All too soon, an early morning start saw us leaving behind the welcoming warmth of the Raffles in Phnom Penh to take an Angkor Air flight to Siem Reap. Most people have heard of Angkor Wat, which is the major tourist attraction here – indeed in Cambodia, indeed in south east Asia, and probably in the top ten of the world’s greatest sights – but I certainly hadn’t heard of its brash little neighbour Siem Reap before. Well I can tell you it’s a complete gem of a place.
Its name, rather belligerently, means “the defeat of Siam”, so you might expect it to be a warrior environment where, when the local lads get lairy, one says “Who you calling Siamese”, and it ends up with a head-butt and a trip to A&E. But of course not; this is Cambodia, one of the most relaxed, laid back and forgiving nations on this planet. The streets of Siem Reap are paved, perhaps not with gold, but with lovely restaurants and bars, entertaining boutiques, fashion bargains, and top quality hotels, of which the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, is surely one of the finest. It also happened to be where we were lucky enough to be staying. Elegant, refined, with some stunning art works, and the most beautiful pool beside which we enjoyed a fantastic lunch. There was only one other couple there during lunchtime, and it felt very relaxing, extremely exclusive and enormously privileged.
Chiefly though, Siem Reap serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples. They belong to the classic period of Khmer art and civilisation and were created by a succession of Khmer kings who presided over an empire that dominated the region from 800 AD to 1430 AD. From the 15th century, the temples were more or less abandoned and forgotten by the world, although occasionally visited by travellers including the French naturalist Henri Mouhot who is attributed with their re-discovery in 1861. Today the area attracts a good 2 million visitors a year, and tourism is second only to the textile industry in the country’s economy.
Our trip to the entire site was split over two days. On the first afternoon we explored some of the smaller, outer, sites, whilst saving the Main Attraction for the next day. Our first destination was the temple of Preah Khan, built between 1180 and 1215 as King Jayavarman VII’s temporary capital whilst Angkor Thom (of which more later) was being restored. Not only a temple, it also served as a monastery and religious college, and the complex extends over approximately 2 square miles. Originally dedicated to Buddha, it was later vandalised by Hindu rulers who removed the Buddhist images and replaced them with Hindu carvings. There’s a marvellous welcome into the site – you walk through an arch overseen by three faces, looking ahead and to the left and right. Once in, like with all these temples, you just wander round and take in the history and the exquisite carvings, and imagine what it would have looked like at the height of its power. Outstanding sights include the engraved line of dancers in the appropriately named Hall of Dancers, and the extraordinary tree roots that have formed around the buildings, showing how, over time, nature dominates what man has created. They are amazing to see.
After that, we visited Ta Som. This small temple has been the subject of extensive renovation work, and when you see how one fig tree has completely strangled the stonework at one entrance, it’s not difficult to understand why it was so necessary. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century and was dedicated to his father Dharanindravarman II – these old Khmer kings were a bit of a mouthful. It’s one of the lesser visited temples, and we were lucky to see it.
Our final port of call was to Banteay Srei, home to some of the best preserved sculptures of all the Angkor temples. Constructed between AD 967 and 1000, the name means Citadel of Beauty, and what makes it stand out is the use of pink sandstone. Unlike most other monuments in the area, it was never a royal temple, and there are hardly any plain surfaces without some elaborate decoration. The main central sanctuary was dedicated to Shiva, and everywhere you find beautiful carvings which are a testament to the skill of the artisans and builders who created it. It’s a stunning sight and, extraordinarily, wasn’t discovered until 1914. Our guide was very keen that we should see this place, but, unfortunately, we had spent quite a lot of time at Prean Khan, and so by the time we arrived – it was closed! But, as I pointed out earlier, this is Cambodia; so our guide simply forced open the gate even though it was locked (not very securely, obviously), and we sneakily wandered around by ourselves as dusk turned to darkness. I must be honest and say that our illicit entry gave it an extra thrill; and to know that we were the only people there made it feel extra special. The guide shone his torch, and also we used our torch apps on the iPhones to help us find our way around. The moving lights of course had an unfortunate consequence, and it wasn’t long before a security guard suddenly appeared to see what was going on. But this is Cambodia; and once our guide had slipped him a few quid there was no problem. I’m not normally one to advocate an illegal act – but this was well worth the trespassing.
Our journey back to the hotel was exciting, as it was now night-time, and we were driving through these small villages (although on relatively good roads), with no light other than that coming from the houses alongside the road. Despite its being pitch black, the area was full of activity – workers, families, children, sitting outside the houses, walking along the streets, engaging in animated conversation, preparing outdoor meals – all human life was there. It was as though the darkness had brought them to life like a colony of bushbabies.
