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Cambodia – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Besides the famous temples at Angkor City, some of the most interesting places to visit in Cambodia are the small floating villages along the Mekong River and around Tonle Sap Lake. Our trip to Cambodia included the temples at both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom as well as a remote floating village outside of Siem Reap. We also made time for the Ta Prohm temple.

You don’t have to cut a tree down to get at the fruit – Cambodian proverb

Siem Reap

Before Angkor Wat was rediscovered, as explained below, the city of Siem Reap was a mere village. With the rediscovery of the temple and France’s subsequent acquisition of Angkor in 1907 (Franco-Siamese treaty), Siem Reap started to become a tourist draw. Although there was a set back during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, after Pol Pot’s death in 1998, the city’s modern day rejuvenation began. It is now the bustling gateway to the world heritage site of Angkor Wat with an international airport that hosts major world airlines.

Kompong Khleang Village

Many of the floating villages near Siem Reap are very touristy and have lost their authenticity. You have to drive at least an hour outside the city before you get to a village that has not been affected by the country’s tourism boom.

We traveled southeast to one of the largest and least-visited villages on the Tonle Sap Lake, Kompong Khleang, about 55km from Siem Reap.

Mondisti founder at Kampong Khleang Village on boat.
Village of Kampong Khleang

The village has a population of about 10,000 people, mostly all of whom make a living from the fishing industry. During wet season, a boat through the canals provides the only means of transportation. During the dry season, some of the canals recede and become dry streets. We cruised into the open water of the great lake to see a small floating village and learned about this incredible natural flood barriers that enable habitation here.

The boat that was used to take us around the village canals was owned by one of the locals, who together with his son, skippered the boat. After a fish net became entangled in the rudder, the little boy, who was barely 10, went below and untangled the net. The boy also steered the boat for part of the way. A real family business.

Young boy unhooks a fish net from our boat rudder at Tonle Sap Lake.

There is no place in the village for lunch or even drinks, so you have to plan this trip with that in mind. Also to keep in mind is that the area you will be walking on is very wet and muddy, although most traveling will be done by boat, during both wet and dry season.

Angkor Wat

The largest religious structure in the world, Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction. The visits to this site have intensified since the 1990s. In 1993, there were 7,650 visitors and by 2019, there were 2.6 million people who visited the site.

Angkor Wat at sunset from across the bridge.
Angkor Wat classic view from across the bridge at sunset

It is speculated that the structure was constructed as a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II, in the 12th century and later converted to a Buddhist Temple. It consists of a series of elevated towers and covered galleries on different levels, connected by stairs. Each tower creates a cone shape.

On first impression, one wonders how and why such a magnificent structure was relatively unknown to the world before the 1990s.

The answer seems to rest on the cause of the Angkor empire’s demise in the early 15th century and the subsequent abandonment of the area. Many archaeologists believe a flood caused by climate change in the 14th and 15th centuries destroyed Angkor’s famous system of reservoirs and water channels. They speculate that the intense monsoon rains that followed a prolonged drought in the region caused widespread damage to the city’s infrastructure, leading to its collapse.

Most Buddhist temples face east because that is where Buddha was facing when he attained enlightenment. Most Hindu temples also face east, as they are dedicated to various Hindu deities who are believed to sit facing east. So why does Angkor Wat face west? Scholars have speculated that the answer lies in the fact that Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu, rather than to Shiva or any of the other deities. According to Hindu beliefs, Vishnu is the supreme deity in front of whom all others sit; and although other Hindu deities are believed to sit facing east, this leaves Vishnu facing west, hence that is the direction in which structures dedicated to Vishnu are designed to face.

Angkor Wat is built in the classic Khmer architect style with the use of sandstone as the main building material. The Khmer Empire was a powerful force in south east Asia from the later half of the 8th century to the first half of the 15th century. During this time, its architects mastered the skill of building with sandstone. Two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture are combined, the temple-mountain plan and the later galleried temple. The structure is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. It lies within a moat more than 5 kilometers (3 mi) long.

Ta Prohm Temple and the “Tomb Raider”

The Ta Prohm Temple is just a few minutes away from both Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom. It was built in the Bayon style during the 12th century, a style that is exemplified by a multitude of smiling stone faces. The temple is famous for the massive trees (fig, banyan and kapok) as they spread their gigantic roots over stones, their branches and leaves intertwining to form a roof over the structures. They appear to be growing out of the temple walls. The temple was featured in the movie “The Tomb Raider”. One of the trees enveloping the temple is affectionately referred to as ‘the Angelina Jolie’ tree by the locals. Jolie was in the film Tomb Raider and had several scenes with the temple in the background.

Ta Prohm Temple with cascading banyan tree, the backdrop for the movie Tomb Raider.
Ta Prohm Temple with cascading Banyan tree.

Whereas many of the Angkor temples were initially built as Hindu temples, Ta Prohm was built as a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kin Jayavarman VII, a follower of Buddha.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was established in the 12th century as the capital city of the Khmer Empire. It is a whole city of 10 square kilometers in size. It is surrounded by a wall and five gates, many lined with statues of gods and demons. The biggest and most famous of the temples is called Bayon and is considered to be one of the three big sites every visitor to Angkor should experience.

The area is quite large and takes a number of hours to see. If time allows, it should be at least a two day visit. Angkor Thom temples is a complex that includes Bayon Temple, Baphuon, Phimean Akas and Elephants and Leper King Terraces. These are all areas you do not want to miss.

Mondisti’s Cambodia trip tips:

  • Cambodia’s temples are spectacular discoveries and must be experienced in one’s lifetime.
  • The three must visit areas are Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Ta Prohm Temple
  • A visit to one of the floating villages is highly recommended but stay away from the ones close to Siem Reap.
  • Siem Reap is an interesting city but does not require that much time, the temples are key.

L. Dipronio

Lucie is founder of Mondisti, and has a background in finance and public policy.

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