Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tour to Cambodia - Siem Reap


Getting there:  Fly to Bangkok/Singapore/KL and change for Siem Reap Or There’s bus from Bangkok, and you can pick up a visa at the border.
Staying there: Accommodation to suit all budgets is available vary between $8 and $300.
Best time to visit: November to February.

We left for Siem Reap from Singapore at 2.50 pm by JetStar (no connection with our Jet in India). We reached Cambodia at 4 pm. We paid 20 USD as visa on arrival. It was really fast and efficient and my suggestion is there is no need to do Visa from India. Everything is super easy and fast. The Siem Reap Airport is small but quite nice. After coming out from the immigration our tuk-tuk was waiting outside the airport. When we reached the hotel it was almost dark. On the way we could see the Khmer architecture ( - which somewhat looks like a cobra (with fana).

We fell instantly in love with Siem Reap. The town’s clean, empty roads lined with French-style houses, its warm people — was a balm for my nerves.

It is one of the best hotels I have stayed at this price. The moment we entered we were given wet wash. There is free internet, free tea/coffee and free bike/bi-cycle. There is free breakfast too. How much we paid? Less than 20 USD!

I withdrew some money from an ATM (with my Axis Bank Travel card) and was charged 4 USD!

After taking some rest we went to pub street or night market by a tuk-tuk (2 USD) to have our dinner. I was taken aback by the place and alleys around that place. It was real class. If I just take the picture and post it somewhere - it is difficult to tell it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The roads are also quite well maintained. The city thrives on tourism. India should learn from them. The roads are closed along the pub street after it is dark. Didi and Baba had their dinner at a beautiful “Temple Club Restaurant” while watching the Apsara/ Ramayana dance.

I had it from a place recommended by LP. We saw fish massage on the footpath of Pub Street. We saw some Indian restaurants too.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Siem Reap. The name Siem Reap means ‘Siamese Defeated’, hardly the most tactful name for a major city near Thailand: and refers to the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and Khmer peoples. Imagine Birmingham with the name ‘Germany Defeated’. The empire of Angkor once included much of modern-day Thailand, but there’s a touch of irony about the name, given that Thailand ultimately defeated Cambodia and controlled Siem Reap and Angkor from 1794 to 1907.

Siem Reap was little more than a village when French explorers discovered Angkor in the 19th century. With the return of Angkor to Cambodian, or should that be French, control in 1907, Siem Reap began to grow, absorbing the first wave of tourists and the temples of Angkor remained one of Asia’s leading draws until the late 1960s, luring visitors including Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Kennedy. With the advent of war and the Khmer Rouge, Siem Reap entered a long slumber from which it only began to awake in the mid-1990s.


In the morning we had a sumptuous breakfast (free) in the hotel. I think there were at least 20 different items in it.

Our Tuk Tuk driver came in the morning to start the tour.

Passes are required to enter the Angkor area. They are on sale at the front gate -Apsara Authority counters for 1-day ($20), 3-day ($40), or 7-day ($60) intervals. The 3-day pass is valid for any 3 days within a week, while the 7-day pass is valid for any 7 days within a month. Cambodians can enter for free — you shouldn't need to buy a pass for your guide or your driver. You will have a photograph taken and printed on your pass to make sure they are non-transferable! Regular checks for the pass are performed at almost all sites within the park, so carry your pass with you at all times. We bought the 3 day pass. We entered through the normal south gate.

Bicycles are another option, though you will spend more time getting from place to place. They are probably best for visitors planning for several days. Bring sun screen, a good hat, lot of water and a scarf to keep the sun off your neck. The rental is around US$1-2 per day for a decent bicycle. We saw many foreigners doing that. But Tuk-tuk is definitely the best option.

Angkor Archaeological Park, located in northern Cambodia, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. It is located about 20 minutes to the north, by car from central Siem Reap. I wonder if it should be called a temple or a city, because a temple is definitely an understatement.

Stretching over some 400 square kilometers, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The most famous are the Temple of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. Angkor Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. But Angkor Wat is not the only draw as Siem Reap is dotted with other exotic temples built during, before and after the Angkor period — the remnants of a spectacularly rich culture.

Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. The Khmer kingdom lasted from the ninth to the 15th centuries, and at its height dominated a wide swath of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma) in the west to Vietnam in the east.

The temples can broadly be categorized into 4/5 groups:

  • Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the grandest temple of all and the ancient capital next to it
  • Little Circuit , taking in major sites to the east of Angkor Thom
  • Big Circuit (Le Grand Circuit), taking in major sites north and further out east
  • Roluos group, 15 km east from Siem Reap along National Highway 6
  • Outlying temples, located over 20 km from Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Our first stop was Angkor Wat. Though 'Wat' is the Khmer (Cambodian) word for temple. Scholars believe that the architecture and sculptures are that of a temple where Lord Vishnu was worshipped but it was also built as a mausoleum for the king after his death. Built around the first half of 12th century by King Surya-varman II, the temple's balance, composition and beauty make it one of the finest monuments in the world. The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: this is why so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats - broad ditch, either dry or filled with water, which surrounds the temple. 

As you tour the temples, you will see certain mythical figures and other motifs or a dominant idea or central theme cropping up repeatedly. They are Apsara, Kala and Naga. If you go to Tamilnadu the commonest name is Narasimha or Venkataswara (or for that matter Ma Kali in West Bengal). You will find Ma Kali boarding,Ma Kali Stores, Ma Kali transport. Similarly in Cambodia replace Ma Kali with Apsara!

After passing by the moat, we reached the starting point of the famous bas reliefs depicting scenes from various Hindu mythological stories and historic events. Walking from left to right you will come across scenes from battle of Ramayana, battle of Mahabharata, army of Surya-varman II, scenes from judgment by Yama (the supreme judge), churning of ocean by demons and gods to get Amrita or Amrito — the nectar of immortality, Vishnu's victory over demons, victory of Krishna over Bana and other scenes of battle between gods and demons, procession of people going to heaven and hell. 

Then we climbed the steps to reach the second tier and looked around the place. Then I climbed the steep steps to reach the third tier and the central courtyard. It has now been fitted with a handrail — particularly useful when descending. Although Didi and I climbed the steps, Baba did not climb the steps. Once you get there, the whole complex can be viewed very nicely.

While early Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples, Jaya-varman VII converted to Mahayana Buddhism AD. 1200 and embarked on a prodigious building spree, building the new capital city of Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more as Buddhist structures.

However, his successor Jaya-varman VIII returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive spree of destruction, systematically defacing Buddhist images and even crudely altering some to be Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost out to Buddhism again, but the (few) Buddha images in the temples today are later Theravada additions.

Angkor Thom

Our next stop is near by Angkor Thom. It (literally: "Great City"), was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by king Jaya-varman VII. At the centre of the city is Jaya-varman's state temple, the Bayon.

The stunning Bayon Temple, built in the late 12th or early 13th century by King Jaya-varman VII. Each of the 54 stone towers of Bayon is carved with four massive faces of the smiling Buddha. Some even have a third eye like Lord Shiva. It was humbling just to stand there, looking up at the giant smiling heads as dusk slowly spread its wings. The stone faces of Bayon are among Cambodia’s most recognizable images. They are a must-see for anyone visiting the Angkor temples. Didi and Baba did not go to the 1st floor to see more of those faces. But I must say the condition of the temple is not quite good. It reminds me of India.

Baphuon: Located to the northwest of the Bayon, the Baphuon is supposed to represent Mount Meru (sacred to Hinduism), and was one of the largest and grandest structures in Angkor. Built into the western face of the Baphuon is a giant reclining Buddha, added in the 16th century after the region converted from Hinduism to Buddhism. It is under renovation. After we left, King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia and Prime Minister Francois Fillon of France were among those who first toured the renovated temple during the inauguration ceremony on July 3, 2011.

