Wednesday, August 8, 2012

10 Things to Do In Siem Reap

I will always remember Siem Reap, Cambodia for the wonderful tuk tuk ride through its tranquil, tree-lined avenues, where we rode past bikers, old timers, and laughing school children. Here, no building can be built higher than the Angkor Wat.  Cars or tuk tuks have to give way to the occasional monkey crossing the road. 

And you know, any place where temples are more important than buildings, and animals are the kings of the road, is my kind of place.

My friend and I did many wonderful things in and around the temples of Angkor, but several have stood out from the rest, and I highly recommend that you do not miss these.

1. Catch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng 

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Khmer king Yasovarman I built Phnom Bakheng to be the center of his kingdom when he ascended to the throne in 889. Today, this temple-on-a-hill is touted as the best place to watch the sun, as it sets on nearby Angkor Wat.

To get to this fabled view deck requires a 20 minute hike up a mountain, and an ascent of 200 feet up the narrow steps of the temple itself. It's quite challenging, but not impossible. Some families even have small infants on their backs while making the climb.

On top,  it is usually swarming with tourists. If you want a decent vantage point for sunset photos, plan to arrive way before 4:30 pm.  But if you're there and all the best spots are taken, just find a quiet corner like this guy to soak it all in.

Tip: Get there early, leave the baby and bring a flashlight. Unless you plan to tail the efficient Korean tour groups, you'll be groping your way down as there are no lights on the descent. 

2. Count the carved faces in Bayon Temple 

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap Cambodia

Bayon Temple is located inside Angkor Thom ("Great City"), which is the second most popular temple after Angkor Wat. There are as many as 200 of these carved faces here, which are believed to be depictions of Buddha. Some say these were actually inspired from the face of the ancient Khmer king, Jayavarman VII. In any case, it was both fascinating and spooky to have these watching over us as we roamed the passages and temple grounds. 

TipHire a guide. Not only will they help you navigate through the labyrinthine passages, they are also very helpful in pointing out spots for the best photo opportunities. I mean, who doesn't want a photo where you look like you're nose-to-nose with an ancient king?

3. Say "hi" to friendly monks 

Monks in Siem Reap, Cambodia

It's easy to take for granted the fact that the structures in Angkor are not just tourists spots, but working temples where religious ceremonies are regularly held. The monks you meet along the way are a good reminder of this. Inside the temple, they offer prayers, flowers and food to images of the Buddha. They also ring the bells at certain times of the day. They are quite friendly and will pose gamely when asked. We even saw one monk taking a photo of the temple with his cellphone. 

Tip: The bright orange robes of the monks provide the perfect color contrast to the dreary gray walls of the temple. But, beware of locals who pretend to be monks and charge for photos taken of them. 

4. Learn ancient Khmer stories

A woman looks on worriedly, as her husband crouches over a pot of opium (top left photo). The wars between the Khmer and the Cham (the Thais) are an important theme in Khmer sculptures (left middle photo). The Chinese are shown coming to the aid of the Khmers' fight against the Cham (bottom left photo). Khmers preparing for battle (middle photo). A carving of an Upsara or Celestial dancer (rightmost photo). 

The walls of Bayon temple tell the centuries-old stories of the Khmer people. Here, both everyday life and legendary battles are commemorated on the beautifully carved bas-reliefs that adorn the walls. Some display the epic wars between the Khmers (Cambodians) and the Chams (Thai),  while others show daily scenes in Cambodian life, such as mothers playing with their babies, or hunters preparing to catch their prey.

 The sheer vastness of the sculptures -- 1.2 km and more than 10,000 carved figures can be overwhelming.Once again, a guide would be useful in appreciating the nuances and contexts of the images.

5. Visit Ta Prohm (also known as Tomb Raider temple)

Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple), Siem Reap, Cambodia 

Just a 15 minute tuk tuk ride from Angkor Wat is the temple made famous by Angelina Jolie's 2001 movie, Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm was built as a Buddhist monastery and university back in the 12th century. At its heyday, more than 12,000 people called Ta Prohm home.