Back at the hotel, it was time to consider our evening meal. Having had a flashy (and expensive) dinner the night before in Phnom Penh, we thought we’d simply hit the streets of Siem Reap and (hopefully) find a good restaurant. One of our intrepid co-travellers had heard of Square 24, so booked it for all of us and it was excellent. We’d thoroughly recommend it – atmospheric, vibrant, and delicious. As in Laos, the local cuisine is delicate, tasty and rewarding – lovely, harmonised flavours instead of all those clashing ingredients you get in Vietnam.
The next day we were up early for The Big One – Angkor Wat. Of all the great sights in the world we have seen, this is one of the few that actually delivers more than you could possibly hope for – it’s a hugely satisfying place to spend a day, and in fact you could come back day after day after day and still have loads more to take in. Most visitors just have the one day to sample it though, so if that’s you, make the most of your time and see as much as you can of this amazing place.
We think of Angkor Wat as being the entire complex, but in fact it is only one (albeit the largest) of the individual temples on the site. Arriving there is a beautiful experience, as you walk up a wide footway over the charming stretch of water surrounding it. You wouldn’t want to do it at night, or if you’ve had one over the eight as there’s nothing to stop you from falling in the moat. Angkor Wat’s five great towers beckon you as you walk across this causeway, their reflections in the water teasing you forward. You share the walk with hundreds of other tourists, not to mention quite a few monks on a day out too, but the site is so vast that it rarely feels overcrowded.
On arrival you are confronted with a miraculous gallery of bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The mass of intricately carved figures of warriors overwhelms you, as you identify soldiers, chariots and animals in a higgledy-piggledy scrum of combat. The blend of images seems to go on forever; you could easily spend an hour just observing the figures and following the stories carved out on the walls. Once you tear yourself away from this sight, you just wander around the complex, marvelling at the structures and the sheer magnitude of the entire place. It was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, so there are Hindu carvings everywhere. The Central Sanctuary towers over the whole place, giving the impression of a massive “temple-mountain”. Steep staircases take you up (and down) and you can walk around the galleries and admire the views both inside and out.
Leaving from the back end of the complex, we made our way to Ta Prohm, which was a wealthy Buddhist monastery built around the year 1200, but is now most famous (perhaps somewhat sadly) for being the background for scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The way the jungle has encroached on the buildings, and how the tree roots have strangled the structures is extraordinary to see. It’s a slow walk around, as everyone stops for photographs of themselves with roots – very entertaining though.
From Ta Prohm we headed towards Angkor Thom, which means “The Great City”, and it’s a stunning sight, made up of many different elements. We found the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300 metre long structure decorated with almost life-sized elephants in procession. They look really cute. We strolled around the Bayon, a temple with no fewer than 54 towers, some with mysteriously smiling faces, as well as military and other carvings. The number of individual buildings, temples, palaces and terraces in the whole complex blows your mind. We probably only saw a fraction of it, but it will remain as one of the most memorable days we’ve ever had.
We started the visit early, so even after all this time, we weren’t too late for lunch. We went to Sala Bai, yet another restaurant designed to give training and a career to street children, and, as always with these places, it was excellent. From there we returned to the hotel for some afternoon chilling, where we were confronted by the most enormous Easter Egg (it was Easter Monday) – that would have taken some eating. Later on we headed out for a night on Siem Reap town, where we strolled up and down the evocatively named “Pub Street”, ending up at the Red Piano for dinner. As the website says, “drugs and prostitution are strictly forbidden – also the perfect spot for your afternoon coffee and snack”, so you know it’s a classy joint. Actually it was huge fun – not Cordon Bleu perhaps but good for a laugh. The music they played, you may be interested to know, included Free’s All Right Now, Dire Strait’s Walk of Life, and a French song we really like, Philippe Cataldo’s Les Divas du Dancing (Google it).
The next day was our flight home, but it didn’t leave until 4pm so we had time for another trip around town in the morning, visiting the Old Market, the souvenir shops and fashion boutiques, and laughing at the signs outside the Fish Foot Pedicure establishments. “Our hungry fish are waiting for your dead skin!” “If our fish cannot make you happy we’ll not charge”. Big promises there. We ended up at a lovely wine bar/restaurant where we treated ourselves to a final bottle of Cambodian red wine (it probably wasn’t Cambodian) and I had a great big pizza. Sorry to say I can’t remember the name, but it was on the corner by the Old Market – you can’t miss it.
And that was the end of our Indochinese Odyssey. Three weeks of extraordinary sights and meeting super people; the gentle relaxation of Laos, the gritty vibrancy of Vietnam, and the indomitable spirit of Cambodia. A great trip, and one I’d recommend to anyone.