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Guide to Siem Reap Main

The bustling city of Siem Reap is the gateway to the mystical ruins of Angkor. After braving the ubiquitous motorbikes, pushing your way in front of the crowds and acclimatising to the muggy heat of Siem Reap, there is a feeling like no other upon first glancing the ancient temples of Angkor. After getting your pass and tuk tuk-ing through the ochre roads, slowly arriving at Angkor Wat before sunrise gave me the chills – the good ones.

My partner and I were lucky enough to tour the Kingdom of Wonder with MAADS and their pristine luxury hotel Templation. Last time I was in Siem Reap I saw Angkor Wat (wat meaning pagoda or temple) from a different perspective, via a helicopter. I was also there for a destination wedding later on, a brief visit then mostly spent enjoying the celebration. This time around was something different, although I still had a sense of awe when viewing the antique monuments once again.



A brief history of Angkor

Buddha at Angkor

Angkor’s tumultuous history, as far as can be traced, begins with commercial trading routes from China and India. As the hub opened up to the world in the first century, Indian and Chinese traders passed through the region exposing their cultures, beliefs and religions to the indigenous people. Yet it was the Indian culture that stuck, possibly due to Brahman priests.

Pre-Angkorian history alludes to two prominent ruling states. First, an Indianised state called Funan took hold of what is now Southern Vietnam and Cambodia. Around the 6th century, a small state in the North of Cambodia conquered Funan and flourished for a short time before being separated into two rival states in the mid-7th century – ‘Land Chendla’ in northern Cambodia and southern Laos, and ‘Water Chendla’ further south in Kampong Thom.

In 802CE the first unified sovereign state, gaining independence from Java, was declared by Jayavarman II known as Kambuja. Parts of Jayavarman II’s history are slightly unclear, but it is said that he was a Khmer prince who returned to Cambodia after exile in Java. His declaration of Kambuja was held on Kulen Mountain (or Phnom Kulen, english “Mountain of Lychees”) where he announced that he had a ‘god-king’ rite to rule, which is a concept of the Hindu Devaraja cult (deva-raja meaning God King in Sanskrit). And so the Khmer empire was born.

Cham relief
Quick note on Jayavarman's name
The Sanskrit jaya means victory and varman (pronounced varaman) translates to shield or defensive armour, i.e. ‘to protect’, hence several kings having one of these parts in their name. A sort of suffix or prefix to bestow honour after coronation.

During Jayavarman II’s rule (until his death in 850CE) and through the next two rulers, King Indravarman III and his son Yasovarman I, the capital of the Khmer empire was in the Roluos area about 13kms from Siem Reap. Around 880CE it saw the construction of the Preah Ko temple in honor of Jayavarman II. Indravarman III then constructed Bakong, which was the first to use the temple-mountain architectural design, ubiquitous in Angkor. He also went on to build the first baray or water reservoir.

Indravarman III’s son then took over and completed Phnom Bakheng in 893CE, the first major temple in the Angkor area. The Royal Palace in Roluos burnt to the ground due to conflict with his brother, afterwhich the capital moved to Angkor. It would remain there for the next 500 years, with the exception of a short 20 year stint from 928CE in Koh Ker due to King Jayavarman IV’s decision.

What followed in the next few centuries was a firm military prowess led by King Suryavarman I that expanded Cambodia’s territory, bringing the entire western portion of old Funan under Khmer control. Ta Keo, Banteay Srey, Baphuon, and West Baray were also constructed under his leadership. And later it was King Suryavarman II who defeated the Cham, Cambodia’s traditional enemy. The most famous of all monuments, Angkor Wat, was constructed under King Suryavarman II’s reign in the 12th century as a state-temple. If you visit the south wall, be sure to check out the gorgeous bas-reliefs that tell the story of the Khmer’s fight against the Cham. Cham (from the area known as Champa) are distinguishable by the lotus hats and the Khmer by their elongated ears.

Looking out at the beauty

Angkor was seized by Tribhuvanadityavarman in 1165 who was killed in 1177 by the Cham in a fierce naval battle through the Tonle Sap river. The next part in Angkor history is when our tour guide shined with pride as he described the legend, Jayavarman VII, who defeated the Cham after a 4 year reign, who were finally expelled in 1181. He was then declared king, after which he introduced Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion, a move from Hinduism.

His military excursions saw him capturing the Cham king in 1190, bringing him to Angkor. And later, in 1203, annexing the entire Champa, and in so doing, expanding the Khmer Empire to the eastern shores of southern Vietnam. You can read more about the Cham dynasties here, from my visit to My Son, in Central Vietnam, the ceremonial place for Champa religious rituals.

With all his ambitious might, Jayavarman VII built a procession of monuments in and around Angkor. He meshed Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism into his structures, being a fond proponent of all religions, one of the surprising aspects of Angkor. So when visiting the smiling faces of the Bayon, Lara Croft’s lair at Ta Prohm, the megalithic Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei and a host of others, remember that it was due to the (often rushed) efforts of this King.

Even though critics claim that his distinctive style is not as grand as those that came before, possibly due to the haste in which they were built, they are still marvelous to look at. When walking around, see if you can notice what makes Jayavarman VII temples different from the others.

Along with his death in 1220, came the end to the great Khmer monuments. One interesting sight at Angkor Thom is most of the defaced imagery of Buddha. The face of Buddha is either completely decapitated or destroyed or he is given third eye, a beard and his legs are changed from lotus position to a more formal sitting stance. This is due to Jayavarman VIII’s rejection of Buddhism and proposition of Hinduism in the late 13th century. When he passed away, a new form of Buddhism entered Cambodia through his son-in-law, Srindravarman, Theravada Buddhism, which is the dominant religion to this day with roughly 70% of Cambodians using it as their belief. It stemmed from Sri Lanka, through Thailand and into Cambodia.

