Cambodia's Angkor Wat: Prepare To Be Dazzled
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
A trip to Cambodia had never once crossed our minds, let alone earned a spot of our bucket list. Yet here we are airborne, about to spend three nights in Siem Reap, just minutes away from the world-renowned tourist magnet of Angkor Wat. Our four traveling companions are not scheduled to arrive until tomorrow, so we'll have an entire day to luxuriate at our exceptional digs at the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor.

Angkor Wat, the greatest archaeological site in Southeast Asia, reigned as the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire for centuries.

Siem Reap is a resort town that services one of the world's greatest wonders, the vast temple complex of Angkor Wat that reigned as the ancient capital of the powerful Khmer kingdom from the 9th to the 12th centuries. Set amid dense tropical forests, the enormous complex is without doubt the greatest architectural masterpiece in Southeast Asia. It also ranks as the largest religious site in the world. A visit of several days is required to fully digest its various temples and outlying locations. Moreover, there are more than enough attractions in Siem Reap itself to keep one fully entertained, and even dazzled.

Our 16-hour flight on Korean Air Lines to Seoul seems endless, and there is a connecting flight to Siem Reap yet to come! Fortunately, our tourist seats qualify as comfort class, with plenty of leg room and pillows. After five more hours on our second plane, we cross into Cambodian air space, landing in late morning at Siem Reap's small airport. Air traffic seems light compared to most arrivals in foreign lands, yet the passport control lines are jammed. We finally inch our way toward the exit, delighted to spot a young man hoisting a sign high above his head labeled "Trails of Indo China -- Welcome to Cambodia." "My name is Davi," he announces with a huge smile. We load our luggage into his van and Davi immediately dives into a quick introduction to Siem Reap as he speeds toward the historic French quarter of the city. We arrive at the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in less than twenty minutes! "I will be your guide for the entire stay. See you tomorrow after the rest of the group arrives," he waves.

The Raffles Grande Hotel d'Angkor is a luxurious blend of French amenities and Cambodian tradition.

Surrounded by 15 acres of lush gardens, the Raffles is a unique property. It was the brainchild of Ernest Hebrard, the popular French architect of his era who is credited with the brilliant transformation of central Thessalonica, Greece, adding monumental facades that linked the city to its Byzantine past. The Raffles was considered quite advanced in 1932 when it first opened its doors. The aim was to provide ground-breaking, luxurious amenities for well-heeled European visitors who came to discover Angkor Wat. Guests were enchanted by its Art Deco vibe and tastefully furnished rooms, all with commodious private bathrooms and windows that opened out to scented flower beds. The lobby area was serviced by a unique, hand-wrought iron elevator and an attentive staff. The Raffles was also immediately set apart from other hotels by its magnificent swimming pool, the largest in Cambodia, and by a torch-lit pavilion where guests feasted on pan-Asian specialties as they watched costumed girls reenact stylized aspara dances accompanied by traditional instruments. Such unique amenities were a magnet for a long list of international celebrities, including Charles de Gaulle, Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Princess Margaret, Lord Snowden, and even the adventurous Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. We wander toward the desk to check in and are given a rousing welcome, complete with the Raffles signature drink, the "Airavata," a refreshing blend of rum, passion fruit, pineapple and lime juices, with an added splash of coconut.

Our room is huge and retains most of its original furnishings, the bed linens extra plush. But who can sleep when there is so much out there to discover? Two hours later, a uniformed doorman gives us directions to the national museum. "Exit the hotel gardens and turn left. It's about 100 yards away, you can't miss it." We head toward our destination through a forest of tropical plantings, many indigenous to the region. There are aged silk cotton trees, fig trees pendulous with fruit, and towering ebony trees with a tangled undergrowth of vines. A bewitching fragrance emanates from a hot pink rumduol about 100 yards away. So beloved is its scent that in 2005 King Sihamoni officially proclaimed it as the national flower of Cambodia. "I just read that the rumduol was the original source of lipstick" I inform my husband.

Galleries at The Angkor National Archaeological Museum illustrate the story of the Khmer civilization and its famous kings.

The Angkor National Archaeological Museum commands a prime spot on Boulevard Charles De Gaulle. Unfortunately, photos are strictly prohibited and all bags and cameras have to be checked in. "What a pity," says my husband. But extensive audiovisual and multimedia presentations on the origin of the Khmer civilization as well as its most famous kings, Suryvarman II and Jayavarman II, the builders of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom, are simultaneously dazzling and informative. Two standouts are the museum's spectacular 1,000-Buddha Hall and a gallery focusing on esoteric details from the lives of the Khmer kings. Both pack a real punch. My personal favorite is a gallery on ancient costumes describing the Khmer reverence for their asparas (dancing girls). The museum's sprawling gift shop beckons with a curated collection of lacquerware, silver elephant miniatures, hand-dyed silk scarves and batiks -- all suitable gifts for family and friends.

