For most people, the only reason for visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia is just to visit the Angkor Wat, one of the oldest of the seven wonders of the world. But Siem Reap holds more questions than answers and one cannot but wonder what has actually transpired over the centuries. So a quick but feeble attempt would be to spend about four to five days exploring the nooks and crannies of Siem Reap in order to have a better understanding of the past, present and future of this wonderful civilisation.
I will divide the itinerary into three parts:
a) The Tragic Events in Cambodia's Recent History
b) The Ancient Glorious History of Cambodia
c) The Present Day, and Life around Siem Reap (Part II)
Getting to Siem Reap holds little problems transiting by air from neighbouring cities like Singapore or Bangkok. I was pleasantly surprised by the availability of 4G+ connectivity all around the city and even into the villages fronting the Tonle Sap lake, Southeast Asia's largest inland lake. But more of that later.
You can get your SIM card from the airport and a week's unlimited data access costs as little as US$5. By the way, the country just loves US$, so bring loads of this, as the country strives on tourist dollar.
Once you get hold of a SIM card, you are ready to use Grab (the undisputed Uber of Asia) to get around the city. Transportation charges are relatively cheap, around US$2-3 for anywhere around town if you take the local version of the official Grab "tuk-tuk". It can take four adults, but with a bit of coaxing, the driver is fine with five.
So the first thing I was curious about was the name of the city Siem Reap. After all we are not in Siam (the old name for Thailand). So what gives? It turns up that Siem Reap means "Siam Defeated", ironic as ultimately, Siam was the one that conquered the whole region from 1794 till 1904.
a) The Tragic Events of Cambodia's Recent History
No visit to Siem Reap is complete without a visit of one of the many memorials to the "Killing Fields" where anyone with even a semblance of being an intellectual (e.g. wearing spectacles) is put to death by the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
One close to the main town centre is Wat Thmey. Here you can see the many skulls of Cambodians who were buried in the mass graves around the area. An estimated 1.3 million people perished under the hands of the Khmer Rouge, with many more from starvation and disease. Considering that the population of Cambodia then was about 8 million, this was genocide at an epic level rivalling the likes of Auschwitz.
War Museum Cambodia
Cambodia was not spared during the Vietnam War where the Americans aided the newly formed government under Prime Minister General Lon Nol who deposed the monarchy under Norodom Sihanouk to battle against the Khmer Rouge supported by the North Vietnamese. You can catch a glimpse of the military armament used at the War Museum.
b) The Ancient Glorious History of Cambodia
There are numerous temples all around Siem Reap all attesting to the fact that a wondrous civilisation existed in the ancient past between the 9th and 13th centuries. In fact what we know now of Thailand all the way to the coastal regions of Vietnam and Laos were part of the Khmer Empire. They had trade links with other seafaring empires as far away as China and Java.
As tourism is all controlled by the government, you have to purchase a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day pass from the Angkor Ticket Office to visit the many temples in the city.
Recent studies by CALI (Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative) reveal that Angkor was the largest city in the world before the era of Industrialisation in Europe. It was estimated to be around 1,000 square kilometers and housed between a quarter and three-quarters of a million inhabitants due to its elaborate water storage and management system. This system was also the reason for its downfall - prolonged drought and disrepair of the drainage system clogged up by the mud thereafter brought the population to its knees and eventually it was too weak to protect itself from the constant ravages of the surrounding empires of Thailand and Vietnam.
Of course what tourists see of Siem Reap as it exists today is only of the temple at Angkor Wat.
To get a greater sense of the immense history of Siem Reap, visit the many temples sprawled around the city. Preah Ko (Khmer for The Sacred Bull) was the first temple built in the ancient defunct city of Hariharalaya (today called Roulos) located some 15km from Angkor. Built in 879, it reveres the Hindu deity Shiva in honour of the family members of the Khmer King Indravarman I.
Located just to the south of Preah Ko, Prasat Bakong, built in 881 is a temple representing the cosmic Mount Meru in Hindu tradition. Upon entering the temple, it reminds me of the one at Borobudur, Jogjakarta in Indonesia, with its square base and five-tier design. There have been suggestions that it served as a prototype for the architectural design of Bakong. If that is the case, then it is mind-boggling how the ancient traders and sailors were able to exchange not only goods but also skillsets, knowledge and religious beliefs and traditions between the Khmer Empire and the Sailendras Empire in Java, Indonesia.
Both Preah Ko and Prasat Bakong are worth a visit if you plan to go to the coastal villages along the Tonle Sap lake such as Kompong Khleang.
A short distance from the Angkor Wat temple is Angkor Thom - the Great City of Angkor. It was the last capital of the Khmer Empire and housed the priests, officials of the palace and the military. It is a good place to visit, especially so if you have already woken up early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The walled city surrounded by a moat housed the temples of Bayon in the centre and Baphuon towards the north-western end.
The temple of Bayon is located in the centre of Angkor Thom. One of the most photographed sites apart from Angkor Wat itself, there are over 50 towers and with over 200 faces carved into the sandstone towers. There are various theories as to who the faces represent. Some scholars speculate that it is the ruler King Jayavarman VII himself whilst others say that it represents the Buddha in a state of enlightenment. All the faces are smiling serenely and with their eyes closed.
The three-tiered temple located inside Angkor Thom was built in the middle of the 11th century and was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. However, by the end of the 15th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple and a 70 meter-long statue of the reclining Buddha was built on the western periphery of the second tier. If you look long enough, you can just make out the head of the reclining Buddha towards the left of the photograph below.
A short distance east of Angkor Thom is Ta Prohm, noted for its massively overgrown tree roots digging into the walls of the temple. It is made famous by the movie "The Tomb Raider" as several scenes in that movie were filmed there.
With careful planning, all the places - Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuom and Ta Prohm can be visited in about half to a full day, depending on how long you spend getting that perfect Instagram photo. But do take the effort to wake up early for the sunrise at Angkor Wat and then spend the day wondering around the many temples in and around Angkor Thom.
Phnom Kulen (or Kulen Mountain)
About 50km or around a two hour journey from the city stands Cambodia's most sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen. Deeply steeped in Khmer tradition, Phnom Kulen is said to be the birth place of the Khmer Empire when at 802AD Jayavarman II delared himself a devaraja or "god-king". Taking a tuk-tuk is not recommended as the 12km dirt road up to the peak is torturous and full of twists and turns.
Visit the famous "River of a Thousand Lingas", Kbal Spean with its riverbed etched with carvings of Hindu gods and other Hindu symbols is believed to date as far back as the reign of King Udayadityavarman II. The picture below is a carving in the riverbed of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.
Wat Preah Ang Thom
At the top of the mountain sits Wat Preah Ang Thom, a sacred temple and a place of worship for the Cambodians. Climb to the top to view the spectacular panaroma of the surrounding landscape and also to pay a visit to the wat (temple) that houses a giant reclining Buddha and other ancient scripts. There is also an imprint of the foot of Buddha at the base.
Otherwise known as the Citadel of Women, Banteay Srei, the pink sandstone structure is much smaller compared to Angkor Wat, it contains one of the finest and most intricate carvings in all of Siem Reap. This temple is definitely worth a visit. Built in 967 by Yajnavaraha, a Brahmin priest, it was only rediscovered in 1936.
A trip to the Kulen Mountains to visit Kbal Spean, Wat Preah Ang Thom and Banteay Srei takes the better part of a full day, with rest stops visiting the upper and lower waterfalls for a refreshing dip.
It is M.K. Wong's dream to visit at least 50 countries before his feet can carry him no more. With over 35 countries under his belt, M.K. is planning for his next escapade.