The 13th century saw a barrage of attacks on Angkor, particularly from Siam (modern day Thailand). Ultimately, King Ponhea Yat strategically moved the capital to Phnom Penh in 1432 after a seven-month siege. Along with the move and a new river-based capital, Cambodia had an economic shift from an agrarian to trade based society. The capital did move to Lovek and Oudong before settling in Phnom Penh in 1866. This saw the end of the Khmer or Angkor empire and the beginning of modern day Cambodia. Angkor basically lay dormant until its revival in 1860 by French explorer Henri Mouhot.

For all the history buffs out there, here’s a nice article laying out the kings, their construction and comparative European architectural feats. Who knew that Angkor Wat was constructed around the same time as Oxford University began. Interesting.

Modern day Angkor and Siem Reap

Siem Reap center

Siem Reap, translated as “Siam Defeated”, is bustling with life. Hotels are sprouting up left and right. There are restaurants and clubs downtown in and around Pub Street. A divine mix of antiquity and modernism is ever pervasive. Smoking monks on the back of motorbikes, Buddhist temples along Siem Reap river next to shops blasting music, carts selling martinis and screwdrivers and then, far removed, the ancient sites that house the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat.

I have referred to Cambodia’s tumultuous past, let me explain briefly. The 15th to 17th centuries represent a time of foreign influence with intrusion from Siam and Vietnam. In the 1800s European colonial powers forced their influence. It was in 1863 when King Norodom signed a Protectorate Treaty with France. After a brief occupation by the Japanese from 1941 to 1945, the country went back under the French. In 1953, the young King Shanouk succeeded in gaining independence after roughly 90 years under the French protectorate. He became head of state. It was in 1970 that the Vietnamese General Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk.

The real horror began in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot took over the country in what is often described as a “Reign of Terror”. The Khmer Rouge is known for mercilessly torturing the educated people of Cambodia due to an ethnic cleansing of sorts, quite a contradiction as Pol Pot was an educated man himself. The attempt to “purify” the country from external sources led to a lack of medicine resulting in numerous deaths due to treatable diseases such as malaria. Agricultural reform led to widespread famine and all in all roughly 2 million Cambodian people lost their lives. The period between 1975 and 1979 is known of the “Killing Fields” referring to the sites where the majority of these poor souls were killed and buried.

Between 1979 and 1989, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea enjoyed relative freedom, as they were still under the watchful eye of the Vietnamese. In 1989 the country was named the State of Cambodia. There was independent rule until the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 where the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) had a large presence. UNTAC then supervised a general election in May 1993, afterwhich a second general election was held in 1998. Cambodia now has a king, Norodom Sihamoni, and a controversial prime minister, Hun Sen.

Local house

Politics aside, I met hipster social entrepreneurs in Kandal Village and saw Chinese and French colonial architecture near the Old Market. I chuckled at the Khmer men escaping the heat by pulling their t-shirts up over their bellies and young women selling petrol in whiskey bottles on the side of the road.

Tourism plays a massive part in the economy, with 2016 seeing just over 2.2 million visitors. Around 20% of the province’s population calls Siem Reap central home, with the population doubling or even tripling in peak season. The local APSARA Foundation, or “Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap”, along with many countries chipping in, are restoring the old monuments bit by bit, and in some cases, piece by piece. Apart from the majority of tourists coming from central and southeast Asia or Asia Pacific, the French expat presence is strongly felt due to the history of the French protectorate. In the more remote areas, I was even referred to as “barang” a mispronunciation of French, as all Caucasians are assumed to be French there.

Due to its disheartening past of genocide, a sweltering 61% of Cambodia is under the age of 30. It is therefore a very “young” country. As of 2010, 34% of the population of Siem Reap was under 17. So despite being one of the poorest provinces in the country, there is a feeling of vibrancy and hope in the air. Especially from all the NGOs helping out. In Kandal Village, I was enjoying my coffee and then noticed that the shop was also supporting the local community. I then noticed that all the shops on the strip were doing the same thing. I proceeded to check the history of every coffee shop or boutique I shopped at, most of their proceeds were going to a good cause.

While there is so much good going on, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the poverty situation. Every time I visit Cambodia I consistently hear about government corruption, from the waiter, the guide, the tuk tuk driver (Khmer and Western). This corruption may not be seen through the naked tourist eye, but when you dig deeper you realise it is all over. This has, of course, resulted in some undesirable effects, one of which is the abundant poverty in Siem Reap.

As I passed through all the monuments of Siem Reap, apart from its astounding beauty and rich culture, I noticed the poverty. Visitor code of conduct boards are displayed clearly at all temples warning the reader to wear modest clothing, refrain from taking pictures of monks, yelling and the strangest rule stating, “Candy or money to children”. It goes further to say that “buying items, giving candy or money to children encourages them not to attend school but to beg. If you wish to help the children, please consider donating to a recognised charity”.

While the begging has improved in some areas, or so I thought, I still noticed young children at tourist attractions with the pervasive sing song of “one dollar, one dollar” – not only are they selling their wares, they are most likely being “pimped out” where most of that dollar goes to the procurer. This is constant moral dilemma very hard to digest. One solution, other than “donating to a recognised charity” (as I worried about corruption) is to buy from the adult merchants so they can continue to earn an honest living.

When buying from them a responsible adult is being supported who can then bring the money home to their families and child begging is not sustained. The less tourists support this, the easier it will be to create a healthy environment. And you get a souvenir for yourself or someone back home.

If you want to read more about Cambodia’s corruption, tourism scams around charities and the ongoing moral dilemma, you can further your knowledge here.

To finish off with a more lighthearted note here’s a video that shows the code of conduct at Angkor Wat.

Places to see in Siem Reap

Temples and monuments

Here is a map of Siem Reap to see where everything is located. It’s bigger than it looks, trust me, so bring loads of water as the sweating is constant all year round.

There are two different kinds of guided tours to choose from – the small tour and the grand/big tour (or circuit or route).

Don’t be deceived by the names though, one is no less impressive than the other. The names of the circuits have nothing to do with wonderment but more with distance traveled between the temples.

Temples on the small circuit (17kms)

Note: Passes will be used several times when entering the different complexes. When traveling in a group carry your own pass, not having it in on your person will result in your entrance being barred.