Other Angkor Thom sights: The Bayon and Baphuon temples form only part of what was formerly the giant city of Angkor Thom, once thought to hold a population of one million. In addition to the Bayon and Baphuon temples, the ancient city of Angkor Thom holds a number of other sites of interest:

  • The Elephant Terrace - we got down from our auto to see it and went on to the platform
  • The Terrace of the Leper King                            - do-                                                              
  • Five entrance gates, one at each ordinal compass point and the Victory Gate in the east wall. The western and the northern gate are free from tourists, and climatic. Each of the gates is topped by the face of Avalokit-esvara (is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. He is one of the more widely revered bodhisattvas in mainstream Mahayana Buddhism).

Though Ta Keo was part of our plan next, we skipped it for the time being as we were hungry and it was also very hot. Architecturally, Ta Keo is a temple-mountain, symbolizing Mt. Meru, with five towers in quincunx (A temple plan or arrangement) that has five towers arranged in an "X," as at Angkor Wat. (

Little Circuit

We went to an Indian restaurant “Curry wala “(Didi wanted to try an Indian dish after a long time!) to have our lunch. I paid 6.25 USD to have one Nan (really it was Tandoori Roti) and half (shared with Baba) chicken butter masala. The food was very bad and very pricey (it was not even AC - like Bachchan Singh Dhaba of Rashbehari More- without any customer except us!)and the person selling was a Punjabi. I decided not to have any Indian food in Cambodia anymore. We paid more than Rs 900 which would have cost maximum Rs 200/250 in India.

After having lunch we went for next temple Ta Prohm Temple. Built during the time of king Jaya-varman VII and is best known as the temple where trees have been left intertwined with the stonework, much as it was uncovered from the jungle. There is a strange beauty in the marvelous strangler fig trees which provide a stunning display of the embrace between nature and the human handiwork.

This is one of the most popular temples after Angkor Wat and the Bayon because of the beautiful combinations of wood and stone. Black and white film photographers especially love this site because of this and most of the stunning postcard shots of Angkor's trees come from here. This is where Angelina Jolie famously shot Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The forest has almost engulfed the 12th-century Buddhist monastery with gigantic trees growing along and into its walls — so much so that pulling down one would destroy the other.

Note that large sections of the temple are unstable rubble and have been cordoned off, as they are in real danger of collapse. As of 2010, authorities have started to restore Ta Prohm. We saw a sign board - which says that Indian Govt. is co-operating with Cambodian govt. to restore it. Wherever we went (to see the temple) we saw young girls selling goods in perfect American Accent “Hello Madam....2 dollar madam.....okay okay.....while coming back you can buy....”...Problem starts when you start talking to them, since those are the few words they know. One interesting thing since the local currency has been changed number of times the local currency simply does not exist. They will consider 1 USD = 4000 Riel. They will return the small changes in local currency. I bought some good quality Tee shirt @ 75/- with Angkor Wat as theme as a souvenir and some key rings too.

You will also see people playing musical instruments and asking for alms. Almost all of them claim to be war victims and some of them have their leg amputated. The music is very nice and haunting and remains a lasting memory for me.

After this we were tired and came back to our hotel and relaxed for some time and had dinner from one of the stalls on the footpath. I paid around for 1.25 USD - which was much cheaper than the restaurants. in the evening we went to the pub street to have our dinner. The Siem Reap River flows through the town and you can hang out in the numerous small cafés around the bustling Old Market. The market itself sells everything from clothes to veggies and fish. A Siem Reap is a great place to chill in. We went to the market to buy some staff. But I must say quality and artistry of staff in Bali is far better. While coming back to our hotel I walked all the way to our hotel - for a 15 minute pleasant walk to our hotel in Wat Bo Street. The Tuk Tuk will charge either 1 USD or 2 USD depending upon your bargaining skill.


Big Circuit

Today our first temple as per plan is Ta Som. Ta Som is a small temple at Angkor, Cambodia, built at the end of the 12th century for King Jaya-varman VII. It is located north east of Angkor Thom and just east of Neak Pean. The King dedicated the temple to his father Dhara-nindra-varman II who was King of the Khmer Empire from 1150 to 1160.

