Siem Reap - Gateway to Angkor - The Maritime Explorer


Siem Reap – Gateway to Angkor

In the last post from the 2023 Adventures Abroad tour of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia I had the unpleasant, but necessary task of documenting our visit to the Killing Fields. Those events occurred within my lifetime and demonstrated, as does the current situation in Ukraine, that you can never take peaceful co-existence and human sanity for granted. Fortunately, my last two posts from this tour will feature a side of Cambodia that was far more civilized than what happened in the 20th century and left a legacy that is among the most important ever bequeathed to subsequent generations. I’m referring of course to the great Khmer archaeological complexes to be found near the city of Siem Reap, most notably Angkor Wat, but also including literally dozens of others that collectively constitute the largest religious complex ever built anywhere. I’ll leave Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom for my final post from this once in a lifetime trip and instead concentrate on a number of the lesser known temple complexes as well as the city of Siem Reap in this post. Prepare to be very pleasantly surprised.

It’s a short flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap of only about 45 minutes on a small Cambodia Angkor Air prop plane and we arrive under clear skies and high, but not unbearable temperatures.

Plane to Siem Reap
Cambodia Angkor Air Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

Siem Reap

Lions & Lotus, Siem Reap
Lions & Lotus

The name Siem Reap supposedly means ‘the place where Siam was defeated’, but that may just be a folk legend. The reality is that Siem Reap was nothing more than a riverfront fishing village until the French arrived in force in the early 1920’s after the so-called ‘rediscovery’ of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot in the mid 19th century. The existence of Angkor Wat had never been forgotten, but it was the French who really put it on the map by building the first hotel here in 1929. From then until the civil wars that started in 1965 it was a popular destination for adventurous travellers. It was basically off limits for over thirty years as Pol Pot, driven from power in 1979 by the Vietnamese, holed up with his rabid followers in the area until 1998 when he finally died. Since then the city has grown exponentially, all driven by tourism, and today is a modern city known for its ultra luxurious resorts, fine restaurants and myriad of day trip possibilities that have made it one of the top ten destinations in the world according to many publications.

Our three nights in Siem Reap will be spent at one of these five star resorts, the Hotel Somadevi Angkor which has large rooms, nice balconies and a large pool. It is the final stop on what has been a string of consistently high quality hotels on this tour. Relative to many destinations, Southeast Asia is a bargain and you get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of accommodations and amenities.

Hotel Somadevi Pool, Siem Reap
Hotel Somadevi Pool

Siem Reap is a very pleasant place to walk around, particularly along the riverbank where these banners were in place for the upcoming Chinese New Year.

Getting Ready for New Year's, Siem Reap
Getting Ready for New Year’s

Brightly coloured traditional wooden boats are found on both sides of the river.

Colourful Boats

And this traditional water wheel.

Traditional Water Wheel

As with any Southeast Asian cities there are markets selling a variety of spices, rice and clothing.

Spices for Sale

You can also find hot and cold dishes, including these really great looking crabs in spicy broth.

Spicy Crabs

You can also check out whether the king is in residence at his Siem Reap palace.

Entrance to the King's Palace, Siem Reap
Entrance to the King’s Palace

Or go the opposite route and drop into the Cambodian People’s Party office.

Cambodian People’s Party

However, the reality is that people don’t come to Siem Reap for the sake of the city, but to visit the fantastic Hindu and Buddhist temple complexes for which the area is famous. Collectively the archaeological area is known simply as Angkor and covers an incredible 400 sq. km. (154 sq. miles) making it the largest religious site on earth. Angkor Wat is but one of some 75 temple complexes located within Angkor.

