When you’ve seen a place so hauntingly genuine and beautiful, it moves you. It lodges into a crevice in your heart, so that even after you leave, you carry it with you wherever you go. So was Siem Reap’s effect on me.
I visited Siem Reap late in March this year. I will admit, I wasn’t looking forward to the trip very much, at first. I had thought to myself — after I take my obligatory Lara Croft photo, what on earth am I going to do? I’d felt like Siem Reap had nothing to offer me but its temples, which, I thought, would all look the same anyway. Boy, was I wrong.
Siem Reap is probably my favorite destination in Asia. I feel like many people choose to overlook it in their travels for the exact reasons I once had: (1) not many people know a lot about it – the only thing most people know is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was shot there (2) it’s very hot (I live in Manila, so I’m very used to warm weather, but the heat in Cambodia was just incomparable), and (3) people generally don’t like exerting effort and getting tired, because they feel like trips are tailored to be vacations (a view my dad shares, so I understand this – but that doesn’t mean it’s true!).
See, the first thing you must understand before even considering visiting Siem Reap is that your trip is often not going to be easy. Siem Reap isn’t Tokyo or Singapore or London. It isn’t luxurious. It is, in a word, rural. In fact, I don’t recall even seeing a McDonald’s or a Starbucks during my entire stay. (Gasp! Already dismissing the idea of going, aren’t you? Hold onto your seat just for the length of this post, and let’s see if we can change that.) It doesn’t offer an array of services and goods for your enjoyment. The things it offers, instead, are far more valuable: (1) breathtaking temples, backed with (2) rich culture and history, (3) one of the best massages in the world, and (4) some of the kindest people you will ever meet.
Angkor Archaeological Park
I don’t have a very good relationship with temples. Most of the temples I’ve gone to were visited during trips I had taken as a tween (definition: not a girl, not yet a woman – or, in this case, not yet a teenager. Thank you for the accurate lyrics, Britney Spears), a “child nearing puberty”, a phase in life that is as awkward as it sounds. As you can imagine, my tween self had only wanted to exist undisturbed while she either read Nancy Drew or listened to Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift on her iPod Shuffle. She did not want to go down the bus and pretend to stare at buildings while her parents took photographs of her in her ugly duckling stage. Thankfully, I am now long past the time of tour buses and sullen silences, and have evolved to be a life-appreciating, trying-to-be-cultured traveller.
Angkor Wat might seem intimidating at first sight. It’s a long walk from the road to the entrance then to the main temple, but the view and the ambience will drive out even the tiniest ounce of fatigue. Walking those grounds, I felt as if I’d been given special access to an ancient civilization, lost to time, but not to history and definitely not to its people.
While I have a tiny aversion to tour buses, booking the right tours that will get you a good tour guide can definitely enrich your experience. You can read about your destination beforehand, but the knowledge and understanding of guides are something else. We booked a private tour for our party of four, and I strongly recommend it. Aside from the small perk of getting to relax in the air-conditioned vehicle between walking around temples, I learned so much from our guide, Rha Vin. The guides in Siem Reap are licensed – when you get to the temples, you’ll see most of them are wearing the same uniform.
Imagine walking up to this structure and realizing it’s only the entrance. It’s the moment you know something wonderful is in store for you.
Many people take a picture with Angkor Wat’s reflection in the water, but don’t know the story behind it. Angkor Wat was built for the king as his state temple and central city. According to Rha Vin, the king had killed a lot of people, so he didn’t know if he would go to heaven or hell. Apparently, the reflection in the water reassured him, helping him think there was a heaven on both sides.
Walking to the main temple, you’ll pass by this structure. It isn’t the perfect setting for a ghost story. It’s actually better — it’s a library.
The Ramayana – a Hindu epic I was able to study in high school. In summary: Ravana is a demon terrorizing the world. Rama is a prince, who wins the hand of the beautiful Sita. Ravana falls in love with Sita and kidnaps her, so Rama, with the help of his friends, engages Ravana in battle and, against impossible odds, defeats him. I knew the plot, but it wasn’t until I visited Angkor Wat that I appreciated its moral and its importance — good will always defeat evil.
Look at those details!
One of the many things I love about Angkor Wat is the sheer size of it. It reminds you how small a space our worries take up in this vast universe. The fact that this monument was made by human hands centuries ago lets you grasp the wonders humanity is capable of, despite being given so little. It fills you with a sense of awe, imparts upon you this feeling of being a part of something greater.
