5 must dos in Siem Reap

In Siem Reap, don’t get all tired and templed out. Here is my guide to the best of what this remarkable city of temples has on offer…

1. ARTY SOUVENIRS

Buy authentic Cambodian keepsakes – lacquer tableware, a wooden statue or some pearl jewellery – at Artisans d’Angkor. For silk scarves, bags and accessories, take time to visit its silk farm, a 20-minute drive from downtown Siem Reap.

Angkor art
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

If you want local ambience and street food along with your shopping, stroll around Psar Chaa (Old Market). Keep an eye out for bargains or take home a unique Khmer memento in the form of a fine art print of the Angkor temples by American photographer John McDermott, from the McDermott Gallery.

2. STAY IN STYLE

FCC Angkor comes with oodles of charm and history. This Art Deco gem also has a great location – along the banks of the Siem Reap River and close to the Angkor Wat complex.

Raffles
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

The Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is still considered the best in terms of luxury and service – despite the recent spurt of new hotels in the city. Besides enjoying the rooms, which have colonial-style furnishings and Cambodian objets d’art, you can also catch an Apsara performance (a classical Khmer dance) and have dinner at its aptly named Apsara Terrace restaurant.

3. GET PAMPERED

Soothe achy muscles at Bodia Spa with the Apsara Indulgence 4 Hands Massage. Or try its Herbal Compress Massage. They will have you fit and ready to hit the temple trail afresh the next day.

At Lemongrass Garden Spa, massages are associated with spiritual healing and treatments, and come with names like Cosmic Connection and Spiritual Journey.

If you are looking to give back to this society in some way, spend some of your cash at Seeing Hands Massage (324 Sivatha Street). The no-frills massages there are given by blind masseurs.

4. AFTER ANGKOR, WHAT?

Most visitors to Siem Reap are content with the main temples of the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom complex. Set aside an entire day just for these two marvels. Once you have had your fill of them, head to Ta Prohm temple – ideally at sunset. It is breathtaking even as it lies in the grip of ancient tree roots wrapped around it. Although this is part of the Angkor complex, it remains serenely untouched by the tourist throngs.

In the grip of nature

The face

And then it dawned on me...

Finally, make a trip to the 10th century Banteay Srei (translated as “Citadel of Women”). Smaller in scale than other temples and built of pink sandstone, it is truly exquisite.

Bantaey Srei
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

5. EAT AND MAKE MERRY

Tuck into Khmer food at Cuisine Wat Damnak, which prides itself on using fresh local produce. Ask chef Joannes Riviere for recommendations or stick to the ever-changing degustation menu for an introduction to this simple but flavourful cuisine.

Fish Amok
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

To linger over ice cream and coffee – or even Cambodia’s famous Amok Fish (steamed fish in coconut curry) – the best place is the popular The Blue Pumpkin. At the end of a hot day, chill with a Tomb Raider cocktail – named after the movie – at The Red Piano. Lead actress Angelina Jolie had hung out at this restaurant while the movie was being filmed.

This was originally published in the April issue of Silverkris (Singapore Airlines)read it online here

Read more Cambodia stories on this blog here

Friday photo: Apsara

I used this week’s Friday photo as an excuse to dig deep into my ancient photo archives. And I came upon this old favourite. Apsaras in stone and in flesh – at the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap.

Apsara

This is what I had written about these apsaras in a story on these temples for Mint Lounge – “When I first catch sight of them, the apsaras are resting on the cold stones of Angkor Wat. One is flexing her foot, mimicking the action of the stone apsara dancing just behind her on the wall. The others are talking to each other in muted tones, bored expressions on their faces. The American tourist, khaki shorts and all, walks up to them and points with his camera, and they spring into action instantly. As a group, they strike well-rehearsed poses, peacocks flanking the line-up, the boy with the lion’s head in between, a dancing apsara on each side of the utterly discomfited tourist, as his friend clicks. As they pose for the camera, for a dollar, I notice the boredom doesn’t shift from their faces. Shot over, they get back to rest mode without so much as a smile at their temporary benefactor”

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Also see: Friday photoseries
My story on the Siem Reap temples in Temple Performance and more on the town’s apsaras in The apsaras of Angkor.

