Angkor Wat is a “Must See”
While there is more to do in Cambodia than visit Angkor Wat, it would be remiss not to explore the historic World Heritage Site. So, we spent one day in Siem Reap, “Temple Hopping.”
We start early to fit everything in and see the sunrise behind the five towers. As our guide quips, “The sunrise doesn’t wait for us.”
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
There’s some delay at the ticket checkpoint. Vans, cars and remarques (what Cambodians call tuk-tuks) filled with eager travellers stream past our stationary van. Thoughts of going back to bed fly through my head. Recalling that in Cambodia time slows, I breathe and enjoy watching the passing parade. “Go with the flow,” I tell myself.
Dawn at Angkor Wat
Watching the sunrise
It all sorts itself out, and soon we’re walking, torches lighting our way along the straight, sealed road. The gathering of early risers builds, but we quickly find a seat on a low wall alongside the moat. A red waterlily flower pokes through the surface of the still water.
The growing crowd produces a gentle murmur as the sky gradually lightens, except for the voice of our guide imparting historical and architectural knowledge, which seems to annoy the woman next to me. She huffs and puffs as he drones on.
Take notice of the details.
Translated from the Khmer, Angkor Wat means “City Temple.” Built in the 12th century, it faces west, unlike other temples. They face east. Bamboo rafts, ox carts, slaves and 40,000 elephants transported the sandstone and laterite used in the construction of Angkor Wat, which covers an area four times that of the Vatican City.
A soft breeze ripples on the water as a silhouette of the five towers emerges. Pastel blues and pinks colour the sky. A stray dog trots up and licks the man sitting next to me. Clad in bright orange lycra, a cycling club whizzes past.
Entering Angkor Wat
We walk along the stone causeway to the central gate. Bullet holes, one still housing a bullet, remind us of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Blackened with age, intricate carvings of apsaras at the entrance indicate what is to come.
A tempting coffee aroma
Breakfast and Souvenirs
Getting into the swing of things, five tourists, all wearing matching “I love Cambodia” t-shirts and happy pants, gather at a pool for selfies. Hawkers surround us with cries of “You want a coffee? Breakfast? Sir?” The coffee smells inviting, but we refrain.
Spend Time Appreciating the Detail
Our guide launches into an explanation of the intricate basrelief carved into the temple wall. The story, carved over thirty years, is detailed and lengthy, too long, with the sun beating relentlessly. Finally, we are released to explore on our own.
The detail in the carvings, to quote the cliché, must be seen to be believed. Little flowers decorate the chest plates worn by warriors; the weave of their loin cloths is visible. Smiling apsaras wear subtly different headdresses, their hands in a delicate dance.
I opt to climb up to the third level, the highest level open to visitors. There’s a short wait, then stepping onto the first of many narrow wooden steps. I grip the metal handrail, and slowly but surely, I ascend. The line of people behind me means no stopping. At the top, I take a minute to catch my breath.
The view makes the climb worthwhile.
It is steeper than it looks.
It’s confusing. Angkor is divided into Angkor Thom, the city, and Angkor Wat, the temple complex. But Bayon Temple is within the walls of Angkor Thom.
We enter Angkor Thom via the Thonle Om or Southern Gate. The face of Buddha carved into the archway over the road welcomes us. Fifty-four stone giants form a guard of honour on either side of the causeway. Those on the left smile slightly. They represent ‘good.’ The menacing faces of those on the right represent ‘evil’.
Most of our group agrees that of the temples we visit today, Bayon is our favourite. On one wall, intricate bas-reliefs depict a Khmer army on the march, complete with attendant families, oxcarts and elephants. Another wall is devoted to naval pursuits and the sea. One exceptionally detailed carving shows a crocodile grasping a person around the waist.
Crocodile in Action
Two hundred and sixteen faces once adorned 52 temple towers (four on the face of each building). Today, 37 towers with 173 faces remain. Our guide jokes, “Everywhere Buddha is keeping an eye on you.” Looking carefully, I see large carvings of lotus flowers resting on their heads.
A group of photographers feed a troupe of monkeys. The monkeys became aggressive as we passed, making our walk to the Phimeanakas Temple in the Palace Complex fraught. Trees provide welcome shade from the oppressive sun. Birds twitter in their branches. Butterflies flutter from plant to plant. It’s peaceful here. Once we’ve passed the monkeys, that is.
