Ever since I had spent 6 months in Manila on work, I had been fascinated by South East Asia. The food, the flavors, the people and the stunning diversity in landscapes had always entranced me. It is my dream to backpack through the Golden Triangle (a mountainous opium-producing route running through Laos, Myanmar and Thailand), but more on that later !
I love travelling with Wonderful World via their thoughtfully curated itineraries so when Cambodia and Vietnam came up as a two-in-one tour – I jumped at it. Work deadlines be damned, no corporate honcho was going to stand between me and the Angkor Vat.
All flights to Siem Reap from major Indian cities are via Bangkok. After a weekend stay in Bangkok exploring the delights of the ChatukChak Weekend market and the ancient city of Ayutthaya, I hopped on a bus full of tourists that would cross borders and deposit me at Siem Reap after an 8 hour journey.
Siem Reap is the Gateway to Angkor Vat, which is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. It is the largest religious monument in the world and a UNESCO Heritage Site to boot, originally constructed as a Hindu temple and gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple (Historically there has been a fascinating trend of converting the religions of monuments as well, instead of just people. I observed this in Istanbul at the Haga Sophia also – which was originally a church and gradually became a mosque)
My first evening in Siem Reap was spent exploring pub street – a smorgasbord of loud, cheerful restaurants and shops full of tourists all looking to have a good time. Great food, cheap drinks and wonderful music that included dancing on the street makes pub street the ONLY place to be in the evenings, after long hard days of temple hopping. I fell into bed after a few rounds of the wonderfully delicate Rose Petal infused margaritas.
We woke up nice and early the next day (4 am !) for the most important event of the trip – catching the sun rise over the Angkor Vat temple. A short tuktuk ride away and a quick stop to buy a 3 day pass to the temples got us our first glimpse of the imposing structure. Despite the early morning, tourists thronged the temple for an experience of a lifetime. As the sun slowly rose over the massive structure, its reflection showing up in the large pond inside the temple complex, we gasped in awe and photographers clicked away – hoping for that perfect shot ! As our guide took us through the main sections of the temple, the apsara carvings and naga structures at every door and gate seemed familiar for those of us who have grown up on Hindu Mythology. The temple complex itself is massive, needing at least 2 days to view it completely.
We went back to the hotel for lunch and a quick nap and stepped out once again for more temple hopping.
Let me pause here and share a secret with you. As I was making the booking for this trip – for one short second I had stopped, thinking if all that temple-hopping would really be worth it. I mean how many temples can you ooh-and-aah over ? How fascinating can the same construction style be ? How much could I really walk around and enjoy the different Apsara styles in the sweltering heat. Many of these temples were rumored to be in ruins, did I really want to spend an entire holiday simply wandering around ruins ?
My six days in Siem Reap put to rest all these doubts. Every temple is different and unique. Be it the eye-popping Bayon which has eerily smiling human heads looking at you from all directions, or the sandstone-red Bantey Srei with intricate carvings, or Ta Phrom which is held together only by massive tree roots that snake across the entire temple complex and formed the backdrop of the Angelina Jolie-starring Lara Croft movie, each temple is unique, fascinating and will hold your attention for hours at end.
Some are near the town of Siem Reap and can be accessed via tuktuks or cycles. A cycle tour we took on one of the days was wonderfully breezy – and despite the heat – I really enjoyed myself and bought myself an extra-large drink in the evening to toast the 25 kms I had spent pedaling around. Some are farther away and will need a car or bus to reach. All are equally gorgeous and attention-grabbing though.
The next few days followed a familiar pattern. Wake up, enjoy a hearty breakfast – step out to see the temples. Stop for lunch at the many restaurants dotting the city – try a restaurant that serves Khmer Cuisine, you wont regret it – restaurants at Siem Reap will serve you all kinds of meat, from alligator to red ants and everything in between- so if you’re the adventurous type, let loose ! Afternoons were spent either napping, getting a much deserved massage or wandering around town shopping for soft cotton shirts, souvenirs and silk. The glorious evenings were when we were let loose on Pub Street – to perform the most difficult task of the day – deciding where and what to eat !!!
I could go on and on about the zip-lining adventure that took me soaring over the forests and temples of Angkor Vat on the last day, or the various poses I struck at each temple for photo ops, or the little smiling Cambodian children- always cheerful even in the face of adversity, exhorting you to buy souvenirs, all at just “one dallah” (one dollar, the American currency is widely accepted there) or the heady palm wine that we had one day or the food and wonderful conversations at the end of each day that wiped out the tiredness like a clean slate.
But I won’t
I will let you discover your very own piece of Siem Reap and Angkor Vat for yourself. I will ask you to sign up for the next Siem Reap trip by Wonderful World, coming up this November. I will let you thank me in December when you are back from your Cambodian adventure and we can perhaps catch up one evening as we swap stories of Temples and Margaritas – both of which are in plentiful at Siem Reap !
Photographs – Shibani Vig