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Our Travel Diary of Siem Reap

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Duration – 5 days (December 2016)

Getting there – The international airport at Siem Reap is well commented with capital cities of all South East Asian countries and China through direct flights run by a number of budget airline companies and some national carriers. From other parts of the world Siem Reap is well connected via one or two stop flights. We took a one stop flight via Ho Chi Min City from Singapore in Vietnam Airlines as we were travelling with our friends from Singapore - Ranju and Navdeep and their son Aryan.  It made our trip extra special! 

When to Go – The best time to travel to Siem Reap is during the dry season which runs from November to March. That is essentially the winter months in Cambodia though the temperature is around 30°C during daytime, but as it’s a dry season there is very little rain around these months. The dry season is also the most popular months for travellers and hence these months attract crowds.

Staying comfortable – As the temperature in the daytime is around 30°C and in mid twenties during the night, wearing light breathable clothing is the best way to stay comfortable.

Day 1 – Depending on where you are flying from and what time you are arriving at Siem Reap, Day 1 can be spent relaxing in the hotel and exploring the local evening markets in Seam Reap. The Pub Street should be on your radar to visit when you arrive. It has a vibrant feel with clubs with pubs and popular among backpackers. Walk around and explore the various street food stalls around pub street area.  

Day 2 – Start the day with a visit to Angkor Archaeological complex situated just outside the city of Siem Reap.

Angkor Archaeological complex/ park

The Angkor Archaeological complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. It is located outside the city of Siem Reap and spreads over 400 square kilometres of land. It is a testimony to the architectural and cultural excellence of the great Khmer empire of which Angkor was the ancient capital. This historical site is wonderfully intact considering its age and gives an incredible insight into the grandeur of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 14th century. They had one of the most advanced water management systems with basins, reservoirs (‘barays’) and canals and temples at the core. As is evident from the history of the Khmer empire, there was a fascinating marriage of religion and governance that was imported from the Indian civilization. These temples have some of the most well-known names in the world today- like Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. The architecture of Angkor took into account the geography of the region, the social hierarchy, religious orientations and artistic influences of the time.

At the entrance of Ta Som temple

The Angkor Archaeological park is still inhabited by villagers and sees an ever-increasing inflow of tourists. The western society came to know of Angkor's existence only in the 19th century, after French naturalist Henri Mouhot published his travel notes in 1863.

It is thought that the breakdown of the water management system after long periods of intense rains and draughts contributed to the demise of the Khmer Empire (ref-National Geographic)

To appreciate the Angkor Archaeological park, it is good to spend some time understanding the history (read here) and then reviewing the overall layout of the park as it then gives you clarity amidst the vastness of the structures and helps you weave the story of this civilization. The magic of visiting places like this is to stand where kingdoms once existed in full glory and grandeur!

Layout of Angkor Archaeological park

With the exception of Cambodians everyone entering the Angkor temple complex needs to purchase a ticket which also known as Angkor Pass. The Pass can be purchased from the Angkor official ticket office only and is available with validity of 1, 3 and 7 days. It is non-refundable and non-transferable as the details and picture of the passholder is printed on the pass. Our recommendation is to buy the 3-day Angkor pass as 1 day is barely enough to scratch the surface of this magnificent ancient site.

Angkor Thom

Founded by King Jayavarman VII at the end of 12th century, it translates to ‘Great City’ in Khmer and was once the largest city in Khmer. Jayavarman VII was the most successful rulers of the Khmer empire, and in his reign of 30 years saw the construction of numerous temples, highways, universities, rest houses and hospitals. He started his reign at the age of 61 and died when he was 90.

Angkor Thom was a kind of 'rebuilt exercise' of Angkor's greatness. It was protected by a 8m high wall and surrounded by a wide moat. The city has 5 gates, one in each cardinal direction and an extra one in the east. All the gates bear hour giant stone faces of Jayavarman VII as Bodhisattva. Our initial assumption for the explanation for the existence of the 4 faces, was that it perhaps represent Lord Brahma, the ‘Creator’ of the Hindu trinity – the four vedas are believed to have come from the four heads, each in one direction. However, Angkor Thom was built by Jayavarman VII, a Buddhist King, and the four faces are actually of Jayavarman VII himself as the ‘Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’, representing the four sublime states of Buddhism – charity, compassion, sympathy and equality.

South Gate

The South Gate or Tonle Om

The South Gate (or Tonle Om in Khmer meaning 'River Boat') is the best preserved of the five gates and is also the most commonly used pathway which leads straight to the Bayon temple. It is an imposing structure – 23m high with 3 towers mounted on top each with four faces. The gate is also flanked by statues of Airavata (Sanskrit) or Erawan (Thai) – the three headed elephant, Lord Indra’s mount or vehicle.