Angkor Wat

The famous Angkor Wat, with Naga, Vishnu and the main tower

The largest religious monument in the world is why most visitors come to Siem Reap. In fact, just over 50% of Cambodian tourists visit Siem Reap to see this awe-inspiring structure. Take in that first tuk tuk drive or walk up to the entrance, and feel something out of this world, a mix of spirituality and wonder.

Originally called Vrah Viṣṇuloka (Sanskrit) or Brah Bisnulōk (Khmer variant) which means the sacred dwelling of Vishnu, Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple in honour of Lord Vishnu and built by Suryavarman II. Depending on where the viewer stands, either five towers or three can be seen. When coming from the side corner, glimpse the five towers that signify the five spiritual peaks of Mount Meru (from the side corner), a replica of nature. But from the main entrance, there are only three towers. This is a representation of the three main Hindu deities, Vishnu in the middle (and higher than the others) and then Shiva and Brahma on either side.

The moat around Angkor Wat is not a physical safe guard from outside intrusion, but rather represents a spiritual cosmic ocean, not the ocean with waves and marine life. It is therefore a spiritual divide of sorts. The moat measures 1.5kms by 1.3kms and the entire complex of Angkor Wat measures about 208 hectares.

Walk through the avenue to enter the main West Gate entrance. Both sides of the avenue were once lined with Naga balustrades, but one intact (reconstructed) Naga head and a headless lion (tao in Khmer) welcomes you.

Angkor Wat, as the seventh wonder of the world, is an architectural feat. The heavy sandstones were quarried about 50kms away, put on boats, and floated down the Siem Reap river. Notice the small squared holes in the sandstone, this is where wooden beams were placed to pick them up.

After walking in the main entrance and entering the compound, there is a clothed statue of Vishnu to the right which should not be missed. Take in the smell of incense and feel the power of the gods while looking up at the monument with eight arms and umbrella overhead.

Another not to miss sight is the bas relief that lines the outside of the central temple complex that depict military scenes and stories from Hindu mythology. And the random holes in the relief are not wear and tear, but rather bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge.

Walk the almost half a kilometer avenue to the main temple structure. Clusters of hawkers will try to sell books on Angkor Wat and Cambodia. The books are legit and have some great information in them if traveling solo. I bought two even though I had a guide. I passed trigger happy selfie taking tourists and Buddhists monks as I strolled to the main tower. Note that there are temples on either side of the avenue where practicing monks abide. Entrance into Angkor Wat for the Khmer is free.

Wake up early to see the sun rising behind Angkor and visit at sunset to glimpse the rays of light reflected on the structure, making it more detailed and great for photography. The best place to capture the famous reflection shot is not outside the entrance with the moat, but rather within the complex on either the right or left pool. Fight your way through the throngs of photographers to get your picture.

I reached the center with a massive smile on my face. When inside, I saw locals and tourists alike walking up to one of the many monks, take off their shoes, placing a donation in the box, climbing on the monk’s mat, kneeling down and placing their palms together. After this they got a true blessing from a man devoted to spiritual practice. He tied a red string around their wrists and throw some “holy” water on them while reciting a mantra. It really looked like a great experience, even if a little touristy.

Have a seat and take in the surroundings of topless Apsara dancers that line the walls and imagine how difficult it must have been to build this wonder of the world. Don’t forget to hydrate before standing in line to take the steep wooden ladder to the top of the three storey tower. I had to show my pass again before ascending the tower where I took in the majestic views 65m above the ground, a sight to behold that is stored in my memory.

Angkor Thom

 The gate of Angkor Thom

The 3km by 3km square city of Angkor Thom (translated as “Big City”) is a lasting testament to one of Cambodia’s most revered and respected leaders, Jayawarman VII from 1181-1219 (pronounced Jahya varah mahn). Our guide’s face lit up when talking about this great king, not only because he beat the Cham (city of Champa which was in modern day Vietnam), but because of his love and merger of all religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism.

Like Angkor Wat, the Bayon, moat (jayasindhu) and square wall (jayagiri) all represent the Hindu mythology of Mount Meru surrounded by the cosmic ocean. Yet it differs in its manifest representations of Buddha and not just Vishnu. At the most popular (and very busy) South Gate, there are 54 gods and 54 demons all pulling Naga as they churn the of ocean of milk. Naga acts as a sort of cosmological rope that joins our world with the gods. They are thus “churning the cosmic ocean of milk” to create immortality. This Hindu story is also depicted on the bas-relief of Angkor Wat.

At the top of the gate are four colossal smiling faces which have different belief systems at play, the first being Buddhist. The smiling faces are actually visual representations of the state of mind of the Buddha and not the person himself. Buddha is smiling for compassion, sympathy, charity, and equanimity. Then there is the Hindu side, a depiction of the four faced Brahma the Creator. In Hinduism there are multiple gods, but only three main gods, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector and Shiva the Destroyer (creating the Hindu triumvirate).

While there are five different entrances, the heads only remain intact at this entrance. In the other entrances, the heads were ransacked and stolen during the civil war. Some heads were also moved to museums, after smugglers were arrested with illegal possession. The colour differences in the heads clearly show which faces are new and which are original.

Take a peek at Indra, God of rain and sky riding on his vehicle (or vahana), the elephant called Airavata. Then notice a lotus on the elephant’s trunk – a fine example of Jarawarman VII’s acceptant of both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Seeing these faces was as magnificent as looking at Angkor Wat in my opinion, although the elephant riding tourists and busy traffic at the South Gate made me quite sad. On that note, please do not support the riding of elephants, they are starving and dehydrated and riding on their backs is not natural, it slowly crushes their ribcage, not how mahouts ride on their necks. It is also morally wrong.

Other than that, the South Gate is breathtaking, but this is only the beginning of the journey into the Great City. Here are the sites of the large complex.

 Click the titles below to expand the text. 