Beyond Angkor, what?

Beyond Angkor, What?

So you have risen at the crack of dawn, or even earlier, and made your sleepy way to the Angkor Wat to see the famed sunrise. You have followed in the glamorous footsteps of Anjelina Jolie to the ruins of the Ta Prohm temple (where parts of the film ‘Tomb Raider’ was shot), held captive for centuries by the ancient trees. And at the Angkor Thom complex, you have been awed by the sight of the smiling Buddha faces on the walls of the Bayon temple. So, now what?

Good morning Angkor!

In the grip of nature

Discover Angkor, Wats and all: If you have missed the sunrise at Angkor Wat (though it is entirely worth the effort, despite the pushy crowds), head to Phnom Bakheng for the sunset. Get there early before the hordes and find a vantage position from which to watch the sun go down the Angkor archaeological park. Take some time to enjoy the smaller temples; in particular the exquisite Bantaey Srei (translated as the ‘citadel of women’). Diminutive in size, the pinkish sandstone temple is a welcome relief from the imposing size and dull grey-brown tones of most of the other temples here.

Art at Angkor: It is impossible to visit Siem Reap and not get tempted into watching an apsara dance performance. The apsara is a symbol of ancient Khmer culture and the performing tradition of Cambodia has seen a revival in recent years. Most restaurants offer them as part of the evening meal, though if you have the money and interest, it is advisable to watch it at one of the more up-market hotels, such as the Angkor Village Apsara Theatre or the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor. And if you have the time, make a trip to the Artisans d’ Angkor workshop (near the old market) for Khmer handicraft including stone and wood carving, silk painting and lacquer work – or head outside town to the silk farm, also managed by the same trust.

Apsaras - in stone and in flesh...

Walkabouts: Walk along the river when the weather is cool, towards the Psar Chaa old market to shop for souvenirs and local food. Also drop in at the Angkor night market – open till midnight – just at the end of Pub Street (off Sivatha Road) for unusual Khmer artefact, and the experience. A good place to visit even before you get on the temple circuit is the Angkor National Museum (even if you are not the “museum types”) – at $12 for an entry ticket, it is an expensive but excellent way to get an orientation of Khmer history, both ancient and recent. Several hundred statues, hidden for the last century and therefore preserved, have found their way here and the stories on the well-made audio-video guides are interesting, if only for the striking similarities with Indian mythology. If you ever make your weary way to FCC Angkor hotel, a visit to McDermott gallery nearby is a must, for sepia-tinted glimpses of Cambodia and the Angkor temples.

Travel in style: And I do not mean the tuk-tuks here, even those unique Cambodian ones, pulled by motorbikes. Go up on a helium balloon or a helicopter for a comprehensive aerial view of the Angkor temples. At sunset, take a cruise on the Tonle Sap lake to see the floating village; Chong Kneas is the closest and has a floating school and church among other things. The boats usually dock at the crocodile farm (which doubles up as a small coffee and souvenir shop) and the view from the rooftop is stunning. The lake sprawls all round you like a minor placid ocean, and the Vietnamese refugees who have made it their home go about their routine evening activities, as the sun sets in the horizon. If you are fit and adventurous, hire a bicycle or motorbike to travel around the Angkor archaeological sites; the terrain is flat and most of the major temples are located close to each other.

Entering Angkor Thom

Eat, drink and be merry: Siem Reap has some excellent café and restaurants, including several authentic – I am told – Indian restaurants (KamaSutra, Maharajah). Most of them are clustered around the main market area and the accurately if unimaginatively named Pub Street. Eateries here compete for business, not just with great food, live music and cheap booze, but also with clever names; I was lured by Kampuchino, Angkor what?, Blue Pumpkin and Laundry Bar. A drink at the FCC Angkor, overlooking the river is highly recommended, as is a (vegetarian) meal at the Singing Tree Garden Café.

