Wat] [Our Itinerary] [Phnom
Penh] [Impressions and Lessons] Dec
was the heart of the Khmer empire that flourished during the 8th to 12
centuries AD. It covered modern-day Cambodia, much of Thailand and Laos, but
waned in importance as the Europeans established colonies in southeast Asia.
This is the
nearest town to Angkor Wat and many other palaces and temples. The sites
are spread out over 20-30 km so transportation is needed -
we found Thy, a Cambodian soldier
moonlighting as a driver at the airport, and this turned out to be one of our luckiest breaks
of the trip. He would pick us up, listen to our plans,
and politely suggested an alternative that took better advantage of light and
promised smaller crowds. Others used scooters,
motorized rickshaws, or tour buses - all seemed to work out OK.
We were so overwhelmed, we visited it 5 times
- Bas reliefs - On our first visit, we arrived
with an afternoon shower, and huddled
with others in a 'library', an out-building with a good view of the main
buildings of Angkor. When it slackened we spent the rest of the
afternoon examining the marvelous bas reliefs that had been carved into the outer
corridor. Each wall is approximately 150 meters (500') long, and has
thousands of figures representing gods, demons, warriors, mythical animals,
and battle scenes. That this art has survived nearly a thousand years
for us to view is amazing, and our hats are off to the French archeologists
who discovered and restored what they could, and to the Cambodian government
that is trying to preserve this priceless site.
- Inside - The world's largest
religious monument, this 12th century site is believed to represent the Hindu
universe, with a large moat (150 m wide) surrounding a city, and a temple
complex in the center. Causeways cross the moat and lead through large gates,
and balustrades on each side are built to represent Nagas (multi-headed
snakes) that seems to be a recurring theme in the Angkor Wat artwork. The temple
represents the sacred mountain of Meru, and as we entered and eventually
climbed the to the top, it did feel like climbing a mountain. Clearly no large
processions marched to the top - more likely a few monks or religious leaders
slowly made their way up the very steep steps, handrails now provide some safety for
the many tourists. We could go on and on about the site, but we would be repeating
words from the many good guide books available. We used 'Ancient Angkor'
by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques, and found it to be an excellent reference.
We have used several of their photos on this page, until ours are
- Sunrise Viewing - One evening we had dinner at the
Red Piano, a funky restaurant with good beer and western fare. At the next
table, a group of tourists were huddled around a laptop, viewing digital pictures
that they had taken at sunrise (and before) so we committed to do the same. On
4th day, the alarm buzzed at 0450, and by 0515 we were on our way to a sunrise
rendezvous with Angkor Wat. The morning was cool, and we, with 25 diehard
photographers, roamed the edges of the lake in front of the temple, seeking
a prize-winning shot. Perhaps no prizes for this one, but we had a
- Sunset - We tried several times (along with hundreds
of others) to capture the magic of the towers at sunset, but cloud cover
thwarted our efforts until the last day. From the top of Phnom
Bakheng we joined scores of others with telephoto lenses, and captured
the golden glow on the towers as the sun broke through the clouds just
Angkor Thom is really a walled city, 3
km on each side with an outside moat and currently 5 gates. Inside there
are numerous temples, sporting grounds, and reservoirs. On our visit we
- Bayon - a large State Temple
built for King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. This one is
distinctive because of its many towers where the same face is carved on all
sides, over 200 faces in all! The temple has an outside wall almost
150 m on a side and an interior temple with towers, galleries, corridors,
and libraries. Like many of the temples, it has been remodeled over
the centuries as kings changed it to meet their whims. Many rooms have
bas reliefs or offering platforms with burning incense sticks.
Overall, this was a very distinctive site.
- Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace - The
Elephant Terrace is a large open ceremonial areas that faces the Royal
Square, a large reception area for pavilions where visiting royalty could be
entertained in style. The terrace walls contain scores of carved
elephants, garudas (mythical man-bird figures), five-headed horse, and other
figures. The Leper King Terrace stands to the side, and has more
detailed bas reliefs of Buddha and others.
- Phimeanakas - a relatively small 10th century
royal palace in the shape of a mountain, we climbed to the top for a good
view of the surrounding ruins.
- Bapuon - is a massive mountain-temple that is
currently under renovation, and our guide suggested it was not worth
visiting at the moment.
Other Palaces and Temples
Besides the main sites, there are many palaces and temples
scattered around the vicinity of Siem Reap that housed royalty during the
Cambodian heyday. We only got to see a few in our limited tour:
- Banteay Srei - A delightful 20 km drive through
the country-side gave us a gentle introduction to rural Cambodia as we passed
small villages, houses on stilts, rice patties, and water buffalo resting in
the fields. The temple at Banteay Srei is somewhat far from the
madding crowd, and it was very peaceful walking through the thousand-year
old buildings. The carvings were awesome and the entire site was
beautiful. It is quite small and intimate and was a good introduction to the
kind of artwork we could expect for the week. This is definitely one
of the 'must-see' sites of the area.
