Six hours by road, deep into the Cambodian countryside lies a once forgotten city – a city of temples, created by Hindu kings whose subsequent Buddhist successors made it into a place for Buddhist pilgrimage. N was in Cambodia on work, so all we had was the weekend to make a dash to Siem Reap and back. If the purse strings can be relaxed, fly from Phnom Penh into Siem Reap. ( Siem Reap can be reached by air from many cities across South East Asia). Since we were on a strict budget and last minute flight fares brought a lump to the throat, we decided on taking the bus. The bus is a great option, barring the slight inconvenience that it takes about 6 hours to reach Siem Reap!
So we set off bright and early on a Saturday, excited to finally see the iconic temple of Angkor Wat. The travel to Siem Reap is through a pretty much untainted countryside. If you do the Saturday-Sunday trip to Siem Reap, then you will chase a beautiful sunset back to Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap is a tourist town – everything in this little city is geared towards tourism. There are hotels for travellers of every budget. We took a three-wheeler to ours, the drivers are smart enough to ensure that they are your tour-drivers for the duration of your stay there! We had one too.. who ferried us to our hotel and then waited patiently for us to freshen up to take us to Angkor Wat. If you are do a hasty trip like we did, remember to make most of the sunlight available. Forego the lunch, grab a sandwich and head off to explore the complex.
I pride myself on being a traveller who does her homework, at least a bit of reading. But no amount of reading prepared me for the temple city of Angkor Wat. If you have the luxury of time, then I’d suggest go straight for the $60 three-day pass! ( prettty steep if you compare it with the prices of hotels and food even in expensive hotels!) We thought we had our preferences sorted, so we did a day pass, when we had just 3-4 hours left before the complex closed for the day. We rued it later and had to pay for another day pass for another 3 hours of opportunity to see a bit more.
The 12th century Angkor Wat temple was begun by the Khmer Hindu king Suryavarman has several friezes of stories from Mahabharata. After the Khmer Hindu kingdom was overcome by the Chams, Suryavarman’s successor, Jayavarman established his capital city in the neighbouring Angkor Thom with the Bayon temple as the new temple citadel. From Hinduism, the temples became centres of pilgrimage for Theravada Buddhism, to this day!
There is something hauntingly melancholic but infintely beautiful about watching monuments several centuries old in the fading sunlight. The sky narrates warm stories, while the temples stand cold and silent, possessively holding back stories of the men and women who have worn down the sharp stones into a smooth roundedness.
I’m told that Plae Pakaa, a fabulous theatrical ensemble of songs and dances from Cambodia’s rich past before the Khmer Rouge darkness descended on the country is now performed in Siem Reap as well! Don’t miss it, we caught it in Phnom Penh. Today, a leather shadow puppet I picked up as a souvenir from the show reminds me often of how spectacularly colourful and beautiful the show was!
Angkor Wat is a surreal sight, with lotus ponds in the foreground that faithfully reflect the magnificence of the silhouette. However, when I think back, the Bayon temple ( more familiar as the temple of stone faces) impressed me far more. N and I consider the 40 dollars extra that we shelled out to make our way to see Bayon, Ta Prohm and other important bits of the extended complex well-worth it. If we saw the Angkor Wat temple by the setting sun, we were at the Bayon temple soon after the sun had risen in the horizon. The first view of the temple with faces assembled out of carved tone slabs strikes awe. Remember these were created in the early thirteenth century, when Europe was still grappling with the Dark Ages. Civilisations were flourishing in South East Asia, magnificent monuments that speak of the architectural advances already made – stones carried by elephants and horses up massive ramps to erect temples.
Imagine this complex had gotten overridden by dense forests due to centuries of neglect and disuse and was re-discovered in the early twentieth century! Since then the archaeological teams from several countries have helped re-construct and restore several parts of this complex. The Ta Prohm temple ( better known as the Tomb Raider temple), guides here still talk about watching Angeline Jolie shoot here, is a sight straight out of a horror film. Temples sprung around trees or vice-versa? I wonder. I’m told that when trees grew roots into the stone structures, a decision was taken not to disturb the new ecosphere. It’s a matter of personal pride as an Indian, to read boards put up by the Archaeological Survey of India, the agency in charge of restoration of Ta Prohm. A large part of the temple is in ruins, but making your way over the roots that have grown deep into the ground is a surreal experience in itself!
Breaking your trip by noon and resuming it by evening is a good tip I can offer to avoid the scorching sun. We travelled in August when the weather was hot, muggy and the Sun relentless. A hat, sunglasses, a scarf and a bottle of water can definitely go a long way to avoid sun-stroke! And don’t forget to shop for souvenirs and paintings – I picked up some beautiful art-work by a young boy sitting just inside the Ta Prohm premises. If you have an eye to sift through souvenirs, you can pick up some lovely memorabilia including Buddha figurines carved in stone apart from art depicting the Cambodian countryside and apsaras.
I regret that I only had a day and half to spend in Siem Reap. I hope to make my way back there sometime in the years to come. If you are a lover of history and architecture, spare yourself the disappointment, keep at least three days in your itinerary for Siem Reap. The Tonle Sap lake, one of the biggest of Cambodia is about an hour away. Perhaps that’s another place you can head to. If you have done that, drop me a line and tell me how it was. I have put it down on my Things to Do for the next visit!
- Where we stayed – Frangipani Hotel Siem Reap
- The price of entry to Angkor Wat – $20/entry
- Bus fare per person Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Phnom Penh – Approx $60
- Three-wheeler fares – Negotiable!
- Currency Exchange Rate – Highly favourable if you have USD, In Indian money too doesn’t pinch much!
- Tips: Welcome!