Back at the Raffles, amid a lineup of stylish boutiques, McDermott Gallery is the brainchild of a creative photographer who first came to Siem Reap to photograph an eclipse of the sun. McDermott was so inspired by the structures at Angkor Watt that he built upon his expertise in light and shadow to create dreamlike photos of the site. His ground-breaking work soon prompted the New York Times to hail him as "The Ansel Adams of Angkor." The result of his 15 years of meticulous photography of Angkor's numerous sites was a book, "Elegy: Reflections on Angkor." McDermott and his wife, Marisara, later opened three galleries in Siem Reap that showcase photographs of the remarkable temple complexes. "This is one photographer who understands infrared film," my husband says in awe. "This type of film is capable of recording light waves not visible to the human eye which add a mystical quality to the imagery." After an hour of perusing, we walk out of the gallery with a superb photo of two elephants beneath a temple arch.

The Raffles welcoming restaurant is overlooked by a dramatic elephant sculpture bedecked with fragrant rumduols and lotus blossoms.

With jet lag rapidly setting in, the hotel's welcoming restaurant is the logical choice for dinner. In the lobby two local musicians provide ambient music on a takele, a string instrument that is positioned on the floor and plucked, and a dan beng, their version of a guitar, but with a very long neck. The music is resonant and sets the mood for our first foray into Cambodian cuisine. The elegant dining space is overlooked by a dramatic elephant sculpture topped by a floral arrangement that includes lotuses and rumduols. We zero in on Cambodia's signature dish, their version of fish amok, a curry soufflé on rice, its heat toned down for foreigners. Later, we wander to the elephant bar area for a glimpse of the hotel's illuminated pool. "What a great beginning," I sigh, totally primed for our exploration of the temple site in the morning.

"So what have we missed?" ask our four traveling companions, Sam, his wife, Corinne, and friends Brenda and Tammie. Apparently, they arrived after midnight, crashed for a few hours, and have been patiently waiting for us in the lobby since seven AM. We all share anecdotes about our "endless" voyages to Siem Reap. "Now that we are finally all together, I am totally psyched," says Corrine. There is something for everyone on the breakfast menu, including a lineup of freshly squeezed juices that reflect the tropical bounty of Cambodia. For me it is passion fruit juice, for the others freshly squeezed guava, papaya, local citrus, or even red-skinned mangosteen. Their croissants and pastries are exquisite, the crepes made to order, just what you'd expect in a French hotel. "Wow, this coffee sure packs a punch," says my husband. Is it local?" "Yes, we make it from dark-roasted Mondulkiri beans that were introduced by French Colonialists back in the 1700s," our waiter explains.

Davi is patiently waiting outside the hotel entrance next to two tuk tuks (three-wheeled auto rickshaws) ready to transport us to Angkor Wat. "I see that we are all here," he chirps. "Once we arrive at the site, we'll stop at a small welcome center where Arun, a historian of the Khmer civilization, will share additional information about the complex. Even if you have already done some background reading, your will learn new, fascinating details." The trip to Angkor is only eight kilometers in length and we arrive in the blink of an eye. "Good morning everyone," Arun bows, placing his arms across his chest in a show of respect. "Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning 402 acres that contain the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer empire that were built from the 8th to the 13th centuries. At its zenith, the empire was the greatest power in Southeast Asia, its area encompassing all of today's Thailand, Viet Nam and Laos," he adds with dramatic flourish. "You will not be able digest it all in in one day, but I hope you will be impressed by its magnificent towers, sculptures and carvings, and let the magic of the place rub off on you."

Out of 65,000 Buddhist priests, only about 3,000 survived the brutal Khmer Rouge era.

We ascend the stairs leading to the core of the complex trailing behind a line of several Buddhist priests draped in vivid saffron robes. I remember reading about these priests during the brutal Khmer Rouge era when they were targeted for extinction, their numbers shrinking to a mere 3,000 out of some 65,000. "Why are their robes orange?" asks Brenda. "I think it was the only available dye at the time Buddhism was first established," I reply. "It is regarded as the color of illumination. In Tibet, however, the priests' robes are all red."

