Siem Reap


The ruins of the ancient city of Angkor are destined for great things and one of the world's marvels. The ‘City of Kings’ boasts some of the largest religious monuments ever constructed which is a vast and mysterious complex of hulking laterite and sandstone blocks. Unknown to the world until French naturalist Henri Mouhot literally stumbled onto it in 1861, the area of Angkor existed for centuries only as a myth. Today more guesthouses, hotels and world-class wining and dining and sumptuous spas are blossoming in town catering for all travel needs.

Things to do in Siem Reap:

  • Army Shooting Range, (near Banteay Srey and Kbeal Span). Listening to the soldiers-turned-used car salesmen put the hard sell on a new machine gun is almost worth the trip. This is a true game of Russian roulette. Make sure that whoever is supervising you is also willing to stand next to you.
  • Cambodian Village Trips: A unique insider look to a real Cambodian life. Spend time with village kids at their school, harvest or plant some corn, and interact with villagers. 
  • Cooking Classes: Several restaurants throughout the city offer courses on Khmer cooking.  Paul Dubrule School of Hotel and Tourism, (National Road #6). The school itself offers high-quality hospitality training to underprivileged Cambodians, who receive scholarships. Definitely pricier than elsewhere, but the attention to detail, cleanliness and comfort are unparalleled.
  • Massage: Several Khmer massage parlors can be found in Siem Reap. Unlike those in Bangkok, these are generally genuine massage parlors and not a front for sexual services. The Khmers believe that the Thai massage is derived from Khmer massage which is just as relaxing and requires less twisting and turning. 
  • Theatrical Dances at Apsara Theatre: The only air-con theatre in town presents various traditional popular and classical dances and serves a set of local specialties.
  • Visit an Orphanage. The Sangkheum Center for Children, Chey Village, Siem Reap. Children's center for orphaned, abused or neglected Cambodian Children. Buy some rice, T-shirts, school supplies, or other gifts, and go out to the children's center for a look at the welcoming village-like setting. The center serves about 50 residential children, and 50 daytime students in the community who are determined to be most in need.
  • Eating: There are hundreds of restaurants in Siem Reap and you will have no trouble finding something which suits your tastes and budget. Pub Street is best known as a watering hole, but it has also many nice restaurants that won't break the bank. In town, there are entire streets catering for the traveler tastes with pizzas, hamburgers, and tasty westernised versions of Cambodian food such as Amok and 'Khmer curry'.

 

Where to go in Siem Reap:

Angkor Wat The symbol of Cambodia, the five spires of the main temple of Angkor are known the world over. In fact, this is the one certainly not to be missed even in the most perfunctory of tours.

Built under the reign of Suryavarman II in the 12th century, this temple, along with Bayon and Baphuon, is the very pinnacle of Khmer architecture and is the only temple entered from the west (all others from the east). Angkor Wat is also the only Angkormonument that is a mausoleum while all the others are temples or monasteries. Angkor's main temple is dedicated to Vishnu.

Angkor Wat is the first temple you pass when entering the temple complex, but depending on your guide, you might save it for the evening and head directly to nearby Angkor Thom.

Wangkor Thom means ‘the great city’ in Khmer and is famed for its fantastic 45m central temple, Bayon and nearby Baphuon. The vast area of Angkor Thom, over a mile on one side, is dotted with many temples and features; don't miss the elaborate relieves on the Bayon's first floor gallery or of the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants. The Angkor Thom Gates, particularly the south gate, are good examples of the angelic carving of the Jayavarman head, a motif you will find throughout the temple sites. The bridge spanning the moat before the south entrance is lined with the gods and monsters said to have been in competition to churn the proverbial sea of milk that would cause creation of the world. The line of statues with the gate in the background is a classic Angkor scene.

The Bayon is the very centerpiece of the larger Angkor Thom city, and with its classic carved faces is one of the best loved of the Angkor temples. Bayon is a Buddhist temple built under the reign of prolific Jayavarman VII (1190 A.D.), but the temple was built atop a previous Hindu site and adheres to Hindu cosmology and, with its central tower depicting Meru and its oceanic moat, can be read as a metaphor for the natural world. The Bayon is famous for its huge stone faces, usually set in groups of four around a central prang, or tower, and each face indicating an ordinal direction on the compass. The curious smiling faces are done in deep relief at Bayon and also in different forms at the entrance gates to Angkor Thom, at Ta Prom, and Banteay Kdei. You approach the Bayon along a forested area at the city center, cool and misty, where streams of light come through in visible rays and the drone of cicadas is deafening. Elephant trekkers also line the road to the temple.

One of the greatest views of the many faces of the Bayon is from the ground at the northern end of the temples, just before a large snack, refreshment, and shopping area.