I’m keeping a safe distance.
Thank goodness for the shade
Palm Boo Restaurant
Lunch in the airconditioned Palmboo Restaurant is light and tasty. Traditional fish amok (a Cambodian seafood curry) and other tasty dishes, including deep-fried spring rolls and Siem Reap sour soup, create a delicious feast.
Fresh Coconut Juice
Tasty Fish Amok
The restaurant gives leftover food to the village children, who crowd around as we leave, trying to sell us trinkets. We’ve been advised not to buy from them as the practice discourages them from attending school.
Ta Prohm or the Tomb Raider Temple
Our last temple visit is high on the list of most travellers. It’s Ta Prohm, or as film buffs call it, “The Tomb Raider Temple.”
The smooth, wrinkled roots of fig, banyan, and kapok trees crawl over sandstone walls like long gnarled fingers reaching into the ground searching for treasure. Only a few of the trees, which germinated from seeds dropped by birds, survive. Most have been cleared.
Tendrils suffocate the walls.
What does this remind you of?
Many of the structures are unsafe. Large blocks of stone could be dislodged. Sticking to the path is best, which means crawling through archways supported by steel rods. An Indian team of archaeologists is working to restore the temple.
Introducing Cambodian Culture
Throughout our temple tour, our guide imparts snippets of general knowledge. Number nine is a lucky number in Cambodia. Steps to homes are built in groups of nine. Temples always have an uneven number of towers.
Cambodians don’t shake hands. Bringing the hands together as if in prayer, with a slight bow, they perform ‘sampeah.’ Depending on the standing of the person they are greeting, the tips of the fingers may reach their chest, chin, nose or, for a god, even higher.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
An offering at Angkor Wat
He describes the many uses of the Khmer krama (pronounced crumb-are), a long wide scarf usually with a gingham pattern. Wrapped around the head it protects women from the sun, worn around the neck, men use it to wipe the sweat off their brow when labouring, mothers shape them into a hammock to carry young infants, and women roll them into a ring to place on their head to support pots of water.
Another Delicious Khmer Meal
Whoever said Cambodian food isn’t great didn’t eat at Palate Angkor Restaurant. There, we dined yet another fabulous meal of Khmer cuisine, as always beautifully presented. The menu features tiger prawns in two ways: mango salad and stir-fried with a hint of lime, chicken skewers in red curry, bananas in coconut milk, and more.
Not wanting the day to end, we take a remarque to Pub Street. The cacophony of sound and flashing coloured neon lights overwhelm me. I can’t stay here, but I walk up and down to say I’ve been here and then take a side street to the night market.
Not my scene
Backtracking a bit
Last night, I met Akim Ly, founder of Akim Vespa, which runs food tours in Siem Reap. She told me that the vendor in Phnom Penh “lied” and that the tarantula I ate there was “old.” When I mentioned that the tail tasted like sawdust, she added that I shouldn’t have eaten the tail: “it’s like eating the poo.”
A Fresh Tarantula
Determined to improve my first experience, I sampled another tarantula in Siem Reap’s night market. This time, the spiders are on skewers, freshly fried. Some in our group are game to try a leg. We all agree they are crunchy but soft, salty and quite edible. This time, I don’t need a tissue.
I’ll try the tarantula, not the scorpion or snake
Now for the big test. The vendor removed the head, passed me the body, and took the tail away. She knows that the tail is not to be eaten. I bite down. The juice explodes into my mouth. It is palatable, but now that I’ve been there and done that, I’m not likely to repeat the experience.
One regret is that our bus didn’t stop at Skun. There, I could have experienced a live tarantula run along my arm.
Is One Day in Siem Reap Sufficient?
Exploring the Temples in Siem Reap, especially under an unrelenting sun, is challenging but rewarding. If possible, spread your visit over a couple of mornings. In the afternoons, visit some social enterprises helping train and educate local people. For me, that will have to be another time.
Note: My time in Siem Reap was arranged and hosted by Tour Specialists Cambodia and the Cambodia Tourism Association (Siem Reap Chapter). I joined a cruise through Cambodia and Vietnam as a CF Mekong River Cruises guest on the New Discovery Program.
Written by: Joanne Karcz
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