Angkor's five central towers are blackened by centuries of soot, but along passageways protected by overhangs, the intricate detailing of Khmer art is remarkably fresh, blowing us away. The site was first stumbled upon by a French explorer when he was sent by his country to assist in the colonizing of Indochina. Its temples and towers were barely visible through the voracious tentacles of the jungle. Legions of western tourists came see Angkor for themselves when word got out about the "fairy tale city in the middle of the Cambodian jungle!" Rising to a height of 215 feet above the complex are five central towers that are oriented to the west. They are meant to represent Mount Meru, the five-peaked mountain of the Hindu gods located in the center of the universe. One of the towers was a designated mausoleum for the burial of the Khmer kings. "At dusk and at dawn this place must be magical," I remark to my husband. There are bas reliefs everywhere, all meant to be read counterclockwise. According to Arun, it took 50 years, 5,000 sculptors, 2,000 workers and a multitude of elephants to build the site. More than 5 million tons of sandstone were utilized in its construction, all transported on rafts down the Siem Reap River. We make our way around the perimeter of the temples, down long corridors covered with many delicately carved reliefs. Depictions of warriors and celestial dancers, the asparas, are remarkably fresh.

Delicately carved bas reliefs of warriors and aspara dancers decorate Angkor Wat's corridors.

Alas, by the 15th century the site was abandoned. A long period of high temperatures and severe drought was followed by a season of unusually heavy monsoons, causing parts of the site to collapse "Is Angkor Wat trying to tell us something about climate change?" asks Sam. "By now I think we have seen the most important highlights and I could not be more impressed," says my husband. Our tuk tuks drop us off at Siem Reap's bustling market area where a tiny eatery has been recommended for lunch. We select a fish dish flavored with lemongrass, turmeric, tamarind and coconut milk. "This cooking is reminiscent of Thai food," I observe. "Yes, but it uses different pastes such as kapi and prahok," Davi clarifies. "Our fish are always very fresh, arriving daily from the Mekong River and from Tonlé Sap Lake, which you will see tomorrow. You must also taste sampeah. It's a delicious, deep-fried bread cake filled with shrimp." We continue past rows of food stalls, most specializing in one signature dish. "These are the local version of food trucks," teases Tammie. "When we return to LA, we should check out a Cambodian restaurant. I think there are a few hidden away in Chinatown."

Tonight is the hotel's weekly soirée at its elegant outdoor pavilion. "Let's sign up!" we all suggest simultaneously. We dress up and stroll through the hotel's scented gardens. It's a perfect moonlit evening and a gentle breeze is blowing. The pavilion is already crowded with hotel guests and there is an air of expectancy as tantalizing aromas emanate from about twenty food stations. I survey the offerings slowly while the rest of our group search for a table. Luckily, there is one empty table remaining right next to the stage. The cooking represents a panoply of Asian dishes - familiar stir-fries from China; crepe pancakes filled with shrimp and vegetables from Viet Nam; a spicy preparation of herbed fish known as larb from Laos; several delectable Cambodian dishes featuring fish; shrimp and vegetable tempura plus sushi representing Japan; a version of Korean bibimbap with steamed rice plus root vegetables and a dash of kimchi; and several choices of mild to fiery curries from India and Pakistan. Obviously, one can't try everything, and we each gravitate to personal favorites.

The centuries-old aspara dance tradition boasts costumes with gilded headdresses and beaded neck collars.

A small ensemble of traditional musicians breaks into a short introduction, followed by a lineup of aspara dancers who enter the stage. "Oh, wow," says my husband, "aren't they spectacular!!" The origins of these dances and costumes date back to the seventh century, rooted in ancient performing arts described in Sanskrit texts. One dance is more beautiful than the next, but I especially love the wishing dance, the aspara dance and a regal Cambodian court dance. "The dancers will transport you to another place," the hotel concierge had promised when we inquired about the evening. Sitting up close, we can easily take in the costume details: elaborate gilded headdresses, beaded neck collars, and white plumeria blossoms worn above the dancers' ears and on hair braids trailing down their backs. "I will never forget this night," Brenda sighs as we depart. In the warm night air, floral scents drifting from the hotel gardens have reached a higher level of intensity. Like magic all our senses are fully awakened.

