Christmas in Siem ReapSiem Reap, well known for the ancient Angkor ruins and, surprisingly, the Christmas festivities. As our first Christmas away from family, we were pleased to find Siem Reap lit up with Christmas lights and bursting with people. After a quick, relaxing and very simple flight from Pakse, Siem Reap welcomed us warmly. Not only did we skip a long-haul bus, flying into Siem Reap gave us an incredible birds eye view of the Angkor complex. It was fascinating to see the layout and extensive waterways built over the Angkorian era (see The Turbulent History of Cambodia post for more details of Angkorian history).
We spent four festive days celebrating Christmas and exploring ancient Angkor in Siem Reap. Up before dawn on Christmas morning, we explored Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea before tucking into a beautiful brunch. After enjoying the afternoon by the pool at our hostel, we met a friend for dinner and the night unexpectedly evolved into something far greater than any of us had expected. After a couple of drinks at Angkor What?, a bar on Pub Street in central Siem Reap, we joined the crowd on the road for a street party. Singing, dancing and thoroughly enjoying the company of locals, we partied Christmas away. So different from our usual family orientated Christmas, this will not be something either of us will forget!
ACCOMMODATIONWe stayed at Downtown Siem Reap, a hostel extremely close to central Siem Reap. The best part about this place is easily the pool and common area. With the scorching temperatures in Siem Reap, a pool is almost a necessity, especially after a day visiting the temples. The adding bar is well set-up and a great place to meet people. The downside was our room, which unfortunately had a lingering mouldy smell. Also, while they advertise free pick-up from the airport or bus station, its only free if you book a tour through them (otherwise there is a $5 USD charge). They run a tab system, all food and drinks are charged to the room and the total bill is settled at the end. While some may enjoy this, it made me feel quiet uneasy and I’m sure we spent more with the tab system, (which I’m sure is the idea). Overall, we had a great Christmas and really enjoyed the social environment.
FOODA new country, new culture, new food! Or so we thought. After checking out multiple menus we discovered the food is largely the same as Thailand and Laos, with a few Khmer specialities. With that said, I have continued to enjoy the food and the slight twist to the familiar flavours still excite the taste buds. I’m currently trying to pick a favourite between the Khmer Amok, a thick curry steamed in banana leaf, and the Khmer curry. Both have delicious flavours and are slightly different at every restaurant we go to.
We had Christmas brunch at the Central Café, an extremely modern café in the heart of Siem Reap. We both had our first Western meal here! The complete contrast came as a welcome, giving us a slice of home on Christmas. Also worth mentioning is The Red Tomato , an Italian restaurant that also serves some Khmer food. It seems the chef’s can deliver two very different meals in one sitting, with Jimmy enjoying an incredible wood fire pizza while I enjoyed a Khmer Amok. Lastly, The Gelato Co, had incredible gelato that satisfied my cravings and also served as a perfect way to indulge after a meal in Siem Reap.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONSSiem Reap is all about the temples and the ancient Angkorian era. We spent two very hectic, hot, dusty mornings exploring as many temples as we could manage. While we made a fair dent, we did miss a few. The ancient Angkor city and it’s waterways sprawl across an incredible 16,000km2, an incredible feat considering it was all done prior to the industrial era. Each temple has a purpose, designed and built by kings in an ancient world I have found fascinating. Once expansive kingdoms, the remaining stone structures are only a fraction of what once existed in ancient Angkor. Non-religious structures were constructed out of wood and other perishable materials in Angkorian times as it was believed “only gods had a right to have residences made of stone”. Consequently, all remaining structures have perished in the hundreds of years since the Angkor temples were built.
Angkor WatWe, along with several thousand other tourists, made the pilgrimage to Angkor Wat for sunrise. The pre-dawn contingent of tuk-tuks from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat is something slightly comical to witness. We arrived not long after 5am and secured our position in front of the temple. For me, the hoards of people trying to hustle a position to get ‘the shot’ was entertaining enough to justify the early start.
Walking through the gates the looming silhouette of Angkor Wat was impressive, even in darkness. As the sun rose I was in awe of the ancient temple, the largest religious structure in the world. Built from 1113-1150 by King Suryavarman II, this mammoth sandstone wonder is surrounded by an impressive moat measuring 1.3km by 1.5km. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu god and was the centre of the ancient Angkorian capital. It remained a Hindu temple until the 13th or 14th century when Buddhist images were included in the design. While the rest of Angkor was abandoned, scholars believe Angkor Wat was rediscovered from time to time and used as a place of sacred worship until it’s documented discovery by a French explorers in the 1850’s.
