the “Great City” of Angkor

The number one attraction in Siem Reap is not... really... in Siem Reap; it is actually about 4 kilometers to the north.  And we would imagine that there will be very few who come all the way out here to Siem Reap without spending at least a day in the breathtaking “great city of Angkor.”

The Khmer Empire ruled Angkor, and much of Southeast Asia, from the 9th to the 15th centuries.  Recently revealed to rival the grandeur of the Egyptian civilization in both scope and ingenuity, the people of Angkor abandoned their intricate maze of waterways and temple complexes by the middle of the 1400's.  Scientists and archaeologists are not entirely sure why the Khmer left, but most believe the 1431 sacking of the city by the Thai people of Ayutthaya had something to do with it!  Angkor's various temple complexes were first built to honor Hindu gods, however, after King Jayavarman VIIi's reign, the Khmer religion switched to Buddhism.  Many believe this is just one of the many reasons why the population eventually faded from the area.

What is interesting about Angkor is that is that many of the temples look quite different, and yet there are so many.  All of the temples are in various states of discovery, exploration, and renovation.  After our visit in July of 2009, we watched a television program that described how the original Khmer population built Angkor.  The process was a lot more exacting and advanced than initially hypothesized by scientists who had previously snubbed the Khmer civilization's vast achievements since their eventual demise was so shrouded in mystery.  This attitude is now changing.

When the Khmers abandoned the region in 1431, most of the temples were left to their own devices, and ultimately those of Mother Nature!  However, at Angkor Wat, easily the most recognizable structure in the “Great City,” Buddhist monks took up residence in the grand structure, warding off the advancing jungle, and thus preserving it for posterity.

Originally built for the King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, Angkor Wat remained the most visited, and thus, best preserved sight in all of Cambodia!  While 2005 governmental figures suggest that 561,000 people had visited Angkor Wat by that year, that number has since almost quadrupled!  In fact, Buddhist monks from all over the world cite the temple as one of their main pilgrimage destinations!

The exterior of Angkor Wat is busy even at 5:30 AM, when tourists such as ourselves hope for a glimpse of the legendary sunrise.  During our visit, we unfortunately incurred a day of cloud cover and missed the boat on the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.  Still, visiting Angkor at the crack of dawn did offer one benefit.  We were able to avoid the extreme heat for at least a few hours (until it kicked in around 10:00 AM!)  Rain or shine, the beautifully ornate temple of Angkor Wat is equally enjoyable, with its intricate sculptures that inspire and awe the senses.

Of course, Angkor Wat is only the doorway to a much larger web of intriguing temple structures that seem designed to thrill the adventure-seeker within!  (Some of our favorites included Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, the Bayon and Phnom Bakheng, but we saw many, many others.)  Simply put, at 400 square kilometers, the ancient city of Angkor is tremendous both in size and impact.  While the temple complex of Angkor Wat may be the most famous of the area, Angkor is so much more all-encompassing.  If you like peering into the untouched past, or simply enjoy hiking amongst some startling natural beauty, you definitely will want to spend a few days here!

Ultimately, visiting Angkor is like going to Disneyland's "Adventureland" on a much, much larger (yet cheaper) scale.  Visitors may tour any of the temples at Angkor from 5:00 AM to 5:30 PM daily with passes sold in one-day, three-day, or seven day increments from a ticket and information center at the front of the park.  (The costs are $20, $40, or $60 USD respectively.)  While most renovation work at Angkor is carried out by foreign government-sponsored teams, it is said that approximately 28% of entrance ticket revenue is put back into the park by the Cambodian government to make sure that the temples are safe, secure, and accessible.  Set of Drifters tip:  See “essentials” for transportation options to, from and within the park.  Also, for a more comprehensive breakdown of all there is to see and do in Angkor, check out Set of Drifters’ separate Angkor section found here.

Angkor Archaeological Park - Angkor (4 km. north of Siem Reap),
011 (855) 23 720315

traditional Khmer dance

We’ll be the first to admit that we are suckers for the dinner/ traditional dance performance combo that is so often found in far-flung climes.  Before heading to Cambodia, we initiated some brief research to make certain that just such an experience could be obtained in Siem Reap.  Now, if you are lucky, you may get to see a performance of traditional Khmer dance on a crumbling dais within the confines of a 14th century temple in Angkor Wat.  But, if that once-in-a-lifetime cannot be procured while in town, may we suggest a free nightly performance at the Temple Club’s “Balcony” venue in “downtown” Siem Reap?

Khmer dance is beguiling in its juxtaposition of simple body movements with quite complicated hand gestures called “kbach.”  Since facial emotions are not allowed to tell the story of each performance, it must be conveyed through the hands. Thus, at times, the stories are vague and hard to decipher.  The intense concentration of Khmer dancers' faces shows just how difficult it is to carefully execute the subtle movements required by this art form.