Bayon Temple

Sites in Angkor Thom – Bayon Temple

Entering the Bayon

Entering the Bayon

Inside the gates of Angkor Thom, just before entering the Bayon Temple, there is a Buddhist/Hindu temple and shrine. This is where we learned from our guide, Mr. Long Sambok, about the ubiquitous golden shrines outside many Cambodian houses. In short, the story goes that the demon land God, Bali, ruled the lands and didn’t allow humans to build houses. After losing a fierce battle with Lord Vishnu, people were free to build houses and live on the land, as long as they informed Bali first. If he was not informed, the house would not be protected. The small golden shrine is homage to this and is still at the entrance of many Cambodian houses. While the correct placement should be facing north-east, as this is where Bali resides, these days they put it anywhere.

The famous smiling face

The famous smiling face

The original Hindu name for Bayon is Jayagiri (or victory mountain). The name Bayon comes from a mispronunciation of the word Banyan, as in Banyan tree. When the French arrived, they decided to call it Banyan Temple due to its religious imagery (i.e. the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under the Banyan tree). When the local Khmer came to work at renovating Banyan temple, there was a mix up in pronunciation and so Bayon came about.

Some of the many smiling faces at the Bayon

Some of the many smiling faces at the Bayon

Located in the middle of Angkor Thom, the Bayon temple was originally a Hindu Temple built by King Harshavarman II in 928. Then, when Jayavarman VII came back from escaping Indonesia after his father was killed by the Cham, he completed the Bayon adding Buddhist significance. The Cham invaded and they ruled for 4 years from 1177 to 1181.

The central tower of the Bayon has four faces that are surrounded by an additional eight towers. The number eight represents Buddha’s precepts. If anyone wishes to attain nirvana, they must follow these eight precepts according to Buddhist lore. More than these four faces, a trademark of the Bayon and the imagery on the 20,000 riel, are the 216 smiling faces which peer at you from every angle. There is much mystery as to why this exact number was used, but our guide believes that it is because of the significance and importance of the number 27 in Buddhism, which is a multiple of 216.

Apsara dancers on the bas relief

Apsara dancers on the bas relief

Over and above the smiling faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, are the fantastic base-reliefs that run for 1.2kms, the outer wall depicting the daily life of the Khmer. From playing, wrestling and fighting to eating, cooking, dancing, and the war with the Cham, it is a great view into ancient Khmer society. As I have mentioned previously, the lotus flower hat depicts the Cham and the elongated earlobes shows us the Khmer.

Scene of the Cham, with their lotus hats

Scene of the Cham, with their lotus hats

A poignant and devastating fact is Jayavarman VIII’s defacing of all Buddhist imagery. When he came into power, he decided to destroy all the Buddhist imagery. He kept the four faces (as this was both Hindu and Buddhist) but destroyed the faces on the eight towers. With the images on the small towers, he either added a third eye to convey Hindu significance or a beard and changed the position from full lotus sitting posture to a normal cross-legged sedentary stance.

Buddha looking very Hindu

Buddha looking very Hindu

The Baphuon

Sites inside Angkor Thom – The Baphuon

The walkway to the Baphuon

The walkway to the Baphuon

Strolling 200m northwest of the Bayon, we found yet one further representation of Mount Meru, the Baphuon. This structure was the epicenter of the city before Jayawarman VII constructed Angkor Thom. It is unclear when construction actually began, but it was completed by Udayadityavarman II in 1055. Angkor Thom complex is said to have been constructed around this site. Baphoun was built dedicated to lord Shiva and has a large corridor with three entrances. The middle entrance was for the king, and the side entrances were for the common people.

Reaching the Baphuon

Reaching the Baphuon

I felt like royalty walking down the 200m elevated walkway to the main structure which only opened to tourists in 2011 after it fell to the ground. The entire structure has been restored, which was a massive project to complete as the original restoration process was halted and all records destroyed during the Khmer Rouge. After ascending and descending the 43m high tower I saw some sign boards with a fantastic before and after picture, talk about a gargantuan jigsaw puzzle! I saw numbered stones lying on the outskirts –puzzle pieces left to be found at a later date.

The giant reclining Buddha, blink and you'll miss it

The giant reclining Buddha, blink and you’ll miss it

If it wasn’t for our guide, I would have missed a gigantic reclining stone Buddha that is an impressive 40m in length. The silhouette is quite difficult to make out, but trust me, it’s there. Here’s a hint, the face is on the left when facing the structure. Interesting fact, in Buddhism, if the Buddha is reclining to the right he is sleeping, if he is to the left, he is dead. This is not a somber depiction, but rather shows that he has attained enlightenment and passed on to Nirvana.

Phimeanakas Temple

Sites in Angkor Thom – Phimeanakas Temple

Phimeanakas

Phimeanakas

Phimeanakas (phimenea meaning “palace” and aka “plaza” or “Celestial Palace”) is a 600x300m structure that housed the royal palaces. The small temple inside was built before completion in 1001 by Rajendravarman II and finished by Suryavarman I. There’s a nice view of Baphuon from the second and third levels.

The Terrace of Elephants

Sites in Angkor Thom – The Terrace of Elephants

Terrace of the Elephants

A 350m long platform adorned with elephant carvings (and some mahouts), this is where the king sat and watched the royal performances and military processions. I imagined being the king, walking from the royal palaces and looking over my great empire, gleaming with pride at my subjects.

The Terrace of the Leper King

Sites in Angkor Thom – The Terrace of the Leper King

Leper King Terrace is a 7m platform to the north of the Elephant Terraces. There are various explanations for this statue. One is that a king got leprosy and went to the jungle by himself to heal, but never came back. This structure is therefore an ode to him. Another theory is that it is a statue of the death god, Yama, and was therefore used as a crematorium.

When looking out to the square, as the king did, there are 12 laterite towers or stupas, these are the Prasat Suor Prat (literally “step on rope”). Ropes were stretched along these towers and acrobats would perform their tricks for the king. They were built by Jaywarman VII, possibly for his entertainment, possibly for other reasons.

Phnom Bakheng

Built during King Yasovarman I’s reign, this Buddhist and Hindu structure running up a hill is most popularly known as the place where hordes of tourists try to snap a sunset shot of Angkor Wat, around 1.5km away. It gets busy at sunset, you’ve been warned, but the view is spectacular.

