Siem Reap
.: Cambodia

Back in the 1960s, Siem Reap (see-em ree-ep) was the place to be in Southeast Asia and saw a steady stream of the rich and famous. After three decades of slumber, it’s well and truly back and one of the most popular destinations on the planet right now. The life-support system for the temples of Angkor, Cambodia’s eighth wonder of the world, Siem Reap was always destined for great things, but few people saw them coming this thick and this fast. It has reinvented itself as the epicentre of the new Cambodia, with more guesthouses and hotels than temples, world-class wining and dining and sumptuous spas.

At its heart, Siem Reap is still a little charmer, with old French shop-houses, shady tree-lined boulevards and a slow-flowing river. But it is expanding at breakneck speed with new houses and apartments, hotels and resorts sprouting like mushrooms in the surrounding countryside. The tourist tide has arrived and locals are riding the wave. Not only is this great news for the long-suffering Khmers, but it has transformed the town into a pulsating place for visitors. Forget the naysayers who mutter into their beers about Siem Reap in the ‘old days’, now is the time to be here, although you may curse your luck when stuck behind a jam of tour buses on the way back from the temples.

Angkor is a place to be savoured, not rushed, and this is the base to plan your adventures. Still think three days at the temples is enough? Think again with Siem Reap on the doorstep. Angkor Wat which literally means ‘City Temple’ is a Hindu temple complex built to replicate the heavens on earth.  Constructed for King Suryavarman II in the early twelfth century, it is the best-preserved temple and is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation; first Hindu, dedicated to Vishnu, then Buddhist. The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.  This magnificent temple combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture; the temple mountain and the later galleried temple, based on early South Indian Hindu architecture. Constructed within a moat and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres (2.2 miles) long with three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next, it is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology. 

At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west and this has scholars divided as to its significance. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture. The extensive bas-reliefs and the numerous guardian spirits adorning its walls serve as evidence of the strong Khmer religious beliefs.


Angkor Thom is a very popular tourist spot. It was established in the late twelfth century to early thirteenth century by King Jayavarman VII. This site is situated 1.7 Km north of Angkor Wat, within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors. The fortified city of Angkor Thom, some 9sq km in extent, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire built by Angkor’s greatest King, Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181-1201). Centered on Baphuon, Angkor Thom is enclosed by a square wall 8m high and 12km in length and encircled by moat 100m wide. The city has five monumental gates, one each in the north, west and south walls and two in the east wall. In front of each gate stand giant statues of 54 gods (to the left of the causeway) and 54 demons (to the right of the causeway), a motif taken from the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk illustrated in the famous bas-relief at Angkor Wat. In the center of the walled enclosure are the city’s most important monuments, including the Bayon, the Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of Elephants.

Bayon is a richly decorated Khmer temple built in the late twelfth century or early thirteenth century. Built at the centre of King Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom was the last state temple to be built at Angkor, and the only Angkorian state temple to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha.  Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance to their religious preferences. Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers that jut from the upper terrace and cluster around its center peak. The similarity of the 216 gigantic faces to other statues of Jayavarman VII has led many scholars to the hypothesise that the faces are representations of the king himself. Others believe that the faces belong to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The temple is also popular for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes.  This is one of the many ‘must visit’ temples.

Banteay Srei was speculated to have been known earlier as Banteay Serai, which literally means the Citadel of Victory.  This was the only major temple at Angkor not built by a monarch; its construction is credited to a courtier named Yajnavaraha, who was a scholar and philanthropist and a counselor to king Rajendravarman. He was known to have helped those who suffered from illness, injustice or poverty.

Banteay Srei is built primarily in red sandstone, a medium that lends itself to the elaborate decorative wall carvings which are still observable in fine details today.  Measured by the standards of Angkorian construction, the buildings themselves are miniature in scale. These factors have led to its being widely praised as a ‘precious gem’, or the ‘jewel of Khmer art’ and perhaps the temple’s modern name, Banteay Srei or Citadel of Women, is probably related to the intricacy of the bas relief carvings of devatas found on the walls and the tiny dimensions of the buildings themselves.

 

Phnom Bakheng was constructed more than two centuries before the Angkor Wat. It is a Hindu temple originally built in the form of a temple mountain dedicated to Shiva. Historians believe that Phnom Bakheng was in its heyday, the principal temple of the Angkor region.  It was the architectural centerpiece of a new capital that Yasovarman built when he moved the court from the capital Hariharalaya in the Roluos area located to the southeast. 

Located atop a hill, this is the most popular tourist spot for sunset views of the much bigger Angkor Wat temple which lies amid the jungle about 1.5 km away.

Ta Prohm, a Bayon style temple, is believed to be built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.  It was founded by King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found where the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors.

Rajavihara (Royal temple), as it was originally known, was one of the first temples founded pursuant to a massive program of construction and public works after the King’s ascension to the throne in 1811 A.D.. It was built in honor of his family. The temple’s main image, representing Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom, was modeled on the king’s mother. The northern and southern satellite temples in the third enclosure were dedicated to the king’s guru and his elder brother respectively. As such, Ta Prohm formed a complementary pair with the temple monastery of Preah Khan, dedicated in 1191 A.D., the main image of which represented Avelokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion and was modeled on the king’s father.

The site was home to more than 12,500 people (including 18 high priests and 615 dancers), with an additional 80,000 people in the surrounding villages working to provide services and supplies.

