Whenever someone talks about Siem Reap, I usually blank out. I thought she was just about temples – quite forgetting that Siem Reap has a rich tapestry of history that spans through the years. I’d soon found out during my trip to Siem Reap back in December 2007.
Now, I have always been a beach person. I like how the wind sweeps my hair to a delectable afro and how we get sand in our flip-flops and even clothes. I love how the beach is calming, even when it is torturous. So when a group of friends suggested Siem Reap, I had my reservations.
I am not big on walking tours. So I wasn’t much enthusiastic about Siem Reap. Apart from a rather nifty looking Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, I was ashamed to admit that I know nought about the old ancient city. But what a pleasant surprise I had! My apprehensions were dismissed as soon as I land onto tranquil Siem Reap. The day was bright and sunny when we landed on the airport that was designed to reflect an old Khmer house.On a shoestring budget, we booked into a guesthouse, the Angkor Voyage Villa, which was a good 15 minutes drive away from the airport. The guesthouse was attractively priced– it was USD$30 per night for a room that could fit four people comfortably. Our room overlooked some kampung houses, just like the ones at home, albeit these have alligators as pets. That’s the first thing I noticed about Siem Reap – they have affinity towards alligators. Not all, of course. Angkor Voyage Villa is one of many guest houses in Siem Reap; it is just outside the main Pub Street so it’s very much quieter and calmer from the maddening crowd but just a skip, hop and jump away from the hustle and bustle.
We booked a driver, Paul, who took us to Tonle Sap Lake. Tonle Sap, or Large Freshwater/Great Lake is the largest freshwater lake in their region. It ranges from 2,700 to 16,000 square km depending on the season and supports at least 3 million people of Cambodia and source of 75% of Cambodia’s fish. It is also home to many Vietnamese and Cham people having their home in boats in various floating villages on the lake.Getting to Tonle Sap itself was a right adventure. Paul drove as if he had a death wish. He honks at any other vehicles blocking his way (carriages, tuk-tuks or other taxis). It was rather fortunate that the roads were not big enough for him to speed anymore, so we still have our larger intestines and bowels intact. Some of us might have lost a few kidney stones though.When we arrived, we were welcomed by children – this seemed to be a recurring event at all our tourist stops. The smiling children would“Won Dollah, Mam!”crowd the taxis and shove a camera up to take photos and other cheap souvenirs to our faces.
Some took our photos only to develop them later and sell for a dollar. (Everything is “Won Dollah, Mam” – also arecurring theme).We got onto a boat and we were brought to a nice, leisurely journey of about two hours. I find it amazing to see a complete ecosystem on that lake. I spied schools – one with a basketball court no less, hospital and church amidst the other boat-houses floating serenely. I even saw an electrical items repair “shop”. The boat-houses were of various sizes; some can barely fit two people (but houses at least five). The lake is populated by mainly two camps – the Vietnamese and the Cham of Cambodia. From our conversations with Paul, he said there would betwo types of schools on the lake – one that caters for the Cambodian kids and the other for the Vietnamese.The star of our destination was of course, Angkor Wat. We were told that one day is not enough and that there should be at least 2 visits to Angkor Wat, one during sunrise. Entrance is made via purchase of a pass which comes in either one, three or a week day passes. The length and how many temples really depends on one’s self perseverance.Some get “templed out” after only 3 hours but some can go on for weeks.
There are about 100 plus temples, but seven to ten main ones.“Main” is being loosely used here. Angkor Wat is part of the Angkor Archaeological Park – a group of ancient temples grouped together and built as early as 12th century.There are two types of temples – one governed by kings that were Hindu-inclined and the other is the ones governed by the Buddhist kings. Each belief creates a different, but no less beautiful, creation with intricate and mysterious stories on their walls. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat – its wall,covered by carvings. Angkor Wat consists of three levels with a central tower. The lower level carvings depict the stories and characters of Hindu mythology – this is where a personal guide helps tremendously. We explored the ancient ruins of Angkor for a few hours. There is an undeniable calm and peacefulness that seems to emanate from the walls; everything seems to take a back seat and nothing should or could be rushed.After the visit to Angkor Wat, we went for a hot balloon ride.
Priced at USD$15 for tourists, it was rather steep but a well worth investment. We had an aerial view of Angkor Wat, which we could see it for miles and miles. It was awesome, though a short ride – a mere 10 to 15 minutes. I’d say this is one of my highlights of the trip, I’d recommend this to anyone.We returned the next morning to catch Angkor Wat at sunrise. We left at 5:00 a.m. when it was still dark out but it was crucial for us to arrive before sunrise. When we arrived, we found we were not alone – there were many people milling about at the entrance.We understood why it was a must to go at sunrise – the view was particularly astounding. All our photos looked as if it was taken by a professional! We also visited Ta Phrom temple, best known as the temple where they shot Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Ta Phrom is at the southern edge of East Baray, founded by Khmer King Jayavarman III.