- Banteay Samré - Returning towards
the main concentration of ruins, we bounced over a 1/2 km rutted side road
to Banteay Samré, an small isolated temple that has been very well
restored. The big tour buses seem to shun the poor road, and so it was
very peaceful and one could wander everywhere without bumping elbows with
other tourists. Inside the temple a quiet and friendly man who had
lost a leg provided information and scrambled through the ruins just as well
as we able-bodied tourists.
- Pre Sup - This was our first
'mountain temple', a small complex where that has been built up to resemble
a mountain with a temple on top. Unlike mountain structures like the
pyramids of Egypt and Ming Tombs of China, these do not conceal hidden
chambers and treasures, they seem to be designed just to create a mountain
on what otherwise is very flat countryside.
- Ta Phrom - Perhaps our
favorite, the French archeologists decided to leave this one un-restored,
and did just enough to make it reasonably safe. It has trees growing
out of the foundations of buildings, and bushes in the courtyards. It
had long paths leading to the palace, and one could almost imagine the awe
that the French must have experienced when they came upon these magnificent
- Roluos - This
concentration of three palaces was a 12 km drive to the south, and consisted
of Bayon, Preah Ko and Lolei. Each was very
attractive in its own right, but Bayon was the most impressive, and
was the first 'mountain-temple' to be built. It is a combination of
lava stone, sandstone, and brick, perhaps from successive remodeling.
Other Highlights of Siem Reap
- Shadow Puppets - Judi had been looking high and low
for a puppet show, and the Bayon Restaurant offered dinner and a show for
$11 and we had a blast. The Shadow puppets were controlled by
children, aged around 8-12, and although the dialog was in Khmer, the
story-line was quite clear.
- Tonlé Sap - This river from Siem Reap to Phnom
Penh, bloats during the rainy season and turns into a lake 150 miles long
and 25 wide - water that backs up from the Mekong that can't get to the
ocean quickly enough. This provides water for irrigation, and makes
the land very productive. We took a tour from the riverport in Siem
Reap, through small Cambodian and Vietnamese fishing villages that were
about the poorest we have ever see, with virtually nothing in the way of
material goods, but still a lot of smiles.
The guide books advocate allowing 3- 4 days to see Angkor Wat;
we did it in 5 and felt we could have spent more. We roamed the ruins from
early in the morning until noon, took a 2-3 hour break, and continued until dusk
- this worked for us. The details:
- Day 1 - Arrived midday; Cultural Dancing on the lawn in front of the Grand Hotel d'Angkor under
the stars , starting with a glass of champagne and culminating with scenes from
the Indian epic, the Ramayana.
- Day 2 - Banteay Srei (3 hrs) Banteay
Samré (1 hr), lunch, Angkor Wat bas reliefs (3 hrs)
- Day 3 - Angkor Thom and associated palaces (3
hrs), lunch, Angkor Wat (3 hrs)
- Day 4 - Ta Prohm (2 hrs), Ta Keo (1
hr), Banteay Kdei (1 hr), Prasat Kravan (1hr), lunch, Roluos
(3 hrs at all 3 temples), evening included a dinner and Shadow Puppet
show given by children that was really good
- Day 5 - Sunrise at Angkor Wat (2 hrs), Preah
Khan, Preah Neak, Ta Som, and East Mehom, (2 hrs),
back to Ta Phrom (1 hr), lunch, boat cruise on Tonlé Sap (2
hrs), Phnom Bakheng for sunset views of Angkor Wat.
- Day 6 - Fast ferry to Phnom Penh (5 hrs)
Trip on the Tonlé Sap -
Two days earlier we had bought our tickets, and committed to
ride the fast ferry to Phnom Penh - a trip that any safety-minded person would
probably avoid like the plague. The bullet-shaped vessel had room for
about 150 people inside, with narrow seats and no storage space for your
luggage. The only exits were 2 narrow doors in the bow that must have
seemed like a mile away for the people seated in the rear. The
adventuresome folks rode on the roof, a flat space in the glaring sun with rails
6" high. The path to get there was along the side deck, a 12" walkway
only inches from the water speeding by at 30 mph! And of course, no safety
handrails. But we all survived and it makes for a good story!
This is the capital city, with a population of about a
million, and a host of very poor people and many injured amputees from the many
conflicts that Cambodia has suffered during the '60's, '70's, and '80's.
