I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published October 3rd 2012
Cambodia's cultural heartland and the gateway to Angkor Wat
Sensational Siem Reap, Cambodia
Situated in the north-west of Cambodia, picturesque Siem Reap is perhaps best known for the nearby temple of Angkor Wat, an immense and intriguing structure built almost one thousand years ago amidst the dense jungle which covers the area. However, there is so much more to Siem Reap than these incredible ruins, as a recent five-day visit to the provincial capital revealed to me.
Siem Reap is often considered to be Cambodia's cultural heartland, and since the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime which decimated much of the country's population, international tourism has proved to be a means of rejuvenating lost traditions and revitalising the local economy.
The Old Market, Siem Reap
The following are just a few suggestions about what to see and do in this beautiful, intriguing and culturally rich area. Hopefully you will find some inspiration here for your own adventures.
The temples of Angkor The Angkor Archaeological Park just six kilometres out of town is a 400 kilometre square reserve littered with amazing stone temples constructed by the ancient Khmer civilisation. The best known of these is Angkor Wat , an immense Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, which is the largest religious structure in the world. Surrounded by a huge mote, the walls of its outer compound measure 1024 by 802 metres, and are 4 and a half metres tall.
Despite its huge size, however, the intricacy of its artistic detail is beyond belief, especially the exquisite bas relief sculptures which adorn many of its stone surfaces. One of these incredible works extends for about 100 metres along the temple's walls, and portrays dynamic and detailed scenes from Hindu scriptures such Srimad Bhagavatam, Mahabharat and the Ramayana. Many others portray apsaras, beautiful damsels from the heavenly abode, each unique, with her own distinct style of dress and hair ornamentation.
Other ancient structures within the park include Angkor Thom, the Khmer imperial city with its amazing Bayon (a Buddhist temple featuring 216 huge enigmatic carved stone faces) and the exquisite Ta Prohm temple, whose stonework has been embraced over the centuries by the roots and branches of the surrounding jungle. However, scores of other temples of varying sizes and states of repair exist and if you're a history buff, you could easily spend several days exploring this amazing area.
Angkor National Museum Whether you've just arrived in Siem Reap and would like to research the area's rich archaeological background before visiting the temples, or you've already been to the important sites and want to learn more, the Angkor National Museum is a veritable treasure trove of information about the ancient Khmer civilisation. A modern institution just a few years old, it features the latest technology, including touch screen video commentaries and displays based on specific themes such as historical era, religion and royalty.
The museum is comprised of eight galleries linked by a vaulted corridor, and decorated with a series of fountains and sculptures. The first gallery is a single room containing 1000 images of the Buddha from various temples, ranging from small up to life-sized: an impressive sight, indeed. However, despite the risk of information overload, each of the galleries is beautifully presented and extremely interesting. With admission being US $12 per person (children under 12 are half price), it's certainly not cheap. However, the information which it provides is invaluable and I'd strongly recommend a visit. The Angkor National Museum is open daily, from 8.30am to 6pm.
Exploring the town Relatively small in size, Siem Reap is easy to explore independently, either by bike or on foot. A good starting point for your rambles is to stroll along the languid Siem Reap River, in the heart of town. Since the days are very hot most of the year, the best time to wander there is in the early mornings or the late afternoon. Parklands border both sides of the river, and benches are spaced along the paths for resting and admiring the view. Here and there street vendors pedal their wares, some of whom are amputees who have lost their limbs to the land mines which still litter the country-side. Personally, I tried to support these individuals, as life is still tough for many rural Cambodians, as not much of the tourist dollar reaches them.
The river flows through the old colonial part of town, and many fine French style buildings dating from that era still remain. Naturally, much of the architecture is traditional Khmer, and the cultural fusion of local and European elements creates a delightful ambiance. The Old Market is situated in this part of town, and is a hive of activity in the early evening. A picturesque covered footbridge in the heart of town is also worth a look and is extremely photogenic.
Covered footbridge, Siem Reap River
Further along the river, ramblers can see the Wat Preah Prom Rath, one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Siem Reap, which was built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and features the beautiful and dramatic architecture which is so characteristic of the region. Guests are welcome to visit. However, as is the case with all Buddhist temples, immodest dress for both males and females is not considered respectful for a place of worship.
