Just once in a while you DO get to fulfill your dreams that sometime seem further and far from becoming reality. A trip to Cambodia always felt like that. Despite its tumultuous past, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to see the massive temple complexes of Angkor Wat encroached by roots of giant trees hidden in the deep forests of Cambodia.
As Part 2 of our adventurous vacation we were invited by the Sofitel to enjoy their Siem Reap property- The Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort. After Krabi, we headed to Bangkok from where we took a bus to Siem Reap. This is a new bus service that runs once a day from Bangkok to Siem Reap- an approximately 8 hour comfortable and scenic bus ride through the countryside of Thailand and Cambodia.
|Crossing into the Cambodia border at Poipet|
|The Cambodian countryside|
First impressions of Siem Reap- the city is nothing like what I expected from the typical South East Asian cities. No tall skyscrapers, no neon lights, as a matter of fact we were told later by our guide that no building in Siem Reap can be built taller than the temple of Angkor Wat. The buildings were all a mix of kitschy local architecture with Colonial influences and pagoda tops flanked with sculptures of imitation Apsaras and Buddha heads.
The Sofitel Angkor, is located only 10 minutes away from the Temple complexes of Angkor Wat. It was no surprise to me to be greeted by another stunning example of French Colonial architecture. High wood paneled ceilings, beautiful patina terracotta floor, old plantation furniture and a beautiful wooden pavilion in the center of the lobby with a musician playing the ”tro” gently serenading the guests. The lobby opened up to a lotus pond with stilted walkways that lead to the various residential suites. There was a splendid swimming pool with bridges and sculptures and manicured gardens all around. This was the very hotel where Angelina Jolie and her crew stayed during the shooting of Tombraiders.
We were greeted by Gaelle, the marketing coordinator of the hotel said she was very excited to have a blogger from India stay with them. She invited us for dinner at the all day dining restaurant – The Citadel. It was our chance to learn from Gaelle on how to make the best use of our time in Siem Reap and the various things we could do in the evenings. What I thought would be a very informational and formal dinner turned out to be a lovely conversation about Siem Reap, the local cuisine, and fun stories about Gaelle’s own exploration of Siem Reap. I could sense genuine pride as Gaelle explained that the food we were about to eat was part of the Sofitel’s sustainable farming project with an NGO called Agrisud. She also told us that the art we saw in the lobby was made by a local free art school for Khmer children and it was Sofitel’s way to give back to the community.
|The residential suites across the lotus pond|
|The hallways, flowers floating in water and the wooden carved elephant|
|The two lions gifted to the Sofitel from the sets of Tombraiders when Angelina Jolie stayed here|
|Stilted Pavilions on the lotus pond|
|Early morning lotus. Sublime.|
|The walkway to our room|
|Pavilions by the pool side|
Our dinner at The Citadel was quite lovely as well. This was our first taste of Khmer cuisine. We ordered a fresh fish salad, the famous fish amok, beef lok lak and noodles followed by a series of French desserts off the menu. The French colonized Cambodia and though the Khmer Rouge wiped out a lot of the French influence you can still find baguettes served alongside Khmer curries. I did not have much to measure the Khmer cuisine against but it seemed like an interesting mix of Indian and Thai food. There was a definite undertone of dried fish used in their curry base along with Kroeung- which is a spice/herb paste made by grinding 8 ingredients such as lemongrass, kafir lime leaves, turmeric, garlic, dried red chilies, shallots and several types of rhizomes. Fish Amok is fresh water fish from the Tonle Sap lake steamed in coconut milk and kroeung in a banana leaf cup. It is rich and flavourful with a subtle flavour of the banana leaf.
|A stunning painting of Angkor Wat in the background. We tried Cambodian beers - Beer Man approved of course.|
|Fish Amok, Prawn noodle, a half friend egg on rice and beef loklak|
|French desserts- notably the cappuccino creme brulee and homemade mango icecream|
|A fantastic breakfast buffet. A must before a long day of exploring. Fresh fruits galore. My favourite would be the rambutan|
On Gaelle’s suggestion we took all the help we could from the extremely well informed concierge Mr. Panith. He arranged for a fantastic guide Mr. Vanny who introduced us not only to Angkor and its history but told us about modern day Cambodia, the years that followed the Khmer Rouge and the struggle of young Cambodia. Mr. Panith also arranged for the sweetest tuk tuk guy Mr. Poeun who patiently took us from one temple complex to the next and smiled every time we showed him a picture from our Lonely Planet nodding his head in agreement.