Overall, we were quite impressed with the quality of the Temple Club show, especially considering that it was FREE!  Complete with elaborate costumes, props and live music, the show lasted about one hour in length, just the perfect amount of time for a yummy meal and a few bottles of Angkor Beer (see “eats”).  The traditional Khmer band at Temple Club featured six or seven different musicians and was led by amazing female vocalist who sang through a microphone set on a weird echo effect.  The technique is used often in Southeast Asian music, and when mixed with the vocalist’s strange screech/ sing performance, is both unsettling and seductive at the same time.

From a muffled previously-recorded CD track played before each live musical selection, a narrator described each dance vignette.  There were seven or eight different dances that night, and while we unfortunately can not remember the exact details of any of them, there were a few performances that certainly stood out.

The first of these was the “dance of the Asparas.”  Asparas are the same little female deities that are carved throughout the temples of nearby Angkor.  (You will immediately recognize the headdresses and hand movements used in this performance from the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat and other temples in the national park.  At the height of the Khmer rule, dancers such as these would have been found in the courts of all of the temples across Southeast Asia.  The austerity of the “aspara” presentation will astound you, though it is not all quiet on the Southeast Asian front.

Young male dancers soon joined the female cast for the playful “Coconut dance,” a lively number with the performers yelping and hollering to the syncopated beat created with the wrapping together of the coconut shells.  The usually reserved cast was clearly having fun with this one.

Up next was a dynamic story that brought together a man with a deer head, two temptresses in emerald green, and a Hanuman demon!  When the mischievous imp arrives on the scene there is hell, or some form of it, to pay, but after an epic battle to the finish, Hanuman is asked to go away and not come back another day!  Complete with cool weapons, high drama, and yet, no actual facial expression whatsoever, the number was definitely the most photographed of the evening!

One of the last dances was a love story set in a local fishing village on the
Tonlé Sap Lake (see below), and even though the this was the finale, the emotion remained entirely restrained.  At least one of the dancers finally broke a smile when the two of us joined the cast for a photo afterward.

The traditional Khmer dance performances are held each night at the Temple Club Balcony at 7:30 PM and again at 9:30 PM.  There is no extra charge for the performance, but you are expected to eat dinner in order to see the show (see “eats”).  With such an elaborate performances held twice each night, we just hope that the performers make some money on this!

Temple Club Balcony - Pub Street, Siem Reap, 011 (855) 12 234565 or 011 (855) 15 999909

Tonlé Sap Lake

For a village that is only roughly 30 sq. km., Siem Reap really does have a lot on offer.  We only scratched the surface while visiting in the summer of 2009, naturally spending much our time inside the Angkor Wat National Park.  One thing we regret that we missed out on is a visit to the legendary Tonlé Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in all of Southeast Asia, and the lifeblood of many in the area.  Due to the ebb and flow of the rising waters of the mighty Mekong River during the rainy season, the channel of the Tonlé Sap River acts as a seesaw, switching direction twice a year to bring in water (and fish) to the lake for all of the locals to take advantage of.  And take advantage they do; many fishermen lower large nets under their makeshift housing to capture profit even while they sleep.

There are many small towns that jut out from the sides of the Tonlé Sap Lake, the majority of them can only be described as “floating villages,” fabricated out of tied-together boat hulls, or more elaborate bamboo and thatch structures that bob on top of the lake.  So, you may be asking, why are the villages seemingly so temporary?  Well, depending on the ferocity of the rains during the wet season, the size of the lake may vary greatly from year to year, and thus, the fishermen must move their entire village to accommodate.  For example, the bustling “floating village” of Chong Kneas is listed in guide books as 11 km. - 15 km. away from Siem Reap, depending on the time of the year!

Kompong Phluk, is more a more stable bet, though during the rainy season you may not know it.  Here, the restaurants, post office and other village structures are built six to seven meters high above the lapping waters on very tall wooden stilts.  Travel between neighbors is still done via boat, followed by a quick shimmy up the sides of the scaffolding.

Tonlé Sap is often called the “flowing heart of Cambodia,” and its importance to the Cambodian people cannot be underestimated as it is the major artery that connects Siem Reap and Angkor Wat with the capital city of Phnom Penh.  To really see a different side of Cambodian life, a visit to this mighty shape-shifting body of water is a must!

Tours to UNESCO designated biosphere of Tonlé Sap can be arranged in Siem Reap, though if you are feeling a bit more adventuresome, you can always make the trek on your own.  The destination of Chong Kneas is only about 20 minutes south of town and will only cost you under $10 USD round trip via remorque-moto.  Once you arrive, you will need to get into a boat and pay some extra fees to keep you safe and secure.  Expect to pay around $30 USD for the entire journey, plus any monies that might be spent on that fresh catch of the day (or any of the artisanal trinkets that may be up for grabs in the floating shops).  The Tara Riverboat Company offers some more expansive (and expensive) tours, and may be your best bet if you are looking for an ALL-DAY inclusive type of package.

Tara Riverboat - Chong Kneas, Tonlé Sap Lake (11 km. to 15 km. south of Siem Reap),
011 (855) 92 957765