Cycling is also a great way to explore Siem Reap and the many places of interest which surround it, and bikes can be hired at many guesthouses and hotels. Many travellers choose to hire their bikes from the White Bicycle, a charity which generates funds for local water and educational projects in rural Cambodia.
The Old Market area
Psar Chas, Siem Reap's Old Market, is located in the heart of the old part of town, close to the Siem Reap River. It is comprised of a labyrinth of small walkways and passages, full of shops, day spas and eateries of all descriptions, many of which are situated in lovely old French colonial-era buildings. As is common in this part of the world, the merchants are partial to the 'hard sell' approach, and as you wander past the shops, even a casual glance at what is on offer is enough to inspire a barrage of fast sales talk. However, anything you may desire is available here, from practical personal care items, to that special gift for someone back at home. To get the best value for your money, it's probably a good idea to refine your grasp of the fine art of haggling.
As in much of Asia, a popular business enterprise at the Old Markets is the ubiquitous 'Doctor Fish' foot massage, in which a patron sits on a bench next to a large glass tank full of small fish and inserts his or her feet into it, enabling the fish to nibble on the soles and other rough areas, thus removing dead skin. Although it's very ticklish, it was an interesting experience, and my feet definitely felt much smoother after I'd removed them from the tank.
Arts and Crafts
Siem Reap is paradise for lovers of arts and crafts. Although the Khmer Rouge regime vigorously attempted to abolish all traces of the country's culture, and killed many of the artisans who kept alive the practices of their forbearers, over recent years there has been an immense resurgence of interest in these traditions. With the help of numerous international organisations, young local Cambodian people have been learning traditional skills such as stone carving, silver smithing, wood-work and silk spinning, thus keeping alive these ancient art-forms. Many of these organisations promote fair trade, thus ensuring that artisans receive a rightful income from the fruits of their labour.
Situated near the centre of Siem Reap, the Artisans of Angkor operate a workshop where visitors are welcome to visit and watch an amazing variety of traditional arts take shape, including stone and wood carving, lacquer-work, silk-painting, copperware and silver plating. Open from 7.30am until 5.30pm, free guided tours are available so that guests can better understand the creative processes which are involved and their historical background. There is also a boutique located here, so you can purchase some of the beautiful products which you see getting made.
Senteurs d'Angkor is another shopping destination which aims at helping impoverished local people, many of whom are handicapped. They specialise in beautiful handmade soaps, cosmetics, scented candles and traditional Cambodian spice mixes, and use only 100% natural ingredients which are sourced locally. They also produce gorgeous little boxes called amoks, which are made out of woven and coloured sugar palm leaves. To learn more about the production of these items, Senteurs d'Angkor welcomes visits to their workshops. Find out more by giving them a call on 063 964 801 (shop) or 063 966 733 (workshop).
A personal favourite of mine during my visit to Siem Reap was the gift-shop at the Peace Cafe, where a variety of fair trade crafts and other gifts are available at very reasonable prices. This place is a beautiful oasis of tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle of the town and is well worth the visit. At the temples, there are also many little stalls which sell locally-produced crafts and other items. Amongst the ruins of Ta Prohm, I especially noticed artisans and small traders selling their wares, including hand-made jewellery, stonework, sketches and brass ornaments. Keep these people in mind when you purchase gifts and souvenirs, as you can be more confident that the money you spend will be benefiting the artisans, rather than big business people.
Apsara Dance performance
Robam Tep Apsara, better known as the 'Apsara dance', is a style of classical Khmer dance which, inspired by Queen Sisowath Kossamak, was created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia during the 1940s. However, despite its relatively recent appearance, the dance style has its origins in the ancient Khmer civilisation. Legend states that in the twelfth century, Indra, the king of the Gods, appeared on earth and presented King Jayavarman (the monarch who constructed many of the Angkor temples) with the Kingdom of Cambodia, the qualities to be a monarch, and the Apsaras themselves, who taught the Khmer people how to dance.
According to the Hindu scriptures, apsaras are celestial dancing girls, and these performances feature beautiful dancers attired in the traditional sampot sarabap (a tight-fitting, pleated traditional style of dress made of silk brocade) and elaborate head dresses (based on the designs depicted at Angkor Wat), enacting religious narrations such as the Khmer Ramayana and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, through graceful, elegant movements, accompanied by a traditional Khmer orchestra.
