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Siem Reap. Cambodia. Again. Part One

Siem Reap: 2012

Siem Reap, Cambodia…

Siem Reap in Thai is pronounced in a slightly different way than you might be used to hearing: เสียมราฐ /sĭam-râat/. And funny enough (but perhaps not to Thais), Siem Reap in Khmer translates to ‘Siam Defeated’.

Wiki: Siem Reap: The name Siem Reap means the ‘Flat Defeat of Siam’ — today’s Thailand — and refers to the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and Khmer peoples.

This name was baptized by King Ang Chan (1516-1566) as “Siem Reap”, meaning “the flat defeat of Siam” (Cambodians call Siam or Thailand “Siem”). It was because of the victory over the Thais which King Ang Chan counter-attacked, and shot Prince Ong dead on an elephant’s back, and routed the Thais and captured no less than 10,000 Thai troops.

Even with the Cambodian–Thai border dispute being manipulated by politicians on both sides, antagonism between the two countries has mostly slowed down to a soft boil.

And while I haven’t asked Thais, the Cambodians I’ve talked to admitted to a fondness for the Thai people. I’m curious, what’s been your experience, if any?

Siem Reap five years ago…

I’ve dreamed of walking around the huge stone faces of Bayon ever since National Geographic did a feature on the Wat. I believe I was around 14 years old. Or was I 16? Close enough.

Only back then I thought the area was called Ankor Wat. How wrong I was.

Five years ago I finally made it to Siem Reap. I’m told that partially due to the Khmer Rouge shutting down the country, many of the colonial buildings in the old part of town have been mostly preserved. Um. Thanks?

Using the quaint city as a base, during my visit I trudged through way too many Wats. Some were almost completely restored while others were distinguishable only as piles of stone. Yes. You got it. My long awaited adventure morphed from a thrill a minute to quite the dull drudge.

Even though the trip was exhausting, I absolutely loved the city and the main Wats. And no surprise to me, the enormous faces of Bayon stole my heart. Ok, Thailand owns the biggest part of my heart but there’s room for more. Seriously.

Each evening, after a long day of sightseeing, I’d head to the Viva Mexican Cafe situated in the old part of town.

Armed with an order of nachos and (small) buckets of margaritas, I’d sit beside the sidewalk to watch the street show. There’d be a smattering of tourists strolling the partially lit streets, street kids trying out their multi-language skills, and tuk tuk drivers parking and/or sleeping nearby.

Ever since that trip I’ve vowed to go back to Siem Reap. FINALLY, with well-traveled friends visiting from the UK this month, away we went!

Siem Reap in 2012…

Depending on the flight, Bangkok to Siem Reap is either one hour away via propeller driven plane, or a mere half hour by jet. We went during the week (less popular) so the airline used a small plane going over. In comparison, the return was booked for a Friday night so we were whoooooooshed back to Bangkok.

There’s no way getting around saying this (and I’ve tried) but the excitement of our arrival was deflated when the Heritage Suites Hotel neglected to collect us from the airport. After waiting outside the airport for what seemed like forever we gave up and traveled to the hotel via van instead of the promised vintage Mercedes Benz (formerly owned by Father King Norodom Sihanouk). Sigh. Riding in a van wasn’t special. It was merely ‘ok’.

During the ride to the Heritage we passed hotel after new hotel. A big change. When I queried the driver about the growth he mentioned that something like 150 hotels had gone up in the past few years. Wow. I hope their infrastructure keeps up with the pace.

Siem Reap: Hotel

Once at the Heritage Suites Hotel the manager, Magnus Olovson, took immediate charge of the situation. Apologising for the snafu, Magnus upgraded everyone to spacious suits. Is that impressive, or what? And I’m sure the next question is, how can you get a snafu too?

Thank you Magnus (but honestly, I would have been happy with a ride to the Viva Mexican Cafe in the ‘Bentley’ ;-)

Siem Reap: 2012

After jumping in and out of showers we called for tuk tuks to take us to dinner and drinks at the Viva Mexican Cafe.

Unlike on my first trip the now lit streets were filled with tourists and the restaurant heaving!

A further sign of Siem Reap’s recent success, the nachos at Viva went upmarket (but were just as tasty) and the actual buckets filled with margaritas were no more. The small buckets were replaced by large beer glasses instead. No matter. The margaritas went down mighty fine.

After wandering around the old part of town for an hour or so we headed back to the pool and our private steam rooms, deep bathtubs, and super comfy beds.

Magnus, it was mighty fine. So again, a ‘ta’ from me.

Siem Reap: 2012

Breakfast by the pool was rather good and the wait staff were exceptional. Congrats Heritage. Well done. In addition to the buffet, the outdoor chef cooked up delicious plates filled with omelets, bacon, sausage, and grilled tomatoes. The coffee was topnotch as well.

Siem Reap: 2012

Breakfast over, soon enough the guide arrived and off we went to our first stop, Ankor Wat. The sun was at a bad angle (not conducive for decent photos) so I won’t share my weak shots of the famous entrance over the moat. Apologies. Perhaps better photographers have light tricks unknown to me.

