|Cambodia's Angkor Wat: Prepare To Be Dazzled|
Photos: Kip Miller
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?"