Banteay Kdei Temple Built in the late twelfth to early thirteenth century during the reign of Jayavarman VII, Banteay Kdei is known only as a Buddhist temple constructed in the Bayon style.  It has been occupied by monks at various intervals over the centuries, but the inscription stone has never been discovered so it is mystery; unknown to whom the temple is dedicated. Its structures are contained within two successive enclosure walls, and consist of two concentric galleries from which emerge towers, preceded to the east by a cloister.  Like all the other ruins in Angkor, the carvings are captivating.

The Kulen Mountain or Phnom Kulen is declared as a National Park. It is an isolated mountain massif located in Svay Leu District and some 48km from Siem Reap. Its highest point is 487 meters. 

This is widely regarded as the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire. During the constructional period of the ancient temples in the nineth century, sand stones were brought from this sacred mountain to Angkor.  It was here at Phnom Kulen that King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java in 802 A.D. 

The site is known for its carvings representing fertility and its waters hold special significance to the people of Cambodia. Just a few inches under the surface of the water, over 1000 carvings of Yoni and Linga are etched into the sandstone riverbed. The waters are regarded as holy, given the sacred carvings which also include a stone representation of the Hindu god Vishnu lying on his serpent Ananta, with his wife Lakshmi at his feet. A lotus flower protrudes from Vishnu’s navel bearing the god Brahma. The river then ends with a beautiful waterfall.  Phnom Kulen is regarded highly by Cambodian people as a sacred location and has developed into a great tour destination. 

Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, is itself a natural wonder.This great lake exists as an ecological anomaly.  In early June, at the start of the rainy season, the water level of the Mekong River rises to divert part of its flow off its course to the South China Sea and redirect it into the Tonle Sap. This forces the current to reverse direction, beginning a process that by the end of October will see the great lake increasing its size almost tenfold, making it the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia.

 

The Angkor National Museum is classified as one of Cambodia’s premier museum sites. On display are thousands of important Buddhist and Hindu sculptures from the various Angkor temples. 

Many original pieces recovered for safe-keeping by the authorities from the temple ruins are also on exhibit at this museum.

Since the discovery of the Angkor temples, many of the antique artifacts have been stolen and sold to private collectors, museums and auction houses all over the world.   Over the years, efforts have been made by the Royal Cambodian government to recover them and with the cooperation of various government agencies from around the world, many of the lost pieces have found their way back to Cambodia.

The Angkor National Museum houses and exhibits many of the recovered items amongst the several thousand exhibits now on display.  In this very modern building, tourists will discover the Golden Era of the Khmer Kingdom and through state of the art multimedia technology, enjoy a full story of the legend.

The Cambodian Cultural Village is designed to provide tourists with an excellent insight into the life and culture of the Cambodians; their traditions and practices, etc. In all, eleven villages or sectors, each a showcase of different landmarks and providing a peek into the lifestyles of the people from various provinces including the ethnic minorities. Like a theme park, tourists are treated to miniatures of historical buildings, stone carvings, wood works and many forms of arts and crafts. There are performances; dances of the ethnic groups, traditional wedding ceremony, circus acts, acrobats, elephant shows, Khmer boxing, the famous Apsara dance and more to entertain the tourists.

Terrace of the Elephants. An Imperial hunt is in the somber forests of the realm. There are formidable elephants. The forest in which they travel is impenetrable to all but tiny creatures, able to squeeze their smallness between the fissures of the undergrowth and to the biggest animals, which crush chasms for their passage in the virgin vegetation. The elephants are ridden by servants and princes, and tread as quietly as if they were on an excursive promenade. Their steps of even length have no respect for any obstacle.


Srah Srang ‘the royal bath’. It was perhaps a chapel to Kama, God of Love. The spot would suit the temper of the strange power, terribly strong and yet terribly tender, and of that passion which carries away kingdoms, empires and whole worlds. Love could occupy this quiet nest embedded in water, which gave the impression that love had come one day and had left there, when he went away, a part of his spirit.

 

 

 

Boeng Melea Temple. The remains of Boeng Mealea, which are still partly buried under vegetation, consist of perfectly squared-off sandstone building blocks. The outstanding decoration dates from the fist half of the 12th century. In various times, the pediments of some buildings are sculpted with narrative scenes from the Ramayana, and while Hindu iconographic themes are plentiful, Boeng Mealea is clearly a Buddhist sanctuary as Banteay Samre, which is more or less contemporaneous. This is confirmed by the magnificent statue of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara discovered in the monument and today housed at the Angkor Conservancy.

East Mebon is a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers. Jayavarman IV, a usurper to the throne, moved the capital from Angkor to Koh Ker in 928AD. Sixteen years later Rajendravarman II returned the capital to Angkor and shortly thereafter constructed East Mebon on an island in the middle of the now dry Eastern Baray. The temple is dedicated to shiva in honor of the king’s parents. Inscriptions indicate that it was also built to help reestablish the continuity of kingship at Angkor in light of the interruption that occurred when the seat of power had been moved to Koh Ker. There seems to be some scholarly debate as to whether East Mebon should be categorized as a temple-mountain. Inscriptions record activity at the temple as early as 947AD, but East Mebon was not consecrated until 952AD.

Pre Roup Temple. Architecturally and artistically superior temple-mountain. Beautifully carved false doors on upper level, as well as an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. Richly detailed,  Well-preserved carvings. Traditionally believed to be a funerary temple, but in fact the state temple of Rajendravarman II. Historically important in that it was the second temple built after the capital was returned to Angkor from Koh Ker after a period of political upheaval. The artistically similar East Mebon was the first to be constructed after the return to Angkor.

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