Angkor Wat is the best preserved ancient monument in Cambodia, a temple built as a king's mausoleum at the peak of the Khmer empire. The spectacular carvings on its walls tell stories of mythology and, perhaps, history and allow us a tiny glimpse into the royal court of the time.
The flight from Phnom Penh is only 40 minutes and we had a lovely clear morning. Around Siem Reap seems to be a vast flood plain with fields under water, rivers, and small collections of houses strung along the river banks.
Our guide and driver were at the airport to meet us and twenty minutes later we were at our hotel, the Shinta Mani.
We really liked this hotel. The staff were unfailingly welcoming and helpful. At the entrance we were always greeted with cold towels and provided with bottles of water as we went out. Our room was gorgeous, spacious and very comfortable. Outside we had a lovely sitting area in front of the pool. Most of our mornings were spent at the temples, but on hot afternoons we usually relaxed here with our books, going for an occasional swim and enjoying the massages, drinks and refreshing snacks like ice cream and fresh coconuts that were brought to us.
We were particularly impressed by the benevolent management of the hotel which seems to be very concerned with the welfare of its employees. At an outdoor meeting we overheard management talking about the importance of wearing a helmet when riding a bike, and of saving money for the future; a bonus was announced and there was a birthday cake for one of the employees - they brought slices around to the guests who were sitting at their rooms or by the pool. It was also announced that they were trying to set up a health service for the employees. It all sounded very caring.
That first morning we spent some time with our guide going through our itinerary for the next few days and adjusting it to our satisfaction, before having lunch in the hotel restaurant - the food here was pretty good too.
We explored the town on foot from the hotel, though we found it best to get a tuk tuk back.
The walk into town along the Siem Reap River passes Wat Preah Prom Rath Buddhist Pagoda, a Buddhist monastery established in 1915. It is very peaceful inside its extensive grounds, though it does have some odd, even gruesome, sculpture!
Nearby is the old market - markets are usually fascinating and this one was really interesting.
As well as at our hotel, we had some very good food in Siem Reap, notably at Kroya and Chanrey Tree.
Chanrey Tree is a lovely, contemporary Khmer restaurant with lots of lush planting and statuary. Caramelised pork ribs and a roasted Khmer chicken were particularly good.
Kroya was the restaurant of our hotel's sister property, just across the road. It features outdoor tables where the diners sit on swing seats - we declined these! We ate here a couple of times and all the food was good but the Khmer tasting menu was outstanding: first a vermicelli salad with pork belly and grilled chicken served with a small cup of flavoured rice wine, then a really superb seafood rice cake with coconut lime sauce. The main dishes were all served together, the red mullet with Khmer red curry sauce and roasted spiced pork chops with sweet chilli sauce were the standout dishes - fantastic flavours!
The Artisans Angkor store has a huge range of Cambodian products with the laudable aims of supporting Khmer handicrafts and teaching local people, especially in rural areas, the necessary traditional skills. Beautiful silk products in a vast range of colours, stone carvings, woodwork, paintings and much more is on offer - it's impossible not to be tempted by something
We arrived in Siem Reap during the three day Water Festival. The celebrations had been cancelled in Phnom Penh but here they were in full swing so after lunch we headed for the river, guided by one of the hotel employees to the hotel's patch on the river bank. The hotel's boat had done very well the previous day in the heats and the final was this afternoon.
The Water Festival marks the end of the monsoon and, in Phnom Penh, the reversal of flow of the Tonle Sap River. It also coincides with a full moon so there is also a Moon Festival with more rural connections to do with the harvest.
The river banks were twenty-deep, everyone waiting for the races to begin. As usual there was plenty of food on offer, from sellers on foot wandering up and down among the crowds to roadside stalls. Lots of grilled meats as well as a wide variety of fruit.
The first races were for children, each in a flattish, woven boat using a thick stick to propel themselves through the water.
Then came the adults, two boats racing against each other in several heats. There were both male and female teams of about two dozen in each boat. The hotel team got beaten, but I believe they had done very well.
In the front half of the boat the paddlers are seated, in the rear half they stand.
The seated paddlers work very hard and fast, the standing paddlers are slower but dig deeper. All great fun!
Neither of us like circuses, but this one has no animals and is run by Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit Cambodian association working with vulnerable children, young adults and their families to improve their lives through art schools, educational programmes and social support. So it's a worthy cause and one very deserving of support.
The youngsters are basically acrobats but they endeavour to tell a story in a very innovative way using minimal props. The band were great too!
