Siem Reap: A Guide Through the Heart of Cambodia
I decided to spend my last weekend in Siem Reap, home to the ancient Angkor temple complex. Angkor served as the capital region at the peak of the Khmer Empire and is Cambodia’s most important legacy – a pivotal source of pride for its people. So much, in fact, that the main temple, Angkor Wat, is featured on the country’s flag.
Considering the current broken state of the country, it’s strange to think of Cambodia as powerful empire that ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from the 9th to 15th centuries. While easily forgotten by foreigners, the achievements of the Khmer Empire are prized by Cambodian people. Angkor, and all of the majestic temples that populate it, is testimony to the country’s past power, wealth, culture, and architectural prowess. Though what is left now are rapidly eroding ruins, each of these temples tell a rich story of what was once a global urban center.
It is very clear to me from my time here that to Cambodians, Angkor is even more than proof of the country’s greatness – it is a symbol of hope. Angkor (as well as the king, whom I’ve learned is pretty useless from a political perspective) represents Cambodia’s potential for growth and a return to prosperity. Its global fame is also a great source for pride: Angkor consistently makes major travel sites’ shortlists as one of the top places to visit in the world. Without it, it is unlikely people would pay as much attention to Cambodia, and much less visit it.
There are infinitely more photos than words to describe the beauty and uniqueness of this place. Though I must have walked and climbed for a cumulative of 24+ hours in just two days, I’m leaving with an itch to see more. I share with you my adventure, in hopes that it will inspire you to visit this spectacular place.
Day 1: Angkor Temple Complex
Angkor Wat – The largest religious monument in the world and the complex’s most magnificent temple, Angkor Wat a must-see at sunrise. It requires you to be out of the door by 5 am – I’ll be honest, it hurts. It also doesn’t help when you arrive and there are massive crowds huddled by the lake that is famously depicted in photos (don’t worry, they dissipate after a while). But, the beauty and serenity that ensues makes the struggle absolutely worth it. With patience and luck, you may see one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life.
Angkor Thom – This temple complex is adjacent to Angkor and was the last capital city of the Khmer Empire. Its gems include the state temple Bayon, which is famous for the many massive, smiling stone faces engraved on its towers, and Baphuon, a three-tiered temple mountain that requires extensive climbing of incredibly steep stairs. The brave souls who make it to the top of Baphuon are rewarded with an amazing view of the complex. The coolest part: built into the back of this temple is a 70+ meter long statue of a reclining Buddha (very difficult to spot at first, it helps to distance yourself from it).
Ta Prohm – Ta Prohm is incredibly beautiful and special, unfortunately everyone knows this: it is often swarming with tourists. The temple’s most distinctive features are the many massive trees whose roots are so intertwined with the ruins as to render the two inseparable. Every corner you turn, you can find a masterpiece created by the union of tree and ruin.
Phnom Bakheng – This temple, located at the top of a hill, is a highly recommended spot to watch the sunset as it offers a bird eye’s view of Angkor Wat, the thick jungle that surrounds it, and the province’s countryside. Similar to Angkor Wat, it gets quite crowded so arrive early.
Day 2: Beng Mealea and Kampong Phluk
Beng Mealea – I won’t attempt to hide my preference for this previously abandoned temple that, after recently being cleared of land mines in 2007, has opened to the public. Unlike the Angkor temples, Beng Mealea is unrestored: it is largely composed of rubbles that lie shattered throughout the complex in enormous, gracefully chaotic heaps. Though Angkor was beautiful, Beng Mealea truly took my breath away. Since it has been so recently made accessible to visitors, this place is still relatively untouched by man (exception: the masses of Chinese tour buses that show up at 9:30, so make sure you show up way before or after to get a feel of the temple’s authenticity). Countless of untamed, thick trees with their sprawling roots create a canopy that, when contrasted against the beams of sunlight that shine through the trees’ branches, cast lovely shadows over the ruins. The vast amounts of moss that covers most of the decrepit stone gives the entire temple an effervescent green glow.
Best of all, you can climb and walk through the majority ruins – the temple is largely unmonitored. Potentially dangerous, but perfect for adventurous souls.
Kampong Phluk – This floating village is an easy stop on the return back from Beng Mealea. Kampong Phluk is completely built on stilts: since it is located right on the Tonle Sap lake, the water can rise to as much as 5 meters during wet season. This means every house in the village needs to be elevated at least that high. There is no electricity, only generators that run a few hours per day, and the main method of transport are boats. Kampong Phluk is home to about 300 families and 5,000 people, with approximately 10-20 people living in each house.
As was the case with Phnom Penh, I anticipated to find sadness in a place that appeared so poor and barren of everyday comforts. Instead what I found was a tight-knit community who works really hard and looks out for one another. Everyone does their part: most of the men work as fishermen, while the women and children cook and work odd jobs around the village. While to many visitors, the village would be classified as as poor, I discovered that they also have their own class system: some of the villagers are entrepreneurs who opened restaurants and home-stays for tourists, and are now rich and live in the “nicer” part of the village. Another reminder that, wherever we go, we will always be social creatures who seek labels and modes of classification.
Overall, my visit to Siem Reap vastly shifted my perception of Cambodia. It is a completely different world from Phnom Penh, an observation also shared by many locals. While I cherish the many memories I made in Phnom Penh, the city is definitely not tourist friendly like Siem Reap is. It is dirty, the inhabitants are mostly unfriendly, and most of the sight-seeing can be completed in a few days.
Siem Reap, on the other hand, is truly the heart of Cambodia: much of the country’s beauty lies in this province. After learning about the horrific history of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970’s, it was important for me to be reminded of what makes this country worth caring for. While it deeply saddens me to know the extent of the brutality that Cambodians were capable of committing against one another, I more so deeply admire how this country chooses to hold on to the greatness it has built in the past as it continues to work towards a better future.