We recently took a long weekend trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was an amazing trip. I had absolutely no preconceived ideas what Cambodia would be like. I knew it would be hot, but Penang is hot so that really wasn’t a concern. The only thing I knew about Cambodia, is terrible things like, war, landmines and genocide from the Khmer Rouge era. What we discovered was a really welcoming country, that is doing everything it can to bring in visitors to improve it’s economy. They have build a new beautiful, well functioning airport. The government buildings to buy tickets to the temples are new and beautiful. There are new hotels going up everywhere. Our guide told us that they had 4 million visitors last year, and are expecting even more this year. We asked him if this was a welcome change, having all these visitors. His response was a very enthusiastic yes. Like much of Southeast Asia, there is new and modern right along side how they have done things for years.
The hotels here are cheap in comparison to what we are used to paying in the west and are very nice. We decided to stay at a charming boutique hotel that was halfway between the temple complex the main tourist shopping/restaurant area. It was an amazing hotel experience. If you go there you must stay at this hotel. It only has about 12 rooms, and the service is AMAZINGLY WONDERFUL. It was right up there with the all-inclusive resort we have stayed at in Mexico a couple of times (which might be my favorite place on earth). They catered to B like he was a little prince. The rooms are large, very clean, and very comfortable. They have a little restaurant that is excellent. The room comes with breakfast, but it is not a buffet it is all cooked to order, and really good. Bacon wrapped bananas with fresh mango, need I say more? They have a great little saltwater pool to cool off in after a hot dusty day exploring the temples. This was a huge hit with B. They also set up everything for us as far as a car and guide for the temples and Tuk tuks into town. Total personalized service, we did not want for anything.
The hotel is called Sokkhak, here is the link. www.sokkhak-boutiqueresort.com
We spent a couple of days exploring the temples around Siem Reap. The entire area is known as Angkor, there are over 90 temple ruins in the area to see. We did not obviously have time for all of them so we hit some of the big ones. The hotels will set you up with transportation no problem. They will either offer you a car or a tuk tuk. We went with a car for the temples. I would recommend this especially if you are traveling with children, it is very hot there. The car is a nice chance to sit down in the air-conditioning. The drivers also will provide cold water for you. A tuk tuk is an open air carriage pulled by a motor bike. It is what we took from the hotel to town which wasn’t far, but I am so glad we went with the car for the temples. Tuk tuks and motor bikes are the most common form of transportation there. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be riding a tuk tuk in Cambodia with my two year old (he loved the tuk tuk ). Life is weirdly wonderful sometimes.
We also hired a guide for our 2 days of temples and ruins. It was not expensive to do this and really worth it. There would have been so much we would not have known about these areas if we had not. They are certified by the government as guides, and ours spoke English very well. He was very informative.
The Khmer people (Cambodian indigenous people) have been invaded by many groups of people over the centuries. Indians, Chinese, Thai and Muslims to name a few. It seems that the group they did the most trading with and were the most peaceful were the Indians. The Indian kings that lived in the area are responsible for most of the temples. They all started as Hindu temples and slowly transition into Buddhist as the Indians left, at least that is my interpretation, it’s a very complex history. In the 20th Century the French occupied Cambodia. They started restoring the temples in the 192o’s until they left in the 1960’s. After the Vietnam war and the Khmer Rouge, they had to clear the landmines out of the areas to make it safe for tourists and archaeologists to come back in. The more I read and learn about the history of Cambodia, the more I am impressed by the resilience of it’s people.
Our first stop and the most famous in the area was Angkor Wat. The name Angkor Wat translates into City Temple. This place was pretty amazing. It was built in the 12th Century and is the world’s largest religious monument.
At time is was a not only a temple, but a huge city and the Capital of the State it was in. It is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. Vishnu in the Hindu Trinity is the protector, the god who preserves universal order and fights to restore harmony. It slowly turned into a Buddhist Temple by the end of the 12th century. This was a fascinating place to explore.
Angkor Wat is surrounded by a man made moat and has a gate house on each end to protect the city.
It is three levels, the main galleries being the first. A second level had all sorts of wall carvings depicting stories of the God Vishnu, and was connected by 2 libraries on each end. There was a middle courtyard area on the first floor and more common areas on the second level. The third level are the towers, where the king would have gone to worship.
Our next stop on the tour of temples was Angkor Thom. It was built in the late 12th century. It was one of the largest Khmer cities ever built, and was the capitol until the 17th century. There are quite a few monuments and shrines here. The largest is The Bayon. This one was really neat. It is a shrine of complex carvings and towers with faces. There were originally 49 towers, now there are only 37 left standing today. Most have 4 sides with each face representing a cardinal direction. There are also maze like hallways to explore inside.
Next we moved onto Ta Prohm. This was built in late 12th into the 13th centuries as a temple monastery. The French archaeologists doing the temple restorations decided to leave this temple as they found it. As an example of how all the other sites had been discovered and thus restored. Instead of removing the trees overtaking the ruins they left them. To prevent further damage, they added supports and cleared out some of the trees in the area around the temple. This temple was used as a filming site for the movie Tomb Raider. This temple has a completely different atmosphere than the rest of the ruins that we saw. It’s hard to explain, but it is almost eerie.
After a day of resting a bit and exploring town we decided to take another temple tour. This time we went further away from Siem Reap. It was really interesting to drive further out and see what more rural life is like. It was about an hour drive to Phnom Kulen National Park. There is a mountain top site within this park that was the original capitol of the region. At the top of the mountain is a reclining Buddha that was carved into the mountain in the 8th century.
There was a little village at the foot of the stairs selling souvenirs and food. There was a sign that said it was one of the projects supported by Oxfam International. That was really cool to see, as it is an organization I have been supporting for a long time.
The next part of the national park we saw was the River of 1000 Lingas. Rows of Lingas were carved into the river bed in the 11th and 12th century by a group of hermits that lived in the area. There are 1000 of them, as well as other carvings in the river bed. The Linga is the phallic/female symbol for the Hindu God Shiva. We were there during the dry season, during the rainy season the Lingas are completely covered by the river. It is believed that once the water flows over the river it becomes holy. There is waterfall downstream in which people bathe in to be blessed by the water. It is said to help with fertility as well.
There was a lovely young mother that has a bench by the river that she charges like $0.50 for pictures.
Our guide told us the waterfall is much larger during the rainy season.
The road that goes up the mountain to the sites is interesting. It is pretty narrow in places so you can only go up the mountain in the morning. They will not let you go back down until 11am. We had to wait about 20 minutes after we saw all the sites before we could go back down. As we waited one of the local ladies approached us with a rice paste and coconut sweet treat. It was delicious!
Our final stop after the national park was to the temple Banteay Srei. It was built in the second half of the 10th century. It seriously complex carvings and is made of pink sandstone. It is the only temple in the area made of this stone. The most interesting thing is that they have no idea where the stone came from. There doesn’t seem to be any occurrences of pink sandstone anywhere in the region. UNESCO has been looking all over Southeast Asia and cannot find where it was quarried from.
The name Bantey Srie means Citadel of the Woman. It was not a royal temple like the rest in the area, it was built by one of the king’s teachers.
We had a fabulous time in Cambodia. I would highly recommend a stop there if you ever do a tour of Southeast Asia. It was amazing. The sights were breathtaking, the food was great and the Cambodian people were welcoming and gracious. It is one my favorite trips we have taken so far while here.