Siem Reap and the wonderful temples of the Angkor

For last winter’s getaway we chose Cambodia. I can tell it was absolutely the perfect choice.

The first day we decided to explore the city before visiting the temples. It quickly became obvious that the city is completely ruled by tourism. Luckily careful management and restrictions on building height and bus size prevented developers from deteriorating the city.

Besides the Angkor temples, Siem Reap’s other main tourist attraction is the Pub Street and Market Street full of cool bars and restaurants serving amazing food, street vendors selling the most delicious banana pancakes and pop up bars made of a motorcycle and a side carriage offering a variety of cocktails. At night time the biggest places are battling at which one of them can play the music louder.

There are many colonial buildings - most of them are hosting shops or restaurants - in the city centre and I was happy to see that they are well preserved not like in Jakarta, Indonesia where they were left to be eaten by the decades.

The people are so friendly, helpful and happy despite of their tragic history. There are more and more hotels and restaurants that support worthy causes or assist in the training of local people in their career in hospitality - the Mid City Hotel where we stayed was one of them. I personally think that the Khmer food is the most amazing in South-East Asia and I cheer for these amazing and ambitious young people to achieve their goals.

I would recommend to everyone that before visiting the temples for the first time, go to the Angkor National Museum. Besides it has a fantastic collection of original sculptures collected on the site of the temples, it tells the brief history of Siem Reap and the temples and provides information about Hinduism and Buddhism.

Eventually we found everything we learned on our first day very useful on the site in the next 3 days: 

  • The Angkor was discovered by French explorers in the 19th century and in 1907 with the return of Cambodian control the city started to grow and the ruins of the Angkor began to reappear from the jungle.
  • The restoration of the temples started in the 20th century and still going on. It is a great task, because the nature completely took over and there is always a risk that cutting out the structures would result in the temple’s collapse.  The French came up with the idea of reconstructing them with their original materials, and only where the original pieces couldn’t be found new but similar materials were permitted. Today extended with the help of Japanese, Chinese and Korean the latest technologies are applied to collect data and to restore the temples.
  • However, the terror of the Khmer Rouge left deep wounds on the Cambodian nation, the Angkor was merely touched. In the mid-1990s the country began its recovery towards a vibrant destination for tourists from all over the world.
  • Also learnt that the Angkorian period extents more than 600 years; beginning in 802 AD until the middle of the 15th century. With its prosperity and giant constructions the Khmer Empire was one of the greatest power in South-East Asia back at that time. Interestingly none of the dwellings, public buildings and palaces survived the centuries as long-lasting materials like brick or stone were reserved for the gods.
  • The structure of the temples were symbolising the Mt. Meru, the holy mountain at the centre of the universe. The steep angles and steps leading up to the altars were designed for one reason: one had to fight its way to the top to reach the gods.
  • The usual layout of the temples was organized around a central tower with 4 towers at the points of the compass, one entrance on the east and false entrances on the other 3 sides. The corridors and doorways are surprisingly narrow because the Angkorian architects never mastered the techniques to build a full arch. Instead, they laid blocks on top of each other until they met at a central point, called false arch and they can support very short spans.

The city worked out a very efficient system for the tourists to visit the UNESCO heritage site. There are daily, 3 day and one week passes. We bought the 3 day pass for only 40 usd.

The first day we decided to rent bicycles and to discover the area on our own. It was a great experience, even though my bike broke down in the middle of the day. We were a bit desperate how to continue, but luckily a local guy managed to fix it with a help of a decent sized piece of stone. I broke out in total laughter. We managed to visit Angkor Wat, Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei Temple, Sra Srang which was once the royal bathing pond, a Prohm aka Tomb Raider Temple and finished our route at Bayon for an amazing sunset.

The next two days we chose to take a tuktuk because the heat was unbearable. The second day we started with the brick-sandstone built Pre Rup - believed to be the location of funerals -, then continued to Eastern Mebon, to Ta Som, then followed to Preah Neak Pean which was built on an artificial island, and the water was believed to serve medical purposes. We finished our day at Preah Khan.

Our last day began with Bayon because we only saw it from outside on the first day. Its most distinctive feature is the smiling stone faces of Buddha on each towers looking in the directions of the compass. The outer gallery features a series of bas-reliefs depicting historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer. From here we continued to Baphuon Temple which was constructed for Hindu and Shiva and a 9 meter tall by 70 meter long statue of a reclining Buddha was built on the west side's second level. From here we walked to Phimeanakas that once housed the royal palace,  then we saw from the distance the Prasat Suor Prat, crossed the Terrace of the Leper King and then took our tuktuk to Thommanon Temple which is right in front of Chau Say Tevoda. After that we visited the Ta Keo Temple, said to be the first sandstone temple in the Angkor. Our next stop was the Ta Nei Temple which is a bit remotely located and despite we had to push the tuktuk through the deep sand a few times it was an absolute untouched wonder to see as the last Angkor temple of our trip.

In the last two days we continued enjoying the lovely food, walked in the centre, watched the new Star Wars in the cinema (it was released earlier there than in China, and couldn't miss the opportunity) and of course celebrated the new year with the energetic youngsters of Siem Reap.

I would encourage everyone to visit this fantastic part of the globe and I also look forward to see it again one day.


Siem Reap