The past few days here in Siem Reap have been incredible as we have explored and taken in all that this city has to offer. Siem Reap is famous for the Angkor temples… and after seeing them, I understand why so many people flock to northern Cambodia each year to check out the ruins! The city was very touristy compared to what we were used to–of course this comes with pros and cons. A few of the pros: people actually knew a few words of English making asking for directions and bartering much easier, there were tons of souvenir stores, and lots of delicious restaurants. A few of the cons: lots of people, more expensive, not as authentic. Overall, we all really enjoyed Siem Reap and I got to spend a perfect birthday in this wonderful city!
Our first day was relaxed and saved for exploring the city. It is always hard to determine the size of a city just from a map but after walking a few places, we quickly realized just how small Siem Reap was which made walking everywhere possible. We had a big breakfast at the hotel before heading off to explore the local indoor mall, Yeay Tep Shrine, Preah Angcheck pagoda along with the large city parks which were filled with trees and statues. We visited the central market and the old market for a bit of souvenir shopping… our first real opportunity of the trip. The souvenir stores had quite a bit of variety from shirts and electronics to traditional paintings and small statues to beads and scarves to DVDs… they seemed to have it all. But many of the stores had the same items so as we continued to shop, the shopping sped up as we had seen many of the things before. Eventually, by the end of our few days in Siem Reap, we were all excited when we found a new souvenir item, ha! At night, the night markets would open up so even more shopping was available. We never really figured out the difference between the day and night markets as it seemed like most markets were open both day and night and the entire city seemed to be a night market… but those are just technical details, right! I also had a chance to call home–I am continually surprised by the amount of WIFI available here in Southeast Asia so it has been extremely easy to keep in touch compared to past trips (especially in Africa) where WIFI was sparse. Whenever I call home and skype, my mom is able to show me my kitten who is anxiously awaiting my return to play… I don’t think he is getting quite the same attention as he continually is causing ruckus around my parent’s house, ha! It has been great being able to speak to both of them and see Mr. Abella quite frequently!
The next day, we were off to explore the temples. We had a wonderful tour guide who grew up here in Siem Reap and was able to give us many personal accounts of his own life growing up throughout the years as well as give us the rundown of the history of the temples. We heard from a few people to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat so we met up with the tour guide at 5:00 am and we were off! We stopped at the ticket station where we each had to get a “passport” so we could visit all of the temples before making our way to the famous Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Built during the early 12th century, Angor Wat was built with the mindset that it would be used by the Khmer kings to rule over a vast land–from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. This was the case for King Suryavarman II who built Angkor Wat and a few years after him until Angkor was attacked by the Chams (an enemy of the Khmer) thus the capital was moved by Jayavarman VII just a few years later. Angkor Wat was still used for other purposes and remains the most famous of the temples. The remaining 100+ stone temples at Angkor Wat are remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis. Unfortunately, other buildings like palaces, schools, and houses have all decayed as they were built of wood. The temple has extraordinary Khmer architecture with exceptional detail–although some things have been destroyed throughout the years (through various battles and vandalism). The temple stands 65 meters high and is built in three layers representing the three worlds–the underworld, the world in which we live, and the heavens. Because Angkor Wat is so sacred, laws have been put into place to ensure that nothing is built higher than 65 meters. The temple is also extremely symbolic–the walls are covered with carvings that display Hindu stories and fables which were taught to the temple visitors throughout the years. Initially, it was constructed as a Hindu temple but in the 14th or 15th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple. Angkor Wat means “City of Temples”–appropriate for a temple of such size (occupying approximately 2 square kilometers) that is surrounded by a large moat. Angkor Wat, along with the other temples here in Siem Reap, were built using sandstone blocks. Our tour guide shared with us many of the Hindu stories and fables which were carved into the walls. Angkor Wat has become an important part of Cambodia as an outline of Angkor Wat is found on their national flag and it has become a huge tourist attraction which has helped to stimulate the economy. We had all been looking forward to visiting Angkor Wat since the planning stages of the trip and it surely didn’t disappoint! When we finished Angkor Wat, I was already sweating excessively as the temperature was hot and humidity was getting high by just 8:30 am. Next, we were off to Angkor Thom–the great city which encompasses more than 9 square kilometers and houses several monuments. Angkor Thom was established by King Jayavarman VII’s empire after Angkor Wat had been attacked. Angkor Thom was much bigger and hence became the capital. Angkor Thom is also surrounded by a moat and contains five entrances–one on the East, one on the South, one on the West, and two on the North (one for the living and one for the dead). The first temple we visited in Angkor Thom was Bayon, a temple dedicated to Buddha. The distinctive feature of this temple is the massive stone faces that many believe to be representative of King Jayavarman VII himself. Traditionally, Khmer monarchs thought of themselves as “devaraja” or god-king so this could certainly be a possibility. Bayon was also built in three layers, one for each of the worlds. Unlike Angkor Wat, Bayon felt tight with everything being much closer together giving the temple a very different feel. The outer wall had stories carved into it, much like Angkor Wat. Just like Angkor Wat, we explored the whole temple from bottom to top, immersing ourselves in the beauty of the architecture. Next up was Baphuon, a three-tiered temple mountain nearby (located within Angkor Thom). This temple was dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. In the 15th century, this temple was also converted to a Buddhist temple. Most of this particular temple had collapsed or been broken down so it took a fifty-year renovation project to reopen the temple just three years ago. Now the temple looks beautiful and you are able to walk through most of it, including up to the top which had beautiful views. It was starting to get extremely hot and humid as we explored this temple and we were all dripping of sweat. Fortunately there was a bit of breeze at the top but it didn’t help much. Adjacent to Baphuon was the Royal Palace where the king himself lived. Although the Royal Palace itself no longer stands, two “pools” (more like ponds, called Sras Srei) and a temple (Phimeanakas temple) remain. Because of the sexism that existed amongst Khmer people (which still exists today), the larger pool was for males while the smaller pool was for females. It is believed that the king could have up to 2,000 women visitors… which we would call prostitutes today. But they didn’t see this as problematic back in the day as the king supposedly gained strength from the women… hm. I found it extremely ironic that right next to the pools was Phimeanakas temple, the king’s private temple. This Hindu temple was small but tall for its size. The legend associated with the Phimeanakas temple was that Naga, a nine-headed serpent-spirit, lived atop the temple and each night when the king ascended to the top, Naga would transform into a woman. Then they lied down and prayed together for an hour. If Naga wouldn’t transform or appear, it meant that the king’s days were numbered. We finished up walking around Angkor Thom and headed towards our last temple of the day, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm was originally founded by Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university. Still today, it has a very jungle-like feel as trees have grown within the temple structures. The temple was abandoned for centuries hence trees and plants were able to grow within the temple to become apart of the permanent structure that still stands today and makes this temple unique. This temple was used as a location in the film “Tomb Raider” and hence, some locals call this temple Angelina Jolie’s temple! Unfortunately and fortunately this finished our tour. I was grateful as I don’t think I’ve ever been so sweaty in my life… but also bummed because we did get to see some really cool things! After a long day of temple exploring, it was time for a shower, dinner, and some relaxation! We hit up a few of the night market shops but we were all in bed early, ready for a great night of sleep!
The third day in Siem Reap was a day of relaxation… a good day break after a month of go, go, go! I was able to catch the USA vs Ghana World Cup game despite it starting at 5:00 in the morning… it was quite the game! I stayed inside at the hotel for much of the early afternoon, working on sorting photos and planning some things for the next leg of the trip like flights and hotels. Plus, the air conditioning felt great after being so sweaty and disgusting the day before! In the afternoon, I wandered the nearby mall and I bought myself a big scoop of Oreo ice cream for $1… yummy! Afterwards, I returned back to the hotel and it was time for Laura and I to get massages… in the comforts of air conditioning! Our traditional Khmer masseuses arrived right on time as we enjoyed an hour of kneading, stretching, and techniques focused on pressure points… oh, it was so relaxing! Peter, one of my medical school classmates, headed home today to make it to a wedding so we’re down to three!
The fourth day in Siem Reap happened to be my birthday!! I bought some bananas at the market the previous day then cut them up for breakfast as they had an important use for later. We grabbed a tuk tuk and headed back towards the temples and went searching for monkeys! Fortunately we found some right by the road. Before we were even able to get out of the tuk tuk, on of the monkeys was nearly climbing in! I got out successfully holding a bag of bananas that were freshly cut. One of the monkeys must have known what was in the bag as he lunged at it which turned into a game of war. Fortunately I won, but not before the monkey ripped open the bag and half of the cut up bananas were already on the ground… at least it brought over a few more monkeys. I was able to feed a few of them but I really enjoyed just watching the creatures. Although they weren’t as tame as the ones in the temples, the monkeys let you get fairly close which made for some great photos. There were also quite a few baby monkeys clinging onto their mothers and climbing poles. Lets just say, it was certainly a wonderful experience and I was so happy to make some new monkey friends! When we were done with the monkeys, we carried onto Tonle Sap Lake, about forty minutes from Siem Reap. When we arrived, we bought a boat ticket then headed down for our tour to begin. We traveled about 5 km by boat to the floating city… literally a floating city in a massive river. In the low rain season, the lake is only about 250 km2 in size but during the rainy season, the lake can get up to 12,000 km2. More than 1,115 families live on the lake and literally everything is surrounded by water. To get anywhere, one must take a boat. The community is extremely poor with few opportunities to leave hence most people who are born here stay here for life. The community does a lot of fishing as a source of income. The strangest thing that I saw on the river was a floating pig lot… literally a family had pigs just floating on the river! I even got to take over as captain of the boat for a bit… it was a blast going fast! We stopped by a school and a crocodile farm before heading back down the river towards the starting point. That night, we headed to the Khoulen Restaurant for a buffet dinner followed by a traditional Aspara dancing show. The buffet seemed to have endless food options which consisted of appetizers, soups, main courses, make your own stations, and of course dessert! I was incredibly surprised with the amount and the quality of the food… especially since the whole production was only $12. We enjoyed the show–the traditional dancing was wonderful and the costumes were quite impressive! It was a wonderful birthday and it was nice hearing from so many friends and family! I appreciate the warm wishes as I am yet another year older.
I am parting ways with the two who are left from my group as they head home tomorrow night while I head to Phuket, Thailand tomorrow afternoon. I will be traveling alone for about a month and I am looking forward to many adventures throughout Thailand and Laos! Stay tuned!