| OUTSIDE ANGKOR
MALIKA BROWNE TAKES SOME TIME OUT FROM THE TEMPLES TO EXPLORE SIEM REAP AND ITS SURROUNDINGS
WHETHER you call it Temple Toes, Ruination by Ruins or Shrine Fatigue, it’s a feeling familiar to even the most peripatetic globetrotters when visiting the Angkor complex. There comes a moment when your mind’s memory card is full, your eyes glaze over, and you know that if you see one more fascinating example of 13th-century architecture or one more bas-relief depicting Khmer dancers – however exquisite – you will be forced to make a Lara Croft -style exit through the temple.
The point, after all, is not to see Angkor and die of exhaustion, but to experience one of the world’s wonders and digest it at leisure. Here are a few suggestions on how to step away from the monuments in order to better appreciate them and their setting and avoid becoming “templed out”.
especially if you are travelling independently and have to squeeze everything into very little time. A good way of getting an overview – literally – of the park is to take to the skies with a helicopter ride. The friendly team of New Zealander helicopter pilots at Helicopters Cambodia has what is arguably one of the best jobs in the world, making sorties and charter flights over the temples and enthusiastically pointing out the walled city of Angkor Th om and other places of interest to passengers.
Once you have seen Angkor from the air you can truly appreciate the flatness of the landscape, the challenge of transporting the enormous pieces of stone for the temples from the distant quarries, the ba[fb04] ing straightness of the roads and perfect symmetry of the temples and moats, and the way each temple and baray (or artificial reservoir) is laid out on an east-west axis. Helicopters Cambodia offers three trips of varying lengths: the 8-minute flight takes you around Angkor Wat, the 14-minute flight includes the entire temple area, and a 20-minute sortie will show you the temples as well as Siem Reap and the great lake of Tonlé Sap further afield.
A helicopter ride is best taken about halfway through your visit so that you can appreciate the context of the temples you have yet to see, and get a sense of their layout.
Alternative ways to gain a different perspective are by taking a tethered helium balloon ride (to a height of 200m) or visiting the workshop of local craft sman Dy Proeung, who creates fascinating sandstone and concrete miniatures of Angkor Wat and other temples. Look for the road sign just off the river road, north of Route 6 near the centre of town.
GET OUT OF TOWN
If you feel like seeing the Cambodian countryside, the Tonlé Sap Lake, one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, is half an hour’s drive from Siem Reap. After the rainy season, between November and March, it is possible to tour the lake area by sampan (wooden boat) and see a unique flooded forest and the floating villages that depend on it. The lake is twittering with birdlife, including pelicans, marabou-like storks, cormorants, egrets and terns, and is empty of tourists. Most travel companies can arrange outings to the lake for one or more days, but you can also join one of the regular tours run by Osmose, a non-profit organisation that is helping to protect the local Prek Toal bird sanctuary.
ON YOUR BIKE
You will soon notice that two wheels are a good way to travel in Siem Reap, especially if you are not part of the traffc. Rent a mountain bike at one of the many outlets in town and cycle around the footpaths of what is, in effect, an overgrown village. From the Old Market, cross the bridge and head north following the river upstream towards the temples. You will pass the [00c9]cole Française d’Extréme Orient, which is a beautiful wooden building and a hub for local conservationists.
Continue past local makeshift shops until you reach Wat Po Lanka, a thriving Buddhist pagoda, and take a tour with one of the willing inhabitants. Cross back over the river towards the APSARA Conservation Complex, where many of the original temple carvings are stored for safekeeping. The quiet back road will suddenly be bisected by the main Angkor Highway. If you are feeling revived you can turn right and head back to the ruins; otherwise, turn left to return to Siem Reap.
An atmospheric place to observe Cambodian village life is the hamlet of Preah Dac, on the road to Banteay Srei. You might want to hire a car to go a bit further out (about two hours’ drive) to Phnom Kulen, Cambodia’s holiest mountain and the source of the sandstone used to build Angkor. Pick up a delicious packed lunch in a rattan basket from the Blue Pumpkin Café in Siem Reap, and join hordes of picnicking Khmers (if it’s a Sunday) by the stunning waterfalls. There is also a working temple there with a huge reclining Buddha. Less touristy and one of the region’s most ancient sites is Kbal Spean, also known as the River of a Th ousand Lingas, where the river and waterfalls wash over a thousand carved phalluses. Kbal Spean, which is teeming with wildlife, was only opened to tourists in 1998 and is best visited in the rainy season (June to October) or early in the dry season (February to May).
