14-21 January 2013. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s premier tourist mecca primarily because of the nearby extraordinary and extensive archaeological ruins. Don and I are not archaeology buffs, or history buffs, by any stretch, but there are some sites, and sights, in the world that are worth seeing anyway, even if detailed knowledge of ancient buildings is not your thing. There are over one thousand temples in the Angkor area, ranging from nondescript piles of rubble to the magnificent moat-surrounded Angkor Wat.

A stupa is a mound or tower built over an important religious or royal person’s remains. We saw many stupas in our travels. There are a few Buddha stupas in South East Asia – everyone claims to have a bone, or a hair, or something or other from the Buddha, and the relic has been ‘buried’ under a huge elaborate tower that is a focus of worship and meditation in much the same way a temple is.

We also saw many wats, wat being the Khmer word for temple, or temple grounds. Nothing compared in size and grandeur to Angkor. Actually there’s not much in the world anywhere that compares in size and grandeur to Angkor.

Super stupa Wat?
Enormous pile of old stones
Glorious Angkor

Angkor Wat (City Temple) is the largest Hindu temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. The scale is absolutely breathtaking. It is truly monumental.

It was built in the early 12th century, originally Hindu and dedicated to Vishnu, and later became Buddhist. It remains a significant religious centre and parts of it are still in use. It was the state temple, and capital city, of the king.

We did what all tourists do – we got up at some groaning body-and-mind-moaning early hour to go see the temple at sunrise. We arrived, along with hundreds of others, and waited . . . . . . .

Glorious Angkor

With daylight, what an absolute joy to discover the many stalls off to one side offering hot strong milky tea just the way we like it. Ahhhhhhh. Relief. We could breathe again. We felt human again. Breakfast helped too.

This woman worked at the breakfast stall

Then we were ready to explore the ruins of Angkor Wat, and later in the same day the ruins of Angkor Thom and Bayon. Angkor Thom means Great City and was another, slightly more recent, ancient capital of Cambodia. It covers nine square kilometers, within which are many monuments including the state temple Bayon.

We had no idea really what we were looking at. We had a guidebook, which we looked at from time to time, but it was so dense, as in way too much detail, we soon gave up on that and just enjoyed exploring the ruins, of temples, universities, and other state buildings. The construction, the size of the stones, the way they were put together to create walls and floors and roofs that still stand almost a thousand years later, the exquisite carvings – all of it had us enthralled for hours, especially as we imagined people actually living their lives there. Those stone buildings must have been wonderfully cool in the searing tropical heat of Cambodia. The construction was so clever, the designs and sculptures so refined that apparently early western discoverers thought they must have been built by the ancient Romans since they didn’t believe the Khmers were sophisticated enough to have built them. White-man-racist arrogance.

Images from Angkor Wat
A Hindu God, to this day worshipped in a temple that was once Hindu and is now Buddhist

Decorative carvings

Lion Guard. They are in pairs at all entrances.

Don’s photo of a long colonnade.

Wandering the grounds we came across a wedding party. How wonderful to see, unexpectedly, this small piece of authentic Cambodian culture. It was our second chance to see something of a Cambodian wedding, but this time we were able to see their entire outfits instead of just their head and shoulders.

Images from Angkor Thom
One of the gates to the city

Huge stone sculptures at one of the entrance gates

Nature always wins

Don’s photo of King Jayavarman VII, the founder of Angkor Thom

Restored Naga head. A Naga is a serpent god in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

Siem Reap
Our friend Ross Green started a charity called Music Seeds International. He teaches English, and awareness of social issues, to children in developing countries, through music and song writing. Here are video examples of his work at a children’s home in Thailand, and with a group of school children in India
And this one is a group of kids in Mandalay, Myanmar
Ross recommended The Bliss Villa guesthouse in Siem Reap, owned by friends of his, Don and Van Anh. What good luck for us. Don and Van Anh did everything possible to welcome us, and make us feel at home. And we did. Just for a while we really felt at home. It was so lovely. Don arranged two day trips for us, and Van Anh made us plates of fruit for breakfast, and lent us a kettle so we could make cups of tea in our room, and told us the best place to see traditional Apsara dancing. A big thank you to them both. If you’re going to Siem Reap stay at The Bliss Villa. It’s nothing fancy, but has everything you need, especially hosts who really seem to care that you have what you need, and that you have a good time.

Siem Reap gets huge numbers of tourists and so is quite affluent, but the affluence doesn’t extend much beyond the city. It has many colourful night markets full of arts and crafts for all the tourists to buy, and the apparently famous Pub Street which lives up to it’s name and is lit up and buzzing and lined with restaurants and bars catering to westerners. Siem Reap also has several beautiful temples and pagodas.

There are street musicians in the main tourist parts of town. We saw four or five different groups. Each group consists of five or six men who have lost limbs and/or sight from landmines. And yet here they were playing traditional Khmer music for whoever would listen, making a living for themselves and their family. Did they pander to pity. Well yes, they did a little I think, but they were not just sitting there begging. They had a product to offer, and CD’s for sale, and were good at what they did. I was so impressed that instead of giving into despair and hopelessness they had found a way to keep going, and to take advantage of the wealth brought to Siem Reap by people from all over the world.

Walking to town from Bliss Villa: I love the juxtaposition of the dusty sidewalk, the stray dogs, the tattoo shop, the laundry business, and the little grocery store, with the dressmaker’s shop selling elaborate silk and satin ball gowns. So random and incongruous.

Travelling pottery shop

From Don: We went for a longish walk beside the river to get some exercise and came across a very old and very beautiful temple with a large seated Buddha inside. We sat in front of the Buddha for about a quarter of an hour and doing that, and meditating, helped get me into a much better headspace than I’d been in all day. It’s wonderful what sitting in a space where people have been praying and meditating for hundreds of years can do for my inner peace. The rest of the day went much better once my head and heart weren’t occupied with fear thoughts and feelings. Funny about that: without all the stories of how things can go wrong, and ridiculous worry about our finances, suddenly everything is all right again. I should write that on my forehead in backwards lettering so that I can read it every time I look in a mirror!

One morning before going to the ruins we stopped to book our seats for the evening performance of the Apsara traditional Khmer dancing, and were able to get seats at a table right in the front. The performance is served up with a huge all-you-can-eat buffet. When we arrived in the evening the place was packed, and the line-ups to get food were horrendous, but we didn’t care. We’d come to see the dancing and we had the best seats in the house. Most people didn’t bother helping themselves to the performance. They were too busy scrambling in the food lines, and showed pretty much no interest in what was happening on the stage. Their loss. We managed to get some food, and then focused on the dancing and the costumes, both of which were fabulous. 

Next post: A day trip to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and floating village, and a day trip to Phnom Kulen.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.