Ta Prohm

The gorgeous and gigantic trees of Ta Prohm, spot the smiling Buddha

Yes, I’m going to start with the cliché, this is known to the world as the place where Angelina Jolie fell through the earth in Tomb Raider. I’m lucky I haven’t seen the movie as I’m sure it would have skewered my experience. Either way, Ta Prohm is spectacular. It’s other claim to fame is the enormous trees that grow around and extend out of its structure.

Originally known as Rajavihara (viha meaning “monastery” and raja being “king”), it was built by Jayawarman VII in 1186, 5 years after Bayon. The name changed later to a more Hindu nomenclature of Ta meaning “grandfather” and Prohm being the Khmer for “Brahma”, as it changed later on from Buddhist to Hindu. It was originally used as a monastery and Buddhist university where younger monks and novices studied. Jayawarman VII’s wife was a Buddhist teacher and taught here. Well, actually it was Jayawarman VII’s sister in law. When his wife passed away he married his sister in law. Why not.

Back when the structure collapsed, the government didn’t have the money to restore it, so they started to strategically plant trees (as our guide says, for the tourists). He then stated that he is not sure whether they will cut or preserve these trees in the future and says it all depends on the condition of the temple. He then laughed and said, “Maybe not cut”. I agree that they’ll keep the trees as it is the temple’s major feature. The trees are epic in scale and when looking closely there are Buddha faces hiding in the roots. Like most other Hindu temples in the area, it is surrounded by a moat, but had no water at the time of our visit. The clay absorbs the water very quickly in the dry season, but in the rainy season it is filled with water.

This remarkable sight was one of my highlights of the small tour as the grandeur of the trees was breathtaking and spotting the little Buddhas among the roots, exhilarating. At once an ode to the power of mother nature and the remarkable genius of the Khmer empire, Ta Prohm encompasses the idea of the circle of life. Those in it for Instagram will have to wait in line to get a snapshot the Jolie tree. If not, find a quiet place to rest those weary legs and soak in the magic of the area.

Between Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom (by the East gate of Angkor Thom) is Spean Thma, the bridge of stone, one of the few Khmer Empire bridges that has survived. Another great photo opportunity.

Banteay Kdei & Srah Srang

Banteay Kdei
 Banteay Kdei

Located southeast of Ta Prohm and east of Angkor Thom is Banteay Kdei or “A Citadel of Chambers”, a Buddhist monastery built during Jayawarman VII’s rule. It’s not in the best state due to hasty construction, but is still a beautiful sight to behold. Recognize the four smiling faces, which reminded me of a mini and less busy Angkor Thom.

East of Banteay Kdei is Srah Srang, a 700x300m reservoir. I saw little ones playing in the massive body of water to escape the blistering heat. It is known for its amazing sunset photo opportunities, which I missed on my stay. We did have lunch in the village of Srah Srang though, thanks to MAADS.ASIA and Templation, and it certainly was something out of the ordinary to eat in a local home surrounded by chickens, pigs, cows and the local Khmer. The meal was extraordinarily authentic.

Temples in the grand circuit (26 kms)


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Bantey Srei

Sites in the Small Circuit – Bantey Srei

Bantey Srei

Bantey Srei

This small Hindu temple, dedicated to Shiva, has detailed stone carvings that fill the site, definitely some of the most intricate in Angkor. Bantey Srei or “Citadel of the Women”, about a 45 minute drive from Siem Reap central, has a definitive feminine charm and definitely lives up to its name. From the pinkish hue of the stone to the more diminutive stature, it’s easy to get lost in the artistry that some say could have only been carved by women.



Preah Rup

Sites in the Small Circuit – Preah Rup

Here’s a cool architectural word to impress your friends – quincunx. This is basically a structure made of five points with four smaller points on the exterior and the fifth in the center. Think of rolling a five on a die, the arrangement of dots is a quincunx. Preah Rup, along with East Mebon, and of course Angkor Wat, is in a quincunx. Now you know. Rajendravarman II constructed Preah Rup meaning “Turning the Body” which refers to a method of cremation used at the time suggesting that it was a crematorium. Head here for sunset if you want a divine shot of rice fields.



Eastern Baray and East Mebon

Sites in the Small Circuit – Eastern Baray and East Mebon

Eastern Baray and East Mebon

As I mentioned previously, baray means “artificial body of water” or reservoir. Yet tourists won’t find much of that in Eastern Baray these days. Once an enormous reservoir, the now dried up basin is still worth a look, especially to take a peek at the now defunct island of East Mebon. A temple also constructed under the leadership of Rajendravarman II, the stand out feature is the almost perfectly intact statues of harnessed elephants.



Ta Som

Sites in the Small Circuit – Ta Som

Ta Som

Ta Som

Yet another structure built under the ambitious rule of Jayavarman VII, Ta Som, like it’s big brother Ta Prohm is originally a Buddhist temple that is known for the massive tree engulfing the eastern gopura (an entrance gateway to a Hindu temple).



Preah Khan & Neak Poan

Sites in the Small Circuit – Preah Khan & Neak Poan

Preah Khan & Neak Poan

Two more temples constructed by Jaywarman VII that are awe-inspiring and a bit less crowded than those at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Preah Khan (“Sacred Sword”), much like Ta Prohm is covered in towering trees, displaying its megalithic roots, particularly on the outer wall of the east gate (tourists usually enter at the west gate). Head over to Neak Poan, which is called “Intertwined Naga” which are clearly visible in the center of the central pool. It is a Buddhist temple that is surrounded by pools, so it is essentially an island. It is thus more impressive to view in or just after the wet season. Although not much remains of the four spout statues (elephant, horse, lion and human head spouts) it is still a marvelous sight.


Things to do in Siem Reap other than the temples 

Tonle Sap

Tonle sap

Tonle Sap lake and its floating houses along the river are a fantastic sight in theory, but the reality is usually an overpriced “cruise” where you look at the impoverished communities and face a stream of begging children in floating metal bowls. I didn’t visit this time as I found it to be like a really sad human zoo. If you want to learn more about life on the lake, I would recommend trying to find local who lives on Tonle Sap and have lunch with them rather than hopping on a boat ride. This was a really heartbreaking experience to me.

