It was just us. In the jungle, a family of four standing amidst a labyrinth of ancient ruins teeming with wildlife. Sprawling figs strangling the majestic architecture like a serpent suffocating its prey with dexterity.
Not too far from our right, monstrous trees shot through roofs. Green mosses and vines made their way around every nooks and crannies, determined to tear the walls apart.
Over a thousand year old, this once functioning monastery and university in the Khmer Kings' golden era was swallowed whole by nature right before our eyes.
Trailing Siem Reap’s archeological grounds is like traveling in a time machine. Like ancient explorers setting foot in unfamiliar grounds, we began our archeological journey to explore the world’s largest religious monuments in the history of Asian civilisation.
To a child, the surroundings looked like a playground with unimaginable magnitude.
Siem Reap is more than just temples and ancient ruins. The country is picking itself up from her treacherous past. Outside of the archeological sites that Siem Reap is famous for, there is a contemporary side of this city.
From art galleries, performance arts, chic cafes and an abundance of haute Khmer cuisines from local authentic restaurants.
Here, we cover the practicalities and couple of other things we did to see a different facet of the city.
1. Hire a Tuk Tuk
AngKor Wat is huge. Stretches over 400km squares with scores of temples from 9th to 15th century. Hiring a TUK TUK gives you lots of flexibility at half the cost of car hires.
For young kids, the TUK TUK is the best thing ever invented. It beats the heat with the breeze. It beats boredom. And we felt safe zipping around in it.
2. Time your temple visits
Early mornings or late afternoons are best ways to escape the heat in Siem Reap. Temple photography shots spring to life during these times with gentle hues of the sun. It also gives you time to take a respite from temple huntings and try out other experiences in Siem Reap.
3. Choose Your Entry Passes
Purchase of entry passes are compulsory to get to any of the religious sites in Siem Reap. A 3-Day pass for each of us over a week is more than sufficient to comfortably cover most sites that are of historical and religious significance.
We covered about 9-10 sites with our kids without a guide. Tourism of Cambodia provides comprehensive information for all their temples and rates for entry passes.
Know your temples. Below are some of the sites we personally recommend if you are running short of time to cover the entire park.
3. Ang Kor Wat is a microcosm of Hinduism For The Khmers
The AngKor Wat needs no introduction. One has not been to Siem Reap without a glimpse of this architectural masterpiece in its finest proportions and rich details.
It took a bloodlust conqueror to establish the beginnings of South-east Asia’s most powerful empires. Traditionally as we known it from the inscriptions, Angkor Wat was built by an usurper turned King.
He declared his own sovereignty after the murder of his own uncle and up till this point, the Khmer history had always been that of the occasional consolidation of independent states to form empires that hardly lasted.
The establishment of Angkor Wat was one of his way to uphold and maintain his reign in years to come. This ancient capital was also known to house over a million inhabitants and hundreds of temples, making it the largest functional city in the world before the Industrial revolution.
Another important significance of the AngKor Wat was its symbolism to Hinduism. Its sheer scale allowed the Khmers full expression of its religious symbolism. Its main entrance facing the West instead of the East was an association of the Khmers’ beliefs towards Vishnu, a visible traditional break from temples in Asia that are primarily facing the East.
Housed within the complex are some 600m of narrative bass reliefs and 2,000 over apsaras, making it the world’s largest religious monuments and a completely realised microcosm of the Hindu universe.
4. The Bayon At AngKor Thom Is Khmers’ religious transition from Hinduism to Buddhism
Fast forward from Angkor Wat to the late 12th century, we arrived at the largest Khmer city ever built and had remained so as a capital until the 17th century, The AngKor Thom.
Founded by the last great king of AngKor, Javavarman VII was a devoted Buddhist and was an important figure in AngKor’s continued civilisation. His ambitious undertaking of the building program includes The Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan and among others, hundreds of temples, buildings and hospitals crammed into his 30-year reign.
At the first point of entry to the city from the South gate, crossing the moat is lined by an avenue of statues. On the left and the right, two rows of statues each carry the body of a seven headed giant serpent like a tug of war. The statues on the left are gods and those on the right are asuras (demons) Legend had it that this was the exact spot where Hindu mythology, “Churning Of The Sea Of Milk” had took place. At the state temple of the city - Bayon.
The Bayon located in AngKor Thom is known for its face towers and maize-like qualities without the wall enclosures. It is also symbolic of Khmers’ complex religious transition from Pantheon of the gods, Hinduism and finally Buddhism. My kids had lots of fun playing around here.
5. Ta Prohm was picked to be kept at its most natural state like back in the 19th century
This is the “Tomb Raider” temple that was flung into the Hollywood lime light with Angelina Jolie. It is the most atmospheric ruins high on the hit list for anyone visiting Siem Reap.
Previously a temple monastery, it consisted of a set of concentric galleries with corner towers and many other buildings and enclosures, Its complexity is heightened by its collapsed state interlaced with strangled twigs and silk cotton trees entwined among the ruins.