the Asuras (demons) at the South Gate

The pathway is flanked on either side by 154 statues – the smiling faces represent Devas (Gods) and the angry faces represent the Asuras (demons) and the giant serpent is Vasuki, also seen around Lord Shiva’s neck. It depicts one of the most interesting stories from Hindu mythology ‘Samudra Manthan’ which means churning of the (cosmic) ocean. The end goal was to extract Amrit, nectar of immortality. The Devas (Gods) held the head of the serpent Vasuki, the Asuras (demons) held the tail, the Mandara mountain was used as the churning rod and Vasuki as the churning rope to churn out Amrit from the cosmic ocean. This continued for years and in the process a lot of things were churned out before Amrit and amongst them are Apsaras (celestial dancing nymphs) who chose the Devas as their companions. The three headed elephant Airavata that you see on the south gate was also churned out during the Samudra Manthan.The Amrit was finally churned out and was in a jug held by a well-built man called Dhanvantari, an Avatar of Vishnu, who then went on to be the physician of the Devas and the God of Ayurvedic medicine. The Devas consumed the Amrit with some illusive intervention from Vishnu and thus became immortal – perhaps the reason for the smiles on the faces. You will see bas-relief of Apsaras in temples and you can also see bas-relief of Samudra Manthan on the east gallery's south section of Angkor Wat.

The Bayon temple

At Bayon Temple

The Bayon temple was the last state temple to be built at Angkor and is famous for the smiling stone faces. Though similar to Angkor Wat in many respect – the Bayon temple needs to be seen up close to appreciate its beauty which comes largely due to the sheer size of the structures and the enigmatic smiling faces. The temple is built on three levels (temple mountain) and consists of 54 magnificent towers with 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara. The three levels correspond three phases of building, which is believed to be because Jayavarman VII started the construction when he was quite old. So, each phase was completed fully before moving on to the next.

For more detailed information read the blog here.

The Baphoun temple

At the entrance/pathway to the Baphoun temple

Located north of Bayon temple, the Baphuon Temple of Angkor Thom was built during the 11th century by Hindu King Udayadityavarman II as the state temple. The temple was dedicated to Lord Shiva and is also a mountain temple like Angkor Wat and Bayon temple representing Mount Meru- the mythological abode of Gods. In the 15th century, part of the Baphuon was demolished and the stones used to build a very large (9m tall, 70m long) reclining Buddha on the west end of the temple. However, because this was never completed it is difficult to make out the shape.

pathway to the Baphoun temple

The temple is approached by a 200m long raised pathway and has four gateways decorated with bas-relief scenes from Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Steep stairs leading to the terrace of the temple offers a stunning view of the Angkor Archaeological Site.

As the temple was built on land filled with sand, there was lack of stability, demolition done to create the reclining Buddha and other factors led to collapse of the structures. A massive restoration project was initiated in the 20th century, dismantling each block to stabilize the core – this came to a halt when the civil war broke out in 1970. The site was left with around 300,000 labelled and numbered blocks. A second restoration drive was started in 1996 in which all the labelled blocks were put back in place and finally in 2011, the site was opened to the public by the King of Cambodia together with the PM of France. The restoration work in both phases together was a staggering 50 years!

Terrace of Elephants

Stone carving of the Terrace of Elephants

The Terrace of elephants is an important part of the walled city of Angkor Thom and was attached to the palace of Phimeanakas. It was built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century as a viewing platform from where he looked over parades and processions. This 300m long and 2.5m high structure beautifully decorated with carved elephants, stretches from Baphoun temple and connects to the Terrace of the Leper King. The intricately carved and sculpted bas-reliefs and the elephant figures are worth admiring particularly during early morning or evening, when the light is soft. The Terrace has five piers, three in the centre and one at each end. The middle section of the retaining wall adorns some imposing garudas and lions, towards either end are parade of elephants with their mahouts (people who tended to elephants).

Terrace of the Leper King

Stone carving of the Terrace of the Leper King

This is a small platform 7m high, located at the north end of the Terrace of Elephants. It gets its name from the headless statue that stands atop this platform, believed to be of Jayavarman VII, who apparently had leprosy- hence the name Leper King. A more convincing theory is that the statue is of Yama, the Hindu God of death, and that the Terrace was home to the royal crematorium, considering it sits on the north side of the palace. However, the statue is a replica and the original sits in Phnom Penh’s national museum’s courtyard. On the southern side of the Terrace, facing the Terrace of Elephants, is the access to a secret terrace- this is the internal terrace which was built first and then covered up with the outer terrace which eventually helped preserve the stunning carvings of apsaras (celestial dancing nymphs) and nagas (serpents). Both sets of walls were constructed with sandstone and showcase around 5-7 tiers of bas-relief.

Lunch – We ate Khmer cuisine in a local restaurant situated within Angkor Archaeological Site, Khmer Amok – Amok means steam cooked curry in banana leaves or pot. There are three kinds of Amok - cooked in fresh coconut, cooked in pot and cooked in banana leaf. All kinds of meat can be cooked this way but fish amok is the most celebrated dish of Cambodia – not a surprise considering its rich coastline.

