Thursday, February 12, 2009

Siem Reap - Angkor Wat Scene

Siem Reap - Angkor Wat 3-Jun-08

However, the town itself is an appealing part of the visit, with it’s genuinely friendly townspeople, colonial architecture and the small and placid Siem Reap River that gracefully glides through it. The pace of life is slow and almost rhythmic much like the Khmer classical music that was played in the ancient royal courts nearby. There are also a number of other sights to see and things to do that might just make you want to spend an extra day or two in Siem Reap, to chill out and take it all in.
The history of Siem Reap Province reads much the same as that of Battambang and Banteay Meanchey Provinces, also in the northwest region of Cambodia. Since the downfall of the Angkor Empire and Khmer dominance over its neighbors, control over these three provinces has changed hands many times, between Cambodia and Siam (the ancient and not so ancient name of Thailand). The name of the province and town is very indicative of the struggles and battles that took place in the area. Siem Reap means Siam defeated, in Khmer.

There is still some Thai influence noticeable in Siem Reap, from the Thai products that dominate the big market on the eastern side of town to the features of some local faces that appear to be a blend of Khmer and Thai. Eastern Thailand is much the same, but with many of the people looking more Khmer than Thai. The history and culture of these two countries is very interwoven, indeed.

And like the other provinces of the region, Siem Reap Province suffered long and hard through the years of struggle with the Khmer Rouge. On my first visit to Siem Reap, I was having an early breakfast at a sidewalk stand along Highway 6, thinking happy tourist thoughts, when a convoy of trucks carrying soldiers and tree-branch camouflaged big guns slowly rolled by en toute to a battle front. The soldiers smiled and waved when they saw me, but I remember most of the smiles were nervous ones. Quite happily for the Khmers, those years are over and Siem Reap is a safe, prosperous and friendly place.

Phnom Krom Hilltop Temple, Tonle Sap & Floating Fishing Village: Together these make a nice, half-day trip.

Phnom Krom Hilltop Temple: This is the big hill that you see near the landing if you head to Siem Reap by bullet boat. The hilltop area provides magnificent panoramic views of the Great Lake Tonle Sap, the surrounding countryside and Siem Reap town. The commanding view of the lake was used for a more practical, albeit more deadly, purpose in the fairly recent past as evidenced by a big gun mounted on the side of the hill and pointing toward the landing part of the Great Lake.

A modern-era active temple shares the hilltop with the temple ruins of Phnom Krom. Thee are seven crumbling towers among the ruins in two lines, with four towers east and three towers a bit higher up nearby and west. The 11th – century ruins are definitely in need of a facelift and it looks like they may get one at s0om e point as a sign in front states that a project is underway. Unfortunately, the same sign has made the same announcement with no results apparent since a year ago when I last visited the site.

To get here, just follow Sivutha Street south out of Siem Reap. The road follows the river for much of the way and road is in good shape for most of the short journey. You will arrive at the base of the hill after just fifteen minutes and there is an archway and stairway that you take up about halfway, which leads to the spot near the big gun. From there you follow a small road to the temple area. You can actually ride all the way up by going past the stairway, beyond the house and tree area, where you will see a long out-building off on the right side. Follow the small road that runs along side of the building and stay on this winding road to the temple area. There are drink and food stands at the base of the stairway to re-hydrate after the trip.

The Great Lake Tonle Sap & Floating Fishing Village: Continuing about ten minutes beyond the hilltop temple, on the same road that you took from Siem Reap, are a land based fishing village and the bullet boat-landing site. Just hope for a good wind when you come as the combination of dead fish and raw sewage from the village can be a bit overwhelming. Just pass by this area to get to the water.

There are small motorboats for rent and a few locals that speak English will probably greet you when you approach the water. They will take you out for a tour of the floating fishing village area nearby (most structures are actually built on stilts), charging you US$5-6 for a one-hour tour. The village has its own “street” grid system and seems to have just about everything that a village should have. It’s an interesting and scenic journey with plenty of photo ops on hand.

West Boray (Reservoir) & West Mebon Ruins & a Modem Temple: This is a great recreational spot with a couple of interesting sights thrown in to boot. It’s not far from town and gives you the chance to see a bit of the countryside as you head out there.

West Boray: The West Boray is an Angkor era reservoir that was built during the reign of King Udayadityavarman II around the mid 11th century. It was a huge project and covers about 16 square km. The ruins of West Mebon sit on an island on the eastern end of the reservoir. As you approach the big body of water, you will be greeted by guys that want to know if you would like to boat out to the island, see the ruins and take in a swim while you are there. It’s US$3 a head for the trip out and back, which includes their waiting time for at the island.

Another boat trip that you might want to try is a slow trip around the entire perimeter of the lake stopping off on the island as you pass by. They charge US$20, no matter how many people you fit into the boat. It makes a nice sunset cruise and you can pick up snacks and drinks from the vendors near the boats.

