MANILA, Philippines—After decades of neglect, the world is rediscovering the glories of the fabled Khmer Empire.
I first visited Siem Reap (pronounced See-um Ree-up) in December 2006. Since then I have been back four times, and each time the place looks different.
In less than two years, the town has changed tremendously, turning from a dusty, sleepy settlement into a modern city of increasing sophistication.
Buildings are sprouting all over. Where once there was none, there are now Internet cafés and ATM machines and even that ubiquitous feature of modern cities—a fast-food joint.
Air-conditioned malls are being constructed and soon, we are told, the Old Market will be moved to a new development outside town, while the present site is converted into a modern retail complex.
The town’s fast transformation is fueled by only one thing—tourism.
Last year Siem Reap had around a million visitors; this year that figure is expected to double.
Throughout the world there is reawakened interest in Angkor Wat and the magnificent monuments of the ancient Khmer Empire. These World Heritage sites are clustered around Siem Reap. It is anticipated that in the next decade Siem Reap will become the next major destination in Asia, second only to neighboring Thailand.
In the first half of 20th century, Angkor Wat drew such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Jacqueline Kennedy and French President Charles de Gaulle, but the country was closed to travelers during and in the aftermath of the tragic years under the murderous Khmer Rouge. We got an inkling of the utter horror of that dark era from the Hollywood movie, “The Killing Fields.”
It has only been in the last five years that visitors have started to come back in large numbers. Hopefully the tragic past is now securely behind as the country strives to catch up with the rest of the developed world.
Filipinos are not required to have visas (Malaysia is the only other country that enjoys this privilege); everybody else has to cue up upon arrival to have their pictures taken and their visas issued.
There are no direct flights from Manila to either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, but there are alternative routes. A fun way is via Bangkok (Cebu Pacific flies nightly, arriving around midnight). You can then travel to Siem Reap by either air or overland.
The trouble with the first is that Bangkok Airways, which has a monopoly on the Bangkok-Siem Reap route, charges astronomical fares. You could take an Air Asia flight to Phnom Penh and from there hire a taxi to Phnom Penh, and you’d still end up paying less than the Bangkok Airways fare to Siem Reap.
Most visitors fly to the capital, stay there for a couple of days, then join fellow tourists on the boat to Siem Reap. It’s a six-hour journey on the Tonle Sap River (which turns into Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap), but it’s an adventure worth experiencing at least once, and a good introduction to Cambodia’s bucolic countryside.
To relieve the tedium of the trip, many passengers clamber up to the roof to sit in the sunlight (the trip sets off early in the morning) and take in the scenic view as the boat goes past villages, rice fields and patches of lush tropical growth
If you have the stamina and patience for a long haul, take the bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, which costs only $10 per person.
Leaving Bangkok early in the morning, a four-hour drive on a big air-conditioned bus will take you to the last town on the Thai side.
From there, take a tuk-tuk to the border itself, go through Thai immigrations, after which you walk through a concentration of neon-lit casinos, a curious sight, like a mini Las Vegas in the dusty tropics.
After completing the formalities at Cambodian immigrations, you step into Cambodian territory, where another bus will take you to Siem Reap. You should hit town by late afternoon or early evening.
There are other possible routes—via Hanoi or Saigon, Kuala Lumpur and even Singapore, both on regular airlines like Philippine Airlines and on budget carriers such as Air Asia and Jetstar. Check out their websites for flight details.
(Rowena Coloma of Travel Specialist Ventures, tel. 9287487 or 9255383, handles tours to Cambodia and other Southeast Asian destinations.)
Moving around town
Siem Reap is quite small, with the area around the Old Market (Psar Chas) as the sole hub of activity. Except when they go out of town to archeological sites, visitors hardly ever venture from the area demarcated by Sivatha Boulevard, Pokambor Avenue and National Road No 6.
Sivatha Boulevard is the town’s main street, lined on both sides with shops and commercial establishments.
