When I mentioned to my contractor I was headed to to Siem Reap this past weekend, he remarked, “The temples are nice but I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed at the end. It’s just a pile of rocks. The Colosseum, the pyramids, Notre Dame, and the English castles are much more impressive.”
I’ll admit that the Colosseum and the pyramids are impressive, especially when you consider when they were constructed. But comparing the other contemporary architecture to the Angkor Wat isn’t quite fair. At its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, Angkor Wat, which literally means city of temples, was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world. It’s just a pity that with the demise of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, the temples were abandoned to the tenacious tetrameles trees that slowly through the centuries undermined their stone foundations.
We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to visit, over the past few months, cities in South East Asia: apart from Siem Reap this weekend, Yangon in Myanmar, Hoian in Vietnam, and Bali in Indonesia. Of these, we have to say Siem Reap and its sprawling grounds of the Angkor Archeological Site are by far our favorite. We did enjoy Yangon but to be honest, the infrastructure hasn’t really been set up for tourism yet. On the plus side though, that made it quite fascinating for us to get a truer sense of people’s daily lives. In contrast, Hoian was on the other end of the spectrum. It felt a lot more touristy and built up – perhaps overly so, so that the entire ancient city just served the hordes of us tourists who crowd it, rather than support daily living, as evidenced by the high food and drink prices.
Siem Reap, on the other hand, felt quite nicely balanced. The tourism board has done an excellent job maintaining and restoring the ancient temples, while keeping the surrounding countryside and jungle in its natural state. This is in stark comparison to the temples in Bali, including UNESCO site Tanah Lot, where the officials somehow thought it appropriate to install gigantic garishly green frog sculptures. In town, there’s the touristy Pub St, catered to thirsty foreigners, but lots of great restaurants abound around town, with really reasonable prices.
It was fascinating to wander about the temples, taking in the various reliefs of Hindu or Buddhist scenes and deities, depending on the reigning king.
We visited the sprawling grounds of the famous Bayon temple, which, compared with the other relatively crowd-free temples, were crawling with hordes of tourists, a lot of them from Chinese tours. We supposed that only the larger temples can support large tour groups – another advantage of exploring the smaller ones!
At Bayon temple, we sprung $15 for a guide to take us around the grounds, where he took the time to walk us through the history and lives of the people living in Angkor Thom, literally, the “Great City”. He explained the stories behind the detailed reliefs lining the outer gallery of Bayon – of how King Jayavarman VII led his men in 1081 to overthrow the Champa after they’d conquered the city in 1077; of what food the civilians cooked to keep the soldiers fed.
We opted to get up early the next day to head out at 5am to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, joining the couple other hundred people filing into the grounds in the darkness. Alas, there was no clouds in the sky that morning, and hence no color to speak of. That said, we were glad to be out at that early hour, for although already warm, the temperatures were still bearable. And it meant that we finished our tour by 10am, allowing us to gratefully get back into the cool comfort of our hotel to dry off a little.
On the third day of touring the Angkor Wat archeological sites, we decide to venture a bit further afield, again engaging our patient tuk tuk driver of the prior two days. We drove past small villages and padi fields, and visited Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei temples. The former is a 12-century Hindu temple, and we were the only visitors there, apart from a lone American who popped in briefly while we took our time walking the grounds. The latter is also a Hindu temple, built in the miniature style in the 10th century. Although Banteay Srei itself is small, and we covered the grounds relatively quickly in comparison to the time it took for us to get there, the buildings and friezes are astonishingly well preserved, and details very intricate.
All said and done, we had a wonderful long weekend. While the weather was sweltering and very uncomfortably damp, we enjoyed learning about the history and admired the detailed and rich reliefs that were a feature of the temples. While we had early starts, we also took time out to cool off in our hotel, and relaxed over many games of crosswords. It’s definitely a place we’ve already recommended high and low to our friends – those who haven’t yet visited at any rate!
Coming out of the airport, we hired a tuk tuk via the Grab app. Cost less than $5 to get to town. To get around Siem Reap itself, we mostly hailed tuk tuks for the flat US$2 fee. Our hotel helped us arrange and pay for the day trips to the different temple circuits – the “small tour” loop including the famous Bayon temple cost $18, the “big tour” circuit cost $21, and an additional $5 to tack on sunrise / sunset stops at Angkor Wat or Phnom Bakheng. We paid $32 for the visit to Banteay Srei, a mid-10th century temple built 37km outside of Siem Reap.
I did a quick search of hotels online, and easily settled on Koulen Hotel, a spacious and comfortable 4-star hotel just a few minutes’ ride by tuk tuk to Angkor Wat. It’s great value for money. $78 a night for huge bedroom room with a separate living room, and tasty breakfasts including pork or beef noodle soup.
Cambodian cuisine is so underrated, the only restaurant in Singapore has shut down! Which is a real pity, since we had only the tastiest meals here. Even the roadside stall we stopped for lunch at by one of the temples had really good chicken curry and rice. Our favorite dishes: prawns salad with banana blossoms dressed in a refreshingly tart lemongrass, tamarind, and fish sauce marinade. Fish amok, or Cambodian fish curry. The curries are typically cooked in coconut cream, and thick, not too spicy as are the variations in Thailand, almost sweet sour. Cambodian sour fish soup, chock full of thick fish fillet and three kinds of onions, kaffir lime, morning glory, and lemongrass. Chicken curry; beef lok lak, which is beef stir fried with fish sauce and lemon juice. The flavors are evocative of Thailand and Vietnam, which makes sense given their shared history and proximity.
Restaurants that we went to and would not hesitate to recommend: Chanrey Tree, Marum, Lilypop, and Genevieve. Our friends had recommend a couple of others, but being the National Remembrance Day, many were closed.
We we’re pleasantly surprised to see that drinks in Cambodia are very reasonably priced, similar to the bars we went to in Yangon, way cheaper than in Hoian. Cans of sweaty cold Angkor beer cost $1, and we could usually find well-mixed mojitos anywhere from $2.50 to $5. We visited Miss Wong, a Chinoiserie style cocktail lounge that was a little more upmarket. There, I ordered a super smooth Jasmine tea infused gin with lychees for $7.
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