Siem Reap would scarcely exist if it weren't for the discovery of the fabulous ruins of Angkor Wat in the nineteenth century.
Begun in the early twelfth century it is thought to have been envisaged as a temple and mausoleum for King Suryavarman II. He ruled at a time when the Khmer empire was at its peak.
The architectural design revolves around the idea of the temple-mountain which, in this case, evolved into a central tower surrounded by four small towers. These represent the five peaks of the mythical sacred Mount Meru. The mountain was the centre of the universe and home to the Hindu god Vishnu.
We were visiting the temple on a public holiday (the Water and Moon Festivals) when it is free for Cambodians and so, regardless of the time of day, it was going to be very crowded! We actually didn't find it too bad. Maybe because, after spending hours at Angkor Thom we arrived at around lunch time. In any case, most of the visitors seemed content to remain on the grassy areas outside the temple.
The pavilion entrance to the site is across a 200m wide moat on the west side - the direction associated with Vishnu.1 On the east side of the moat a huge entrance pavilion immediately impresses the visitor with the importance of the site. It measures 230m north to south and its central entrance bays were wide enough to accommodate elephants for the royal processions - I would love to have seen that!
Naga balustrades are much in evidence. Inside the pavilion are shrines and the walls have some lovely bas reliefs.
I'm sure many visitors march straight through the pavilion without pausing - they are missing a beautiful building.
Through the pavilion the long causeway stretches to the temple. It was searingly hot and the sun was beating down on the causeway so our guide took us off to the south side of the temple where there were shady trees. And we had the added bonus of a reflection of the temple in a pool of water!
The temple rises in three levels to the inner temple. The first level is a continuous wall raised 3.3m above ground level, a pillared gallery runs the length of the exterior of the wall and its interior is decorated with the most amazing series of bas reliefs.
The carving is exquisite and traces of colour and even gilding can be seen.
The south part of the west gallery is one continuous relief showing the Battle of Kuruksetra, a battle of succession between the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas.2 The battle is described in the 2500 year old Indian epic poem Mahabharata, and may be based on a true event, the details of which have been embellished over time.
On the west side of the south wall is an historical depiction of the court and army of King Suryavarman II, complete with elephants and foreign allies!
On the east side off the south wall are depictions of the judgment of the dead, and the heavens (all 37 of them) and hells (32) and on the south side of the east wall a vast carving of the "Churning of the Sea of Milk" legend.2 The remaining walls are mostly covered with depictions of armies and victories.
Though the facts of the events depicted on the walls are up for debate, I find the real interest in these beautifully executed carvings is the glimpse they give into an ancient culture: their clothing, use of animals in warfare, social hierarchy, evidence of other cultures, etc. If you were important you benefitted from shady parasols and acolytes wafting fans to cool you - the more parasols, the more important you were; commanders rode magnificently bedecked elephants; wheeled chariots and prancing horses carried warriors who went into battle with spears, knives, bows and arrows, and round shields.
This outer gallery is called the "third enclosure". Having examined the carvings on the west and south walls we passed through to a grassy space separating it from a set of steep steps leading to the south side of the "second enclosure", raised 5.8m above the ground.
The second enclosure is again a square gallery extending around the inner enclosure which is set on a platform raised 11m above the ground; this in turn leads into the temple proper.
We climbed up through the second enclosure to the south side of the inner enclosure. Here we could finally see the corner towers in their entirety.
We walked around to the west side of the second enclosure and through the north arm of the cruciform gallery which stretches between the second and third enclosures, then to the north side of the third enclosure to see more of the wonderful bas reliefs.
The spectacular northern side of the west wall of carvings is hugely dynamic. It depicts the Battle of Lanka (Sri Lanka) from the Hindu epic Ramayama - a furious tumbling multitude of battling creatures. Rama with his allies, the monkeys led by the monkey god Hanuman, battles the rakshasa (a mythological demon) Ravana and his rakshasa army for the return of his beautiful wife, Sita.
The bas reliefs stretch around the walls for approximately 700m and to a height of about two metres, impossible to study properly on only one visit. It's probably a mistake to try to see too much, just concentrate on a few sections - a good guide or guide book can help in deciding which to see.
There's no doubting that Angkor Wat is impressive - it's two greatest features are its completeness and the magnificent bas reliefs. It is perhaps a little too manicured so that the site has neither the atmosphere of a magnificently decorated religious building, nor the mystery of a jungle ruin. Nevertheless, we would return, with a guide well-versed in the meanings of the carvings, and perhaps with a picnic, to spend more time studying the wonderful stories told on its walls.