***
This piece was published in the Sunday Mid-day dated January 17th.
More photographs from the Angkor complex here

The apsaras of Angkor

From a longer piece I had written on the Angkor experience some time ago…

*When I first catch sight of them, the apsaras are resting on the cold stones of Angkor Wat. One is flexing her foot, mimicking the action of the stone apsara dancing just behind her on the wall. The others are talking to each other in muted tones, bored expressions on their faces. The American tourist, khaki shorts and all, walks up to them and points with his camera, and they spring into action instantly. As a group, they strike well-rehearsed poses, peacocks flanking the line-up, the boy with the lion’s head in between, a dancing apsara on each side of the utterly discomfited tourist, as his friend clicks. As they pose for the camera, for a dollar, I notice the boredom doesn’t shift from their faces. Shot over, they get back to rest mode without so much as a smile at their temporary benefactor*

Photo-op

There are over a thousand apsara statues in the Angkor temple complex, it is believed. And most of them have survived, just as the temples and the country itself have.

Apsaras everywhere

Everywhere in Cambodia, the apsara theme – from the names of schools and restaurants to name of the temple preservation committee.

I was reading about the history of the apsara dance in Cambodia and learned that both male and female dancers were allocated to specific temples, for religious rituals and enjoyed high status in society. There is a lot of similarity to be seen with the devadasi tradition in South India – from this article:

King Jayavarman VII put more than 3,200 dancers in temples, according to inscriptions around the end of the 12th century There also were dancers for entertainment in the households of kings and dignitaries. And dancers constituted the king’s harem.

The most beautiful girls would be brought as young as six years old to the palace by their parents who were compensated according to the beauty of their child. From the time of King Ang Duong in the mid-1850s until the 1920s, dancers were cloistered in the palace – King Norodom, who had around 500 dancers at the start of his reign in the 1860s, allowed them one day per year to visit their families under escort.

What exists in performances in temples and restaurants and pubs today started off several hundreds of years ago as the Royal Cambodian Ballet. Apsara dancers were once part of Cambodia’s cultural elite, training and performing at the royal palaces. The tradition was destroyed along with almost everything else during the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, there is an effort to revive this dance form – in its classical format – since in its “popular” avtaar, apsara performances are everywhere in Siem Reap (much like the whirling dervishes of Turkey who whirl exclusively for tourists enjoying their drinks and dinner).

Several schools including the Apsara Arts Association trains dancers from a young age, as part of the long and painful process of rebuilding Cambodia’s shattered economy and culture.

Wanting to watch a performance, I book a table for dinner (“with live apsara dance”) in a restaurant on Siem Reap’s bustling Pub Street. We make our way up rickety wooden steps towards the dinner / performance area; the ground floor is a pub with pool tables. Groups of Westerners are sitting down to dinner, there is laughter and loud conversation.

And then suddenly the music begins to play, soft and haunting, and there is a hush in the room. The group of dancers, dressed in white, their costume said to be derived from those of the apsara statues in the temples walk in and begin swaying to the music.

Dance of the apsara

Peacock

The dancers are very young, perhaps in their late teens, dainty hands with long nails, big eyes and smooth skins. And most of them have a bored look on their faces; they go through the paces in a mechanical manner reminiscent of the costumed apsaras at the temples. For all that, the dance is graceful and sensuous, the movement of their hands and feet mimicking those of the statues immortalized in stone.

Goddess

Each movement of the dance is said to have a symbolic meaning; all that is lost on the casual viewer like me. Perhaps due to its setting, the entire performance is folksy, the initial apsara dance followed by what is described as the dance from the villages.

I remember reading that the entire Ramayana of Valmiki has been set to music and is performed at the more traditional venues; now that would be something to watch.

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