Visiting the temples in Siem Reap is an other-worldly experience! It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one should visit before it gets even more crowded with tourists. These massive stone temples were built in 12th century by Hindu king of the Khmer dynasty. This temple complex served as the capital of the Khmer empire that stretched from Cambodia to Vietnam to Bay of Bengal. The Angkor Wat was dedicated to Hindu deity Vishnu until about 15th century when Buddhism took hold in Cambodia. Some of the structures are unfinished, showing the decline of Khmer dynasty.
Some of the other temples like Tra Phom were overtaken by large tress and other vegetation. In early 20th century, the French started the process of restoration that is still going on.
The map here shows the Angkor Complex. You need a tuk tuk to go around the area since the different temples are spread out over a very large area. We took almost 3 days visiting these monuments and could have easily spent couple more days studying these in detail. Many people visit the complex multiple times in their lifetime and we would like to return there with our children who missed this trip because of their work and study schedule.
Instead of lining at the ticket booth on the morning of the visit, we purchased the tickets the day before in the evening. You can get a 3 day pass to all temples for about $60. It comes with a lanyard and you wear it when visiting the monuments. It is validated with a date stamp when you enter the complex. The guards at the monuments are supposed to check the tourist pass date but nobody stopped us for the time we were there.
Angkor Wat is the main temple. It faces west, hence the best photo shot is in the evening. However, since it is very famous, all tour buses get there by 10:00 and continue throughout the day. We got to the temple at 8:00 and had the premises practically to ourselves for 2 hours. Angkor Wat has many temples within the main compound. The original stone steps are so tall and steep that you can only climb these practically on your knees. It is really scary to come down these steps. I had to sit on the steps and slide down one step at a time like a toddler who is learning to walk and is undertaking the stairs at home. For the main temples, there are wooden stairs covering the original stairs so one can go up and down at a normal pace.
There are three levels which are not easily visible. You need to enter one level to see what lies ahead.
Each of the buildings has similar motif on the outside. Stone carvings inside tell stories from the Hindu scriptures so read up on Mahabharat, Ramayan and Puranas before your visit to fully appreciate the carvings. In the carvings below is coronation of Ram (Ramayan), second is story of gods and demons churning the ocean (Mahabharat and Puaranas) and an apsara (dancer) emerges, third is war in Mahabharat where Krishna is the charioteer.
We left Angkor Wat as the tour bus crowds started coming through. Through all of our travels, we have realized that it is best to make an effort to get to any attraction before tour buses come in. Regardless of the country visited, almost all tour bus crowds are extremely interested in their own selfies, blocking any attraction completely and nobody else can take a photo until each of them is happy with her self portrait 🙂
It was too hot to eat any spicy cooked food so we ate a variety of fresh fruits and drank young coconut water by the roadside before continuing to Ta Keo and Bantey Kdei. Most of these monuments do not have wooden reconstructed steps so one has to use the old stone steps. You see here how people need to climb.If you are brave enough to climb these knee high steep steps, you are rewarded with delicate carving on the stone facade of the temple.Bantey Kdei is an old temple which still needs to be restored. It is amazing to see it though and it gives you an idea of work that has gone into Angkor Wat renovations.
We went to Bantey Samre, which is a small temple and the only one with the original Hindu deity of Shiva linga still intact.All other temples had Hindu deities replaced with Buddhist statues.
We also went to Ta Som, a temple which was not yet restored, Preah Khan, Pre Rup, Ta Keo and some other small temples in the vicinity.
After visiting these temples in the heat of the afternoon, we were totally exhausted and returned to the hotel to rest before going out in the evening for dinner dance at Temple Balcony restaurant. We got there early to get good seats by the stage and ordered our delicious meal at $10 per person. Meal includes the 2 hour dance performance! There were many dance forms – traditional dance, peacock dance, folk dance etc. Really enjoyable experience and a great end to an amazing day at Angkor!
On the second day we started at Ankgor Thom at 8:00. Angkor Thom houses the king’s palace which was built in 10th century and is still being restored. There is a long bridge with sculpture of the nine-headed snake followed by Gods on one side and demons on the other side of the bridge, and a gate with the iconic bayoun head.
Many structures within Angkor Thom were wooden and do not exist any more. The only ones preserved are the stone monuments. There are five large towers, each adorned with four Bayoun heads. These heads represent rulers of each cardinal direction. Like the Mona Lisa, each stone face has an enigmatic smile.
The carvings are more delicate on these monuments than at Angkor Wat. Again these are also based on Hindu scriptures. Photos cannot capture the beauty of this amazing monument!!