MASSAGES AND SPAS
If you are footsore from all those temple steps, Siem Reap is a great place for spa treatments. Virtually every hotel offers massages, and there are plenty of places in town (for every budget) where you can have your feet or your back pummelled into shape. Frangipani, by the Old Market, is favoured by expats, as is Visaya Spa at the FCC Hotel. An hour-long “balancing foot massage” there will set you back $25. Seeing Hands is an organisation that provides massages from blind or visually impaired people, but beware of cowboy imitators and make sure you go to the original.
You could, of course, just head over to the super-cool lounge above the Blue Pumpkin Café, kick off your shoes and lie back on the impossibly white sofas and cushions eating a chocolate cake fondant, or sample one of their heavenly flavours of home-made ice cream while checking emails by Wi-Fi.
EXPLORE SIEM REAP
In Siem Reap itself, there are lots of ways to soak up the atmosphere. If you are not visiting Phnom Penh and would like a taste of the country’s recent history you could visit the Landmine Museum, set up by a former soldier. Turn off the road to Angkor Wat at the Krousar Th mey sign, go 750m, turn left and go another 750m. Make sure that it’s the Aki Ra museum you want, not the War Museum near the airport.
The Cambodian Cultural Village, though a symphony in pure kitsch, is quite informative as well as entertaining. The complex was set up by the government and attempts to explain Cambodian culture and history through architectural models and wax figures. The place is packed with Khmer tourists on Sundays.
The two markets, Psar Chas and Psar Leu, offer an atmospheric and vibrant cross-section of Cambodian daily life. Psar Chas (Old Market) has a wide choice of tourist souvenirs as well as exotic fruit, vegetables, fish and meat, while Psar Leu (Central Market) is more local and sells everything from tin trunks to prettily-packaged camphor soap.
To take a piece of Angkor home with you and not risk jail, stop and shop at one of Siem Reap’s many fine art galleries. John McDermott’s arresting and beautiful infra-red images of the temples are on display in several places around town, including the McDermott Gallery in the FCC Angkor complex, and cost from $35 to $700. Another photographer with a distinctive style is Pier Poretti, who owns Klick Gallery near the Old Market. His pictures are hand-tinted and there are some stunning images of monks and people as well as the temples. The gallery at Carnets d’Asie oft en has black-and-white photographs for sale.
If paintings are what you want, Happy Painting is a gallery that sells just that; cheerful and colourful Cambodian scenes by Canadian local resident Stéphane Delaprée. You will see his distinctive pictures for sale all over Siem Reap, in other outlets.
However, if you have the muscles (and the baggage allowance) to carry lumps of stone back home, then Artisans D’Angkor is the place to buy inexpensive fine replicas of the stone figures you have admired in the temples. Before buying, you can even watch the craft smen at work in the workshop next door. The company also has a silk factory and sells silk clothing and homewares in the same shop. It is worth knowing that the artisans have an excellent but slightly smaller shop near the departure gates at Siem Reap airport, so you can leave your souvenir shopping until the last minute and carry it in your hand luggage.
Artisans D’Angkor, Chantiers [00c9]coles and at Siem Reap airport, tel +855 (0)63 963330, www.artisansdangkor.com; Cambodian Cultural Village, on the airport road, tel +855 (0)63 963836, www.cambodianculturalvillage.com; Carnets D’Asie, 333 Sivatha Road, tel +855 (0)63 965105, www.carnetsdasie-angkor.com; Frangipani, in the passage between Old Market and Pub Street, tel +855 (0)12 982062; Happy Painting, main gallery near the Old Market, tel + 855 (0)23 726100, www.happypainting.net; Helicopters Cambodia, north of Old Market (next to The Ivy), tel +855 (0)12 814500, www.angkorscenicflights.com; Klick Fine Art Photo Gallery, passage between West Old Market and Pub Street, www.cdlrimage.co.uk; McDermott Gallery, FCC Complex, Pokambor Avenue, tel +855 (0)12 615695, www.mcdermottgallery. com; Osmose, tel +855 (0)12 832812; Seeing Hands Massage 4, just off Sivatha Boulevard, tel +855 (0)12 836487; Tethered Balloon Ride, on the road from the airport, about a kilometre from the front gates of Angkor Wat, tel +855 (0)12 520810; Blue Pumpkin Café, 365 Mondol 1 Svay Dang Kum, tel +855 (0)63 963574; Visaya Spa, FCC Angkor, Pokambor Avenue, tel +855
Bangkok Airways operates seven flights a day between Bangkok and Siem Reap. Book online at www.bangkokair.com