Angkor has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992 with this listed as its brief synthesis of its Outstanding Universal Value:

Angkor, in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, is one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. It extends over approximately 400 square kilometres and consists of scores of temples, hydraulic structures (basins, dykes, reservoirs, canals) as well as communication routes. For several centuries Angkor, was the centre of the Khmer Kingdom. With impressive monuments, several different ancient urban plans and large water reservoirs, the site is a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilization. Temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, exemplars of Khmer architecture, are closely linked to their geographical context as well as being imbued with symbolic significance. The architecture and layout of the successive capitals bear witness to a high level of social order and ranking within the Khmer Empire. Angkor is therefore a major site exemplifying cultural, religious and symbolic values, as well as containing high architectural, archaeological and artistic significance.

We have visited many UNESCO World Heritage Sites on this trip, but none have been more anticipated by our group than Angkor.

A Very Brief History of Angkor

Map of the Khmer Empire in 900

This is a map of the Khmer Empire as it existed in 900 when the capital was established at Angkor. It had a land area greater than the Byzantine Empire with which it was concurrent in time. Both ended in the 15th century after being successfully invaded by outside forces; in the case of the Khmer Empire by the Ayutthaya people whose capital Alison I visited outside of Bangkok at the beginning of this trip. It too was destroyed in turn by invaders from modern day Myanmar.

This 500 year period represents the Golden Age of Cambodia and Angkor was its capital city during almost the entire time. The Khmer Empire was headed up by a king who ruled with absolute control and was believed to possess divine properties. The Hindu religion and its mythology played a major role in the buildings that were constructed in Angkor, but Buddhism was also prevalent and during our visit we will see sites influenced by several Hindu deities and by the Buddha as well. Aside from the buildings, Angkor has a huge number of canals and artificial lakes which provided drinking water and irrigation as well creating very pleasant surroundings for many of the temple complexes including Angkor Wat.

At its height in the 13th century it is believed that between 700,000 to 900,000 people lived in Angkor making it one of the largest cities to ever have been completely abandoned and become reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. We will visit Ta Prohm, one of the complexes that remains largely as found and that was the site of the filming of parts of movie, Lara Croft:Tomb Raider. While Angkor Wat is usually swarming with tourists, many of the other temples are not and you can easily pick up the vibe that gives them this eerie sense of mystery and foreboding that not only the Tomb Raider movies showcased, but even more so in the Indiana Jones franchise.

So let’s start first with the oldest one we’ll visit with our local guide Jett.

Banteay Srei

28 kms. (17 miles) north of Siem Reap is the temple complex of Banteay Srei which literally means ‘The Citadel of the Women’, because it was believed that only women could have had the artistic ability to carve the extremely fine decorations that adorn much of the complex. It is constructed from a pinkish sandstone that gives it a unique glow at dusk and dawn. From a surviving foundation stelae we know that it was consecrated on April 22, 967 and unlike nearly all other Angkor temples, built not by a king, but rather a courtier. It is dedicated primarily to the Hindu god Shiva, but there are sections with adornments related to Vishnu as well.

It has a much more human scale than the massive complex at Angkor Wat and so is a favourite of many who take the time to go out of the way to visit it. As you can see from this near deserted parking lot, that would not be a lot.

Deserted Parking Lot

This is the facade of Banteay Srei as you approach it from the parking lot.

Banteay Srei Facade

When you get really close you can see how small it actually is and why it is described as having a human rather than a gargantuan scale.

Our Group at the Entrance to Banteay Srei, Siem Reap
Our Group at the Entrance to Banteay Srei

One can also see the first of the really detailed carvings for which the place is known.

Carved Portal at Banteay Srei

Here is a small gallery of some of these remarkable carvings. Double click to open and double click again to enlarge.

From visits to other Hindu sites I have learned that small libraries meant to contain sacred scrolls are a common feature of temple complexes and Banteay Srei has two them, both made from red brick and intricately carved. This is one of them.

Library of Banteay Srei

There are a number of what were once enclosed areas, but are now open to the elements. The most interesting is this corner with four images of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god.

Four Statues of Hanuman

While you don’t get the sense of grandeur at Banteay Srei that you do at Angkor Wat it is still quite impressive looking back as you exit from the side opposite of where you entered.