Following the wooded banks of Siem Reap River, Pokambor Avenue, which becomes Charles de Gaulle Boulevard after it crosses National Road No. 6, goes past five major landmarks of the city—the Old Market; the Royal Residence (quite modest, nothing imposing); the lovely Royal Gardens; the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (this looks more palatial than the actual Royal Residence); and the radiant National Angkor Museum.
National Road No. 6, also known as Airport Road, leads to Siem Reap International Airport and is where many of the big brand-new hotels are located. It might be helpful to note that the new Angkor International Hospital and smaller clinics catering to foreigners are on this road.
The town sprawls out on the eastern side of the river, but these are residential and new shopping areas where mostly local folk go. There is a big Divisoria-like market in the area and, further afield, a kind of people’s park (it’s actually just an open field) where locals come to enjoy the evening, seated on rented mats spread on the ground, drinking beer and eating barbecue, balut (yes, they have balut) and all sorts of snacks in movable stalls.
There are no taxis in Siem Reap, but a car or van with driver can be rented on a daily basis. On our first visit we hired a van for two days, costing only $30-$40 per day.
Later we found out a far better alternative is to hire a tuk-tuk. Not only is it cheaper ($12-$15 for a whole day; $2 for short rides around town) but it’s actually more fun.
Unlike our tricycles, which are supremely uncomfortable, Cambodian tuk-tuks have the motorbike and driver out front, pulling the cab along. It’s like riding a horse carriage. “I feel like Prince Philip,” Peter said as we proceeded in stately fashion along the tree-lined roads of the Angkor Archeological Park.
Now, if you’re traveling on a shoestring, a moto would be your chosen mode of transport. A moto, short for motorcycle or motorbike, is exactly just that—a motorbike that takes a passenger on the back seat for $1 a ride. No need for a helmet and other safety measures. Just jump on the seat and fling your arms around the driver. Don’t ask me what happens when it rains.
What to see
One of mankind’s greatest achievements, Angkor Wat marks the pinnacle of ancient Khmer civilization. It is for this world-renowned artistic and architectural masterpiece that most visitors come to Siem Reap, and as such it tops any list of must-visit places. It certainly lives up to the hype, and takes your breath away each time you see those five majestic corncob-shaped towers.
Inside are walls and walls of superb bas reliefs depicting epic battles from the Rayamana and other icons and episodes in Hindu-Buddhist mythology, including the oft replicated and reproduced Churning of the Sea of Milk, a cosmic tug-of-war between gods and demons.
Angkor Wat, according to historians and scholars, took 30 years to construct. It was built in the reign of Suryavarman II (1113-1150 AD).
It marks the zenith of Khmer civilization, though the golden age of temple building came later, under Jayavarman VII (1181-1220 AD), who, as if to make up for the fact that he didn’t build Angkor Wat, launched a construction frenzy that saw the completion of Angkor Thom (his walled city which contains the Terrace of the Leper King); Bayon (his royal temple); Ta Prohm (dedicated to his mother); Preah Khan (dedicated to his father); and innumerable hospitals and rest houses for the poor.
All those places are worth visiting, particularly Angkor Thom (it gives you a sense of what it might have been like to live at the time); Bayon (famous for the gigantic faces oriented toward the four cardinal points); and Ta Prohm (where the ruins are being strangled by the roots of gigantic trees that start life as a parasite then kill the host tree).
Located outside the Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom complex, the exquisite Banteay Srei, with its profusion of delicate carvings, is also worth a visit, and so is the pyramidal Prasat Ta Keo.
Angkor Thom was sacked in 1431 by invading armies from Siam (Siem Reap actually means Siam Defeated, referring to an earlier Khmer victory), from which the empire never again fully recovered, though the Khmer kingdom endured until the end of the 16th century.
All those sites mentioned above are located within the Angkor Archeological Park, also known as Angkor National Park. A one-day pass is available, but this is hardly enough to cover all major sights. A much better deal is to buy a two-day or three-day pass, which allows you explore the sites at leisurely pace.
