Siem Reap & Temples of Angkor

by - 21:43

Siem Reap

Located 6km south of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap had undergone massive development in the past decades as it had transformed itself from a sleepy village on the banks of Tonle Sap lake. Today, the city is a vibrant town & regional transport hub centered on meeting the needs of visitors headed for the archaeological ruins. After arriving in Siem Reap on Saturday afternoon, I decided to spend Sunday morning exploring the area (and giving some legitimate reason to this string of joyrides) before returning back to Singapore on Sunday afternoon.

Royal Crown Hotel

Mid-May is an off-peak season to visit Angkor Wat due to the high daytime temperatures and intense afternoon thunderstorms and the hotel room rates in Siem Reap are consequently discounted. Hotel Royal Crown & Spa is a 4 star hotel located in the upcoming Wat Bo area located across the Siem Reap River from the heart of the city and I was able to book a deluxe room for S$50/night on The room tariff also included a complementary airport pick up (thus saving an additional US$7) and a buffet breakfast. Check-in at the hotel was smooth and after being presented with a welcome drink, I was escorted up to my room on the second floor by the staff.

Deluxe twin room with a total floor area of 40 square metres. The room is equipped with the standard amenities and a LCD TV with an extensive selection of Cambodian, Chinese & international channels such as National Geographic. In addition, the room also has a generous number of power points to meet the needs of a modern tourist who travels with a plethora of power hungry electronic gadgets. Universal sockets are installed on a pair of power points in the room and are a welcome feature as a travel adapter is not necessary for most electrical devices. The modern traveller is also well catered for with strong and reasonably fast WiFi available throughout the hotel and the access password is provided with the key card during check-in.

2 complimentary mineral water bottles are provided in the room each day together with the obligatory tea making facilities. The complimentary items are well marked and separated from the chargeable minibar items, and are further pointed out by the hotel staff after being escorted into the room.

Bathroom with a separate rain shower & tub. A set of bathrobes and slippers are also provided for each guest in the wardrobe.

Swimming pool. The pool was particularly popular in the afternoon with guests trying to cool down in the sweltering 36 degree heat. 

Siem Reap Old Market (Psar Chaa)

With only less than 2hrs of available daylight left for the day, I set off for the Old Market area located across the Siem Reap area. The Old Market is also known as Psar Chaa and is regarded as the heart of the city with a noisy cacophony of tuk-tuk drivers seeking out potential fares and locals weaving in and out of the traffic on their Honda motorcycles. Inside the open-sided market complex, both locals & tourists survey the wide range of both dry goods & fresh market produce being sold from rows of dimly lit counters. 

Vegetables. US bills are the currency of choice in Siem Reap & the Angkor temples. However, the local currency, kip, is used in place of coins for smaller denomination and is conveniently pegged at a fixed rate to the greenback (US$0.25 = 1000 kip).

Halal butchers exist alongside non-halal butchers in the old market. Cambodia cuisine is an eclectic mix of seafood, chicken, pork & beef dishes similar to Thai cuisine and is best represented in their national dish, amok.

A wide range of slippers and shoes are being sold at the Old Market at very affordable prices. There is certainly no worry of shoes becoming damaged or worn from exploring the Angkor ruins!

Dried preserved fish for sale. Much of the seafood consumed in Siem Reap are freshwater fish & shrimps from Tonle Sap Lake. Most of the stalls in the old market open from sunrise till sunset.

The development of Siem Reap can be traced back to 1907 when it was returned to the control of the French from the Siamese, and the colonial legacy lived on in the form of French influenced buildings & structures in the city. The brightly coloured shophouses built around the perimeter of the Old Market gave the area a distinctive European feel and was marred only by the unsightly overhead power cables strewn across the streets.

Terrasse des Elephants Cafe is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the Psar Chaa district and marks one of the several entrances from Sivatha St.

Sivatha St is the main thoroughfare in Siem Reap and is flanked by rows of restaurants and shops. The Angkor Night Market is staged across the street from the Old Market in the evening.

Several key streets in the Old Market area had been redeveloped into themed streets and swapped its original Cambodian street names for names that farangs could relate to better. As the name suggests, Pub St is lined with watering holes with relatively cheap local beer with the stupa of Wat Preah Prohm Roth visible in the background.

One of the many themed pubs along Pub St - this one has a whimsical theme and plays on name of the country's most recognisable landmark.

Mobile pub converted from an old tuk-tuk and complete with bicycle seats for bar chairs.

'The Alley' is narrow semi-covered street lined with traditional Khmer massage parlors and upscale restaurants. A typical main dish at such a restaurant would usually cost US$6-7.