Banteay Srey, Siem Reap
Banteay Srei

Near the back entrance we could hear music playing and we came upon this group of men, all of whom had been incapacitated in one way or another by land mines. We made a generous group donation before heading back to the bus.

Musicians Injured by Land Mines near Siem Reap
Musicians Injured by Land Mines

Almost across from the entrance to Banteay Srei, Jett asked the driver to pull into a small parking area for an impromptu stop to view a sugar palm operation. I had no idea that you could produce sugar from palm trees, but apparently certain species grow a type of fruit that can be boiled down to make a type of sugar. All you have to do is climb up a tree like this to get the fruit.

Sugar Palm Trees near Siem Reap
Sugar Palm Trees

Then you slice it up as Jett demonstrates.

Jett Cutting the Sugar Palm Fruit

Put it in a pot over a hot fire to get a boiling mess. Cool it down and violà you have a perfectly reasonable substitute for cane sugar.

Rendering the Sugar

Totally ignoring the foreign visitors who dropped in unannounced, these two proved the attraction of boys to trucks is universal.

Boys & Trucks near Siem Reap
Boys & Trucks

Ta Keo

Ta Keo by Supanut Arunoprayote

Closer to Siem Reap is Ta Keo which could not be more different from Banteay Srei even though they were both built relatively early in the Angkor timeframe. It is what is known as a temple-mountain meant to be a representation of the holy mountain of Hinduism, Mount Meru. We would more likely view it as a step pyramid with temples on top. The name translates as ‘Tower of Crystal’ and it was the first of the Angkor temple complexes to be made solely of sandstone. Construction was begun in 975 under the auspices of Jayavarman V who had become king at age 10 in 968. It was his mentor and adviser Yajnavaraha who was responsible for building Banteay Srei.

The complex was struck by lightning when it was almost completed which was considered a bad omen and work was stopped at that point although it did remain in use as a place of worship dedicated to Shiva for some time before being abandoned. The sandstone used in the construction was a type known as greywacke which is very resistant and difficult to carve which explains the relative plainness of the walls and interior, but from the photo above you can still see that its very impressive.

What you will remember the most about Ta Keo is the steepness of the steps going up to the temples and the view from up there.

Steep Stairs

Many in the group opted to stay at ground level and avoid doing this.

Climbing Up

However, the view makes the climb worthwhile as long as you are not afraid of heights.

Looking Down, Ta Keo, Siem Reap
Looking Down

Here is Alison at the highest point of Ta Keo.

Alison at the Top

Inside that small temple top are a number of Hindu figures to which offerings are still being made by the faithful.

Statues Inside the Temple

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Our final stop on this post from Siem Reap is at the temple complex of Ta Prohm which is a complete contrast to the first two we visited. It was a Buddhist monastery and university built in the late 1180’s by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his late mother. Jayavarman VII is considered to be among the best of the Khmer monarchs; as the first king who was a devout Buddhist he governed by the tenets of that religion and was a benevolent monarch who took care of his subjects. Inscriptions on stelae found onsite indicate that up to 80,000 people once worshipped at the complex, coming from over 3,000 separate villages.

What makes Ta Prohm unique is that it has been left pretty well exactly as it was found by Henri Mouhot in the 19th century and thus has the sobriquet ‘The Jungle Temple’. It is here that the famous Tomb Raider tree is found which has literally led to a much greater number of tourists visiting the place than was once the case.

The Tomb Raider Tree

Thankfully there are none here when we arrive and we have the place to ourselves. Jett lets us explore on our own rather than follow him around which allowed me to get these photos of the place.

Ta Prohm is truly a place of wonder and I think this photo of Alison amidst the ruins says it all.

The Wonder of it All at Ta Prohm, Siem Reap
The Wonder of it All

Well it’s very easy to get ‘templed out’ when you’re visiting Siem Reap and the Angkor area so I’ll save the best for last when we visit Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in the next post.