After temple overdose
The temples are magnificent, but after a while it is possible to suffer from temple overdose. If and when that happens, head for the Old Market and lose yourself in the maze of shops selling traditional Cambodian arts and crafts—silk, wood and stone carvings, and silverware.
It’s a fascinating experience, and bargaining is part of the fun. You can indulge in light-hearted banter with the pretty sales ladies, and they don’t seem to mind if you don’t buy in the end.
The Central Market is not far from the Old Market, but it’s new and less interesting. After dark, the Night Market gets its share of browsers and buyers, though it’s somewhat lacking in local flavor and was obviously set up for tourists.
A morning excursion on the Tonle Sap Lake is another viable option when you’ve had too much temple-trekking. This body of water is so huge that you can’t see the shores when you’re somewhere in the middle. People live in houses on stilts along the shore as well as on huts floating on the water. You can either pay the official rate of $12 per head for a half-day tour or do your own negotiations with a boat operator.
To get to the lake, hire a tuk-tuk in town, but negotiate the price with the driver beforehand (for your own convenience you might want to also arrange for a return journey).
If you’re interested in finding out how silk is produced and woven, set aside half a day for a visit to the Angkor Silk Farm, some 16 km west of the town proper. The centuries-old craft was all but lost during the troubled years under the Khmer Rouge but is undergoing a rebirth.
For decades there was no repository for the astonishing array of treasures that have survived from the ancient Khmer civilization. Prized for their artistry and delicacy, Khmer sculptures have been a much sought after booty in an illegal international trade, often ending up in private collections in Europe and the United States.
Happily the newly constructed National Angkor Museum will now rectify this problem, with its state-of-the-art storage and display facilities. Using easy-to-follow visual aids and high-tech exhibition methods, the museum offers plenty to interest the visitor, including an awe-inspiring room containing 1,000 Buddhas. A trip to Siem Reap would not be complete without a visit to the museum.
To get the full flavor of your encounters with ancient Khmer civilization, you might want to hire a licensed tour guide. These can be identified at the sites by their uniform—brown trousers, beige shirt and name badge. Guides are available for virtually any of the world’s major languages, and you can easily hire one through your hotel or guesthouse. The going rate was $20 for a whole day more than a year ago; most likely that has increased since then.
Regular guided tours are also conducted by Virgo Travel, but this group of young Filipinos, among them Cathy Pamintuan and Jerome Rivera, offers more than that, aiming to promote greater understanding of local culture. Visit the group’s website at www.virgotravelcambodia.com.
Where to stay
The hotel industry in Siem Reap has witnessed a building boom in recent years, funded in large part by Korean investors. Some of the huge hotels on the Airport Road are Korean-owned.
A very reliable choice on the strip is the comfortable Monoreach Angkor Hotel (www.monoreach.com), managed by Annie Rivera, a Filipina, the only woman GM in the hotel industry in Cambodia. Annie has a way of putting people at ease, and under her supervision the hotel staff is invariably helpful and friendly toward guests.
Slightly off the main drag is the Angkor Palace Resort & Spa (www.angkorpalaceresort.com), set amid sprawling gardens.
If you have money to spare, the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (www.raffles.com, part of the renowned Raffles chain) and Amansara (www.amansara.com, of the equally famed Aman group) are obvious choices, but the pleasure of staying in either place comes with a steep price—$300-$400 for the cheapest single at the Raffles and $700 at Amansara.
I have stayed at the Raffles and can certainly say that it lives up to its billing as a grand hotel. Everything is orchestrated to make you feel like you have stepped back to the time when travel to exotic places was an exclusive privilege of the rich. One almost expects the bellboys to pull out Louis Vuitton trunks and valises from the authentic cage elevator.
Other five-star hotels include the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort (www.sofitel.com); Sokha Angkor Resort & Spa (www.sokhahotels.com); La Residence d’Angkor (www.residencedangkor.com); and Le Meridien Angkor (www.lemeridien.com/angkor).