Foreign Correspondent's Club - We stayed and ate at
this well-known spot, not the cheapest in town but it has great atmosphere and a
wonderful view of the Mekong.
National Museum - This has an interesting collection of
Angkorian and pre-Angkorian artifacts, but no information about recent events
such as the American bombing, Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regimes, Vietnamese
invasion and the like.
Royal Palace - A
short walk from the hotel and a stone's throw from debris-littered streets, the
palace was opulent, but a little run-down. While we were there, the 3rd
World Buddhist Conference got underway and representatives from 20+
countries competed with us in the museum queues, and caused massive traffic
tangles as the police blocked off streets to let the buses of delegates make
their appointments on time.
Killing Fields - We elected not to visit the killing
fields, although it is a prime tourist spot. Our driver in Siem Reap had
lost a brother and 2 sisters to the Khmer Rouge, and said he really hated
them. The walking wounded and scarred people in the city bear testimony
that the 25% of the population killed by the Khmer Rouge were not their only
- The People - As most places in the world, the
Cambodians were very friendly to us and seemed to be relatively happy,
despite the hardships caused by 3 decades of turmoil. The country seems
stable at the moment, and we recommend it highly as a tourist destination.
- Poverty - The country is struggling to develop, and
has much poverty. This results in beggars at all tourist attractions,
who are mostly very polite although persistent. One can not help them
all, and each person must decide whether to share, and with whom. A
thousand riel (˘30) helps, although it perpetuates the habit of begging.
Visiting as a tourist is a help to the country as it employs drivers,
guides, restaurant workers, and puts funds in the Government coffers.
- Legacy of Landmines - The newspaper headlines did
not really prepare us for the reality of hundreds of people bearing body and
face scars, and missing limbs from the landmines left by the Khmer Rouge and
Vietnamese. Many are beggars, and more work at a variety of
jobs. We feel the Government should probably have a strong affirmative
action program to help ore of them, but it may not be able to afford it -
this is a real problem that will continue until the country has been cleared
- Costs - Cambodia is relatively expensive for
tourists, each day costs something like $120 (In US$):
||$40 (rooms ranged from $15 to $300)
||$30-40 (for 2 people), cheaper street meals
||Fee for Angkor
||Car and driver
||$20 (Government fixed rates); scooters and
pedicabs are cheaper
||$20 (Government fixed rates)
||$10 to unlimited amount
||Some typical prices
||film $3-5, beer $1-3, glass of wine
$3, short cyclo ride $0.50, taxi to airport $5-7
Typical Day at Angkor Wat - The crowds are thin early
in the day and it really gets hot midday, so we advocate:
- Start early - 0630 to 0700 is reasonable and you
have more elbow room, and the light is better for pictures.
- Take a break - We normally chilled out from 1200 to
1400 in our rooms
- Afternoon Photo Ops - as the sun gets low in the
sky, it is cooler, the crowds thin again, and the light creates more
Take Lots of Film - We probably overdid it, but we shot
28 rolls in 5 days. You can buy film everywhere, but we could not tell how
it had been stored.
- Most Transaction are in US$ - Everyone uses US$ for
transactions, and credit cards are rarely accepted.
- Change Some Currency to riel - The local currency
can be used for low cost items, tips, and beggars. Exchange rate was
3800:1 while we were there, so 1000 riel bills were good for cyclo rides and
donations to beggars.
- Take lots of $1 bills - Many souvenirs, postcard
packs, and books were priced at $1 and we found we could never have too many
- Count your change - Most people are honest, but
several times we were short-changed, in one case by a major store chain.
- Bargain - All prices (except Government-controlled
fees) are negotiable so we bargained as hard as we could, but we tried to
not niggle over $0.25 that meant a lot more to the seller than to us.
- Beware of Hotel Prices - Our hotel charged $3 for
sodas (less than $1 on the street), $2/minute for a local call
(rather than the $0.15/minute on the street), and asked for $7/minute for a
call to Thailand - we passed.
In Siem Reap, many restaurants offer cultural shows of fair
quality. The real
Saturday-night special is Beatocello, a free concert of Bach music
sponsored by Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss doctor who has established a free
hospital to treat Cambodian children.
Points of Contact
- Tour Guide: We used a licensed guide by the name of Arun
Sor; he spoke very good English and was very helpful. He
can be contacted by mobile at (855)12 724 944 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Driver: We had the good fortune to be assigned Thy
Lim as our driver when we left the airport, and he drove for us for the
next 5 days. He spoke reasonable English, gently guided us to make the
best use of our time at Siem Reap, and we recommend him highly. He is
a full-time soldier, so he only drives while on leave, but he would be worth
contacting at (855) 12 834 143