For a very long time, Siem Reap was a small town in the north west of Cambodia that if anyone visited it at all, it was because of the nearby Angkor Wat, one of the great monuments of the world. People still visit it because of Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap has become a destination in its own right. It has a post-French colonial cool all of its own, which is enough to tempt many travellers. But a word of caution; Cambodia has several micro climates and in this part of the country things get hot. They get very hot indeed.
On the taxi journey to Siem Reap, I met Jimi, a very interesting guy from India, who is now working abroad. As I mentioned, his brother runs the guesthouse The River Queen in Siem Reap, which I recommend you investigate.
As for Siem Reap itself, the town’s name literally means ‘Siam Defeated’, which refers to the Khymer sacking of the Thai city of Ayutthaya in the 17th Century, if you ever get the sense Thai people look down on Cambodia, this does nothing in their defence. Imagine Anglo-Euro relations if Manchester was re-christened Germany Defeated. Yeah, see what I mean? Bold and blunt people, those Cambodians. I’m just glad they weren’t on the losing side; just imagine.
Siem Reap is quite a nice town, showing off much of its previous French influence and its Colonial buildings and tree lined boulevards do give it a unique charm, although the recent addition of ‘Pub Street’ does remind me more of the more hedonistic sights of the Costa Del Sol.
My stay in Siem Reap was at The Dancing Frog hostel, which was a pleasant enough stay. However, while in Siem Reap I finally succumbed to stomach issues, a moment I had been anticipating since I arrived in South East Asia, and began eating the food and just generally engaging with an alien environment. That Khymer Soup I bought from a street stall probably didn’t help either. There were more flies than people queuing up for that business; one of them was so big it could have been thinking about taking a chair. I just wish I’d seen them all before I placed my order, sat down and put the last spoonful in my mouth.
Anyway, more about the outcome of that later, not to mention my adventures actually in Siem Reap, including the fascinating Nick Dale and his in progress book about his transgender daughter. That was quite a story. But more about him later. The main attraction, while in Siem Reap, is undoubtedly the Angkor temple complex, and Angkor Wat in particular. Angkor Wat, for those not in the know, is the largest religious monument in the world. Its name literally means ‘City which is a temple’ If there’s one thing you’re possibly picking up from this blog article, it’s that the Khymer people tell it like it is when it comes to place names. The Angkor complex is very close to Siem Reap. In a car, if you put your foot down, you could reach your first temples in less than 20 minutes, but this is a journey you’ll want to savour, so speed won’t be your aim.
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th Century by King Suryavarman II, at the height of The Khymer Empire, one of the great Asian civilizations. It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, with the whole layout based on a mandala, the sacred design of the Hindu cosmos. It is now considered a sacred Buddhist site, having been converted to a Buddhist temple in the 14th century. There are three levels to Angkor Wat before you reach the inner shrine, and it’ll take you a fair while to walk there. By that point you’ll have had the experience of walking through the main causeway and into the temple proper, a never to be repeated experience of awe and jaw dropping disbelief. It will stay with you for a very long time, perhaps forever. One of the seminal, singularly impressive moments of my trip, I have to admit. I don’t have the in depth knowledge to do Angkor Wat justice, but I do urge you to investigate it further. It truly is one of the man made marvels of the world. Extraordinary.
The day before I’d visited many of the ‘lesser’ temples around Angkor, which proved to be on eof the hottest days I experienced in South East Asia. Trust me, if you’re not wearing sun screen, a hat and drinking lots of water you will suffer the consequences.
Here I am, looking bucket soaked and on the verge of sun stroke, and with an unreliable camera stick, but still willing to do an impromptu outside broadcast for you good people:
Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples in Cambodia. Some are far away from where I was based, and have truly been enveloped by the jungle, but are now slowly being offered as realistic tourist destinations. Other temples in the vicinity of Siem Reap include Angkor Thom, which was the largest city in the Khymer Empire at the time (late 12th Century), and includes The Bayon, an extraordinary structure featuring 54 towers, three levels and 200 huge stone faces, which may represent the all seeing and knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Try saying that after a few Khymer beers. Elsewhere in the vast complex, Ta Prohm is practically a ruin, but its beauty lies in the way the temple has almost become one with the forest, with great buttresses entwined with the masonry. Many of you will know Ta Prohm from its memorable appearance in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.
As I explain in the video clip, the usual practice for tourists is to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day. A taxi would be far too expensive, and a tuk tuck means you get to ride around din the fresh air. Well, when I say ‘fresh air’, I am referring to some of the most stifling heat I’ve ever known. Fortunately my man had a seemingly unending supply of ice cold water, so respect due to him.
So, the most visually impressive part of the trip and in some respects a highlight. But there’s still plenty more to come…
Next time: elephants, monkeys and more temples!