Spiritual Siem Reap, Cambodia

Posted April 2012; compiled December 2015

 
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Kristin and I were hot, sticky, and tired we when finally reached Siem Reap. The long overland travel from Thailand was a bit exhausting. Our driver dropped off his crew of passengers before taking us to a few hotels. They were either too expensive or too unimpressive until we reached the last one. We didn't see any other guests, but it seemed to check all the boxes: the price was right, the rooms were air-conditioned, and there was a small swimming pool out front. We checked in, quickly unloaded our bags, and jumped in the pool to cool off. Before leaving for dinner, the hotel staff helped us organize a tuk-tuk driver to take us to Angkor Wat the following day.

The tiny town of Siem Reap has become a major tourist destination due to its historical significance. Other than the remnants of ancient civilizations, the town is packed full of hotels, restaurants, massage parlors, and bars all within walking distance or a short tuk-tuk ride. The downtown area's two main attractions are Pub Street and the Night Market; I'm not sure why they found it necessary, but both are demarcated by several massive neon-light signs. Interestingly, most businesses here operate in US dollars instead of the Cambodian Riel. My guess is the primary reason is due to the Riel's volatility, but it also makes services look extra cheap. Kristin and I enjoyed a really nice dinner and a few cocktails for $15. 

Pagoda Opening Ceremony

We returned to the hotel early and ready for bed, but the hotel clerk stopped us. He excitedly told us that it was the last night of a 7-day ceremony for the opening of a new pagoda (temple) just outside of town, a rare occasion, and he wanted to take us there. The three of us hopped on his motorbike and set off. Despite a bumpy dirt road, the bike drove like a dream; the bike was a Honda Dream, so I repeated this several times thinking it was hilarious. We arrived at the padoga to find a massive crowd of people smiling and laughing. It was immediately obvious we were the only non-locals, but they all welcomed us warmly.

Music played, people danced, and everyone seemed so filled with positivity. The entire atmosphere was invigorating and irresistible. Prayer bracelets were handed out to everyone, blessed for good health and fortune. We joined the crowd as they circled through the pagoda, making small offerings by throwing money  in large pits dug into the ground and to the several monks that sat and chanted prayers. Adjacent to the pagoda, a large carnival had been erected for the ceremony. Thousands of locals were enjoying the rides, games, and food on offer. As the only tourists, we felt so privileged to be involved in such a large display of community spirit. We returned to the hotel with our new friend and struggled to fall asleep thanks to a healthy adrenaline rush.


Angkor Wat

Kristin and I awoke at dawn and prepared ourselves for a day visiting temples around Siem Reap. Our tuk-tuk driver was running a bit late, but we had time to enjoy a beautiful sunrise.

Much of Cambodia's relative prosperity can be attributed to Angkor Wat. This majestic temple dates to the early 12th century, when it was constructed as the state temple and capital city of the Khmer Empire. Its 5-tower design symbolizes Mount Meru, the sacred mountain in Buddhist cosmotology, and it was astonishingly built in accordance with solar and lunar cycles. The symmetry of Angkor Wat's design and intricacy of its bas-reliefs, devatas, and pediments display the craftsmanship of its creators and display why it is considered one of the world's greatest architectural masterpieces.

Angkor Wat is just one of several temple complex that are referred to using its namesake. There are several temples siteswithin a stone's throw of Angkor Wat's towers. Our next stop was Angkor Thom, a 9-square kilometer temple complex built at the end of the 12th century that served as the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Angkor Thom's architecture is defined by its large-scale construction, use of the more reddish-colored laterite soil and the face-towers which act as guardians of the empire's cardinal points. Its central masterpiece, Bayon, symbolizes the world of the gods and has become  famous thanks to movies such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

 
 

We exited Angkor Thom's victory gate and crossed the Siem Reap River. We arrived at Ta Keo, one of the oldest temples in the area and the first built entirely of sandstone. Construction began in the late 10th century, but the temple was never completed and lacks much of the ornate decorations of neighboring temples. Steep staircases attach the temple's three terraces, which reach over 21 meters (70 feet) in height and provide some good exercise for those willing to climb up to enjoy the view.

Our final stop was Ta Prohm, often referred to as the 'jungle temple' and popularized in Indiana Jones' Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ta Prohm was built around the same time as Angkor Thom, and thus has a very similar architectural style. It was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery, which was very powerful and rich. At its height, it was home to over ten thousand residents and controlled nearly 3,000 surrounding villages. After the Khmer Empire fell in the 15th century, its people abandoned it and the jungle began moving in. Massive fig and silk-cotton trees have weaved throughout the complex. Ta Prohm is one of the only temples in Siem Reap that has not seen extensive restoration since efforts began in the early 19th century, though some work was underway while we were visiting to ensure structural integrity.

After spending only 2 nights in Siem Reap, Kristin and I were a bit sad to head back to Bali. We both know there is so much more to see and experience, and we promised each other we would return again.