Before we left Southeast Asia, we stopped at a few countries to take advantage of being in the area. Cambodia was a country that, beforehand, I was convinced that I would never see. I just never “saw” myself there. The World Heritage site at Siem Reap was a beautiful place to visit. The city itself is unremarkable, but Angkor Wat and its surrounding ruins are stunning and well preserved for the most part.
I talked about how much I love Khmer design when visiting Ayutthaya, Thailand. The tops of the gates are conical, and the stones are positioned in step fashion. The Khmer people also built a lot of stone faces in the gates of the ruins. These were my favorite part of the area. Looking at the different faces made the towers seem like ancient, kind monsters greeting the neverending stream of tourists.
When people talk about visiting Cambodia and Siem Reap, they usually mention Angkor Wat, and this gives the impression that there is only one ruin at the location. The World Heritage site actually contains many ruins. One–Ta Phrom–is famous for being featured in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie.
One thing I found interesting about the religious background of the area is that, while people usually think of the Buddhist influence in Southeast Asia, the king who constructed most of the towers was also heavily influenced by Hinduism, so there are representations of Buddha and Hindu gods. I liked the bird demons below. They were very well preserved at the Terrace of the Elephants because the wall was shielded below ground.
One of the most common themes of the wall reliefs were the apsara or Khmer dancers. Apsara seemed like the harem girls of the king’s court. Each apsara in the walls of Angkor Wat is supposed to be unique in presentation.
I liked the site called Banyon because there were so many faces in the walls. Some of them smiled more than others. Some looked merely contemplative. Someone said that the faces with eyes half closed were dreamers.
My favorite ruin is called Ta Som. It similar to a mini Banyon but better because there are not as many tourists. It was quieter, and a gigantic, rooty tree grows from its back gates.
Many of the ruins are in good condition. Like the statues in Ayutthaya, some of the Buddhas and demons around Angkor Wat are missing their heads–taken from enemy invaders or looters. I think the Cambodians have done an admirable job of protecting the ruins. They currently have the help of archeologists from France, Britain, and the U.S. Some of the ruins are being rennovated, as seen from the green tarps over Angkor Wat. If you visit, go early in the morning and take an elephant ride from the South Gate of Angkor Tom to Banyon.
Interestingly, the name of Siem Reap means “Thailand (Siam) Defeated.” The town offers very affordable and nice lodging. A visitor doesn’t have to live like a backpacker to pay backpacker prices. For typical Cambodian food, I would recommend Chamkar in The Passage in the Old Market. As a vegetarian, it is sometimes difficult to find local dishes made without meat. Chamkar’s food was pricey but meatless, authentic, and delicious.