I decided to settle dinner at one of the more local restaurants located along the fringes of the Old Market. As with Parisian cafes and restaurants, many of the restaurants have street facing tables which allow patrons to enjoy the street scene as they dine.

After flipping through the encyclopaedic menu, I decided to order a bowl of seafood tom yam which came with a plate of steamed rice (US$3). Each freshly blended fruit juice shake only cost US$0.50 and was simply perfect after a walking in the late afternoon heat.

Cambodian spring roll (US$2). Apart from the unique sweet & sour peanut sauce, I did not find it too different from the usual spring rolls available elsewhere in the region.

Mobile fruit juice push cart located opposite the Old Market. 

As darkness fell, the Siem Reap Art Centre Night Market came to life across the river.

The night market provides a single venue for tourists to pick up traditional Khmer handicrafts and artworks, or simply as a good place to stroll through after dinner. 

Temples of Angkor

Spanning over 6 centuries from AD 802 to 1432, the Angkorian period represented the peak of the Khmer Empire as one of the greatest civilisations in the region. The different massive temple complexes built in this era chronicles the different eras of the Khmer empire and served as the socio-political & religious nerve centres of its time. This entire archaeological zone is now conserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site for future generations to enjoy and many joint partnerships with foreign expertise are currently in place to restore the crumbling stone structures.

Having toured the temples of Bagan earlier this year by electric bike with a group of friends, I was initially tempted to rent a bicycle to tour some of the temples in the morning, before returning back to Siem Reap for lunch prior to setting for the airport. However, I decided to indulge myself by renting a tuk-tuk to bring me around the temples instead. I accepted the offer proposed by the tuk-tuk driver who picked me up from the airport on behalf of the hotel the previous day and paid US$25 for the charter. A request to start at 0500hrs in the morning for a chance to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat added another US$5 to the bill. 

On hindsight, it proved to be a wise decision to not cycle as there was a huge thunderstorm the previous evening which turned many of the streets into a muddy mess. In addition, the staggering scale of each site made the different sites look deceptively close to each other - plotting the distances after the trip on Google Maps showed a total distance covered of approximately 30km which is longer than the distance from Singapore Changi Airport to the city centre.

Due to the limited time available, I did the 'Little Loop' which started from Angkor Wat before proceeding in a clockwise fashion to Angkor Thom, Ta Keo & Ta Prohm. Instead of ending back in Siem Reap, I requested to be dropped off at Siem Reap Airport instead since I only had my camera backpack as my only baggage for the trip.

An Apsara checkpoint is located off the main road Charles de Gaulle leading north to Angkor Wat from Siem Reap and visitors have to get off to purchase a pass at the several counters situated at the checkpoint. A one-day pass costs US$20 and visitors has to have their photo taken with a dodgy web-cam mounted on a metal pole. Each ticket is personalised with the photo and is thus non-transferrable. Being an independent traveller, I was able to dodge the long queues at the group counters and it took less than 5 minutes to get my pass and continue my journey.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious building and forms the core of the nation's identity. Built to represent the exclusive abode of Hindu ancient gods Mt Meru, the iconic profile appears on the national flag and a stylised form is depicted on the tail of Cambodia Angkor Air's aircraft. 

Protected by a massive moat of 1.5km by 1.3km, the main entrance of the temple complex is accessed from a sandstone causeway at the western end. Following the crowd of visitors soon leads to the famed northern reflecting pool where many had already set up their camera gear by the water's edge.

Unfortunately, the thick cloud cover had failed to provide the dramatic sunrise that the crowd had hoped for. 

The design of the central temple subscribes to the temple-mountain symmetry used at many other temples in Angkor with the centre lotus-bud tower representing Mt Meru. This is surrounded by 2 other smaller peaks at each side and the lower courtyards are thought to represent the continents. This is in turn bounded by the outer moat which represents the ocean. Angkor Wat was featured near the end of the Angkor scene in the 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider which showed Angelina Jolie making her way across a floating market staged in the pond in front of the central temple.

Lined with naga carvings on the balustrades, a 9.5m wide avenue leads from the main entrance to the central temple.

A pair of libraries flanks the 475m long balustrade, and the northern library had been successfully restored with the help of Japanese experts.

The central tower of Angkor Wat rises 55m above the ground and is the single defining feature of the temple's profile. The main facade of the temple was undergoing restoration at the time of visit and was covered in construction scaffold.

Venturing into the cooler laterite corridors of the central temple, one is greeted with what used to be elaborately decorated beams & roofs. Many of the Buddha statues in the Gallery of Thousand Buddhas had their heads lopped off by opportunistic treasure hunters in the early 20th century, while the surviving ones are venerated as guardians of this ancient kingdom. In the movie, Lara Croft was healed of her flesh injuries by the temple's abbot with a strange tea before setting off for the next scene in Venice.