I must say it is one of the most picturesque of all temples, what’s with the huge, ancient trees growing around it. At its peak, Ta Phrom was home to some 12,000 people; oh, how I would love to peek into that time and place to see how it is like at Ta Phrom then. Fortunately Ta Phrom was currently going some restorative works when we went there. I for one, am glad for at least the generations to come would be able to see these great architectures from the past. Other notable temple we visited were Banteay Srei, or Citadel for women, which is also part of the Angkor Archaelogical Park. It was cuscious establishment made out of hard red sandstone which lent a pinkish hue to it. The carvings on the bas reliefs on the walls, pillars and structures were nothing short of amazing.
They told the stories of Lord Shiva, the demon king Ravana, the sky god Indra and other mythical stories. To be inside and listening to the guides spewing out old ancient histories as this as the lull of Khmer traditional music played by the landmine victims somehow transports you back to the days of yonder, where demi-gods fight over ugly demons over the mountains. Outside Banteay Srei, however, is another chaos altogether as young peddlers rush to fight for your attention selling their wares – souvenirs, shawls, travel books…you name it; they have them. Some smarter ones include a hungry looking baby at their hip, squeezing the sympathy votes from the tourists. Some of the items sold were really lovely – I bought some lovely shawls from a very sweet looking girl whose “Won Dollah, Mam!” plaintive cries tugged my heart; but found out later that the Night Market sells them much cheaper.
Oh well…Siem Reap has more to offer apart from just temples. We all knew about the horrendous time during the Pol Pot regime and upon some research done before we left, we thought we would drop by Aki Ra’s Landmine museum just a short drive from Banteay Srei. For a small amount of fee of US$2 we were shown the different types of landmines and how it was placed and generally viewed the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime. Aki Ra himself is legend – he was a Khmer soldier who decided to demine the landmines in small villages once the war was over; using just a stick and a knife. He was later certified to do demining and started his charity and museum, the Aki Ra’s Cambodian and Landmine Museum Relief Centre which showcased all the landmines that he had managed to unearth. The Museum also doubles up as a charity home that housed children paralysed by the landmines or orphans who lost parents to landmines. It was a sombre and hard-hit moment for us. Blessed, we are…
We also went to Dr. Beat Richner’s concert at the Jayavarman III Hospital. Dr. Beat Richner is a doctor and activist who conducts a concert where he plays Bach on his cello and talks about activities for his four children hospitals. His “Beatocello” concerts are on every Saturdays at about 7:00 p.m. He had been an avid activist for the children on Siem Reap, fighting for medical aids, which are crucial to the children in Siem Reap but was deemed less urgent by the WHO. The concert itself is free but donations by way of cash or purchase of CDs is much appreciated. He played a little on his cello and told us the objective of the concert as well as his journey to fight for something as simple as a dengue medical aid from UN. Coming from the Aki Ra’s museum earlier and later, listening to his stories, we felt moved to tears. It was very reassuring to see an admirable person such as Dr. Richner who is still fighting for the children’s rights in Siem Reap.
We capped our trip to a picnic at West Baray – a reservoir which is part of an ancient Angkor irrigation system. There’s originally East and West Baray but East has since dried up. Recent research shows that West Baray is likely to be a mooring place for royal barges, fish-breeding site or a place for bathing. In the middle of West Baray is a temple, West Mebon, which becomes an island during rainy season. West Mebon was likely to be built in the 11th century. What was left of West Mebon was a kampong house and some sheds; some with hammocks. We bought food and drinks earlier and upon seeing our boat, a dear elderly lady prepared our shed and provided us with plates and cutleries. We ate alfresco, enjoying the breeze in our hammocks later while listening to the sweet, lilting Khmer music played by the landmine victims in the background. There were some children trying to sell us souvenirs but the elderly lady won’t have it. It was a lovely conclusion on our last day in Siem Reap.
I thought I had gone to Siem Reap to experience “something different”. Siem Reap had been an experience, alright. It was an experience that was cacophony mixture of amazement; wonder, relief and pain – for her history, her temples; her tragedies and most importantly, for the resilient people of Cambodia…who, despite all they went through, are still able to smile congenially and greet “Sues Dei! Welcome to Cambodia, Mam!”