Next one was Neak Pean - it is a tiny temple built during the reign of King Jaya-varman VII. The King ordered the construction of a vast baray (reservoir) east of Preah Khan temple to provide water to its hundred-thousand support workers. Stretching a half kilometer by 900 meters, the artificial lake stored millions of cubic meters of water to irrigate the rice fields during the dry season. Neak Pean sits at the center of the reservoir. It is surrounded by four smaller ponds, which were in turn surrounded by eight other ponds. At the very center of the complex was a tiny island with a single tower made of sandstone. Some historians believe that Neak Pean represents Anavatapta, a mythical lake in the Himalayas whose waters are thought to cure all illness.

Today we had some great lunch at “Easy Speaking Restaurant” at Pub Street. - Khmer Barbeque consisting of 5 types of meats - kangaroo, snake, frog for around 14.75 USD for three of us. The meat was bit rubbery, but if you are not old you won’t understand what you are eating! But it was a memorable experience. Baba could not eat most of it since he found it rubbery and found it difficult to crush and chew. There is scope to learn Khmer cuisine from many restaurants (“Temple Club Restaurant”) for approx 10 USD. After that left for Preah Khan. It was Jaya-varman VII's first capital, before the completion of Angkor Wat. Large and atmospheric, yet somewhat overshadowed by Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, this temple is partly in disrepair with strangler figs crawling up the walls, but has some excellent carvings and fewer visitors, and is well worth a visit. The temple is some 3 kilometers north of Angkor Thom.

Frog !

Then we left for floating village - Tonle Sap Lake Floating Village: Chong Kneas. Though Kampong Phluk Floating Village, (off the Highway to Phnom Penh) is much more authentic 'floating village experience' than the one close to the Tonlé Sap ferry harbour, we had to opt for the nearer one. The combined lake and river system, uniquely, flows in the reverse direction during the rainy season — that is, upstream instead of into the Mekong. Mangrove trees line the water channels that wind through floating villages to fall into the gigantic lake. The villages themselves have been here for centuries. Fishing is predictably the main occupation here.

We paid $15 per head for a boat ride. It was booked for exclusively for us. The experience was rather exciting actually. Chong Kneas is a floating village at the edge of the Tonle Sap Lake. This is where the boat docks if you’re arriving from Battambang or Phnom Penh. It’s about 20 – 30 minutes from the center of Siem Reap. On the way to the floating village itself, you’ll see large paddy fields and stilted houses (some of them double-storied ones coming with pigsties!) on both sides of the road. You’ll also pass by Phnom Krom hill which has an ancient temple at the top.

The floating village

As soon as you enter the village, you’ll see rows of tourist boats docked closely together. You’ll also start smelling that fishy smell that seems to be present with river villages. One look at the water and you realize that it’s not even remotely clean. But such is life. People in the village still use it for washing and bathing.

The floating village is rather small. After about 20 minutes of going slowly on the boat, you’ll reach the large Tonle Sap Lake. On the way there, however, you’ll see many interesting sights. We even saw a school. The water level wasn’t that high yet. At the end we got down at a crocodile farm in the middle.

The crocodile farms

This farm is probably the ‘highlight’ of the Chong Kneas visit (other than the village and the lake itself). The fish farm is a catfish farm and visitors have the chance to feed them. When we came, the fish weren’t that excited about the food that we threw in. I suppose they were already full of food thrown in by previous visitors.

There is a crocodile farm with numerous crocodile’s right next to the fish farm. Most of them hide, but you can still see some of them clearly, whether they’re sleeping or yawning.

The rooftop

You can also go to the 2nd and 3rd story of the farm for a great view overlooking the floating village and Tonle Sap Lake. It looks like there’s another outlook point not far from the farm and it must be another tourist spot, but I’m not sure if they have a crocodile or fish farm as well. From the rooftop, you can see how big the lake really is. It's so huge, that even though it really is a lake, it looks more like a muddy colored ocean. We spent some time over there. It’s great to spend some time here. You can see everything from the top; the lake, the hill, the boats, the people. Definitely a good place for taking pictures.

