Back to Cambodia but this time on land rather than via cruise and visiting Siem Reap – land of temples and smiling people.
Before we started on the temples we took a leisurely boat trip to watch the sunset at the floating village of Tonle Sap. The waters are starting to get lower now which means you see a lot more land than usual. This lake is massive (250 km long). I think some of these homes would be described as “fixer uppers” by most of us but everyone here seems to be happy in spite of their lack of material possessions.
Siem Reap is all about the temples and the big Daddy of the all is of course Angkor Wat. Our visit to Siem Reap co-incided with Chinese New Year and so there were a lot of visitors but we were told that tourism is nevertheless down 40% on last year – which is a real problem for the locals who really need those tourist dollars. I think there may be a lot of misconceptions about Cambodia but I think it is a wonderful place with gentle caring people who are trying to make the best of the future after a traumatic past. I can also vouch for the Khmer food – yum.
There are many temples to visit and it is a good idea to cap it at two per day so you can enjoy them properly and not get “templed out”. Most of them are very close to one another and also close to where all the main hotels are based. They are particularly interesting as they are a mash up of Hindu and Buddhist religions due to the period they were built being a time of Hindu or Buddhist prominence depending on which King was in charge!
On my last visit about 20 years ago Angkor Thom (or Baiyun) was my favourite temple and I think it still is. The 49 giant Buddha faces are extraordinary and seem so peaceful. Also the detail of the bas reliefs which cover many walls tell you so much about the way people lived back in the 1100 and 1200s – how they dressed, the animals used and eaten, the flora and fauna etc. A lot of the faces have different expressions on them too.
We then had a non temple day in town – which involved tuk tuk rides and shopping. A great place to visit is the Artisans of Angkor workshops – started about 30 years ago as a means of teaching local Cambodians traditional crafts which were dying out due to the fallout from the Pol Pot regime when these kinds of capabilities were not valued at all. Initially they had to search both inside and outside of Cambodia to find people who were still alive and knew how to do things like wooden carving, silk weaving, silver making, soapstone carving, etc. Many had to be persuaded to come back to help teach young people these skills. But now this company employs many people, is self sufficient (in fact will not accept donations as they want to be able to show the local people that they make things that visitors want to buy and pay money for and so can turn a profit) and they provide paid vacation and maternity leave pay and childcare facilities – very unique in Cambodia. Apparently Angelina Jolie is always trying to give donations to them but they refuse even her – she can shop there though and that is what we did too -so hopefully we have done our bit to help some Cambodians.
On our second day of temple hopping we visited Banteay Srei – also known as the Temple of Women for no good reason other than they think the name of the place sounded like the word for Woman! I like to think of it as the Pink temple and it is compact and charming and like Angkor Wat surrounded by a moat. It is 35 km outside of the main area of Siem Reap temples but well worth a trip in my opinion.
Outside the temple there was everything from a set of musicians raising money for people impacted by land mines, to market traders to a friendly driver whisking past.
A quick stop at a Hindu temple which has not been restored as well as some but remains majestic
Our final temple was Ta Prohm (or the Tomb Raider temple as it is rather annoyingly known as – ref this is where Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft and also adopted a child). Anyway, ignoring the hype – this is a magical place where the trees have taken over parts of the temple creating a captivating symbiosis (yes a bit pretentious here but a fair description nevertheless). Alternatively the ultimate kids adventure playground maybe?
We also paid a visit to the National Museum which I highly recommend to do either before visiting the Wats so you know what to expect or at the end of your trip – as we did – which gave us a better understanding of what we had seen. Unfortunately no photos but the room with 1000 buddhas is worth the visit alone.
Sad to leave lovely Cambodia.