Category: Cambodia

Siem Reap Area Temples known as Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

The Siem Reap Area Temples are generally all referred to as Angkor Wat and encompass 400 sq km.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the actual Angkor Wat temple is the largest religious monument in the world! To help put some of this into perspective, many of these structures were built before or at the same time as the massive cathedrals of Europe, by a people living with limited tools in the jungle. According to some web sources, they completed the construction in only 35 years.

We spent 4 days in this area.  I’ll begin with some background and history.  The next post will continue with descriptions of the other places we visited besides Angkor Wat temple itself.

Getting to Siem Reap

We took a bus from Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap which takes about 5 1/2 hours on pretty good highways.  They picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the Giant Ibis bus terminal.  We transferred to a big charter kind of bus and had a chance to see the countryside of Cambodia. There was no toilet on board, but we stopped for a break after about an hour and stopped for lunch in about 2 hours more.  They even switched drivers halfway through.  This trip cost us $15 each.

Hotel Choice

We stayed in the city of Siem Reap at the Golden Mango Inn.  It was a great place for us for a few reasons.  It was a away from the high energy part of town, it had its own restaurant and the pool was shaded and cool in the afternoon after a morning of touring.

We arrived to register and were led to the couch seating and given cold lemonade and towels to refresh ourselves after our journey. They helped us plan an itinerary for the 4 days that we were there. Breakfast was included and the day that we went to see sunrise at Angkor Wat, we were given a breakfast to “take away.”  We upgraded to the deluxe room by the pool and paid $217 for 4 nights.  Their customer service was outstanding.

This price included pick up at the bus and delivery to the airport when we left.  Our tuk-tuk driver at the bus became our driver for the whole week.  Chatting with him at the bus station gave us a chance to check out his English, which was great. You can find him on Facebook.  The set fee for the driver was $15-$20/day, depending on the distance.  The hotel booked him for us for 3 days, and we arranged to have him take us to the Angkor National Museum on the 4th day ourselves.

Travel Tips

  • Hire a guide unless you are an expert on Buddhist and Hindu legends and symbolism.  They know the stories, the history and where it’s best to take pictures. There are few signs showing the names of the temples, there are no descriptions on site, and no wifi to look things up yourself. We had the guide all to ourselves for $45/day. The hotel booked the guide for us for the first day. We booked her again for the fourth day of our visit.
  • Hire a tuk-tuk driver.  They will drop you off at one gate and pick you up on the other side.  Ours also drove us on a loop of temples without our guide, then accompanied us on the boat trip to Tonle Sap.
  • Get some local advice for planning.  It’s hard to remember all the names and to know the distances between them.  Our hotel was excellent at providing that information.  There are many travel offices in town to help as well.  There is lots of information on line, but it was difficult to make our own itinerary, just because there so much.
  • Wear a big hat.  There is not much shade in the temples
  • Take lots of water-see above
  • These sites are large and there is lots of walking.
  • Wear sturdy shoes.  The temples are not very accessible.  There is lots of climbing over high sills between rooms and large steps to get up to the other levels.  There are no railings or warnings about low doorways.
  • Take a camera, or your phone at least.
  • Stay at a hotel with a shady outdoor space.  
  • If you can’t walk it, check out Google street view–Angkor Wat

Background Information

There is a great museum in Siem Reap called the Angkor National Museum. It has many artifacts, historical context and a room with 1000 Buddhas.  Their audio tour is very informative.  We spent 2 hours there, but I could have spent longer.  We visited there on day 3 after a day with a guide and a day with just our driver.  Some other travellers recommended going there first, but this timing worked for us. 


Great Kings who ruled in the area from about 950 to 1180 AD are responsible for these monuments.  Kings were not always crowned because of their birth, but often because of victory in battle. The temples and City of Thom were built for the gods, to commemorate battles, and honor family members.  The interesting thing is that some of the Kings were Hindu and some of them were Buddhist, although both religions originated in India.  The gods they worshiped were different.  The Buddhist Kings left the Hindu statues but the Hindu kings removed the Buddhas from the temples.  Some of the carvings showing Buddha sitting in lotus position were re-carved by adding a beard and moving the knees up to a new, higher level. Others were removed altogether leaving an empty Buddha silhouette.

Angkor Wat Temple

Angkor Wat temple represents the gods in the center, the walls are the mountains and the moat is the oceans.  The outer walls of the temple complex are huge and completely covered with carvings that represent Hindu legends and great battles.  It is hard to imagine a society so advanced that they can employ and feed so many workmen to not only build these monuments, but cover them with beautiful art and stories.

The temples were built with a kind of brick called laterite.  It looks volcanic but when the clay is dried in the sun, small holes form but the blocks are strong.  They were faced with sandstone that had to be moved 30 km to the area.  Some of it was covered with a kind of stucco and even painted.

What’s next?

I will include the names of each temple with the pictures. There is lots of information on line if you want to know more about these temples and the history. I found the Travelfish site the most useful for me.

After visiting all the amazing structures, the idea that stayed with me was that these were powerful leaders who built cities and temples as well as conquered large areas of southeast Asia.  Cambodia is very proud of this history.