For me, wandering the massive temple grounds left me speechless at times. The engineering necessary to achieve such a grand structure without any modern tools is mind-boggling. I had so many how and why questions, many of which will probably never be answered. The exact alignment and precision used to orchestrate such a monstrous temple, to me, indicates there must have a mastermind overseeing the construction. The intricate detailing in the stone is further fascinating, as if the sheer scale and size of the temple wasn’t enough, the fine details add yet another page to the legend of Angkor Wat.
The sandstone blocks used to build Angkor Wat are from the holy Phnom Kulen, a mountain 50km away. They blocks floated on rafts along the Siem Reap River to the 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants who arranged them to form the structure we see today, which remains unfinished. Scholars have gained some reasoning behind the construction of Angkor Wat from transcriptions in sandstone blocks, however, there continues to be a great deal of mystery behind the extraordinary temple.
Angkor ThomThis temple complex was founded by the greatest king of the Angkorian era, King Jayavarman IV. An impressive 8m tall, 12km long square wall and 100m wide moat surrounds Angkor Thom. Four intimidating gates break through the wall, each designed with 54 demons and 54 gods to represent the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. After entering the southern gate, Bayon appeared before us. Originally, there were 216 smiling faces carved into the 54 towers that soar above the temple complex. This Hindu temple was built in 1190 by King Jayavarman IV and it is said to reflect his egotistic yet genius mind. The outer wall is almost a gallery itself, with scenes from everyday Angkorian life carved into the stone. The detailing is incredible, especially the many faces, however, I found them a bit spooky and at times felt as though I was being watched as I wandered the grounds.
As you continue to travel north through Angkor Thom, Baphuon appears on the left. With a floating causeway leading towards the pyramid-like structure, this temple is designed to represent the sacred Mount Meru. Yet again, I was mesmerised by the scale and detail put into the design. Most impressively, a reclining Buddha extends the entire length of the west wall. With the convex face projecting outwards, it has take extensive restorative work to maintain the interesting feature. As we visited more temples, I became more and more fascinated by the genius engineering behind the architecture. How they managed to orchestrate the construction of such mammoth structures I have no idea.
The Terrace of Elephants is 2.5m tall and runs 350m along the roadside that extends from the south to the north gate. With a continuous line of elephants carved along the terrace, it is obvious how this terrace got its name. Originally designed as grand viewing stand for public ceremonies, I found it a slightly confusing. With so many structures already in Angkor Thom, and the supposed wooden structures, it seems excessive to have such a massive terrace just for public ceremonies. It does, however, seem excessive and oversized was the theme for the Angkorian era.
Preah KhanWe exited Bayon through the impressive northern gate, briefly enjoying the breeze in the tuk tuk whilst driving to Preah Khan. Walking through the temple entrance, we were struck by how overgrown this complex is. Not only did the trees seem to be held up by the walls, the walls seemed to mutually rely on the trees for support. Built in 1191 by King Jayavarman VII, the outer wall and moat encloses 56 hectares, an entire town. It is thought to have included a Buddhist university with 15,000 teachers, students and monks. There is religious symbolism throughout the central temple that reflects both Buddhism and Hinduism. When you enter, the doors are of a normal height and as you travel further towards the centre the door height progressively decreases. This design feature forces visitors to bow forward as a sign of respect as they enter the inner sanctum. Today, the central building has partially collapsed, with some corridors full of sandstone blocks. They are haphazardly stacked in a manner that makes the blocks almost look fake. Yet again I marvelled at the architecture. The collapsed corridors gave a bit more insight into the sheer size of the blocks, which are enormous. It is also incredible to think the Khmer people built the temples without anything binding the blocks together.
Preah Neak PeanAnother structure built by King Jayavarman VII, I thought Preah Neak Pean was quite unusual. A small temple in the centre of a pool, it is surrounded by a further four pools. Ornamental spouts in the shape of an elephant’s head, horse’s head, lion’s head and a human head once fed the pools with water. The four pools are thought to represent the four elements (earth, wind, fire and water), linked by the central pool. One of the four great animals (elephant, horse, lion and bull) look over each of the pool, with the exception of the human head in place of the bull’s head. In all honesty, we were a bit underwhelmed by this temple. I think the combination of the stifling midday heat and the prior temples (which were truly incredible) may have lessened our appreciation of Preah Neak Pean.