Interior of the central temple complex. The seven carved poles in the windows were thought to represent the 7 colours of the rainbow.

One of the key features at Angkor Wat is the large number of apsara bas-reliefs carved into the walls in the temple. With over 3,000 of these heavenly nymphs carved in unique poses, many of these had sadly been damaged in an earlier restoration effort.

Intricate bas-reliefs cover the external wall of the central temple complex and depict epic Hindu events & battles. The scenes & characters from the famed Hindu epic Ramanaya is a central theme for many of the bas-reliefs.

Angkor Thom

Located to the north of Angkor Wat, the fortified city of Angkor Thom is the last great capital of the Khmer empire and was built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12-13th century.

Southern entrance to Angkor Thom. The city of Angkor Thom has entrances positioned at each of the 4 cardinal directions and is protected with a moat around its 10 sq km compound.

The dramatic entrance gate is flanked by 54 Gods & 54 Demons in a tug of war on the causeway across the moat. Many of the missing heads here had been restored with obvious copies of the original. Known as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, various representations of this epic can be found throughout the region, with a much photographed example located after immigration clearance at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport.

My tuk-tuk driver, So Vieth and his tuk-tuk. Although the asking rate of US$30 for a sunrise charter is slightly higher than the market rate, he speaks English well and drives a well-maintained tuk-tuk as compared to many of the other tuk-tuks which look marginally roadworthy. Each tuk-tuk can seat 4 passengers but the tuk-tuk slows down dramatically with more passengers as it is powered by just a tiny motorcycle engine.

I was dropped off at the northern end of the state temple, Bayon which stands at the exact centre of the Angkor Thom complex. Bayon had been often described as a glorified pile of rubble when viewed from a distance and the undignified comparison is actually quite accurate!

While making my way into the temple proper (the main entrance is actually located on the eastern flank of the temple), I was accosted by a group of eager Cambodian boys wanting to practice their English on foreigners. They were not too happy when I offered to only donate a token S$2 note as a souvenir to them as a quick glance on their list showed a donation of US$20 & above.

Bayon is famed for its 54 towers topped with 216 enigmatic smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara staring down at visitors. While it didn't disappoint in this regard as there are no less than a dozen faces staring at visitors at every single corner on the upper gallery, the lack of sunlight did not bring out the best of the view. In addition, the gargantuan towers and narrow passageways also posed a challenge to photograph them without a sufficiently wide lens. This would perhaps call for a return photography trip during better weather near the end of the year.

One of the many Buddha statues located in the lower terraces of the Bayon temple. The temple is being restored by a team of Japanese experts and should restore some of its former grandeur as King Jayavarman VII's crown jewel when completed.

Walking north from the Bayon temple, one soon approaches one of Angkor's most spectacular temples, Baphuon. Symbolising a pyramidal representation of Mt Meru, the Baphuon is best remembered for its 200m long elevated sandstone walkway and marked the original centre of the capital before the construction of the Angkor Thom complex.

The Terrace of Elephants once served as a viewing stand for elaborate public ceremonies & the foundation for the King's audience hall at the height of the Khmer empire.

The Terrace of the Leper King is located to the north of the Terrace of Elephants and featured a 12th century statue at the top of the 7m platform. This statue continued to be one of Angkor's enduring mysteries though theories suggest that the statue represents the god of death, Yama and the terrace housed the royal crematorium.

Elaborate bas reliefs at the northern side of the Terrace of the Leper King. Legend had it that at least 2 of the Khmer kings suffered from leprosy.

Early model Hino Rainbow coaches were commonly seen performing tour duties between the Angkor temples.
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Most of the Japanese built coaches & buses still retained its original RHD configuration, and do not pose much of a problem in the archaeological park and the city as traffic is generally light. A relatively new Nissan Civilian was photographed negotiating a muddy dirt track in Angkor Thom with a load of Chinese tourists on board the bus.
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This old Isuzu minibus was purpose built as a LHD vehicle for export markets such as Indochina.
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After locating my tuk-tuk driver, we set off towards the eastern gate of Angkor Thom to continue with the little circuit of Angkor. The eastern gate is also known as Victory Gate and appears in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider where the evil Manfred Powell had engaged a band of locals to pull down a giant polystyrene apsara set into the cavity of the gate.

Ta Keo

With the face of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring magnanimously at us as we putted down the semi-sealed road, we passed the twin temples of Thommanon Temple & Chau Say Tevoda en route to the abandoned temple of Ta Keo.

