravity come nighttime. They have wisely closed it to vehicular traffic starting at six, making it a most relaxing place for everybody, and removed from the noise and air pollution brought on by tuktuks and the like.

If only the mayor of Baguio would be brave enough to do the same, I believe our beloved Session Road will take on a much renewed spirit, and attract many more locals and tourists alike.

A most famous watering hole on Pub Street is the Red Piano, where in 2001, during the filming of Lara Croft, Angelina Jolie herself started the drink called Tombraider.

Pub Street is also a good place to sample the local fare. Have a fish in Amok (local curry concoction), try the beef lok lak, sautéed in delicate and aromatic Kampot pepper, or dine in a group and feast on what is locally known as “Volcano,” a variation of shabu-shabu.

In the end, we also visited Tonle Sap Lake, to see the floating villages and witness a traditional way of life. Now I do not highly recommend this trip, it wasn’t a pretty sight. However, if you are in for some adventure and seeing how people who permanently reside in boats live, why not give it a try?

If you plan to visit, avoid April and May though, when the heat is oppressive. The best time to come is from November to February, when the weather is both cool and dry. However, there is a certain charm in coming during the wet season (June to October) as our guide boasts of verdant lawns surrounding the temples, and the Tonle Sap Lake swells to its full level.

Siem Reap is a gentle town, a balm to one’s frayed nerves. It can be the pleasant long weekend you’ve been pining for, on top of the chance to see live what you’ve only seen in books before: the grandeur that was Angkor.