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Tracing the Splendor of the Ancient Khmer Empire: Siem Reap, Gateway to Angkor


Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

(Second Part of a Two-Part Series)  

By LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL    

One of my “bucket list” items had always been to go Cambodia and photograph Angkor Wat. When, at last, I managed to fulfil that dream, I discovered a number of factors that I hereby pass on to you to make your journey to Angkor as uncomplicated and pleasant as possible:

A view of the busy Siem Reap Pub Street and Night Market district. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

To begin with, there is no lodging in Angkor Wat. The closest city is Siem Reap. And that is where you will be staying.

Arriving from Bangkok, I had done my homework and applied online for my Cambodia visa before leaving the United States. It is a very simple process and will save you time at customs and immigration when you arrive.

When traveling, I do my best not to stay in the tourist zones, preferring to be close by, but far enough away to enjoy some peace and quiet. If you would rather stay in the city center, there are plenty of upscale hotels that will meet your every need.

Regardless of where you stay, I highly suggest arranging for the hotel to send a driver to the airport. The transportation in Siem Reap, like in many cities in Southeast Asia, is best accomplished by three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis. If you are not yet familiar with tuk-tuks, trust me, you will be by the time you leave Cambodia. Essentially, they are a motorcycle with an attached cart that is covered and will hold up to four people comfortably. Before you dismiss the thought of riding in one of these contraptions, remember, they are part of the local culture, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

I chose to stay on the outskirts of Siem Reap, at Theray’s Luxury Villas (the second word in the name is a bit of a misnomer). The small boutique property has a half dozen rooms that are very well appointed, clean and quite comfortable. There is an outdoor pool surrounded by several inviting lounge chairs and a small table where one can sit and relax, or in my case, work, since I was usually busy editing photographs and writing articles.

You can find lots of restaurants on Pub Street. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

I must point out that Theray’s is certainly not for everyone. It is located in a residential area on a dirt road in a very rural setting. There are no restaurants nearby, although there is a convenience store within walking distance and a nice air-conditioned coffee shop close at hand. To get to any restaurants represented a $5 roundtrip tuk-tuk ride to Pub Street and the Siem Reap Night Market.

Although Theray’s is very nice hotel, I would not recommend it to someone wanting upscale accommodations. For someone like me, on the other hand, who was looking for an inexpensive place to stay where I could feel safe and comfortable, this was the perfect venue.

In the center of the city is the tourist district, Pub Street and the Siem Reap Night Market. Unlike Bangkok and many other Southeast Asian cities, there are very few street food vendors in Siem Reap other than those selling ice cream, fruit shakes and drinks.

There are, however, many restaurants on Pub Street and the surrounding area for you to enjoy. The food ranges from Mexican to Cambodian and from burgers to steaks to seafood to crocodile. You can be assured that you will find something to your liking at a reasonable price.

The food in Siem Reap is both tasty and affordable. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

If you have never had crocodile, I would highly recommend trying it. In the United States, there is an old saying about food when someone does not know how to describe the taste; “It tastes like chicken.” In the case of crocodile, the meat is firm and white and looks like chicken and … it really does taste like chicken!

I was in Siem Reap for 10 days and tried many of the restaurants on Pub Street. One of my favorite places was V Design. The menu offered everything from Japanese sashimi and sushi to pizza and Cambodian staples.

I found the food to be well prepared and tasty, and the prices were very reasonable. Most of my meals ranged from between $6 to $8, but your outlay could be higher depending on your selection. I typically ate fresh spring rolls and a selection from the variety of soups, curries or rice dishes offered, along with a beverage.

The Siem Reap foot bridge. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

Another favorite I enjoyed was the Yellow Mango Café. It is located above a coffee shop on a second floor overlooking the canal separating Pub Street from the Artist and Night Market. There is a large menu and you can expect the food to be fresh and properly prepared. You can sit outside at a balcony table enjoying the view and a nice dinner for about $10 to $15.

While in the area, I suggest walking across the footbridge and visiting the Siem Reap Artist and Night Market. It is a large covered marketplace with a myriad of shops and stalls with every souvenir imaginable. You will find clothes, sculptures, jewelry, trinkets and beautiful paintings. Take your time, soak up the atmosphere and remember to barter.

Now let’s talk about why you came to Siem Reap to begin with, which is to visit Angkor Wat. In the first part of this series, I spoke about the two best-known temples, Angkor Wat temple and the Ta Phrom Temple.