Phnom Kulen

Take a car ride and a trek up the sacred mountain, Phnoum Kulen. It is an historic place as well as a spiritual hub. Jayavarman II is said to have proclaimed independence from Java at this site, giving birth to the Khmer Empire. When summiting the mountain, there is a wat as well as a large Buddha carved into the stone. This is considered by many Khmer as the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, so be prepared for crowds.

Note that there is a $20 fee to enter the Phnom Kulen National Park (as a local businessman built a road and now charges for access) and there is a difference between the smaller waterfall in the National Park and the larger waterfall up the mountain after about a 6km hike from the National Park (also featured in Tomb Raider). Encounter many Khmer cleansing themselves in the holy water and still more begging or selling their ware while trodding up the hill. It is a popular weekend destination for the locals, so try go here in the week. And be prepared for the litter scattered by visitors. Get there early as it closes at 12 noon everyday (opening at 7am).

Museums and galleries


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Angkor National Museum

Museums and galleries – Angkor National Museum

A great alternative to hiring a tour guide when visiting the temples is taking a slow air-conditioned stroll around Angkor National Museum. It’s a massive complex (20,000sqm) with a range of artefacts and some fantastic historical information. There are eight different galleries to peruse, from Pre-Angkor facts to costumes, kings and culture. Entrance is $12, $3 to bring a camera and additional $3 for a headset.

Road to Angkor. Daily 08:30am-6:30pm

T: (063) 966 601

info@the-anm.com

Cambodia Landmine Museum

Museums and galleries – Cambodia Landmine Museum

During the brief and treacherous reign of the Khmer Rouge, landmines were planted throughout the country, specifically on the Cambodian/Thai border. At just 10 years old, Aki Ra, was taught by the deadly Communist Party to lay landmines. The Landmine Museum is an ode to this brave soul’s attempt to rid the country of these deadly weapons that have claimed the life of some 40,000 Cambodians thus far. Visit the museum and take in all the exhibitions to help Ra and the Cambodian Self-Help Demining (CSHD) to neutralize these hazardous territories. It is edifying, engaging and the minimal $5 entrance fee goes to a great cause.

6km south of Banteay Srey on road to Siem Reap, inside Angkor Park

Daily 07:30am-5:00pm

T: (015) 674 163

bill@landmine-relief-fund.com

Siem Reap War Museum

Museums and galleries – Siem Reap War Museum

A visit to the War Museum is a humbling experience, a different kind of humble from witnessing Angkor Wat. Apart from seeing war artefacts, learn all about Cambodia’s painful past that still plagues the Khmer people. By the end of the Khmer Rouge reign in 1979, between 1.5 million and 3 million men, women and children were killed. A most humbling fact that allows outsiders to appreciate the bustling, super friendly culture that exists today. Entrance fee is $5, there is no ATM and only cash is accepted.

Kaksekam Village, Sra Nge Commune, Siem Reap, Cambodia

National Road 6, close to Siem Reap International Airport

Open Mon-Sun, 8:00am to 5:30pm

info@warmuseumcambodia.com

McDermott Gallery

Museums and galleries – McDermott Gallery

Fans of photography, particularly images that capture Angkor Wat before the deluge of tourists came through, will find McDermott Gallery a fantastic stop. Witness a collection from legendary photographer John McDermott in this free to enter gallery.

Location: FCC Angkor, Pokambor Avenue (On the river next to the Royal Residence)

Call: +855 (0)12 274 274

Opening hours: 10am-10pm. Free entrance

Angkor Silk Farm

Museums and galleries – Angkor Silk Farm

A visit to the silk farm is invigorating after witnessing temples day in and day out. Observe traditional Cambodian silk making for free, in a fun and educational environment. It’s great for all members of the family. What’s more, there’s a free shuttle from Artisans Angkor departing at 09:30am or 1:30pm.

Puok District, National Road 6

Daily 08:00-17:00

T: (099) 555 109  

Cultural 


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Apsara at Por Cuisine

Cultural – Apsara at Por Cuisine


Apsara at Por Cuisine

Apsara at Por Cuisine


There are several places to watch traditional Apsara dancing. We headed to Por Cuisine where a younger cast of performers hit the stage to show off their skills. Before the Apsara performance, we saw the formal Blessing Dance, the fun Ploy Souy Dance, the jovial Cardamom Picking dance and the playful Fishing Dance. A delicious traditional Khmer meal comes with the performance where we could either choose from their a la carte menu or the set menu. I went with the set menu for $20, which I recommend. There is also a 4km radius free pick up for guests. Performances are daily between 7:30pm and 8:30pm.

No. 298, St. 22, Wat Bo Village, Sangkat Sala Kamroeuk, Siem Reap City, Siem Reap

reserve@porcuisine.com  / baty@porcuisine.com

+855 63 967 797



Phare, The Cambodian Circus

Cultural – Phare, The Cambodian Circus

Phare, The Cambodian Circus

Image: Phare

One of the more famous performances in Siem Reap, Phare is a spectacular extravaganza, think a smaller scale Cambodian Cirque du Soleil (with some of the performers even going on to perform for the internationally acclaimed brand). It is an extension of the NGO school Phare Ponleu Selpak Artistic Center in Battambang. I was blown away with this highly rated original performance that includes dances, acrobatics, circus and art. Tickets range from US$18 to 38 for adults and between $10 to 18 for children depending on the time of year and seating option chosen.