Ta ProhmThe highly rated and famous Tomb Raider temple, Ta Prohm was the last temple we visited, exhausted, on our first day of exploration. Built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII, several huge trees overgrowing the temple are evidence of the dense jungle that was able to take over the complex after it was abandoned. Today, restorative works are slowly rebuilding the temple to return it to it’s former glory, and what a glory it must have been. With inscriptions describing over 80,000 workers and hundreds of kilograms of golden dishes discovered amongst thousands of precious jewels, there is no doubt this was once a magical temple. Unfortunately for us, a bit of the magic was lost, stolen by the thousands of other tourists who were also visiting. While the detail of the temple was jaw dropping, I think we would have explored the grounds more extensively had we visited at a quieter time.
Banteay SreiWe started off day two with a bang, heading to Banteay Srei, 32km from Siem Reap. Enjoying an hour-long tuk tuk ride as the sun rose, we were happy to be nearly alone as we explored the temple grounds. As we got closer, Banteay Srei appeared mystically clouded in a hazy light. The ornately carved pinkish toned sandstone was phenomenal from afar and even more impressive close up. It is said to be built by women, with the carvings thought to be far to elaborate and fine to be carved by men. Even without knowing this, there was a notable difference between the Banteay Srei and the temples we had seen on the previous day. The only of the Angkorian temples not commissioned by a King, it was completed in 967 and primarily dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Wandering Banteay Srei was such a tranquil way to start the day. Even after all the previously mentioned temples I was still in awe of the ancient architecture and the abilities of the Khmer people who were able to build such structures in Angkorian times.
Beng MealeaA fair way out of town, we visited Beng Mealea after Banteay Srei. A bit of a nondescript entrance, the impressive structure that waits at the end of the wide pathway left me absolutely bewildered. With nearly the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea is most definitely impressive. Unlike many of the other Angkor temples, Beng Mealea is still in the ruinous state it was found, with huge blue sandstone blocks lying carelessly throughout the temple grounds. The galleries and towers are nearly all partially collapsed but it takes little imagination to see the structure that would once have stood imposingly. Wooden walkways have been constructed throughout the temple that allows access throughout the ruins.
Whoever lived here and orchestrated the temple construction must have been important. There were no inscriptions found at the temple grounds and no other mention in any other Angkorian records, so the reasoning behind the construction is a complete mystery. For me, the fact the origins of Beng Mealea remain unknown adds to the enchanted nature of the temple. Scholars believe the temple complex was built in the 12th century, purely due to the style, which links with the Angkorian era. While the carvings aren’t as detailed as other temples, they do include figures of Vishnu, Shiva and Buddha, possibly depicting a fusion of Hindu and Buddhist religions.
The jungle still seems to be encroaching, slowly taking over. Unlike Ta Prohm, which has controlled take-over, the jungle continues to grow wildly through Beng Mealea. This was one of my favourite temples, the total chaos and peaceful aura made me realise how truly incredible it would have been for the explorers who discovered these wonders.
With Beng Mealea the last of the temples we wanted to explore, we embarked on the trip back to Siem Reap. While 68km doesn’t sound much, travelling at a max speed of about 30km/h in a tuk tuk it feels like thousands of kilometres, especially after a hard morning of temple gazing. We enjoyed cruising the countryside; the drive allowed us some insight into Cambodian culture, which you don’t quite get in Siem Reap.
PEOPLE & CULTURESiem Reap has a heavy western influence and consequently we didn’t get to experience too much Cambodian culture. It was actually quite difficult even finding Khmer restaurants in the city centre. For us, this came at the right time and we enjoyed Christmas vibes and the company of the many other travellers.
Unfortunately, there are many people selling various things on the street, a definite negative effect of the mass tourism in Siem Reap. We found this quite infuriating; we were barely able to walk 5m without someone trying to sell us something. There were also a few scams; Jimmy was approached by a young boy asking for milk powder rather than money, before pointing to his mother, who had a small child. We had read about this scam, once they have the milk powder they return it to the mini-mart in exchange for the cash. The young boy was quite relentless. When he finally realised Jimmy wouldn’t participate he pinched him and ran off. Not long after, we witnessed a woman walking back to them with a tin a milk powder. Sure enough, within a minute the mother had returned it to the mini-mart and walked off with the cash. It’s quite sad to see and also very difficult to ignore. The scams are all designed to pull at the heartstrings, which is why they work.