There is also swimming and picnic area near the boat landing and it makes for a nice afternoon sitting on a shaded bamboo stand and having a drink or snack along with a swim. They also rent inner tubes for a float and karmas (Khmer scarves) if you don’t have a swimsuit. The bamboo stand and inner tube costs 1,000 riel apiece and the karma is 500 riel to rent.

Wat Suai Ahniat: As you approach the reservoir from the road leading in, go to the right if you want to see a modem day temple that sits on the far southeast bank of West Boray. It’s very scenic and quiet little spot and the temple is gorgeous, as the front of the temple faces to the west and gleams in the late afternoon sun. There is a huge wall mural on the outside with scenes that must portray hell, with all its nastiness thrown in for good measure. The ride along the south side of the reservoir to get here makes the trip worthwhile as well.

To get to West Boray, head west (actually northwest) out of Siem Reap on Highway 6 about 8 km. You pass the airport on the way. When you see a big Anchor Beer billboard and a small bridge crossing a canal, turn right (before the bridge and canal). Follow this canal road to the end where the canal meets the reservoir. You pass some nice rural scenery along the way another bonus of the trip.

Phnom Koulen (or Koolen) National Park: Phnom Koulen sits on a southerly extension of the Dangrek Mountains. The hill, combined with those around it, served as quarry sites that were used in the construction of Angkor. It’s a scenic and quiet area, with tree-covered hills stretching out into the distance and no development in sight. There is also a nice waterfall and picnic area near the top and some temple ruins just upstream from the top of the waterfall. There are also some ancient inscription (and some not so ancient) that were carved in the rock that the top of the waterfall. There are a couple of tiers to the waterfall area, with the main fall being about 11 meters high.

Unfortunately, someone has been given exclusive rights to privately develop this national resource and the guy apparently really wants to raise some revenue. Just where this revenue is going to go is another matter. He has set an entrance fee charge of US$ 20 (you read that correctly!) for a foreigner to ride up (your transportation) and see the waterfall, which is about 10 km from the ticket checkpoint area. If you wish to walk instead of ride a motorcycle, they drop the fee to US$10.

I have seen every mapped waterfall in the country and I can tell you that most are free to see (and many are much more spectacular), with the exception of Bokor Mountain National Park, where they charge a reasonable US$ 2 user fee. The guys that run the entry booth here are trained to say that the high fee is due to the road that was constructed. This site should not be visited until someone has a very big change of heart. Going their will only support the scam and may have some spillover effects in other parts of the country. Cambodians are also very upset as they are charged 5,000 riel per person and 20,000 riel for a car to go see one of their natural resources. The vast majority can’t afford to go.

You take the road that goes past Banteay Srei for most of the way, so you could combine the two trips, which I did. To get to the two sites, just head out from the main ticket gate and turn right at the first T. Follow this road around the perimeter and when you see a small abandoned guard shack on your left, turn right-don’t continue straight. You will then come upon two separate forks in the road and you go to the left at the first one and to the right at the second one. Follow this same road (don’t turn off it) about 9 km to the Phnom Koulen ticket booth, and it’s about a twenty-five minute journey from there to the waterfalls. Not turning at the second ford would have landed you at Banteay Srei Temple, which is about 4 km from the fork.

Civil War Museum: The guy that runs this small and very new place was forced to join the Khmer Rouge as a boy and trained to make as lay landmines, something they were all too good at. The Vietnamese-installed government rescued him in 1985-so his story goes-and thereafter he helped the government in clearing areas where landmines have been laid.

His name is Akira and he is a friendly guy that speaks English and Japanese ad is happy to visit with people that come by. He has a lot of the weaponry on hand that has been used over these past few decades, during Cambodia’s civil war and the long struggle against the Khmer Rouge that followed. It’s worth a look. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. To get there, go past the Hotel Grande de Angkor (on the road to the Angkor ticket checkpoint) about 1 km to a small sign on the right for the Civil War Museum. Turn right, and follow this road to a four-way intersection and turn left. There is a sign for the place here. Go about 1 km and you will see it on the right.

Crocodile Farm: There is a crocodile farm on the south end of Siem Reap and they have about 300 crocodiles of various sizes and dispositions. They charge US$ 1 admission for foreigners and 1,000 riel for Cambodians. You can buy stuffed crocs on the premises. Just head south on Sivutha Street, cross the bridge and it’s down another ½ km from there.

River & Park Area: The Siem Reap River parkways and the big park in front of the Hotel Grande de Angkor are nice for a jog, stroll and people watching, especially in the early evening hours when the locals are out in numbers. The river area is pleasant and the park is nicely landscaped. There are plenty of drink and snack vendors around. The king’s Siem Reap residence is just across from the park.

Khmer Classical Dancing: The Hotel Grande de Angkor has a restaurant and stage near the river that features nightly performances of the apsara-style dancers. The show and buffet dinner is US$ 22.

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