So you have risen at the crack of dawn, or even earlier, and made your sleepy way to the Angkor Wat to see the famed sunrise. You have followed in the glamorous footsteps of Anjelina Jolie to the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple (where parts of the film ‘Tomb Raider’ was shot), held captive for centuries by the ancient trees. And at the Angkor Thom complex, you have been awed by the sight of the smiling Buddha faces on the walls of the Bayon temple. So, now what?
Discover Angkor, Wats and all: If you have missed the sunrise at Angkor Wat (though it is entirely worth the effort, despite the pushy crowds), head to Phnom Bakheng for the sunset. Get there early before the hordes and find a vantage position from which to watch the sun go down the Angkor archaeological park. Take some time to enjoy the smaller temples; in particular the exquisite Bantaey Srei (translated as the ‘citadel of women’). Diminutive in size, the pinkish sandstone temple is a welcome relief from the imposing size and dull grey-brown tones of most of the other temples here.
Art at Angkor: It is impossible to visit Siem Reap and not get tempted into watching an apsara dance performance. The apsara is a symbol of ancient Khmer culture and the performing tradition of Cambodia has seen a revival in recent years. Most restaurants offer them as part of the evening meal, though if you have the money and interest, it is advisable to watch it at one of the more up-market hotels, such as the Angkor Village Apsara Theatre or the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor. And if you have the time, make a trip to the Artisans d’ Angkor workshop (near the old market) for Khmer handicraft including stone and wood carving, silk painting and lacquer work – or head outside town to the silk farm, also managed by the same trust.
Walkabouts: Walk along the river when the weather is cool, towards the Psar Chaa old market to shop for souvenirs and local food. Also drop in at the Angkor night market – open till midnight – just at the end of Pub Street (off Sivatha Road) for unusual Khmer artefact, and the experience. A good place to visit even before you get on the temple circuit is the Angkor National Museum (even if you are not the “museum types”) – at $12 for an entry ticket, it is an expensive but excellent way to get an orientation of Khmer history, both ancient and recent. Several hundred statues, hidden for the last century and therefore preserved, have found their way here and the stories on the well-made audio-video guides are interesting, if only for the striking similarities with Indian mythology. If you ever make your weary way to FCC Angkor hotel, a visit to McDermott gallery nearby is a must, for sepia-tinted glimpses of Cambodia and the Angkor temples.
Travel in style: And I do not mean the tuk-tuks here, even those unique Cambodian ones, pulled by motorbikes. Go up on a helium balloon or a helicopter for a comprehensive aerial view of the Angkor temples. At sunset, take a cruise on the Tonle Sap lake to see the floating village; Chong Kneas is the closest and has a floating school and church among other things. The boats usually dock at the crocodile farm (which doubles up as a small coffee and souvenir shop) and the view from the rooftop is stunning. The lake sprawls all round you like a minor placid ocean, and the Vietnamese refugees who have made it their home go about their routine evening activities, as the sun sets in the horizon. If you are fit and adventurous, hire a bicycle or motorbike to travel around the Angkor archaeological sites; the terrain is flat and most of the major temples are located close to each other.
Eat, drink and be merry: Siem Reap has some excellent café and restaurants, including several authentic – I am told – Indian restaurants (KamaSutra, Maharajah). Most of them are clustered around the main market area and the accurately if unimaginatively named Pub Street. Eateries here compete for business, not just with great food, live music and cheap booze, but also with clever names; I was lured by Kampuchino, Angkor what?, Blue Pumpkin and Laundry Bar. A drink at the FCC Angkor, overlooking the river is highly recommended, as is a (vegetarian) meal at the Singing Tree Garden Café.
This piece was published in the Sunday Mid-day dated January 17th.
More photographs from the Angkor complex here…