Today, the gigantic roots of fig and banyan trees have all but engulfed Ta Prohm's sandstone structures. The roots are so enormous that it has crawled through, coiled around and in some cases, crushed the temple. Archaeologists have largely left these to have a run of the place, and in doing so, have preserved the mysterious and magical feel of these ruins. 

6. Try the Cambodian National Dish, "amok"

Amok in Cafe Indochine, Siem Reap, Cambodia

This dish originally uses fish, which is steamed in banana leaves and served with coconut curry. After a long day of temple-hopping, we decided that it was the perfect night to try out amok. On Sivatha street in downtown Siem Reap, we spotted Cafe Indochine. It's an open air dining restaurant, in the style of a traditional Khmer house. I especially liked the cozy and  airy feel of the place. The outdoor dining had a garden, while indoors it had rattan chairs, wooden fixtures, and soft lighting coming from the lamps which hung from the ceiling.

Living up to its name, the menu offered Cambodian, Thai, French and Vietnamese cuisine. Many dishes on offer looked tempting, but we were really there for the amok. We tried the chicken version of the dish, and it was delicious. The sweet-creamy curry, blended quite nicely with the tender chicken and the flavor of lemon grass. It was a rather perfect meal on a rather beautiful night.

7. Stay in a $20 a night hotel

Angkor Pearl exterior and interior photo by Mia Saavedra

The hotel on the left is Hotel De La Paix. We shot this photo, guerrilla style from our tuk tuk. Why? Because the last thing we wanted was to be shooed away from this $ 2,000 a night hotel, where Angelina Jolie reportedly stayed during the Tomb Raider shoot.

The photo on the top right is where we actually stayed. It's called the Angkor Pearl, and for $20 a night, it was just the best bargain. The rooms are large, tastefully decorated and clean. The staff, especially the front desk officers were very helpful and friendly. They facilitated our tuk tuk arrangements, and recommended such a wonderful driver and guide. I recently checked up on Angkor Pearl on Trip Advisor and read that they were Traveler's Choice for Bargain Hotels in Asia.

8. Choose your own adventure

Moving around Angkor is so much more fun because you get to choose your mode of transportation. Whether it's through a leisurely stroll on top of an elephant, or via the air-conditioned comfort of your car, or by way of a happy bike ride, Angkor is yours to explore. I, personally prefer the tuk tuk (see below).

9. Catch a ride on a tuk tuk

Tuk tuk ride, Siem Reap, Cambodia (Top right photo by Mia Saavedra)

It was on a tuk tuk that we had a shivering, early morning ride to catch the sunrise at the Angkor Wat. It was through a tuk tuk that wind whipped our hair and we saw Siem Reap's lakes, tree-lined boulevards and laid-back life pass us by. And it was in a tuk tuk when I gasped as I saw the majestic Angkor Wat unfold unexpectedly before my eyes. The rides were really quite delightful, and for a Siem Reap first-timer like me, they were the best way to go around. (Next time, I'll try Siem Reap on a bike). 

10. Get off the beaten track

Off-the-beaten track: lonely temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

If you notice, I didn't even include the Angkor Wat in this list. For me, the best experience of the Angkor Wat was my first glimpse of it. From a tuk tuk and across the lake, the venerable temple came out of nowhere, like magic. 700 feet in height, with five towers jutting out from the center,  it was sitting stately across a moat, a remnant of a world long gone. 

But when we stepped foot inside the temple itself, we found ourselves surrounded by tourists of every shape and form. I especially did not enjoy the steep climb up makeshift stairs up the temple. The mythical atmosphere just evaporates in these kinds of conditions.

What I relished is this secluded temple that our guide brought us to. It might not be as popular as the others, and I doubt this could be found in the major listing of Angkor guide books. 

But it was the very first temple we could enjoy all to ourselves. It was also the moment when I was able to breathe in  the full wonder of this lost kingdom.

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