Ta Prohm is also the temple site chosen to be kept in its most natural state just like how it was like when it first discovered by explorers in the 19th century.
6. A Jewel In The Crown Of AngKorian Art - Banteay Srei
We were initially hesitant traveling 20km north of AngKor to Banteay Srei as we came close to the last leg of the archeological park. After having visited close to over ten sites with our 3-day passes within a span of one week, we thought we would have seen it all. But It was worth the 2 hours ride on the tuk tuk after all.
At the foot of the Kulen mountains, sits the remarkable unassumingly small temple of Banteay Srei constructed way before AngKor Wat back in the 10th century. Commonly referred to as the Citadel of Beauty, it features some of the most exquisite and delicate decorative carvings in pink sandstone that had stood the test of time. Banteay Srei is certainly a jewel in the crown of AngKorian Art
7. Soaking Up The Mountain View At Phnom Kulen National Park
Sadly, we did not make it here as we were not aware of its existence when we were basking in the ruins. A trip to Phnom Kulen National Park will seem fitting since Banteay Srei is almost a stone throw away. A trip to the park is also a refreshing respite from the heat and temple hops.
Taking in the mountaintop views at the sacred peak of Kulen mountain, walk along the river to see thousands of Lingas carved on the riverbed and the natural landscapes in the surroundings.
Admire the 16th century reclining Buddha statue carved out of a huge rock and its affiliation to the Linga cult followed by a hike to the Kulen waterfall for a refreshing dip to end the day. I thought that would have been wonderful
8. Head To Ang Kor National Museum To Know More.
A trip to the Ang Kor National Museum sheds light on the origins of Khmer art, culture, traditions and architecture. You would be taken on a royal historical path from creation to the golden era of the Khmer empire through numerous artefacts that provides a comprehensive pictorial presentation of the world’s few ancient wonders. And its air-conditioned!
9. Local Life At Kompong Khleang, A Remote Fishing Village
There were many memorable highlights during our trip in Siem Reap. Kompong Khleang was one of them. This remote fishing village is 55km away from the heart of Siem Reap. It is located on the great lake of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap.
Tonle Sap is the greatest lake in SouthEast Asia with a network of river and lake distributaries extending throughout Cambodia. It is a vital economic lifeline for many Cambodians including the residents in Kompong Khleang who are mainly fishermen.
The lake changes directions twice in a year with the water level bottoms out during the dry season or swelling up to 10 metres during the wet summer. This means homes are mainly built on stilts to eradicate flooding when the water level increases.
As a result of overfishing and water pollution, the Tonle Sap lake is now an endangered environment. Numerous conservation efforts are under way to protect its rich ecology and biodiversity.
Unlike other “tourist trap” prevalent on the Tonle Sap, Kompong Khleang connects tourists with the village residents in a responsible and meaningful way. Tours are conducted strictly by locals and money go into supporting pre-primary education, English & computer classes, vocational training and filtration programs to enable quality drinking.
When we arrived at the fishing village, we were given a tour of the floating schools and village homes to catch a glimpse of local life. The residents go on with their day minding their own businesses. Children were genuinely happy, living with parents and playing with friends after school. No one was peddling or begging for money. Photography was prohibited to protect the privacy of village children.
Kompong Khleang is the largest fishing community on the Tonle Sap with close to 13,000 habitants. We are thankful to have the opportunity to experience Cambodia in such a meaningful and responsible way.
10. Support Local Youths Through Performance Arts
Burdened by treacherous historical past from civil wars and upheavals not too long ago, the country is picking itself up transforming Siem Reap into a modern and contemporary city.
There is a wide array of art galleries, performance arts, fine khmer dining and luxurious respites ranging from boutique resorts to hotels. While the city is progressing and moving in a forward stance, organisations and communities were set up to ensure Cambodians were not left behind.
Phare, Cambodian Circus is one such social enterprise in Siem Reap that has been instrumental in supporting Cambodian youths from troubled and disadvantaged backgrounds. The enterprise provides a wide array of artistic endeavours through free education and vocational trainings to budding musicians, acrobats, designers and performing artistes. Revenue generated from staged performances go back to fund the initiatives.
Khmer Metal was one of these show staged during our trip to Siem Reap. It gives us a sneak peek into the real and wilder urban life of Cambodian youths. Musicians rocking the stage completed with breathtaking acrobatic stunts. Provocative, edgy, unconventional, lots of fun watching it and absolutely kids friendly!
11. Khmer Gastronomy In The Kingdom Of Wonder
A fine dining experience at the Embassy Restaurant turned out to be the best way to sum up our trip in the Kingdom of Wonder. We opted for the dinner set menu where we discovered magnificent flavours and unique tastes inspired by various provinces in Cambodia completed with wine and/or tea parings for each course.
The restaurant prides itself with the freshest of seasonal local ingredients. Khmer traditional cuisine infused with a contemporary twist in the most luxurious and intimate setting.
The dining experience at Embassy is suited for the most discerning of palate and the finest way to discover Khmer gastronomy. Go try it!