"This morning we will be visiting Tonlé Sap, Cambodia's enormous fresh water lake that is the fish basket of the country," Davi explains as we board his van. After about an hour's drive through rustic villages, an enormous, shallow lake spreading over 1000 square miles suddenly comes into view. It is the major source of fish for Cambodians. "Nearly 1.2 million people make their living by fishing, and it is a vital part of the Cambodian economy," Davi explains. Our group boards a small motorboat that leaves from a tourist landing station, heading toward some floating villages in the distance. While nearly all lake villagers make their living from fishing, the non-stop stream of tourists has prompted some of them to add souvenir shops and micro zoos featuring lake birds and exotic animals. "We will be stopping at the floating village straight ahead," he notes, flicking through messages on his cell phone. "Yes, Cambodian phones can get reception on the lake," he teases. I am totally amazed that technology has managed to infiltrate even the remotest corners of Cambodia. The village is one of the largest on the lake and has some basic modern comforts. We turn our gaze toward the mainland just as a tiny rowboat pulls up next to the dock and a fearless young girl offers to sell us her snake, holding it up in the air for us to see. "Maybe it's an eel?" Sam chuckles. A village elder shows off a variety of fabrics and pieces of clothing made on the premises. There is a huge water tank filled with lake fish and sizable turtles. "Many of these fish come from the Mekong River and have traveled here from far away," the elder explains. "But we are afraid of what the future will bring." Davi explains that recently-built international dams and hotter temperatures have reduced the flow of water into Tonlé Sap. "Even during the monsoon season, the water levels today are much lower," he emphasizes.

Floating villages dot Tonlé Sap, the country's enormous fresh water lake and the fish basket of Cambodia.

Angkor Thom, the largest and most enduring temple complex in Cambodia, covers an area of nine square miles.
Back in the heart of Siem Reap, we take time to tour a thriving arts cooperative where artisanal crafts are taught to promising youths. Nearby, rows of shops are piled high with colorful ceramics and textiles that one never sees at home. "I am so sorry we don't have time to shop, but it's time to head to Angkor Thom, the last and most enduring of the temple complexes," Davi explains. "It dates from the end of the 12th century and was built by King Jayavarman VII who decreed that Buddhism would become the new national religion. Angkor Thom spans about nine square kilometers and is surrounded by a moat. In its center are the remains of the king's state temple, the Bayon," he adds. "This place is amazing," says Corrine when we arrive, her eyes fixated a lineup of carved heads that bookend the southern approach to the city. "I can easily imagine people living and working here," she adds. In the heart of the city, the majestic terrace of the elephants was once a platform for public ceremonies. "I sure wish we had more time. You really need a couple of days to adequately see Angkor Thom," my husband sighs. Still, we are thrilled with our brief visit and the chance to photograph the site. Near the gate area a couple of playful gibbons monkeys are doing their "I'm cute, please feed me routine." "Let's go," Davi insists, "I want to point out a few more temples on our return drive."

Tame gibbons monkeys populate the gate areas of Angkor Thom, relentlessly begging to be fed.
"Where in town should we go for dinner?" we ask the concierge at the Raffles. He gives it some thought, taking into account our American tastes. "I think you would enjoy Sugar Palm. It's in the Wat Bo Road area, not far from here," he suggests, handing us a map. A short tuk tuk ride away, the restaurant has a hip, modern vibe, yet retains some traditional Cambodian charm. It is known for its creative lemongrass dishes. Another claim to fame is a much embroidered story of the time owner Kethana taught visiting Chef Gordon Ramsay how to prepare amok, the beloved national fish curry. She also consulted with Luke Nguyen, a popular Vietnamese-Australian chef with a TV cooking show. Sugar Palm's artistic presentations do not disappoint. Each dish is as beautiful to look at as it is to devour. My citrus salad is topped with crumbled peanuts for added texture and many dishes are accented with notes of mint and basil. Curries feature lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal, the local equivalent of ginger. Their fish amok is an aromatic red mullet soufflé served in a banana boat. "Cambodian cuisine is so worth getting into," I comment to our group.

Our tuk tuk awaits to take us on a final outing around Siem Reap.
It's our final morning in Siem Reap. Since our flight to Ho Chi Minh City does not depart until mid-afternoon, we have several hours for some last-minute sightseeing around town. Our tuk tuk traces the Siem Reap River where many locals are taking their morning strolls, and then heads toward a massive gilded temple complex with lotus-themed pagodas. It was recently built on a centuries-old site that once held a long-vanished temple dating from 1500. At the city's poignant war museum explanations in English describe the unspeakable horrors and valuable lessons learned during the brutal Khmer Rouge era.

"We sure managed fill every moment in Siem Reap," I comment to my husband on our drive to the airport. "However, we barely scratched the surface. Wouldn't you have loved to see more?"