Wiki: Angkor Wat is a temple complex at Angkor, Cambodia, built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation – first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist.

Walking around the Wats our guide pointed out the many headless Buddha statues. He mentioned that their heads were chopped off and buried in the jungle by the rival religion. Nice to know. And all this time I thought the destruction of the stone Buddhas was due to the shameful (western) antique market.

Many, but not all, of the heads have been found. Sooo, is anyone up for a treasure hunt? Hmmmm?

Siem Reap: Ta Prohm

Next on the agenda was Ta Prohm, known for its impressive trees growing over stone buildings.

Wiki: Ta Prohm is the modern name of a temple at Angkor, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara.

Located approximately one kilometre east of Angkor Thom and on the southern edge of the East Baray, it was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.

Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors.

Siem Reap: Monk

I swear this very monk was walking in this exact same spot five years ago!

Siem Reap: Lunch

A fair bit of Ta Prohm was under construction so after seeing what we could, off we went to what turned out to be an excellent lunch washed down with coconut water (moi) and beer (them).

Why did I go for coconut water? On holiday no less? Sure, I do sometimes enjoy a good beer, but in the heat of the day a nap must soon follow. And hey, that’s just one of my many excuses for not drinking beer.

Cambodian food is far less spicier than Thai food but the lack is easily remedied by bowls of cut chilis. And every time we ordered chilis, broad smiles came too.

Siem Reap: Faces

Tip: If it’s absolutely crucial to get decent photos, and you don’t know any light magic, make your intentions clear to your guide.

Five years ago I was delivered to the Wats that mattered at perfect times. But, on this trip, I didn’t realise the importance until we rolled up to washed out Ankor faces. Boring.

I do understand why we arrived at Bayon when we did. These days there are HUGE numbers of tourists crowding the Wats, so after checking out the situation, our guide made a snap decision to change our itinerary.

Pity I didn’t come across this site in time:

The Bayon: Built by Jayavarman VII the temple stands in the center of Angkor Thom. With its 54 towers and 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara, this temple looks best in the morning just after sunrise or at the end of the afternoon as the sun shines on the faces.

After agreeing to make it back well before sundown we returned to the hotel for a needed rest.

Siem Reap: Faces

We got back to Bayon around 4pm. With hindsight, to get the best chance at catching more of the golden light, perhaps it should have been 3pm instead. Live and learn…

I saw noticeable renovation on the statues flanking one of the entrances to Bayon (shown in the bottom left photo). And most of the replaced heads were already showing considerable damage. Odd.

I asked the guide about the destruction and in his opinion it was deliberate. Supposedly the large chunks out of the renovated heads were done to make them look more like the originals. It looked like vandalism to me.

The day is not yet over, but as this seems a perfect place to stop this post, I will.

Before I sign off, Snap was at Siem Reap shortly before my visit so please stop by to say ‘hey’: Arriving in Siem Reap.

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

19 Comments

  1. LOVE hearing your experience of Angkor! Gorgeous pictures! I went back in 2002, and all this development was just starting. I’m sure that if I went back today it would be unrecognizable from when I went 10 years ago. 10 years! My god!

    Your hotel looked sumptuous – I bet even the more budget room would be plush and comfy. I stayed in a backpackers guest house and took the bumpy road from the border. I think nowadays I’d go your route with a flight and nicer hotel. :)

  2. Thanks Amy :-) There’s a condo going in across the way so when I saw all the new hotels in Siem Reap I could only imagine the noise going on. Siem Reap must have been a back- to-back work site!

    The hotel was comfy and stylish. Note: I don’t enjoy large, overly shiny hotels because they are often devoid of real character. The Heritage didn’t disappoint.

  3. Absolutely beautiful pics Cat… I need to get to Siem Reap and more importantly Angkor wat. I would love to spend a few weeks exploring as much as possible , it’s a huge site.

    The accommodations and food look awesome….have a great trip dear, you deserve it !

  4. You should be hired by their Tourism Board Catherine. It all sounds so inviting. Can we have a little more of their cuisine next time?

  5. Thanks Talen! I just know that you would love Siem Reap – it’s your kind of town. The people are wonderful. Kind. And the food is amazing. Ankor Wat isn’t too bad either.

  6. Alex, I have nothing but good things to say about Siem Reap and the Cambodian people so if they want to hire me, I’m game!

    As for the cuisine… I’m not sure I took photos of everything so I’d have to depend upon my memory (and it was a lot of food). I was told that they don’t eat as many critters as Thais do but shortly after we came across ladies frying pancakes of bee larva. Miffed my friend to no end because he’s a bee guy (has many hives of his own).

  7. Cat…pity our paths didn’t cross. Angkor wat and surrounds, was incredible, but it was ridiculously hot the day we were out there. If it had been 10 degrees cooler, I could have set up camp for a few days.

    We didn’t get a guide…just our hotel’s tuk tuk driver. I can never remember what they tell me anyway, but I learnt more about Angkor Wat at the museum in Phnom Penh a few days later. Our hotel? lol, I might come and stay with you next time. Just kidding, it was OK.