Comaille Road (behind Angkor National Museum), Siem Reap

T: (077) 562 565



Cambodian Cultural Village

Cultural – Cambodian Cultural Village

I don’t have kids in tow, but if you do, I heard that the Cambodian Cultural Village is a great, family-friendly way to kill some time. The kids will love the daily performances, the miniature landmarks and the ethnic traditional houses. You’ll love taking it easy and sitting down for a bit. ($15 pp)

Airport Road # 6, Khum Svay Dang Kum, Krus Village (between Airport and Siem Reap city centre, along National Road 6, 3 km from Siem Reap Airport)

+855 63 963098

10:00-18:30 daily



Cooking class with Templation

Cultural – Cooking class with Templation

Templation cooking

In the mood for something different that is equally exciting as it is tasty? Take a cooking class with Templation! We did and we were truly impressed. We did stay at Templation on our visit, but this is our own honest opinion. We woke up early and joined head chef and all-round wonderful person, Toek Menghout, on a ride to the local market. We were supposed to visit the local farm, but the roads were closed due to flooding, yet the market was just as impressive. Menghout is very knowledgable about local cuisine and guided us through the market purchasing and tasting anything we wished to try. We saw the strange jackfruit hanging all over the Templation grounds, but never had a chance to taste it. Menghout heard us talking among ourselves and without saying anything, bought some and popped it into our mouths. We later used it to make our desserts. Amazing.

Cooking at Templation

On return, we had a full culinary experience by the extravagant poolside. We were introduced to all the secrets of a real Khmer meal, from learning about all the spices that go into fish amok (“this is how my mother makes it”, stated one of the chefs) to the art of cutting star-shaped banana leaves. We were awarded with a certificate at the end before enjoying our food. The experience left us amazed and satisfied and is highly recommended for everyone visiting Siem Reap, not just guests. The food was seriously some of the best we had in Cambodia and chilling by the large pool after sweating by the traditional Khmer fire left us with a wide smile. Ice cold towels, water and thirst quenchers are constantly provided during the hands-on demonstration.

Food at Templation

Rok Rak Street, Modul 3, Phum Sla Kram, Siem Reap, Cambodia

info@templation.asia  +855 (0)63 969 345

Contact Templation for prices and rates

 


Markets

A visit to Cambodia would not be complete without going shopping at the local markets. I looked for goodies to take home at Psar Chas (Old Market) between Street 9 and Hospital Rd. The lesser known Psar Leu (High Market) is where I found Cambodian clothing for a cheaper price, but less souvenirs. After waking up a bit late after my post-temple nap, the Night Market was a fun way to collect souvenirs and clothing. It’s located at Stung Thmey Village, Sankat Svay Dangkum in walking distance from Pub Street and is (mostly) open until 12am. One final market that whet my shopping appetite was the Made in Cambodia Market, also located close to Pub Street and just across the Siem Reap River (10 min walk from Old Market). This is the place to find authentic Cambodian goodies, not the cheap stuff that is made elsewhere. The stalls catered for every interest and every budget. It is usually open three days a week from 12pm to 10pm, but dates and times do fluctuate in and out of season. Check their Facebook page for the latest opening slots. FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) has a few ground level high end shops that sell local designer’s clothes made with silk and premium materials. I have a couple of clutches and a scarf I bought years ago on my first visit and which I still use on dress-up nights out.

Pub Street and Sok San Road (Bar Street)

Looking for karaoke, live music, a swarm of tuk tuks and the epicenter of expat life? Then Pub Street, and across Sivatha blvd, Sok San Road (Bar Street) is the remedy for all tourists with homesick blues (with a dash of vibey Cambodian of course). This is the best area to find Western restaurants, happy hour specials, rooftop bars, nightclubs and all the backpackers looking for some fun (be warned that the sex tourism is a thing and stay far away from it). You can either take the same tuk tuk in and out if you organize a time and pick up location before, or just hail one when you’re done drinking and eating.

Kandal Village

 Kandal village with Thyda Sek, Sreyline and Little Red Fox Espresso

With its petite cafés, hipster hangouts and boutique stores that mostly all have some charitable goal, Kandal Village is an up and coming neighbourhood that feels more like an avenue in Paris than a road in Siem Reap. Come here for a great Mondulkiri coffee, and for the digital nomads like myself, the free wifi at The Little Red Fox Espresso. We had a chance to meet here with Thyda Sek, a French-Cambodian gentle soul who works for Azahar Foundation (running a socially conscious yoga studio) and has just opened her own little boutique Madamoiselle Thyda, selling only locally sourced products (other than the amazing international wine). Both the boutique and yoga studio are well worth a visit and Thyda is such a passionate and friendly soul, her do-good approach is contagious.

Where to stay

With foreign investment streaming into the tourism sector in Siem Reap there is no shortage of hotels to cater for anyone’s budget.

Backpackers will want to make a stop at Siem Reap Hostel. With free wifi, a poolside bar and even a yoga room, sharing a dorm is your cheapest option but there are private rooms available. Another option is self-proclaimed (on their website) best hostel in Siem Reap, Mad Monkey Hostel. With an outdoor pool and a dorm/private room option, backpackers usually stay at Mad Monkey for the party vibes.

Baby Elephant
Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel

Rather than paying the $35 for a private room at one of the hostels, fork out a little extra and stay at an actual hotel for a bit more solace. Baby Elephant Hotel is known for their five-star service and delicious (free) breakfasts. Arrange a tuk tuk driver through the hotel to avoid hassle. Relax by the pool after sweating the entire day with a $1 draught beer.

 The gorgeous Templation by MAADS

For your lux option, we would highly recommend Templation, a MAADS resort. We were fortunate enough to stay there and from the start it was nothing but perfect service led by proficient manager Ayub, scrumptious delights from head chef Toek, and just pure relaxation. It is eco-friendly, socially responsible and the free Bodia cosmetics (including the insect repellant) and breakfast were a bonus. It is also one of the more affordable luxury accommodations in Siem Reap and closest to Angkor Wat. Read my full review here.

Amansara
Image: Amansara 

If you want to truly splurge, you know I am a huge fan of Aman and addicted to their invisible hand service level. They have a property in Angkor called Amansara at their usual very steep prices so perhaps only for a special occasion.

What to eat in Siem Reap

Cambodian food is delicious!

You will find everything your culinary heart desires in Siem Reap. Yet instead of heading straight for burgers at Pub Street, I’d highly recommend sampling the local fare. I love Cambodian food.

Start with fish amok, a sort of fish mousse made with fresh coconut milk, slok ngor (a bitter local herb), and kroeung which is a distinctly Khmer curry paste that has flavours of lemongrass, ginger, and turmeric. It is either served in a banana leaf, or as we had it in Templation, a young coconut.