Unfortunately since Cambodia went through so much strife, there are many orphans in Cambodia. These teenagers are now learning culinary skills or art skills depending on their aptitude. We ate lunch at a wonderful restaurant “Haven” which is a culinary school for these kids. The food was absolutely amazing, specially the pumpkin soup and I am still searching for the recipe. These kids are also taught English, use of computers, learn to be self sufficient and then help train others who come after them. All profit including tip you leave here is used for this training so please please be generous.
It was now time to go to the special tree covered temple Ta Phrom which was like being part of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft movie. Some people were completely ignoring large signs NOT to climb these trees since, you guessed it, they wanted their own photo, spoiling the whole atmosphere 😦 At least tour group crowds were not there, otherwise I would have had to wait many hours before being able to photograph these wonders.
Last major temple on the day was Baphoun. This is a large structure with five levels, different from other monuments since there is a central tower and you climb up long flights of stairs inside each level all the way to the top. Entry is via a serene moat with water lilies.
Then it was time for the Elephant Terrace which stretches from Baphoun to another structure called Palace of Leper king.
Palace of leper king has stone carvings of Gods and demons. I wanted one photo of the Angkor Wat at sunset. I went inside to take a photo of the main monument but the entire area was full of hundreds of tourists with tripods, pushing one another, who would not let anybody get in their midst to take even one photo so I rushed outside and managed to get this photo of the outside entrance!
On our third day at Angkor complex we visited Kbal Spean which is a mountain outside Siem Reap. It took us about an hour to get there in the tuk tuk but it was a lovely journey which let us enjoy the country side and heat did not bother since the tuk tuk is covered and there is nice breeze with the motion. Along the way, we stopped to drink coconut water so the tuk tuk driver could refresh himself .-). Once we got to Kbal Spean, we walked a trail uphill for about 45 minutes when we reached the fantastically carved river bed. The rocky terrain had many deep pot holes. We had the place all to ourselves since it is not on tour bus circuit as it requires 45 min – 1 hr uphill walk to get there.
After we came down the hill, we visited the Angkor center for Conservation and Biodiversity. This center rescues injured animals and birds and frees them after they are healed. On the day we visited, there were many birds. Please plan to visit here as well as Kbal Spean. Your donations help the center look after these injured animals and birds. There were some small tour groups there but not the large tour bus selfie crazy crowds.
After a quick lunch of many types of fruits and absolutely delicious sugarcane juice, fresh pressed with lime and ginger, we went to the last and the most intricately carved temple in Angkor Complex – Bantey Srei -Palace of the Woman. This place is very crowded with large tour groups in the mornings. In the afternoon, we had the place to ourselves to wander around and admire the exquisite carvings in the sandstone. It is very well preserved.
That evening we went to a shadow puppet show, dance and dinner at La Noria restaurant. This was by far the most expensive place we ate at about $25 per person but food was less than mediocre :-(. We went here because it was the only place to watch the shadow puppet theater. Unlike Temple Balcony which had very very good dancers, here the dances were very amateurish. Shadow puppet show was not well performed either. Give it a miss 😦
Next day we went to see temples on the outskirts of Angkor Wat. These are not part of the 3-day pass but you pay nominal fees, I think $5 for each of these. We went to Bakong with even steeper steps that I did not have the courage to navigate,
Lolei and Preah Ko (images in order)
Here are typical fruit stands where we would eat our mid day meals.
Our trusty tuk tuk driver was very happy that we would eat at the roadside, share all our meals with him and we were not the typical tourists he had always driven so he offered us the delicacy he liked best – fried grasshoppers – but we drew the line there 🙂 Now I wish I had closed my eyes tight and tried it since where else would I get to eat crunchy fried grasshopper 🙂
After the meal, it was time to go see the local artisans and do some souvenir shopping. We went to a silk farm to learn the process. Silk worms feed on mulberry leaves, when they form a cocoon, these cocoons are put in boiling water so the silk thread separates. The silk thread is then spun by hand on spinning wheels, dyed different colors and hand-loomed into desired designs.
Next stop was Artisans d’Angkor. This is a group that trains Cambodian orphans who have an aptitude for art. They teach them watercolor, oil paintings, how to make various sculptures etc. If you are buying a souvenir, please consider this group. All sales help the project. We purchased an excellent replica of Bayoun heads.
We then stopped at another small road side shop to purchase some more souvenirs – leather shadow puppets. This is a painstaking project, where the artist sketches design on the hide and exquisitely intricate designs are cut into the leather. Another plea to all to make an effort to locate artisans and purchase directly from them rather than air conditioned show rooms where middle men pay very small percentage of sales to artisans.
This was the end of our Cambodia trip! We have our wonderful memories of the hard working friendly Cambodians, our photos and the souvenirs we purchased 🙂 We returned to hotel, had dinner and were driven to the airport.