Ta Keo was the first temple in Angkor to be entirely built out of hard sandstone and was left in an undecorated and unfinished state. It was dedicated to the Hindu god of Shiva and was built by Jayavarman V but was not completed before his death. The restoration of the temple is funded by the Chinese government.

Main entrance to Ta Keo. The Angkor pass is checked at the entrance to each major monument by an Apsara staff. The architecture of Ta Keo is similar to the temple-mountain concept present at other temples with its combination of 4 towers flanking a central tower that represents Mt. Meru.

Wooden stairs had been erected over the eroded sandstone steps for the safety of visitors and to safeguard the existing structure for future conservation efforts.

Conservation work in progress. Typical conservation efforts require the meticulous dismantling and documentation of each individual block before piecing it together again akin to a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle.

After climbing up to the lower terrace, one is greeted with a steep flight of sandstone steps to the upper terrace. Each uneven step is about 30-40cm and would be even more challenging for ancient Khmers who generally possess smaller statute as compared to Caucasians & other Asians. It was thought that as the top towers housed the abode of the gods, such a difficult ascent would helpe to reinforce the notion that there is never an easy route to visit the gods.

The summit of the central tower is almost 50m above ground level.

Looking down from the upper terrace. Scaling ancient monuments at Angkor & Bagan is certainly not for those with a severe fear of heights.

A Dong Feng electric vehicle donated by the government of Hubei province in China. Although several guides list these vehicles as providing shuttle services between Angkor Thom & Angkor Wat & Ta Prohm, they are often chartered by tour groups instead.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is perhaps the most unique temple in the little circuit and unlike other standalone temples situated on the plains of Angkor or in jungle clearings, it seemed to be consumed by the surrounding jungle with huge tree roots forcing its way through the temple structure.

Originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), the Buddhist temple was built in 1186 and was dedicated to King Jayavarman VII's mother. As with the fortified city of Angkor Thom constructed by King Jayavarman VII, an elaborate entrance gate carved with face of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara stares at visitors filtering through the western end of Ta Prohm. 

A long unpaved track through the dense jungle links the entrance with the temple complex and visitors are offered a wide variety of merchandise being hawked by the locals - from bootlegged copies of popular tour guides, postcards, to traditional drums and other ethnic Khmer handicrafts.

Cambodia was extensively mined during the numerous wars & conflicts that besieged the country and many had lost their limbs due to undiscovered mines scattered throughout the countryside. Unable to work in the fields following their disability, a traditional music band comprising of victims of anti-personnel mines was set up as a means for them to make ends meet as musicians.

Nondescript entrance to the actual temple compound.

A restored causeway links the main entrance across the courtyard to the inner temple compound.

Ta Prohm comprise of an eclectic collection of towers and enclosed courtyards with varying degree of strangulation by the centuries old trees & surrounding vegetation. 

Much of the temple compound is clogged with precariously stacked piles of rubble and masonry. Signs caution visitors against climbing on these unstable stacks for their own safety. However, the appeal of Ta Prohm lies in this raw, chaotic scene where visitors could imagine how an Angkorian temple would look like when it was rediscovered by the Europeans at the turn of the previous century. 

Most the Angkor scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider had been centered on Ta Prohm and the main character was shown following a mysterious girl through the corridors & courtyards of Ta Prohm before picking up a jasmine flower to only fall into a secret chamber under the temple. These popular shooting locations had unfortunately been protected by a purpose built wooden gallery to allow visitors to take photos without damaging the root structure.

One of the most highly sought-after souvenir photo locations in Ta Prohm lies on the inside of the easternmost entrance pavilion (known as gopura) of the central complex which feature a strangulating root system of a tree often referred to as the "Tomb Raider Tree". In the movie, Lara Croft was shown standing on top of the gallery as the mysterious girl ran from the gopura into the central temple complex.

Ta Prohm proved to be the most interesting of the temples in the little circuit for photography as many other like-minded photography enthusiasts meticulously poked their way into the warren of courtyards & corridors in search of interesting angles and root formations.

An interesting root formation near the exit of the temple complex showing a snake-like tree root wrapping its way around a gallery. Various stands had been put up to preserve the extensive root system.

A centuries-old tree towers above the ruins of Ta Prohm and had a firm grasp on a partially collapsed gallery in its roots. 

Tuk-tuk parking lot & open air bazaar selling souvenirs & cold drinks outside the exit at the eastern end of Ta Prohm. A can of cold drink typically cost US$1 while a coconut would cost upwards of US$2 depending on one's bargaining skills.

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