Apsara dances are incredibly popular in the Siem Reap region, and there are many venues throughout the town for visitors to enjoy a performance, often with a meal included. The most sophisticated of these venues is definitely the Apsara Theatre, which is situated within the Angkor Village Resort. This beautiful theatre has been constructed in the traditional Cambodian style, and features exquisitely carved, high wooden roof beams and carvings throughout. Performances at the Apsara Theatre begin at 8pm and finish at around 9.30pm, and include a variety of different dances. Due to the popularity of the performances here, it is strongly recommended that reservations are made well in advance. For more information about the performances at the Apsara Theatre, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Apart from the Apsara Theatre, many other venues around Siem Reap also offer Apsara Dance performances. My family and I chose to attend the performance at the Angkor Mondial Restaurant, which is situated on Pokambor Avenue, near the Siem Reap River. This was mainly because it was possible to purchase tickets for the performance separately, rather than have a meal included, which the majority of performances around town invariably provide, whether you want it or not. Having such a choice is essential if you're vegetarian (as we are), you're travelling with fussy children or you simply want to choose where you're going to dine. We were all impressed with the performance, even my husband who isn't usually interested in the performing arts. In addition to the Apsara dances, others which were performed included a delightful Fisherman's Dance and a Coconut Dance, both of which are traditional folk-dances of the region, featuring male as well as female dancers.
Wat Bo temple
Early one morning, my husband and I decided to go for a walk along the backstreets of Siem Reap, and ended up at this beautiful old Buddhist temple. Located on the east bank of the Siem Reap River, Wat Bo is one of the oldest temples in the town, having been constructed in the eighteenth century. The temple is situated in a very spacious compound, and is well-shaded with many mature trees growing throughout the gardens. It's an extremely tranquil place, and there are several quiet sitting places where the monks or visitors can sit and relax. Wat Bo consists of several beautiful large pagodas constructed in the traditional style, with tall, dramatically pointed roof beams. In addition, there are many small stupas (shrines containing religious relics) throughout the garden, which further enhances the exotic ambiance.
Wat Bo is particularly renowned for its collection of late nineteenth century wall paintings portraying the Reamker, the Cambodian interpretation of the Ramayana. The monks will be happy to show you these if you ask politely.
Glad you liked the Angkor Wat article. You'll love it over there! It's an amazing place...I wish I could have stayed longer. It's such a rich culture and the people are so warm-hearted and gentle.
We organised everything through the backpackers hostel that we stayed at: the Siem Reap Hostel. We booked accommodation with them a month or so before we left, and they organised tuk tuks whenever we needed to go anywhere, as well as Sunny, our guide. It was a really nice hostel...really more like a hotel than a hostel, as all the rooms are private...no dorms. I can't remember how much we paid (it was for three adults), but it wasn't much. Their website ishttp://www.thesiemreaphostel.com/ I strongly recommend them. There's a lot of other nice accommodation there that's very affordable, but I'd recommend booking asap as December is their high season.
From what I remember, we paid $25 for Sunny to guide us, and we paid the tuk tuk driver $15, as he got to take it easy as we were getting escorted around the sites. Those were the prices which were recommended by the hostel. Check with other travellers when you get there, too, and with the guest house staff.
You can definitely see Siem Reap on a budget...we had to be tight with our money too! There are heaps of great places to eat there but a great little spot which I've got to recommend is the Peace Cafe, which is only five minute's walk from the hostel. It's all veg, they have regular yoga classes, Khmer language classes, veg cooking classes and have a lovely little fair trade gift store.
I'd better sign off here as it's getting late...
I hope this info is of some help! Please feel free to ask any other questions.
I just read your lovely article on Angkor Wat and found it extremely informative. I am going there myself in December. Are you able to tell me how much your guide Sunny cost? How much was the driver and did Sunny organise that for you? How did you organise Sunny? Was it through your hotel and did you organise that in Cambodia or from Australia in advance. Sorry for so many questions, but I am trying to cut the cost of my trip (more expensive in December) and any help would be appreciated.