Some pictures can be found within this post.  I will also add them and others to the travel page found at the top of my webpage.  If you are reading this blog by email, click the link to the site, found at the bottom of the email.

Have a look at some of the comments shared by other readers.  Thanks for the interesting conversations.


Cambodia… A Country of Contradictions

Cambodia is an amazing country, even though it is full of contradictions.  The people are very poor, but they smile so much.  The countryside is green, but deforestation is occurring in the more populated areas.  They ruled a mighty empire in the 12th century, but have been controlled by communism and the military in the recent past.  They lost 2 million of their citizens in the 1970’s to disease, starvation and execution.  These numbers included all the educated people as well as a generation or two of grandparents.  The support of an extended family was eliminated.  Those who survived feel great shame for allowing this to happen.  And yet they still smile. We spent just over a week in this neighbor to Thailand and I learned so much about a country that I had been pretty ambivalent about for my whole life.

I was invited to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia by Bernice Pollock.  I taught with her for 20 years in Rocky Mountain House.  She is a brave traveller and is responsible for  convincing me that we could live in Chiang Mai for a winter.  She now teaches at the Canadian International School, along with Nancy, another colleague of ours from Rocky. Bernice invited me to come and spend a day helping their teachers with some planning strategies.  Since this school teaches the Alberta Program of Studies, it was an easy match.  It is a private school, owned by a Chinese family.  Wealthy ex-pat’s children, who are mostly Asian, attend.  They want a “Western” education for their children.  The children are taught in English, or French and also receive some training in the Khmer language.  It was another good reason to go and visit Phnom Penh.

Some contradictions in Phnom Penh

  • really nice home next to yards filled with garbage
  • wind trio performance in a luxury hotel garden while children are begging in the streets
  • mostly empty office and condo complexes advertising lavish living near people subsisting in tin shacks
  • master tailors creating clothes from a picture in a magazine working from a tiny  booth in a market
  • although most people have little and work hard, they gather in the parks every evening to exercise and eat together  They play soccer and badminton, walk, do Tai Chi and Zumba.  People filled the parks.
  • they use the American dollar as their primary currency.  They don’t use the coins, but instead have a local paper money called riel used as change.
  • beautiful French Colonial architecture next to bare cement block construction
  • traffic drives wherever it wants.  Scooters travel in packs and take over a lane or sidewalk if necessary.  There are few traffic lights and those wanting to turn against the flow just wait until there is a critical mass and start to turn, hoping that the other traffic will stop and wait.

The Killing Fields

To understand Cambodia, you need to visit this memorial.  It is not easy, but it is necessary.  It is recommended to also visit the S-21 Museum also known as the  Tuol Sueng Genocide Museum, which is a meticulously documented torture location.  We were not emotionally able to go there, although I did some reading about it.

We hired our airport driver to take us out to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre).  From the entrance it looks like a nice park with trees and chickens wandering around. It was early in the morning with few other people. Once we started listening to the audio guide, (an essential part of this tour), the atmosphere of the place completely changed.

Khmer Rouge

After some years of civil war in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975.  Their leader, Pol Pot, wanted a classless peasant society where everyone was completely equal.  He eliminated money, banks, religion and the right to own property.  He sent all the people from the city to the countryside to grow rice where many died of starvation and disease.

All the teachers and educated people,  as well as those with defects like needing glasses were taken to centers where they were forced to admit their crimes against the people.  They were then taken in the dark to one of the hundreds of “Killing Fields” around the country where they were beaten to death and buried in mass graves.  The genocide ended in 1979 when 60 000 Vietnamese troops invaded Phnom Penh.  Although the people of Cambodia now hold elections, it is a one-party system as the opposition leader was exiled and has recently resigned after a law passed that would not allow him to participate in politics.

Our driver came in and walked quietly around the area.  On our way back he told us he had been a young boy during this time and his job was to look after the cows used in the rice fields.  His father was a blacksmith and they were allowed to survive.  He told us that they were only given 2 bowls of rice to eat each day.  If someone found a chicken and killed it for food, they would be killed.  “Everyone was very thin,” was the comment made by Mr. Saran.

Killing Fields Tour

You can see the areas where the mass graves were dug.  They have opened many of them to study the cause of death and to memorialize the victims.  There are still sections where bits of clothing or bones or teeth resurface on their own during the rainy season.

There was a tree there that had such horrific purpose that I couldn’t even take a picture of it. They would swing toddlers’ heads against it while their mothers watched.  The Khmer Rouge believed they had to, “kill  the root so they would not come back for revenge.”

There has been a stupa built as a memorial to many of the victims of this genocide.  It is filled with 500o skulls found in the graves here.  They are categorized by age and cause of death.  It is difficult to see but makes it so real.

What is my responsibility?

It is impossible for me to deny that such a thing happened in my lifetime. Yet, I was oblivious to it.  Rwanda, Syria, Somalia and others all tell similar stories.  What is my responsibility?  I was born in a time and place that protected me from this kind of violence.  I am hoping that at least by sharing this story, others will question our responsibility to the people of the world who have no voice.  People making racist or bigoted remarks about others is an example of this on a smaller scale than genodice but is a situation that I can no longer tolerate without action.  We all need to speak up!