It was time to return back to the shore. The water at this point of time is not deep and sometimes bamboos are used to move forward the boat - just like the way people do it in Sundarban - West Bengal. When we reached we bought a plate with our picture of us boarding the boat! They do it super efficiently. They take the picture, print it, paste in a short time of little more than 1 .20 hour and when you reach the shore you see the children standing there with your picture! When we reached the sun is already set.

After taking some rest at the hotel we left for dinner at the pub street. We had dinner at “Khmer Kitchen”.


Outlying temples

We started the day with a tour to Kbal Spean. Its an Angkorian era archaeological site on the southwest slopes of the Kulen Hills to the northeast of Angkor in Siem Reap District... It is situated along a 50 metres (160 ft) stretch of the Stung Kbal Spean River, 25 kilometres from the mainAngkor group of monuments.

The site consists of a series of stone carvings in sandstone formations carved in the river bed and banks. It is commonly known as the "Valley of a 1000 Lingams" or "The River of a Thousand Lingams". The motifs for stone carvings are mainly myriads of lingams (of Shiva), depicted as neatly arranged bumps that cover the surface of sandstone bed rock, and lingam-yoni designs. There are also various Hindu mythological motifs, including depictions of the gods Shiva, Vishnu,Brahma, Lakshmi, Rama, and Hanuman, as well as animals (cows and frogs).

Walking all the way up was quite a feat and we had to stop number of times (but nothing compared of Ijen crater). It was a deep forest and we could see hordes of different colours and varieties of butterfly. Surprising there were very few tourists! Baba waited for us at the base of the hill. After coming back it was lunch time and we had to take lunch at the restaurants at the base of hill. We have never been ripped off like this in our life. One bread and jam was 5 USD. It is more expensive than 5 star hotel. Since there are not restaurants nearby - they are charging whatever they feel like. I did not eat anything in protest.

Next was Banteay Srei, a small 10th century temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Interestingly, Garuda, Hanuman and Narasimha — all associated with the worship of Vishnu rather than Shiva — flanked the courtyard leading to the main shrine. It lies near the hill of Phnom Dei, 25 km north-east of the main group of temples that once belonged to the medieval capitals of Yasodhara-pura and Angkor Thom. Banteay Srei is built largely of red sandstone, a medium that lends itself to the elaborate decorative wall carvings which are still observable today. the carvings on this temple are exquisite. The buildings themselves are miniature in scale, unusually so when measured by the standards of Angkorian construction. These factors have made the temple extremely popular with tourists, and have led to its being widely praised as a "precious gem", or the "jewel of Khmer art." It reminded me of Bishnupur Terracotta temples of West Bengal. I bought a book of Angkor temples for Didi for 5 USD from a vendor selling books here.

Then we went to see Roluos group of temples. The ruins here are from the ancient capital of Harihar-alaya, dating from the late 9th century and thus predating Angkor itself.

  • Bakong. A five-terraced pyramid in the mountain-temple style.
  • Lolei. An island temple constructed in a baray, now dry.
  • Preah Ko. The first temple to be built here, dating from the 9th century.

They can be avoided, since they are simply no match for later day temples. By the time we see Roluos group of temples we had an overdose of temples. After taking some rest at the hotel (in fact I had my lunch near my hotel - I had chicken amok which was nothing great), we went for watching sunset from Phnom Bakheng. Suvuth took us to the spot.

The first temple-mountain constructed in Angkor, with a commanding hilltop location. Extremely popular (and crowded) spot for sunsets. The final climb to the top of the temple is steep and dangerous at dark. Didi went up and reached well within time, but by that time it was full of tourists. The view from the top is quite stunning. Elephants will carry you to the hilltop for $20 per person (as of 2008-11-08), but you still have to climb the temple stairs on your own. Note that the sun does not set over Angkor if seen from here, and any visible temples are in fact quite far away. Also note that you are NOT allowed to climb Phnom Bakheng after 17.30 - hence make sure you arrive earlier.

We did not go to see the Apsara Theatre, which promised traditional Khmer and folk dances/Apsara dance. The dancers, personifying the apsaras and demons, created magic with the lilting music and graceful movements. The reason being it is quite expensive and we have already seen the best dance at Bali. After having my dinner, I went to the Angkor night market (a shopper’s paradise if you can bargain hard). At the end of Angkor night market there is another night market called noon night market.


