Angkor, an ocean of temples

Normally I put ‘Some practicalities’ at the end of my posts, but on this occasion I’m going to start with some practical points that seem pretty fundamental. Firstly, the ticket office for all visits to the Angkor temples has moved a little way to the east – your driver (tuk-tuk, car, bus) will automatically take you there, but if you’re cycling on your own you’ll have to find the new place (there are road signs). It’s a spacious new complex (open 5am to 5.30pm daily), but bizarrely it doesn’t have credit card facilities – you’ll have to get US dollars from the ATMs conveniently placed for that purpose. And the prices just went up on 1 February 2017, from US$20 to US37 for one day, from US$40 to US$62 for thee days, and from US$62 to US$72 for a week. A big increase, but it’s all still unmissable. Signs say that a passport photo is required, but in fact they take one for free to print on your ticket.

The currency situation in Cambodia is generally a bit weird – the Khmer Rouge abolished money altogether in the 1970s, but the country once again has its own currency, the Riel; however prices are quoted in US dollars and generally that’s what they want – although everyone is very flexible and willing to take a combination (with the dollar worth a not unreasonable 4000 Riels). ATMs (of which there are plenty) may only offer you dollars, or may give you a choice. As in Laos, there are no coins – change below the one-dollar level comes in Riels.

Angkor is wonderful and unmissable, of course. What struck me most strongly was the variety of temples, of different shapes, sizes and styles, and levels of conservation and rebuilding. There’s one that was a hospital and another that was a seminary for monks. There are plenty of guidebooks that give detailed information, so I’ll confine myself to saying that it is possible to do both the Small and Grand Circuits in a day with a helpful tuk-tuk driver, but it can be tiring, especially if the temperature is in the mid-30s Celsius, as it often is. It may be better to spread it over two days with relaxing lunch breaks. You also have to decide if you want to see the sunrise or sunset, and if so where – I’d rule out Angkor Wat itself for starters, given the hordes there. Likewise, Phnom Bakheng is horribly crowded at sunset. There are various smaller, less famous, temples that are much less crowded, but, in any case, if you’ve seen some stunning sunrises and sunsets elsewhere in the world this probably won’t be any better. Angkor (from the Sanskrit Nagora or city) refers to the whole area; Angkor Wat is, of course, one of the largest and finest temples, while Angkor Thom is a walled city just to the north of the wat, centred on the Bayon temple, another of the finest sights here.

The next day you could go to Banteay Srei, 40km north of Siem Reap, which is known for the finest and most detailed carvings of all the Angkor temples. It’s another 12km to Kbal Spean, which is not a temple but a series of Shiva lingams (some of them just pimples on a square rock slab) in the bed of a stream – they’re rather underwhelming in themselves, but the 1.5km (each way) hike up a rough trail provides a enjoyable dose of jungle, although most of the wildlife is nocturnal, or just keeping out of the way. With hindsight it might be better to go to the Roluos group of temples, east of Siem Reap, instead. In any case we got back in time to spend most of the afternoon at the modern Angkor National Museum (US$12 – not covered by the Angkor temples ticket), which gives an excellent overview of the temples’ histories and their architectural and sculptural styles.

If there’s one name to retain here, it’s Jayavarman VII, who was born in 1125 and was the last of the great rulers of the Khmer Empire, from c1181 to 1218 – he brought the empire to its greatest expanse and built a new capital at Angkor Thom, with many fine temples, notably Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, as well as 102 hospitals and 121 rest houses about 15km apart along the empire’s main roads. Unusually, he was a devout Buddhist, and when Hinduism returned to fashion after his death his temples were somewhat messed about with and many statues lost.

You’ll often see a tug-of-war motif, on balustrades and on bas-relief carvings – this is actually the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, an episode from the Mahabharata and other Indian epics, in which asura (demons) hold the tail end of the serpent king Vasuki, and devas or devata (defenders) hold its head end, churning the cosmic ocean for a thousand years and produced Amrita, the elixir of immortality, the goddess Lakshmi, and the Apsaras or celestial dancers that are another common theme in Angkorian sculpture.

 Eating and drinking in Siem Reap

We did not research the drinking dens of Pub Street nor anywhere much else, but we can recommend two excellent places to eat and drink. The Purple Mangosteen, on a pedestrian alley near Pub St and the river in central Siem Reap, is a boutique hotel and restaurant that does a fine lemongrass mojito (two for one during happy hour (4-9pm), as well as a better than usual range of options for vegetarians and vegans. It’s owned by someone I happened to go to school with many years ago who has been training in stonework and sculpture restoration and conservation at Angkor for a couple of decades. The Siem Reap Brewpub, opened in 2015, occupies a Corbusieresque villa with a lovely terrace and produces a range of tasty craft ales, from blonde through to stout, and also serves a decent range of food, all at very reasonable prices.

The Siem Reap Brewpub