Inside the Kingdom of Wonders: Siem Reap

The roads were a little rough, the streets were covered with sky scraper-high trees, electricity was considered a luxury and children learned how to ride a bike long before they knew how to do math. 

I know Cambodia reaps the better side of being third world, after all, it attracted so many attention because of that 'feature'. But I didn't really realize that it still has a long way to go to be at par with what civilization looks like within its neighbors. However, I believe it is meant to stay this way, otherwise it would lose all its charm. 

Siem Reap relies heavily on the money tourism brings to the city and I couldn't be happier to have contributed to their livelihood. Unfortunately though, this has gotten out of control to some as even an immigration officer was asking for a tip before stamping my passport. As unusual as it is, I moved on and didn't bother about that experience. 

It was nearing midnight when we finally reached the hotel and even if our wanderlust was far from being extinct, our bodies were a little sore having traveled heavily the past couple of days. So we waited until sunrise to greet the city. We rented out a Cambodian style tuk tuk to explore what was out there for the next few days and started with the big loop. Tuk tuks here are different from Thailand's because the rickshaw is being pulled by the driver from the outside, contrary to the usual ones we see where the driver is seated inside.

I soon learned that to be able to experience what Siem Reap is all about, I had to pay 40 USD for a three day pass to enter all the temples in the city. Having been to various cities prior, I was quite surprised for the need to pay quite an amount to visit temples. But paying wasn't an option to debate merely because it is why we came in the first place. It was a long ride towards reaching for Banteay Kdey, Pre Rup and Ta Phrom and moving from one temple to another took a couple of minutes but the ride en route was always a moment of bliss. I can still remember how much of a glee I was in for being in that moment, it was something I don't get to experience everyday, riding a tuk tuk, enclosed in a wall of trees on an unpaved road, passing by a neighborhood of stone temples, wind brushing through my cheeks and challenging the way my hair has been fixed.

At every entry point of a temple, there are two kinds of people to welcome you. The Apsara Authority guards to inspect your pre purchased ticket which has your photo in it and vendors of all sorts but with one thing in common - all of them are polite. They don't aggressively force you to purchase but they will find a way to make their business but with their every effort exhausted, they will soon tell you "maybe when you come back?" which signals that they are losing hope in you finding interest in them but wishing that upon your exit, you changed your mind, which by the way occurred to us.

To walk around the temples, you'll discover intricate details which adds up to the already awe-inspiring architecture. Diamonds are hidden on the holes of the temples long ago and beyond the overwhelming design, there are so many stories that need to be uncovered for one to fully appreciate the city of temples.

The Bayon Temple, one of the most popular clusters had massive stone carvings on the pediments. All the temples in Siem Reap have exquisite hand carvings but Bayon's smooth rendering to show the features of King Jayavarman II's face in every corner is just really remarkable as if it was manufactured by a machinery.

It  became apparent to me that this was Asia's version of Egypt where mythical and ancient history is very much alive. It was exactly how the movies depict ancient settings and it made me wish I could time travel to see how it looked like filled with people from the past.

Even just by looking around you could tell these temples were built since centuries ago, where trees have nested not just around but on it. And to understand that during the old days, everything were handcrafted in hoisting such a beautiful man-made wonder is just breathtaking.

But Siem Reap isn't all about history. People here knows how to have a good time and how to do some shopping. Hence, the Pub Street and the Night Market were born.

These roads are totally different from the ancient feeling of the temples, bright lights and a really festive vibe are what wraps this part of the city.



The Pub Street is where you'll find all sorts of food from crickets to cockroaches, from Cambodian Barbeque to the so called "Happy" Pizza which as the name suggests, is supposed to make you happy with the addition of some extra "herbs" which you may read between the line. But this is also a place to find some good drinks and local food. I wasn't very keen on trying the street food in Siem Reap so I resulted to dining al fresco along the Pub Street and had a good foot massage from the Night Market.

Although amazing as it already is, and probably because of that, everything is a bit more expensive in Siem Reap where a single meal serving averages at $7 which is way above South East Asia standards. Or probably because a lot needs to be imported from the outside that added to the cost. Whatever it is, like everywhere else and needless to say, smart traveling applies to spending money.

After spending another day with countless temples, I soon gave up from wanting to see some more for there were just too much to handle albeit each of the temples were really intricate and interesting. Heat and humidity probably added up to my already tired feet. There were two more things though that I couldn't afford to miss, the great Angkor Wat and the Sunset at the Ta Phrom.

An interesting temple we visited was the Neak Pean which represents Anavapta in the Himalayas. A mythical lake believed to cure diseases. This temple was built for medicinal purposes, believing that the water in the pond helps to cure illness. We personally witnessed locals asking for water from the pond to drink. While the water doesn't appear safe for consumption, it looks like their belief has been effective for the locals.

I neglected all the tour guides offering service around Siem Reap and mind you, they come in fluent in every language. But Angkor Wat should be treated with exception as this is the very icon of Cambodia. We hired a tour guide and bargained for an $8 charge for a 1 hour tour of Angkor Wat. While the temple in itself speaks volume, it is a waste if one doesn't understand the story behind.  

The Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious monument, It was once a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire, but later on transformed to become a Buddhist temple. Today, symbols of both Hinduism and Buddhism are conspicuous. The Angkor Wat  depicts Mount Meru in the Himalayas which is believed to be the home of benevolent supernatural beings according to Hindu mythology. The central quincunx of towers represents the five peaks of the mountain and a moat to represent the ocean. At an initial look, the towers appear to be three, but when viewed at a certain angle, they are actually five. Angkor Wat means "Temple City", from that you could tell how vast this place is with. There isn't any structure higher than the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap out of respect and the belief that it represents the Himalayas which is why no sky scrapers can be found in the city. Angkor Wat also has two kinds of large basins for the people to cleanse their souls. One for the royal family and nobles, the other one for the public. 


One more worthwhile thing to do in Siem Reap is to experience sunrise or sunset at one of the temples. The larger ones will be filled too easily with people wanting to catch a quick view of the sun's stir so we ought to head to Preah Rup to bid the sun good night. 

Because of a rich and a grand history and setting, it is necessary to treat ourselves, after painstakingly enduring the heat, humidity and the challenging physical strains in the temples, to a well deserved night of entertainment and buffet dinner at Koulen Restaurant. It was certainly a good time to enjoy good food while watching Apsara Dance or the female spirits of cloud and waters in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Its truly distinctive how Siem Reap seemed to have been built in the past taking into consideration the future. Unlike other Buddhist countries, Cambodian temples are made out of stone through hand work, unlike the usual temples covered with gold and crystals. The lay out, the architecture and the stories behind the temples in Siem Reap are all magnificent as if ancient history carefully designed it for our age today to appreciate.  

Before you could reach the grandeur temples, you'll pass by a neighborhood of wooden homes barely supported by safe materials, children driving a bike to bring home a basket of vegetables with their sibling on the back seat, gasoline stations that are operated through tubes and pails, pediatric hospitals with the lack of facility to hosts the patients within the premise, resulting to children lying outside the gates waiting to be served.

It is far from what the glorious history looks, Siem Reap appears to me like an urbanized rural city which needs a lot of help from the outside world and through tourism, we can help them improve their lives while appreciate the beauty which their country has so much to give. Despite the country's slow economic movements, there's no country like Cambodia that makes it worthy to claim the title, Kingdom of Wonders.  

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