Not that into fish? Then char kroeung is your next best option. I’ve already explained kroeung above, so this dish is basically stir fried meat in kroeung. Choose from pork or chicken and be delighted. Similar is the block shaped lok lak that is garnished with lettuce, tomato, and other seasonal veggies. This is the dish we ate most on our trip.  

A simpler dish is bai sach chrouk, or just plain old pork and rice, a Khmer breakfast staple. Enjoy the thinly sliced, slow coal grilled pork, sometimes with spices, sometimes marinated in coconut milk or garlic.

Other staples include Nom banh chok (Khmer noodles), Lap Khmer (Lime-marinated Khmer beef salad) and Khmer red curry (not as spicy as you’d think). Feeling adventurous? Then nosh on some frog’s legs or red tree ants, quite delicious after getting past the fact we had ants in our mouths. Most dishes will be served with Kampot pepper. Yum. And definitely try as many fruits as you can, there are so many we’d never heard of before and were really fun to taste. We always asked the Khmer name and English name of the fruit so we knew what we liked.

The best restaurant in Siem Reap for fine-dining is Cuisine Wat Damnak, it has been awarded several accolades and serves some of the best Khmer inspired food in Cambodia. Book in advance to avoid disappointment as seats are taken fast and they do close during monsoon and European holiday seasons. Located on Wat Damnak Street. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 6.30-9.30pm.

Other standouts for fine dining include Chanrey Tree for inventive meals that are catered to the Cambodian palate, located on Pokambor Ave. Open 11am-2.30pm and then 6-10pm daily. Sugar Palm for traditional Khmer fare, located on Taphul Road. Open Monday-Saturday from 11.30am-3pm and then 5.30pm-10pm. Malis for authentic dishes with a modern flare, located on Pokambor Ave. Open 6am-10pm daily. Mie Café for Cambodian/European fusion, located at #0085, Phum Treng Khum Slorgram. Open Wednesday-Monday from 11am-2pm and then 5.30-9.15pm.

It’s also great to support a worthy cause with eating. So I headed to Marum. Marum is a hospitality training restaurant that was spearheaded by Friends International along with local NGO Kaliyan Mith, who is a member of a group of restaurants called Friends (forming the Tree Alliance) like the one in Hoi An. Marum is therefore a sort of school for those who want to break into the hospitality industry but are unable to. You can lick you fingers are tasting the small bites and the move over to the bigger selection of menu items. You must try the unusual lotus, jackfruit and coriander hummus. Go on, be adventurous. Located on #8A, B Phum Slokram (Between Wat Polanka and Catholic Church). Open daily from 11am-11pm.

How to get there

From Singapore, make the 2 hour flight directly into Siem Reap with Jetstar, Singapore Air and Silkair that depart around 2 and 4 pm every day.

Make sure to take one colour passport sized photo and US$30 cash for your visa on arrival. We waited in two queues of very unfriendly officials (probably the only unfriendly Cambodians in Cambodia) before collecting our bags.

I always need a SIM card, so I found a Telco booth as we went outside the airport on our right. They sell various different data plans depending on the length of stay. We got about 8GB of data for 30 days for about $6. The SIM at the airport is free and they installed everything for us. The coverage is far better than I thought it would be and works everywhere in Siem Reap apart from the more remote mountain tops.

Tuk tuks are available at the airport. Make sure to discuss the price before. The ride is about $10-$15 depending on where your hotel is situated. The hotel can organise an AC car instead. Tuk tuks are great but your hair will get filthy and dusty even before you get to your room.

Other important things to know

Visiting the temples

A one-day temple pass is $37, three days is $64 and the seven-day pass is $72. They took our photo on the spot at the Angkor Pass Ticketing booth. I kept my pass with me at all times in a safe place. No entry is allowed into the Angkor Archeological Park without it, no exceptions. After entering the Park, I needed it several times including entrance to the Bayon in Angkor Thom or ascending Angkor Wat.

I learned that it was better to get our tickets on the day we arrived to avoid waking up at a ridiculous hour to get it before sunrise. Visiting hours are 5:00am – 6:00pm. Angkor Wat closes at 6:00pm, Banteay Srey closes at 5:00pm and Kbal Spean at 3:00pm.

Follow the rules and codes of conduct such as covering your shoulders, not taking blatant photos of monks like they’re zoo animals and screaming to your partner inside the temple. This is a religious monument, act accordingly and respect the locals. Don’t be the appalling tourist who put a cigarette off against the ancient ruins (yep, I have seen a Chinese tourism do just that, mind you smoking is altogether forbidden), or who climbs up centuries old structures just for that stupid selfie, or who touched the ruins, they are very vulnerable to the wear and tear and have already survived many wars, don’t contribute to their damaging.

Currency

One interesting thing I learnt here is that US dollars or Cambodian riel are welcome – mostly everywhere in the country. But paying in dollars will get you change in both currencies. Good rule of thumb, 4,000 riel equals one dollar, no matter what the exchange rate is doing on that day.

Driving

Be prepared for a shift in driving mentality. The middle of the road is used for cars to take over and the side is reserved for motorbikes and tuk tuks or slower cars. Unlike other SEA countries, Cambodians do not incessantly hoot but rather give a light tap of the horn only to warn other drivers, who will pop out of nowhere, and children crossing the road – on motorbikes. Like in other SEA countries, children ride motorbikes that are also too big for them. Sometimes granny is chilling on the back of the bike, sometimes an entire family of four is on one bike. Embrace the culture and relax, traffic accidents mainly occur from drunk drivers, so calm down and trust the driver.

Make sure to discuss rates with tuk tuk drivers before embarking to avoid expensive surprises.

Insect repellant

There are mosquitos everywhere, so I rubbed, sprayed and doused myself in repellant at all times to avoid getting eaten alive. Sunscreen is a must and a hat useful.

Map

This is the ultimate addition to your #SiemReap and #AngkorWat Pinterest boards

Ultimate Guide to Siem Reap Cambodia