Exploring Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

If I were a poet, I would write an ode to sunrise at Angkor Wat. It is as beautiful as everyone tells you. The rising orange sun casting a shadow over the huge expanse of the Angkor Wat temple makes for a sight to behold. Visiting this magnificent temple was on my husband’s to-do list for many years so we jumped at the opportunity to travel to Siem Reap over a weekend  (Aah, the advantages of living in Singapore). I wish we had more time though considering the sheer number and sizes of temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park. You can check out more details about the temples, cost of tickets and operating hours at Tourism Cambodia . Here is what the layout of the park looks like

Map of the Angkor Archaeological Park [Courtest: TourismCambodia.com]

Map of the Angkor Archaeological Park
[Courtest: TourismCambodia.com]

We booked a guided tour from Angkor Wat Services – Private Day Tours and were given the flexibility to choose the temples we wanted to cover. The tour included an A/C car to travel from one spot to another, an English speaking guide, endless supply of cold bottled water (Siem Reap is hotttt) and fresh wet towels. I would certainly recommend taking a guided tour if you are not familiar with Hindu mythology because the guides know the important parts of the temple to take you to and will explain the history and purpose of each construction. Since we knew the stories quite well we felt that a guided tour was perhaps not necessary but we appreciated the extra information nonetheless. Here is how our guided trip went

Sunrise at Angkor Wat and exploring the temple: If you want to catch Angkor Wat in all its glory, visiting it during sunrise is the best time. You will still be greeted by crowds of tourists falling over themselves to get the perfect shot, but instead stand back and take in the views. Your eyes are the best camera! There is something very peaceful about this temple and it is easy to get lost in the intricate architecture on the walls and pillars. You can spend hours exploring the temple because it is quite huge so we were glad that our guide made sure we did not miss out on any important part of the temple – right from the stories of Ramayana etched on the walls to the views of the gardens. Angkor Wat is not just a temple, it is an experience.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Thom: Angkor Thom in itself isn’t a temple. It is rather a complex consisting of several temples that served as the seat of the Khmer empire in 12th century. It is hard to miss the bridge covered with statues along its length and the towering gate that greet you into the area. This kind of construct can be seen across Cambodia’s temples and there is an interesting reason behind it as well. It is basically an interpretation of the Samudra Manthan story in Hindu mythology which is deeply rooted in Cambodia’s culture. As you make your way inside, you will see number of temples of which the most popular ones are Bayon and Baphuon.


Me all smiley and cheery at the bridge leading to Angkor Thom

Bayon: “How many faces do you see?”, asked our guide enthusiastically. This was the question that stumped us as we entered the Bayon temple. Although not as huge as the Angkor Wat, Bayon has its own unique charms – the most prominent of those being the smiling, calm stone faces that dot the temple. There are also two ornate walls at the entrance of the temple that tell stories from a bygone era and contain some of the most intricate work we saw on our trip. It is just a stunning temple overall.


The beautiful serene Buddha faces at Bayon


Intricate stone carvings on the outside wall of Bayon

Baphuon: Located right opposite the Bayon, Baphuon is a tiered temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The structure itself is quite barren now and appears more like a ruin considering it has not been as well preserved or restored as some of the other temples in Siem Reap. Despite that, walking along the corridors of the temple gives you a glimpse of how glorious it must have been in its heyday.  As we made our way out, our guide asked us to look at the temple from outside and see if we noticed something. After a lot of eye wincing and head tilting we saw the outline of a reclining Buddha on one of the outer walls. History and architecture can be fun too! A note of caution, there are lots of red ants near the temples so make sure you wear covered shoes and/or are careful when walking.


The tiered terraces at Baphuon

Ta Prohm: Also known as the Tomb Raider temple, Ta Prohm was my favorite temple in Siem Reap. Popular among tourists for not just the movie but for its massive tree roots, this temple is unlike any you will ever see. As you walk inside you will be mesmerized to see how old stone pillars intertwine with tree roots to make the most amazing shapes. Thanks to the trees, the temple has managed to stay in a good condition. There will be tons of photo opportunities inside the temple so be your playful best because this temple has that vibe about it. Now, how many temples can you say that about?

Trees and temples living harmoniously at Ta Prohm

Trees and temples living harmoniously at Ta Prohm

More roots

More roots

By this time we were exhausted beyond measure and decided to call it a day. If you have an extra day, do make it a point to visit Banteay Srei and Preah Khan temples which we hear are beautiful. In fact, in hindsight we realized that a minimum of 3-4 days is necessary to enjoy Siem Reap without rushing because there is a lot to see and learn.

Although Siem Reap is mostly about the the Angkor temples, here are some other things that should be on your to-do list

Try Khmer Cuisine: I always feel let down while travelling in South East Asia because the local cuisines are predominantly meat or sea food based. Being vegetarian, we end up scouting for Indian/Italian/Mexican places to fill our stomachs and trust me, after a hard day’s travel the last thing you want to be doing is running to some corner just to get food. Thankfully, Siem Reap was different. We managed to find some fantastic local vegetarian food cooked in the traditional Khmer style. I would highly recommend a small restaurant called Chamkar located near Pub Street that offers pure vegetarian food for a pocket friendly price. If you are in the mood for some Indian food, then try out Dakshin’s a specialty Indian cuisine restaurant which is a 5 min walk from Pub Street.

Spring Rolls and Salad cooked in Khmer style

Spring Rolls and Salad cooked in Khmer style

Shop at the Night Market: I love shopping at street markets because it gives you a good feel of local art, fashion and culture. And if the market is open through the night – even better! Siem Reap has a vibrant night market although it doesn’t compare to the one in Chiang Mai. You can find lot of very good paintings on the streets made by local artists. We bought two of them for 10$ and would have purchased more had we had more baggage space. You can also find lots of cotton shirts, souvenirs, jewelry and crafts in the market. Make sure you have a look around the shops before choosing one place to buy and do not hesitate to bargain.

Visit Pub Street: Probably the most popular street in Siem Reap, Pub Street consists of numerous cafes, restaurants and bars that remain open late into the night for tourists. You can find everything here from barbecues to hot pots to Irish pubs. While it might be tempting to sit in any of the restaurants here, make sure you research the place before visiting. Most of the good restaurants are just a walk away from each other and located in and around Pub Street.

Get Massages: There is a lot of walking in Siem Reap, so we were exhausted after we got back to our hotel room. A bit of internet research led us to a spa called Lemongrass Garden. They have two locations, both of them close to our hotel and Pub Street. We loved the treatments we got – the service was good, people very friendly and the rooms were clean and spacious. There is no shortage of spas and massage centers in Siem Reap but if you want a high quality treatment for affordable price, look no further than Lemongrass.

So, you heard what we had to say about the beautiful city of Siem Reap and all its beautiful temples. I think we might end up going there once again just to tick off all the other temples from our checklist. Plus, I love visiting places that have history and a story to tell. What about you?

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