The Terrace of Leper King Built by Jayavarman, this section is the northern half of a long north-south shelf of what was supposedly a main viewing stage for the king and his entourage to watch elaborate shows in the open area out front. Approach the terrace from its most northern point. Outside, you'll find an image of the guardian of hell because the area site was a crematorium. The top of the terrace is a statue of the king with leprosy. The long terrace is made of two walls and visitors pass through a shaded walkway on the interior. The whole site is lined with rich relief carving and has been lovingly restored and propped up with new concrete wall that maintains the integrity of the original. 

Kabal Spean Known as the ‘River of a Thousand Linga’, Kabal Spean lay undiscovered by Westerners until a French researcher stumbled across it only recently. Dating from the early 11th century, the relief carvings that line the stream beds are said to purify the water before it fills the reservoirs of Angkor. It's the journey here that's really interesting, on some rough roads through rural villages north of Banteay Srei and there's a fun forest hike (about 30 min).

Beng Melea is located 60km east of Siem Reap and often arranged as a day trip after a stop at the Roluos Group. The road is paved and smooth until just after the Roluos Group where you turn north at the town of Dom Dek, which has a local market that's worth a stop. From there, follow a dusty, bumpy road. The temple has three gallery walls and a moat at entry. The interior temple area is a big, fun pile of rubble, great for trouncing around. The east entrance is closed because of the many rocks fallen here, but enter just to the right of this main entrance and look for the relief images of the god of fire over the first door as you approach the gallery by the first ramp, then an image of a three-headed elephant born of the mythical churning of the ocean of milk Hindu creation legend. A small library is inside this first gallery area. From here, plunge into the temple center. The platform path takes you through a covered, dark gallery. Between sections, you'll have to do some clambering and rock hopping. 

Bakeng Hill Just past Angkor Wat, Bakeng Hill is meant to resemble Mount Meru, the center of the earth in the Hindu cosmology. The hill makes a great spot for sunrise or sunset viewing and gets crowded like a mosh pit in high season. The hike up is a good way to limber up and break a sweat predawn, but the crumbled steps and slippery mud are a bit much for some. Consider taking the trek in style high up on an elephant's back in a houda. Elephants for hire start at about $20 and wait at the bottom of the hill.

Banteay Srei If you are true temple buffs, you will never want to miss this distinct complex. Some 32km north of the main temples, the 10th-century buildings of Banteay Srei are done in a style unique to the high spires of Angkor. The collection of low walls surrounds low-rise peaked structures of deep red sandstone. It is the only building to have been built with pink sandstone, a high quality mineral that can withstand tougher elements. As such, the carvings and bas reliefs on this temple are some of the most intricate, best preserved carvings you'll find in Angkor. The hallmarks of the temple are the three temples, the middle one is dedicated to Shiva and it is flanked by temples honoring Vishnu and Brahma. A knowledgeable local guide will help explain the finer details of temple inscriptions.

Ta Prohm is a favorite for many; in fact, those very ruinous vines appeal to most. As large around as oak trees, the Khmer Spoong tree is something like a banyan tree, and it's often encased in the wandering tendrils of the charay, a thick vine. The powerful Spoong and the charay vines cleave massive stones in two or give way and grow over the top of temple ramparts. It's quite dynamic, and there are a few popular photo spots where the collision of temple and vine are most impressive. The temple was originally built in 1186 by Jayavarman VII as a monastery dedicated to the king's mother and spiritual teacher. There are 39 towers connected by numerous galleries. The exterior wall of the compound is 1kmx600m, and entrance gates have the classic Jayavarman face. Most visitors enter from the west gate and some drivers will come and pick you up on the other side. A line of small open-air eateries is just outside the main entrance to Ta Prohm, popular places for a snack or lunch.

Vimean Akhar Continuing north of the Baphuon and still within the large Angkor Thom, you reach the ‘Palace of Air’ or Vimean Akhar, which was a royal palace built by three successive kings, Jayavarman II and V as well as Suryavarman I, over a period of time from 944 to 1045. This Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva is some 12m high with three levels; each of the three levels represents one of the kings who helped build it. Each side has steep steps and the shallow moat is full in rainy season. The top of the temple is a narrow pillared gallery. The steep climb is best attempted to the left (west) when approaching from the Baphuon (there's a handrail). Have a drink or a fresh coconut in a shaded area at the bottom of the other side.

Adjacent to the Baphuon are two large ponds: the biggest is 125m long and was where the king himself bathed; the smaller ponds were for the king's courtiers.

Pre Rup With its three central spires, Pre Rup looks a bit like a mini Angkor Wat. Pre Rup was built by King Rajeindravarmen II in 961 and was dedicated to Shiva. The best views are from the Hindu temple's south side. It is made of gray sandstone, which is a less durable material than the pink sandstone of Banteay Srei. Climb to the top of the temple and look west; on a clear day, you can see Angkor Wat's spires (roughly 12km away) peeking out over the treetops.

