Nobody who sets foot into Cambodia misses a visit to the city of Siem Reap and its famous complex of temples. A 15 minute drive from the city center lay the leftovers of what probably once was Asia’s largest metropolis: Angkor. This ancient site covers an area of 400 square kilometers (roughly the size of New York) and is home to a few hundred temples that, following their rediscovery in the late XIX century, have only recently been restored and are now a magnet to hoards of tourists who keep contributing to the rapid flourishing of the country’s economy. Built between 850 and 1200AD under the reign of various kings, the city of Angkor was mysteriously abandoned a couple of centuries later with the fall of the Kmher empire and left to the ferocious claws of the nearby jungle that swallowed it up with a carpet of tropical plants. With the exception of famous Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex has pretty much always been used as a Buddhist shrine – the temples in Angkor’s archaeological park were forgotten about until the mid 1800’s when French colonialists discovered its hidden remnants. It took over a century for this complex to be resuscitated and released from nature’s grip, revealing a gigantic and awe-inspiring man made marvel. Driving from temple to temple through the complex you can still vaguely sense the magnitude of what the city of Angkor once was, but it’s hard to imagine what it would’ve looked like as the city itself has been entirely replaced by trees.
We visited 4 temples in 2 half days, and our first stop and most memorable was Ta Prohm. The jungle had invaded the temple’s very pores and tangled itself in and around its crevices, creating a majestic construction of natural wood and stone. Walking up to its entrance the first sight you’re overwhelmed by is a double roof which sits upon the building, consisting of a huge tree which had slowly crept up the stone walls and nestled itself atop its heights like a huge tree looking hat.
This otherworldly effect of strangulating root formations can be seen throughout the entire temple and makes for a very magical introduction to the world of Angkor.
Fun fact #1 – Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider around this complex.
Fun fact #2 – Angelina Jolie recently stayed at our hotel! She apparently rented out the entire hotel for 4 months for her and her family.
Mr and Mrs Savelli were here visiting so we got spoilt with a gorgeous room at this amazing village-like hotel, which came with an infinity pool, rice fields, water buffalo and hotel bicycles! Needless to say we made very good use of all of these facilities (apart from the buffalos that we left happily grazing around the fields).
The second temple we visited – Bayon – was pretty spectacular not only for its richly decorated architecture but also because it was right next to a little group of monkeys! Clearly very used to being around people, the monkeys didn’t shy away from taking food from passers-by and trying to steal bananas from the vendor. The animals were by far smarter than us, fod as soon as I left my jacket and water one of them promptly went to sniff around to see what he could he take. I saved my jacket but not my can of water.
After a good 30 minutes making friends, we remembered we were there to be cultured so walked our way to the temple. Bayon is at the center of a bigger temple site called Angkor Thom and is famous for two reasons: the intricate bas-reliefs etched into the 2km walls surrounding temple and the 200 smiling stone faces carved into dozens of turrets. The former were visualisations of historical events and daily life whilst the latter were seemingly representation of the King himself.
On day 2 we woke up before dawn to enjoy the sun rise from behind Angkor Wat, the most iconic temple in Cambodia. It’s meant to be like walking into a painting but, lucky us, it was cloudy so we just sat in the dark eating our packed lunch. Good times.
The tour around Angkor Wat was impressive but slightly tainted by the myriad tourists who flood this main attraction. The building itself represents Mt Meru, the abode of ancient Hindu gods, and – fun fact alert – it is said to be the largest religious building on earth. Its imposing grandeur is striking and its intricate carvings and decorative flourishes astonishing. Being in pretty much continuous use since it was built, the structure has been kept in very good condition.
After barely 2 days of temple-gazing we were templed-out so on our last day decided to visit another side of Siem Reap – the floating village and floating forest. Our driver took us outside the city to visit a community of locals who live by the river. It’s called floating village because every house is built on stilts to allow for fluctuations in the level of water in the river which dramatically changes between wet and dry seasons. January is mid dry season so we managed to get there intact (when it rains the road often gets flooded) and could see the stilts in full view. We rented a rickety long boat for a few hours, driven by our captain and his cute little sailor who we had the pleasure of chatting to and playing with for half the journey.
The river was mud coloured and very dirty but the main source of water for villagers who bathed in it and used it to wash their clothes. Along its banks we saw a few small fish farms, crocodile cages and floating pigs in cages which sadly explains their lack of education towards respecting the environment, also testified by the mountains and mountains of rubbish at every corner.
Our captain took us towards the river delta where we boarded upon another small oar-motored boat to see the so-called floating forest: a thick collection of trees rising up from shallow waters. On our boat was another little girl with whom we played a few games and to whom we gave some sweets, a notepad and a pen. Very cute.
It was very eye-opening seeing a different reality of Cambodian life, and also quite sad being exposed to such raw poverty. One evening Annalie and I went for a few drinks in infamous Pub Street, a road lined with drink carts with neon lights blaring loud music. We stayed for a few drinks and inbetween the many backpackers young local homeless kids weaved their way asking for a few pennies. It broke our little hearts.
Last but not least, Cambodian food. With similar tones to the familiar flavours of Thailand, dishes here are just a little milder. We had a few noodle soups and curries, lots of tasty ‘amok’ (Cambodian curry cooked in banana leaves), and a tasty variety of fruit (rambutan, dragon fruit and watermelon for breakfast – why not). Drinks wise we got addicted to a delicious lemongrass and mint juice and treated ourselves to a few Cambodian beers for $1 a pop!
Our next stop is south, to the island of Koh Rong Samloem, where I’m sure we’ll be eating some more local flavours.
Ciao for now! Xx