Siem Reap, is a small, somewhat French colonial styled town (at its old core) in northwest Cambodia that is the official gateway to the world renowned Angkor Wat temple (seen above) complex as well the Angkor Thom complex. It it is a laid back south east Asian town that seems to move at a relaxed pace yet at the same time a vibrant, energetic place that dances in the evenings at times with European holiday makers, backpackers and people from world wide in town to see the Angkors. Being here is to feel the history of over 1000 years, see its beauty, the intricately designed man made monoliths, some Chinese and French architecture and meet the proud and delightful, quite entrepreneurial denizens.
Angkor Wat is a temple complex that is the largest religious monument in the world on a site of over 400 acres, that was constructed as a Hindu temple for the God Vishnu in the early 1100’s, but transformed into a Buddhist temple less than 100 years later.
Angkor Thom is a royal city built in the late 1100’s known for its’ extensive temples as well.
The entire area around Angkor is a must see for any visitor to southeast Asia as the ancient ruins of this type are definitely not something you will see in your life outside of this region.
Just as much as the sights and sounds are the draw, it’s the endearing locals that will leave you with a smile. It is their warmth and charm that left me feeling good about my visit here and a return. Slim and brown, affirming their Khmer bloodlines, they are proud of the temples and their town. Although a developing country, there is little you will want for in this town and much you will leave with in terms of memories and experiences. Although, as in any tourist town there are those who would scam to make the extra dollar, I found the people as gentle as any I have met in the south east Asian region.
Strolling the local parks and riversides you will see local folks going about their business in a jovial manner belying it seems, what we would assume their struggling lot in life. Our assumptions in many ways would be wrong. They have more than many I know in richer countries, in many ways other than a comparative net worth.
In a town like Siem Reap, the average teen has had conversation with, encountered, or at least been in the presence of people from almost every major nation on the planet. This little town in Cambodia has a steady trek of footprints from abroad by day. I myself can count at least 15 nations people that I personally encountered just in a few days of my first visit.
Of course you will see monks but also you will see the novices, or the young monks in training. Sometimes this is not for life but for a set amount of time, as it leads to discipline and a certain amount of education. Monks of course have their own social class. During the Khmer Rouge revolution of the 70’s many monks were killed, and many wats (temples) were destroyed. Over the years monks have taken their respected role once again in Cambodian society.
Siem Reap and the area around it has every level of comfortable accommodation imaginable for your stay. What you want to do is get a driver to take you around to the Angkor Archaeological Park temples. At almost every hotel or hostel or guesthouse there are local touts and motorbike guides willing to take you to the park which is much too large to go around on foot at over 400 square kilometers of various sites of historical interest.
There were many willing to be my driver and the moto drivers can be aggressive in competing for your dollar. Some folks may be a little thrown off by them but it is really just about taking control of the group and deciding for yourself. Your hotel can always help you or you can go online to various guides for hire. I chose a quiet kid who picked me up about half past 4 in the am and whisked me off to a local mountain called Phnom Bakheng.
Phnom Bakheng is a temple mountain built in the late 800s dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is the top spot in the archaeological park for watching the sunset. I chose to watch the sunrise there instead as there would be less than 20 people there as opposed to a few hundred.
We arrived before 5am in the dark, and a pint sized Cambodian boy of about 10 guided me up the steep hill with a little flashlight. He did enough giggling as he bounded up with his waif-like appearance and waited for me to huff and puff behind him! I still laugh thinking of it!
Since we are on a hilltop, it is a great place to see the sun, morning or eve. It was wonderfully relaxing and peaceful. Soon after a deep orange sunrise a group of brightly orange gowned novice monks gathered on the ruins taking Japanese lessons early in the morning from a local polyglot. These lessons, as well as English and other bits of languages will ensure that many of the locals can survive as best they can in a town whose economy depends so much on the tourist dollar. There were a few other locals watching the misty morning dew with me and there was a wonderful view of Angkor Wat looking mysterious and majestic in the distance.
Just wandering about on a spiritual complex that people have been pouring their heart and soul out to for over 1000 years can be quite a bit to fathom whether you are a spiritual person or not. Watching the sun come up over the distant almost surreal horizon, meeting young people on the mountain at that same time, who are excited to ask you about the world that you call home, somewhere off in the distant sky, was touching.
It had me thinking about where I was at the same time I was their age and the thoughts I had about the “otherside of the world”. Like them, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see it. It was like a dream. In that moment the moisture in my eyes was more than just an accumulation of the dew in the air. I will never part with that moment.
As I started my way down that mountain, I realized then and I still do now that my time there that morning was more meaningful than other sunrises I have seen. They are kind of all the same until…that moment when they aren’t. It made me happy also to see the local caretaker making sure that there was not a spot of trash leftover from the night before with the busloads of tourists who come for sunset. I am so glad I missed them. I didn’t miss the history of over 1000 years, the beauty of that history intricately preserved with each stone, or the great grinning smiles of the local people, even in a place with backpackers and travelers from all over the world. It is still a place that will marvel you though small, its packs a big memory punch.
Plan Your Own Trip!
I personally was happy with my Lonely Planet guide, simply because I like having a book to read and scribble notes in that also gives me good history and advice. I hate being on the road in a cafe or bus looking at a smartphone screen and worrying about a battery.
Interested in other stories of Asia? Here is one you many like here, and if you are thinking about a trip don’t forget that Jetradar flight search box right here on this page! At least take a look! A trip starts with an idea! The quickest way to Siem Reap is from Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Hong Kong or other gateway cities that fly into Siem Reap Airport.
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