Today we left from our hotel with Suvuth little early to see some nearby temple - Wat Preah Prom Rath, on the way to Pub Street - the glittering modern temple grounds gives a few hints to its 500 year history and then went to see THE LANDMINE MUSEUM.

This tiny museum was set up by local de-miner Aki Ra to educate locals and tourists about the dangers of land mines. Piles of defused mines and UXO lie around the site and the guides are mostly teenagers who were orphaned or injured by mines, many of whom live onsite. The museum moved in 2007.

Any visitor to Cambodia will know of the country's tortured and tragic modern history and how the country suffered from the Khmer Rouge and the 2nd Indochina war, better known as the war in Vietnam. This is a very worthwhile attraction that brings home the scale of the problem and shows you a slice of real Cambodia. During that period Cambodia become the world's most land mined country. On your visits to the temples you will likely come across Khmer musicians who are missing limbs as the result of landmine accidents. On the road to the Banteay Srei temple and near to the Angkor Butterfly Center, you will find the Cambodian Landmine Museum. This small museum is well worth a visit to deepen your understanding of the country's recent history.

Aki Ra, a former Child Soldier for the Khmer Rouge, founded the Cambodia Landmine Museum in 1997. He set up the museum in his home and began by displaying his own collection of decommissioned mines, bombs and other explosive remnants of war that he himself had cleared.He was probably born in 1970. His parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Aki Ra fought for the Khmer Rouge until 1983 when he was captured by the Vietnamese. He was conscripted into the Vietnamese army on threat of his life while still a boy.
He later served with the Cambodian army as a teenager and still later received landmine clearance training with the United Nations.Tourists began hearing stories about a young Khmer man who cleared landmines with a stick and had a house full of defused ordinance.
Aki Ra began charging a US$ 3 to see his collection, using the money to help further his activities. Thus began the Cambodia Landmine Museum. The first child Aki Ra brought home was a 9-year old boy who had lost his leg to a landmine and was living on the street. His wife Hourt had no idea Aki Ra would be returning with the little boy, but when he returned home she took the child to her family and said "Look, now I have a son". In July of 2010 Aki Ra was selected as a CNN Hero. In September he was chosen as a Top 10 CNN Hero for 2010. His story can be seen at :

Dotted as it is with luxury resorts and spa dens, it’s difficult to imagine the carnage that the Pol Pot regime (1975-79) once unleashed on Cambodia. innumerable people were killed and buried during the regime, and the handicapped trying to reconstruct their lives. The movie Killing Fields was based on it.

In Phnom Penh, the national capital which had once been reduced to a ghost town by the Khmer Rouge, memories of those dark years have been preserved at museums such as the Tuol Sleng, a schoolhouse - turned - detention centre, and the Choueng Ek Genocide Museum.

Savuth was insisting us to visit his village and sharing a meal and/or visiting his childrens' rural primary school. Many drivers and guides are often willing to give you a glimpse into how they and their families live. We skipped it for lack of time. But we went to see a local market of Siem Reap.

Today we had our sumptuous lunch at “Temple Club Restaurant”. It was time for us to bid adieu Kampuchea/Cambodia. Unlike Bali or Java people here are much better - we felt and do not try to rip off travelers. We paid Suvuth less than 150 USD for all his service with tips.

Since we did not take airport pickup from our hotel (since it was done by Suvuth), we negotiated with our hotel owner for airport drop and he willingly did it. In fact the hotel owner himself dropped at the airport. There lies the difference from India! Our plane is suppose to leave for Singapore at 4 45 pm. I must admit it was a bit overdose of temple, but it was like a dream. We reached Phnom Penh at 5.30 pm and left at 6.30 pm and ultimately reached Singapore at 9.05 pm Singapore time. After reaching Singapore I got the baggage arranged since I have to catch an early morning flight to KL at 6 30 am. So I had to book a Taxi early in the morning.

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Chronological order