A word to the wise: Angkor Wat is still a temple and thus a religious monument. One must show respect. I stepped out of our hotel that morning in my Lara Croft get-up (yes, I was serious about getting my Tomb Raider photo), but I made sure to bring with me joggers and a long-sleeved shirt. My cousin, who wanted to wear a romper, brought leggings as well. Plus, you can’t get into the main temple if you’re wearing a sleeveless top or shorts that are above the knee.
The stairs to the top of the temple – the line going in was long and the steps were steep. Just when the first inkling of a complaint bubbled in my head, Rha Vin said, simply but solemnly: the way to heaven is not easy. Those words were all the inspiration I needed. I remember repeatedly discussing with my family how, if the sun had made the day scorching hot, we would refuse to go up those steps. Looking back now, I realize just how lucky we were. It had been a fairly cloudy morning, so we were only suffering humidity, not burning heat. Even so, as I took my foot off the last step, crossed the threshold at the top and took in the view around me, it hit me – there are sufferings in life we must endure, but it will never compare to all the world’s beauty. It’s one of those truths you think you know in your heart, but experiencing Angkor Wat really drove that truth home.
As We The Kings sang: At the top we scream, I really like the view from here. As it’s a place of religion, I couldn’t raise my voice. So I just resolved to sort of scream ecstatically in my head. Fun fact from Rha Vin: Angkor Wat is meant to be a representation of the border between heaven and earth. The king’s ashes are supposed to be stored at the topmost point of the temple, because he believed he was a reincarnation of God, but the urn was made of gold. So, Rha Vin hypothesized, the urn has probably been stolen by now. Sorry, your majesty.
Angkor Wat is my favorite among the temples, mainly because I feel all I’d learned and felt was so value-adding. I’m not exaggerating when I say it really gave me a profound appreciation of life. My mom’s and cousin’s favorite, though, was Ta Prohm.
Admittedly, Ta Prohm is the most picturesque of them all. Based purely on aesthetic, it’s the clear winner.
And here it is. My much-treasured Lara Croft photo. Nailed it. (If it wasn’t clear: yes, I used that sentence sarcastically.)
The easily recognizable tree from the movie!
Plus a few more photos, just because the place was absolutely beautiful. I don’t know what it is about ruins that’s so fascinating. Maybe it’s as Brad Pitt’s character Achilles (you can tell I’m very Hollywood-literate) in Troy put it: everything’s more beautiful because we are doomed. And ruins reflect both – beauty and doom – at the same time.
We were able to stop by Bayon Temple as well. At this point, my dad completely refused to get out of the car. He was just too tired. (My spirit animal.) I was feeling the fatigue, too, though – very much, actually. This is evidenced by the fact that I have only one decent photo at the place (I love taking photos). This just goes to show you can’t do everything in one day! You’ve got to pace yourself right.
A Final Note
Bottomline: the Angkor temples are well worth the heat and the fatigue. But don’t get yourself sick and don’t waste the opportunity – come prepared.
- Drink lots of liquid. We had several bottles of water in the car as well as in our backpacks, and there are carts and trucks selling a variety of food and drinks outside the temples. I got myself fresh buko (coconut) juice twice. There’s nothing like buko in the heat.
- Bring a cap. If you’re the kind of person who has sensitive skin or who’s conscious about getting too dark, bring an umbrella even.
- Don’t wear clothes that are too hot, but do make sure you’re either dressed appropriately or bring extra clothes for the main temple of Angkor Wat. Also, make sure you’re comfortable in what you’re wearing! You’re going to be doing a lot of (brisk) walking.
- Hire a tour guide! I promise you won’t regret it. I am certain I wouldn’t have loved Angkor Wat as much if not for Rha Vin. The temple itself is amazing, but to settle for that would be like loving someone only for their looks and not for their personality (shame). You have to know the stories behind it in order to fully appreciate it.
- Most importantly: take it all in. There is a quote from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that goes, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look once in a while, you could miss it.” Your pace might be swift as you hurry from one structure to another, one temple to another, but make sure to pause. Life shouldn’t be a race; it should be a scenic road trip. Once in a while, take it slow.
— That ends Part I of Experiencing Siem Reap! Read on in Part II for where to stay, where to eat, where to drink, where to relax, where to learn and where to buy; and in Part III for my experience in meeting the Cambodians —