But there are many temples in the Angkor Wat complex, too many to mention here. However, I will focus on a few of my favorites and the ones I believe that you should not miss while in Cambodia.

Pre Rup Temple. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

One of my favorite temples was the Pre Rup Temple. The temple is one of three shrines located in an area known as East Baray. The Pre Rup Temple origins date back to 967, under the reign of King Rajendravarman II.

Pre Rup means “turning of the body,” which is a part of a cremation ritual. Just inside the east entrance is a cistern. Legend has it that this is the site where a king was accidently killed by a gardener, thus the existence of the cistern.

Located in what once was the center of the city, Pre Rup is a state temple and considered one of a handful of mountain temples. This is undoubtable due to its mountainous three-tiered pyramid structure. Exploring the many passageways, you will marvel at the numerous statues the exquisite reliefs that adorn Pre Rup. It is well worth the effort to climb to the top to the “mountain” in its center. Once you reach the summit, sit, relax and enjoy the view it affords of the surrounding countryside.

The Bayon Temple. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

Built in the late 12th century the State Temple of Jayavarman VII is the Bayon Temple and another favorite. The construction of the structures and temple grounds as well as its religious roots is very complex. It has passed through the ages of the pantheon of the gods, to Hinduism, to the worship of Buddha.

The grounds consist of two enclosed galleries on three levels. A unique characteristic feature of the Bayon is the massive face towers representing mountainous peaks. Today, there are only 37 still standing, although it was originally thought to have 49, are maybe even 54, of these face towers.

There is much to explore at the Bayon Temple. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

Climbing stone steps and crossing a large terrace from the east, you will come upon a set of massive stone lions that guard the entrance to the temple. On entering the temple enclosure, you immediately notice the face towers. As you ascend the different levels of the stone structure, you are surrounded by the face towers at every turn. Some people say they feel a sense of calm when viewing these towers, while others report feeling a little uneasiness since the faces seem to follow your every move.

Yet another temple not to be missed is the Ta Som Temple in northeastern Angkor, in a rather remote location. Constructed in the late 12th century by Jayavarman VII, it is one of the smaller temples of the Angkor Wat complex.

There is a haunting beauty about Ta Som, perhaps because of its jungle overgrowth. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

The west the entrance has been engulfed by a massive strangler fig defying the test of nature against man. Once inside, much of the temple seems to have been reclaimed by the jungle. Many of the walls are covered with vines and have tumbled to the ground. Many more are left standing with delicate reliefs on the walls in testimony of the stone structure’s endurance and are left for you to explore.

The last temple I will mention is Neak Pean. The small temple is nothing special and not much more than a shrine sitting on a small island within a small pond.

Still, this was one of my favorite sites to photograph, offering wonderful opportunities for beautiful landscaped – not of the temple, but of the vast lake that you cross on a narrow land bridge to reach the temple.

A view of the Neak Pean Lake. Pulse News Mexico photo/Larry Anthony Pannell

Maybe it is the stark trees against the green jungle foliage in the background. Maybe it is the lush green vegetation at your feet, where the lake begins, or the reflection of the deep blue sky adorned with white puffy clouds.

The Neak Pean Lake is the source of four great rivers and said to have miraculous healing abilities. I can only tell you that I certainly felt a sense of calm and spirituality as I sat on its shores, appreciating the natural beauty of the lake.

One last piece of advice: When visiting Angkor Wat and its many surrounding temples, try not to make your journey into a race from one shrine to another. Take the time to explore the temples and to climb the steps to the top of the man-made mountains. Marvel at the feats of engineering of these ancient people, who constructed these timeless monuments. Contemplate their vast history and their diverse beliefs. And remember, you are there to experience one of the great wonders of the world, a solemn testimony of the ancient Khmer Empire, now gone but, thanks to these archeological treasures, never forgotten.

Larry Anthony Pannell is a professional photojournalist originally from southern California who is also a licensed acupuncture physician with a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. Since 2010, he has served as an “acupuncturist at sea,” offering his services on several international cruise lines while traveling the Seven Seas. He specializes in landscape, travel, nature and wildlife photography, and more samples of his work can be seen on his webpage. He can be reached at pannell.photography@icloud.com.

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Categories: Art, Asia, Lifestyles, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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