Three types of Amok - cooked in pot, cooked in banana leaf and cooked in fresh coconut

Angkor Wat

In front of the Northern Reflection Pond at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat literally means 'city-temple'. Its importance to present day Cambodia can be seen from the fact that it takes place of pride on the Cambodian flag. It was built by Hindu King Suryavarman II and was dedicated to Lord Vishnu (the ‘Protector’). It also served as an astronomical observatory and mausoleum for the king. The layout of the Wat (temple) is based on the Hindu concept of ‘mandala’ (Sanskrit word meaning the representation of the cosmos). Like other temples this is also aligned to the Hindu mythological concept of Mount Meru – the 5 mountain range that is considered to be the centre of the universe and the axis of the world. The central temple towers over the complex and is steep climb. The towers rise through three levels to a grand central shrine. The temple is surrounded by an expansive enclosure wall, which separates the temple grounds from the moat that surrounds the entire complex. The moat represents the cosmic ocean. Angkor Wat is also known for its intricate Bas-relief in its galleries and pillars. There are 8 stories from the Hindu epic Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas depicted on the walls of the lower. galleries.

For more detailed information read the blog here.

Apsara Dance program and dinner

Apsara dance performance

Set on a stage with buffet dinner arrangements at the rear, this is quite a way to spend an evening in Cambodia. The apsaras are essentially celestial dancing nymphs that were brought out during the process of the Samundra Manthan (read blog on South Gate here). The dancers are truly graceful and look heavenly with their elaborate costumes! A selfie with them at the end does give a more earthly ending to the experience!

Day 3

After breakfast start another day exploring Angkor Temple Complex.

Preah Khan Temple

At the entrance of the Preah Khan temple

The Preah Khan was a ‘temple-city’ built by Jayavarman VII and served as his temporary residence while Angkor Thom was being built. The Preah Khan temple complex was at the heart of this temple city and are the ruins that we see today. The temple was dedicated to Jayavarman VII's father, while Ta Prohm was built in dedication to his mother.

Inside Preah Khan temple

The temple consists of four rectangular enclosures around a central Buddhist sanctuary from which vaulted galleries extend in the cardinal directions and depict bas-reliefs of rishis and apsaras. Like Ta Prohm. Preah Khan has many trees with roots piercing the masonry.

For more detailed information read the blog here.

Temple of Ta Som

At eastern gopura of Ta Som temple

Ta Som appears to be a small-scale version of the Ta Prohm! The main highlight being the massive strangler fig tree growing over the eastern gopura (entrance tower). It is located to the east of the Jayatakata baray (reservoir of Preah Khan).

For more detailed information read the blog here.

Preah Neak Pean Temple

Also called the temple of the entwined or coiled serpents, this small Buddhist temple sits on the central large square pool, surrounded by four smaller square pools arranged in the shape of a cruciform. In the middle of the central pool (Preah Khan Baray or Jayatataka) is a circular ‘island’ encircled by the two nagas (serpents). The four connected pools around the temple, represent the elements fire, water, earth and wind- Hindu concept of balance between all the elements. It is belived that this arrangement represents Anavatapta, a mythical lake in the Himalayas that can cure diseases therefore the locals believe the water in the pool also has healing properties.

Temple of Ta Prohm

In front of the Tomb Raider tree at Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is better known as the Tomb Raider temple (film starring Angelina Jolie). The magic of this temple lies in the surreal image- a temple crumbling under massive roots of imposing cotton-silk and strangler fig trees. This Buddhist monastery was built during King Jayavarman VII's reign and was dedicated to his mother. Unlike other temples which are ‘mountain temples’ where the inner enclosures are higher than the outer ones, this one a ‘flat’ temple and is east facing like most other temples in Cambodia.

For more detailed information read the blog here.

Day 4

Visit to Tonlé Sap Lake

Floating village of Tonle Sap lake

The Tonle Sap lake attaches the Tonle Sap river to the Mekong river and stretches across the northwest section of the country. It is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia and its dimension changes depending on the monsoon and dry season. During rainy season the lake is filled by water flowing from the Mekong while in the dry season the water flows out from the Lake to the Mekong. This lake has immense biodiversity – many species of freshwater fishes, snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, turtles, otters and a wide variety of birds can be found here. The lake also provides more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. At the edge of the lake are floating villages, with towering stilted houses made to withstand the different water levels.

There are four main floating villages – Chong Khneas (with floating school and churches), Kampong Phluk (where locals rear crocodiles!), Kampong Khleang (colourfully painted) and the lesser known Mechrey.

Temple of Bantey Seri

The temple of Banter Seri

This small but one of the most beautiful temples outside Angkor has the best carvings that can be seen anywhere in the world today and is also the only temple not built by a king, but his counsellor. Every inch of this pink sandstone temple is adorned with exquisitely carved male and female divinities and also scenes from the epic Ramayana. Unlike most temples that were built in the 12th-14th century this was built much earlier in the 10th century.

For more detailed information read the blog here.

Evening Local street market outside Siem Reap

This interesting local market has shops on both sides of the road selling everything from fried insects to clothing to shoes.

Day 5:

After 3 days of walking and climbing and visiting lots of temples, we spent day 5 relaxing at the hotel. The spa was one of the best and extremely good value for money. Post lunch we checked out and headed to airport. This was one memorable and enlightening trip with the company of very good friends!

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