Siem Reap and Angkor rock!

Wow, Siem Reap – the tourist city that serves as hub to the nearby area of Angkor -really rocks. In the very sense of the term.

If you like ancient sites and ruins (like me) then this place is ten times bigger and better than Disneyland can be for a ten year old kid. Many travelers have high expectations before they visit Siem Reap and the ancient Angkor sites. So far all those I’ve met, told me that these expectations were even exceeded.

Angkor Wat

However, if you are not into such archaeological places in general, you probably will get bored and see a pile of stones at the end of the day. I’ve seen couples, where the hubby got drunk at a food stall next to a temple, while his wive was enthusiastically taking pictures. This place might test your relationship.

Fact is, that Angkor is “one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations.” (source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre)

There are more than 50 (!) major archaeological sites, such as the Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, Baksei Chamkrong, Banteay Kdei, Banteay Samré, Banteay Srei, Baphuon, the Bayon, Chau Say Tevoda, East Baray, East Mebon, Kbal Spean, the Khleangs, Krol Ko, Lolei, Neak Pean, Phimeanakas, Phnom Bakheng, Phnom Krom, Prasat Ak Yum, Prasat Kravan, Preah Khan, Preah Ko, Preah Palilay, Preah Pithu, Pre Rup, Spean Thma, Srah Srang, Ta Nei, Ta Prohm, Ta Som, Ta Keo, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Thommanon, West Baray and the West Mebon. On top of this, there are about 150+ minor sites and temples in the same area. Quite enough to see and do for a week, which I decided to spend in Siem Reap.

However, to avoid “ruin and stone overload”, I planned three days of visit, then one day relaxing an bumming around downtown Siem Reap, then another two days of visits. My routes for day 1, 2, 3 and 5 were fairly standard ones, usually they are sold as “small”, “big”, “faraway” and “Ruluos” tuk-tuk tours through various guest houses. On the last day, I chose to visit some left out places that looked interesting in the “National Geographic’s” guidebook about Angkor.

Sitting in the middle of a bunch of rocks

Day 1: Angkor Wat, South Gate, Bayon, Baphuon, Terrace of Elephants, The Royal Palace, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Leper King, Victory Gate, Chau Say Thevoda, Thommanon, Ta Keo and Ta Promh. I would have actually continued that day, but the fully charged batteries of my camera went empty (serious).
Day 2: North Gate, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup, Sras Srang, Ta Prohm (rest of the first day) and Banteay Kdei.
Day 3: Banteay Srey, Landmine Museum and Banteay Samre.
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Ruluos Group: Bakong, Preah Ko, Lolei and Phnom Bakheng (sunset)
Day 6: Baksei Chamrong, Prasat Bei, East Gate, Spean Thma, Chapel of the hospital, Ta Nei, Prasat Kravan and Wat Athvea.

Unfortunately, the temples might become soon a victim of their own success, as the number of visitors has increased from 500 per day in the year 2000 to 3000 per day in 2008. There is an interesting article in the Washington Post outlining the problematics. Since it is low (rain) season, the places are not too crowded. And given a little bit of patience, pictures of most of the sites can be taken without featuring any stray tourists.

However, in the high-season, taking such pictures is almost impossible. Most of the success of this site is due to the 2001 movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider“, the filming locations were Phnom Bakheng, the Bayon temple of Angkor Thon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat. The latter one was set to be looming over a Cambodian village, near a river, which is not the case in reality. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a pond and bamboo-style food stalls are the only buildings in the vicinity.

My secret tip (so – don’t tell anyone): If you are interested in temples like “Ta Promh” (where the jungle trees grow over the ruins), visit “Ta Nei” instead. It is a bit smaller. Since “Ta Promh” is highly popular, you’ll have a hard time to get a nice shot without people in it. “Ta Nei” on the other hand is off the tourist route and you have to walk about 1km on a flat, well maintained dirt road next to “Ta Keo”. Vehicles are not allowed there on that road. During my visit of “Ta Nei”, there were absolutely no tourists and I had the place for more than an hour to myself.

Hanging out with locals after sunset

Sokun, my trusty tuk-tuk driver and I became friends over the week and he invited me to beer and a true Khmer dinner in a local hangout. We did eat what the locals call “Cambodian Cheese”. The more official name is “Prahok“. Since this meal consists essentially of a salted and fermented mud fish paste (into which you’d dip veggies and meat), the smell is somewhat unusual and most foreigners probably will resist eating this. And probably it is a practical joke the Cambodians play with tourists to see how squeamish you’d be. There are options to season the Prahok with crushed peanuts, lemon or chili pepper. This Cambodian meal is a perfect example for food that smells bad – but actually tastes rather good.

On a more serious note, we did also visit a local school for poor students in Siem Reap. The Buddhist monks take usually care of sheltering and feeding the poor, abandoned or homeless children. They have to work and to study in return – with an emphasis on work. However, schools have little to no money to pay teachers or to maintain school material. The place I visited had problems with the garden roof and students were eager to get their hand on an English-Cambodian dictionary. Very basic needs. 400 students coming from the aforementioned unfortunate background are learning various languages (English, Japanese, Chinese and Thai), so they will be ready for the future job market. However, there is no English teacher who is willing to volounteer. This is absolutely strange in a place, where a few kilometers down the road, the de facto language is English and where potential teachers seem to be abundant.

If you’re interested, this is the school’s address: CTC, Wat Ateva (Pagoda), Krosang Roleung Village, Siem Reap Commune, Cambodia
(If you need their phone or email address, let me know so I can forward these details to you)

Cambodians are joking and smiling a lot. Given the historical and current events background, this is a very much needed character quality of the people here. So, Sokun took me out to meet his friends who were cruising by their moto’s along a boulevard in the outskirts of Siem Reap. There were the same mobile food stands, as in the tourist place and many people sat down, did eat and drink. The basic reason for this happening was to watch the sunset and to have fun. The atmosphere was full of joy and laughter. I was laughing like never before in a single evening, although most of the stuff didn’t make it translated to me.

Actually, Cambodia rocks!