Early morning cool greets the tourists as the sun rises giving the temple its glorious silhouette
If Gabriel Garcia Marquezâ€™ book, â€śHundred Years of Solitudeâ€ť is one of the required academic readings for humankind, without doubt, Cambodia is one of the must-visit places in oneâ€™s lifetime. Such claim is staggering â€“ The experience and sensation one feels as he steps into the vastness of the temple complex are beyond human comprehension and imagination.
Cambodiaâ€™s rich culture dates back from the first millennium and progressed through the centuries. In the modern times, the country struggled from the stigma of what was dubbed as the â€śKilling Fieldsâ€ť. The Pol Pot regime brought about shame and dishonour to millions of peace-loving Cambodians.
However, Cambodians are known to adapt, and adapt they did, rising above the stigma, taking pride and reclaiming the honour of their once prosperous civilization. I have never seen hard-working people making honest and decent living like the way Cambodians do. Struggling yet determined, Cambodians are slowly rebuilding their country.
the Bayon Temple gate
Phnom Penh International Airport is newly-renovated, small and pleasant, with a homey cozy feel. Surprisingly clean and well-maintained, the airport has modern amenities, even better than most airports in Southeast Asia. Upon arrival, travelers are greeted by a barrage of â€śtuk-tuksâ€ť and taxi drivers offering rides around the city or to bus stations leading to the rest of the country. Typical fare is USD 2 to the nearest destination. A cab ride is more but fare can be split with fellow travelers â€“ and young backpackers and adventure seekers abound.
A peek through history
Cambodiaâ€™s capital Phnom Penh is like any other East Asian city coming out of its cocoon. After decades of internal struggle, newfound wealth from sustained tourism and discovery of natural gas in its territorial waters has helped the economy and triggered a new spate of middle class â€“ luxury cars, SUVs are found on the streets â€“ alongside 50cc scooters carrying passengers with anything and everything transportable. The juxtaposition of old and modern, of wealth and poverty, of thatched structures and concrete buildings, clearly manifest the countryâ€™s interweaving fabrics of past, present, and future.
Discovering Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor
From the heart of Phnom Penh, it is a five-hour comfortable bus ride to Siem Reap, home to the temple ruins of Angkor.
For USD 8, this is arguably the best way to see the Cambodian countryside. Crossing the mighty Mekong River, rural life beckons â€“ colourful temples, rich rice granary, elevated nipa hut dwellings, lotus flowers glisten in the ponds. The picturesque landscape perfectly captures the art of bucolic living framed in time by nature.
Admiring the Terrace of the Elephants
Siem Reap town is a straightforward affair â€“ two kilometers of easily accessible avenue that runs alongside Siem Reap River. Most of the hotels, guesthouses, authentic Khmer massage parlors, restaurants, souvenir and art shops are found along the main artery. Getting around is easy and cheap â€“ just make sure you have onesie's (one US dollar note) at hand for convenience. Having US dollar notes saves you from the hassle of carrying thousands worth of Cambodian Riel during your stay.
The US dollar note is still the most preferred payment method in almost all shops, including street vendors, tuktuk drivers, and museum fees. Getting around Siem Reap town and the temples can easily be arranged â€“ through the hotel concierge or on your own. Hiring a motorcycle trailer (moto-romauk or tuk-tuk) for a day (roughly USD 12) to explore the temple is highly recommended. All drivers are knowledgeable and trained by the tourism office to act as your tourist guides.
The mighty face of Bayon
Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Park is home to the vast temple ruins that comprise several square kilometers of magnificent Khmer architectural achievement. Inhere, Angkor Wat, the centerpiece of the Angkor complex stands proud alongside other famous and must-see temple ruins - the giant stone faces of Bayon, the â€śtree-in-templeâ€ť ruins of Ta Prohm and the â€śtemple mountainâ€ť architecture of Pre Rup.
"tree-in-temple" Ta Prohm
Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples
The sylvan splendor of the landscape, dominated by tall and impressive Koki trees line up the boulevard enroute the temple ruins. Admission pass to visit the temples and sites can be purchased in the central ticket office on the road to Angkor Wat. One to seven day passes can be purchased, starting at USD 20.
Cool early morning calm greets me as I took my first steps in the walkway leading to the main gate of the Angkor Wat. Surrounded by a moat that reminds one of Medieval European castles, Angkor Wat was constructed as a â€śtemple mountainâ€ť dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It was also suggested that the temple was a funeral ground of Suryawaman II, the patron King who built the temple during the apex of Khmer political and military dominance in the early 12th century. The centuries-old edifice is an artistic and archaeological marvel comparable to some of the greatest man-made mega-structures on earth â€“ Egyptâ€™s Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Philippineâ€™s Banawe Rice Terraces.
Early morning arrival just as the sun rises is the best time to visit Angkor Wat. The temple casts a fascinating silhouette, outlining the massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by lotus like towers rising several meters from the ground. The moat glistens, reflecting the shadow of the massive architecture, disturbed by ripples from the gentle breeze.
There is something magical and awe inspiring in the air â€“ to be in the presence of these magnificence makes one so small, so irrelevant, yet an inner peace and communion with this marvelous human achievement allow us to celebrate this wonder in its purest form.
The lush vegetation surrounding the ruins and sites remind visitors of the unearthing of this civilization so advance and powerful during its time. Bas relief carvings that adorn the temple wings are reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics, depicting history and military might of the time. Some relief carvings also depict everyday Khmer life â€“ from market scene, to cockfighting, games, and celebrations. Stone temple monkeys leap from wooded area to the delight and fright of the tourists.
Another most important ruin to visit is the Bayon, a complex of temple ruins dominated by huge concrete faces. The huge and ornate carvings, blackened by time and moistened moss green by tropical weather, represent the classic Khmer art and architecture.
There are indeed dozens of temple ruins in the Siem Reap area. To maximize your visit, it is important to highlight the architectural and historical significance, accessibility, and types of temple ruins you wish to visit.
Vibrant Khmer street life
French colonial and oriental architecture dominate the Old French Quarter of Siem Reap town. Two storey buildings line up Psar Chas where restaurants, bars, massage parlors, souvenir shops, art galleries, and internet cafes are found. The eclectic mixture of modern zen designs and low-key street food vendors with their ubiquitous red plaid PVC laden tables, give a picture of a vibrant Khmer street life.
Siem Reap is no stranger to a pulsating night life. Bar Street is teeming with tourists and locals as they intermingle over traditional Khmer cuisine. and a bottle of Angkor beer, the national brew. Nightly Apsara and traditional dance performances are offered in various hotels and restaurants. After a day spent in the temple ruins, traditional Khmer massage offers a relaxing treat for weary travelers.
There is a certain charm about Cambodia â€“ its sincere hospitality and innocent appeal make it an exciting holiday destination that combines history and culture, nature and manâ€™s fascination with architecture, and a determined human spirit that celebrates the willingness to live.