Ta Kaeo What's most interesting about Ta Kaeo is that it was never completed. Legend has it that the temple was struck by lightning during its construction, and all work was abandoned at a stage where the main structure was complete, but no adornment had been added. Also unique is the fact that Ta Kaeo is made of rich green sandstone. Built in the 10th century by Jayavarman V, the temple was dedicated to Shiva. The central prang once housed a lingum, and the three levels are all encircled by sandstone galleries. The climb to the top is very steep but the view is well worth it.

The Elephant Terrace Located in the south end of a long performance terrace of the king, so named because of its elaborate reliefs of elephants, whose trunks make decorative columns. The long concourse depicts scenes of circus acrobats, wrestlers, and images of hunting elephants in the wild.

Banteay Kdei The first temple built by Jayavarman VII in 1181, Banteay Kdei is just opposite the large Sra Serang Reservoir, a lovely lily pond that is 300mx700m and surrounded by sandstone steps of Khmer Vintage. The reservoir is a popular place to watch the sunset gleaming off the water's surface. Sra Serang once housed a small island temple where the king liked to meditate, now local folks bathe here or steer the water to local rice farms. The four gates of Banteay Kdei have Jayavarman's iconic smiling face like those at the famed Bayon. The east entrance brings you past an area lined with lions and nagas along an open terrace once used for performances. There's a moat around the second interior gate. The Buddha at the entrance is an original, intact statue, quite unique to the Angkor compound where so many pieces have been stolen or destroyed.

Land Mines Museum You won't find signs leading you to this seemingly impromptu museum. The museum itself is just a corrugated-roof area stacked high with disarmed ordnance and detailed data about the use, effects, and statistics about unexploded ordinance in the country. Most interesting is the small grove out back, an exhibit of how mines are placed in a real jungle setting.

 

How to go to and in Siem Reap:

By Plane: Siem Reap Airways, Royal Phnom Penh Airways , President Airlines and Bangkok Air all fly the 1-hour connection to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh.

If you just want to see the great temples at Angkor, the process is simplified with international arrivals: Vietnam Airlines flies directly from Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok Airways flies directly from Bangkok, and you can check flights by Silk Air, Lao Aviation, and Royal Cambodge Airline for other routes.

By Boat: A ride on the 5-hour boat connection between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap costs about $25. The scenic trip connects to Siem Reap via the great Tonle Sap Lake. Siem Reap also connects with Battambang, to the south and west, via the Tonle Sap and the Sangker River. The trip shows you life in fishing villages along the river as you trace the banks of the Sangker. In the rainy season, the ride is just 4 hours, but in the dry season (Feb-May) it can take 6 hours or more.

A new option is the weeklong cruise between Angkor Wat and either Can Tho or My Tho in Vietnam's Mekong Delta aboard one of the luxury, shallow draft Pandaw Cruise Boats.

By Bus: Daily minivans run along the improved road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap ($5 for the 5-hr. ride) as well as destinations farther afield like Battambang or on to Poipet at the Thai border. 

Getting Around

You'll need some kind of wheels to make your way around Siem Reap and to and from the temples.

  • A rented car with driver is about $25. Tuk-tuks are the best choice and available anywhere. Siem Reap's tuk-tuks are a two-wheeled surrey pulled by a standard motorbike. They are shaded, and the padded seat is great for two. There's a small shelf at the front of the cart, usually with laminated maps and advertisements, and, in a pinch, you can seat two more, but it's not very comfy. Pay just $10 for the whole day.
  • A motorcycle taxi, called a motodup throughout Cambodia, is a good, cheap option for between $6 and $8 per day. Helmets are generally available, though few wear them. This is a good choice for solo travelers going to the temples without a guide. For sights farther afield, it can be a bit tiring. If going way out, ask for a helmet with a wind screen as it saves a day of squinting and is the safest choice.

November to February is cool and dry with the day temperatures somewhere between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. During these months it can get quite cool in the evenings, but during the day it is still quite hot. December, January and February are the peak high season and this is the best time to see Angkor when the skies are normally clear with perfect sunrises and sunsets. If you are getting up for sunrise during these months you will probably need a heavier piece of clothing, especially if you are going on a tuk tuk. There is very little rain during these months, but when there is it is usually in either January or February. The humidity is quite low around 50% during the day, but in the evening it often increases to about 80%, especially in February.

Siem Reap is hot and dry in March, April and May with day temperatures between 28 and 38 degrees Celsius. June, July and August are hot and wet with day temperatures between 28 and 38 degrees Celsius. September to October is cool and wet with day temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. These are the wettest months of the year with wet and cold weather.


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