  8. Snap, meeting up would have been great. Next time, we’ll share buckets of margaritas, for sure (even though they do come in beer glasses).

    The heat was far hotter than when I was there last but most any time would be. Five years ago was the cold snap – we had weird weather in both Thailand and Cambodia. But as it started the very morning after we landed, at first we thought Cambodia was way cooler than Thailand.

    Your post mentions getting fingerprinted – that’s new (even though it’s old technology). We had a hilarious time because everyone in our line didn’t get it right away, plus you could hear the other machines binging and couldn’t tell if it was your machine, or one across the way. The poor guy was so frustrated but we were laughing and having a great time.

    Also new, photos on ID cards. There must have been a fair amount of scamming going on to put that in place.

    Guides in Cambodia are (from my experience) highly trained. They are certified for real and it shows. I wish Thailand would do the same… What’s equally impressive is how many languages they speak. Again, ditto to Thailand!

  9. Cat, all I could think about while placing my fingers on the the scanner, was that I had a cut across the print on one thumb…and the scanners in other airports might not recognise me. I clearly think way too much ;)

  10. Snap, all I could think about was getting it right. That poor guy, he was visibly frustrated with our line :D Ok, I did wonder briefly about having my fingerprints on file somewhere (but what’s the harm in that?)

  11. Catherine, a lovely post and your pictures of the Heritage Suites Hotel and Viva Mexican Cafe should get a few more tourists winging their way to Siem Reap and Angkor on a propeller driven plane. Your hotel looks a lot classier than the Heritage Apartments I stay at when in Udon Thani. Their similarity is in name only. I do wish you’d give at least a hint of the kind of prices these hotels and restaurants charge but then again a good girl never tells.

    I really do like the statue faces in the pictures at Bayon. Surely their original looks came from a finely worked chisel and not a rock thrown in anger.

    Angkor Beer…you really should have tried some. A beer in the hand is worth two coconuts in the bush. ‘Wat’ were you playing at? A good opportunity was missed to see if Angkor Beer matched up to Thailand’s brews.

  12. Thanks Martyn :-) Honestly, I don’t know the price for the hotel (the guys settled the tab) but the receipts are sure to be around here somewhere.

    I did have an Angkor Beer while getting holes put into the tops of my feet but that was only due to them not having Long Island Iced Teas. Beer makes me sleepy while Tea wakes me up!

    I was just checking out photos of the hotel I stayed at on my first trip to Siem Reap, Le Méridien Angkor. And while the Meridien is a good hotel I prefer the Heritage.

    The Meridien is one of those super snazzy, clinically ‘polished’ hotels… whereas the Heritage is old world comfort, with a lovely feel of coming home. And hands down, the staff at the Heritage were some of the best I’ve experienced at any hotel.

    I’m not a hotel person so to me, being at a place that feels like home really is the next best thing to being there.

    Le Méridien Angkor
    Heritage Suites Hotel

  13. I tried the Angkor beer and as a non-beer connoisseur, it was very acceptable and often the cheapest on the menu…so that’s alway good. If it’s any comparison for those in the know, I usually drank Tiger in Thailand, steering away from Chang. Everyone swears it gives you a headache. It’s nice to be back in the land of red wine :)

  14. “It’s nice to be back in the land of red wine”

    Lucky you! Australia has some amazing red wines (it’s my fav country for red).

    I’ve given up on red wine in SE Asia because it just doesn’t travel well out here. Cheap. Not so cheap. Same same. I switched to the New Zealand whites (the grassier, the better).

  15. Keith McDaniel

    March 26, 2012 at 6:24 am

    In 2006, I drank a beer Lao at Molly Malone’s on Pub street in Siam Reap on Saint Patrick’s day. Kinda surreal.

  16. Keith, that does sound surreal! And even though I live right next door in Thailand, I found a number of experiences in Cambodia a bit … off. Not in a bad way, just in a weird way. On my first trip the nachos had baked beans and cut chilis instead of what they’d ordinarily come with (beans and jalapeños). I no longer recall what they used for chips. But it was weirdly wonderful. Not weirdly awful. I gave them high marks for dealing with a shortage of supplies (over priced imports?) in a creative way (that still tasted good).

  17. Wow, that looks like a place I would definitely love to see for myself. I am very much intrigued by the transformation of the place.

  18. I know this isn’t the direction you wanted this post to go, but a dear Alaskan friend of mind introduced me to Dark Lao beer…and it ain’t bad at all…expensive in Chiang Mai though!

  19. Snap, I’m totally ok with the direction. For whatever reason, this entire Cambodian series (if you can call it that) has lost its way. It’s been one of the hardest two posts (with one more on the way) that I’ve had to write and I’m not sure why. I had a great time on my trip… so it’s not that.

    Dark Lao beer sounds mighty interesting. I haven’t had the pleasure but I’ll ask around. There’s bound to be someone in BKK who’ll tell me where I can get it (even if I’m not a beer drinker, usually, I like to sample :-)

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