|Our guide Vanny, the road to Angkor Wat & the three day pass for all the Angkor temples|
The Temple Complexes- Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta- Prohm and the Rolous Group
Over the next three days we spent hours exploring the fantastic ruins of Angkor Wat that houses some of the finest bas-relief stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. We visited the less famous but in my opinion even more stunning Angkor Thom, face to face with the mystical faces of Bayon, the mausoleum of the Leper King. We went tomb raiding like Anjelina Jolie in the Buddhist monastery of Ta Prohm where the roots of the strangler figs and the Sponge tree strangled the temples more like reptiles and less like plants. Each temple complex was built with splendor, great precision and knowledge of architecture, which is, now layered with disintegration and years of abandon.
|The first sighting of Angkor Wat|
|Vishnu replaced with the head of Buddha, Apsara carvings.|
|Apsaras with funky hair-do's|
|Beautiful stone spindles|
|Angkor Wat across the lotus pond|
|On the topmost level of Mt. Meru|
|A unicorn grazing in gardens of Angkor|
|The library of Angkor Wat|
|Bayon- Angkor Thom|
|Hanging out in Bayon, the faces of Buddha/ Brahma|
|The Cha'am war|
|Rubbing noses with Buddha|
|The K got a classic shot|
|Elephant terrace and a Sponge tree|
|The Leper King's Pavilion|
|Tombraiding in Ta- Prohm like Angelina Jolie|
|The entangled Sponge tree|
|A reference of scale, reptilian roots|
|Ta- Prohm in the rain|
|Bakong- the Shiva temple, Rolous Group|
|Elephant overlooking the terraces, Preah Ko temple|
|Beautiful Cambodian girl, lotus pond.|
Evenings around Siem Reap
By day we were explorers, archeologists and tomb raiders and by night we were discovering Siem Reap. We attended a Cambodian Circus, watched the lovely Apsara performance back at the hotel, attended a cello performance in the Children’s hospital next door, went on a hunt to eat insects, dined at some local restaurants, bargained for hats at the night market, partied on Pub Street and ate the finest flambe’ed crepe with fleur de sel and caramel ice-cream.
|Mr. Fox with the wonderful concierge Mr. Panith, Apsara dancing and French wine tasting at the Sofitel|
|Insect tasting in the local market- thank you Mr. Panith|
|Night Market and Pub Street|
|The Cambodian Circus|
|War is over, Fleur de Sel and caramel flambe crepe at Le Creperie|
The Double Rainbow
On our last evening in Siem Reap, we decided to explore the temple Baphuon. Most guides told us there is nothing there to see. Reading about it lead us to discover that the French had taken down this temple stone by stone in fear that the war would destroy the temple. Post the civil war and the frightful Khmer Rouge, they attempted to put it back together like a giant jig saw puzzle that would not fit together and they created a completely different structure. As we walked towards this strange building, the afternoon showers started pouring. Mr. Fox and I shared his tiny umbrella and we continued our walk. As we turned around a corner, in a distance we saw a man approaching us with a big umbrella. It turned out to be Mr. Poeun- our tuk tuk guy. He gave me his large umbrella and bowed and left. I was completely and utterly touched by this simple human gesture. The gesture of a stranger to make sure that my comfort and safety was of importance to him. We stood there under the big umbrella in the monsoon showers, watching as the sun broke through the clouds setting behind the strange temple. And then we saw a rainbow sparkle through the raindrops and then another one. A double rainbow! It is the one moment I will savor for the rest of my life, standing amongst these ancient ruins with trees older than time, in the rain under a double rainbow with Mr. Fox.
|Baphuon- A failed jigsaw puzzle, Mr. Poeun the sweetest tuk-tuk guy|
|Sunset at Baphuon in the rain|
|Sighting of the double rainbow- a sign of good things to come|
|Sunset at Angkor Wat|
|The moat around Angkor Wat after the sunset|
Siem Reap translates as defeated by the Siamese. The name is almost the antithesis of my experience there. The Cambodian people are like the roots of the Sponge tree that have held the ruins of the temples together. They are firmly fixed to their land, strong, loyal and survivors in the face of extreme adversity.
I was in love with the 1000 year old temples we explored, in love with the simplicity of the Cambodian life, in love with the lotus ponds- did I mention the lotus ponds, in love with double rainbow we sighted over Angkor Wat on our last evening. A portend to things changing for the better I read somewhere or maybe a sign asking us to return and explore more of this amazing country.
Thank you- Sofitel for helping me check mark one more place off my bucket list.
1. The bus ride from Bangkok to Siem Reap was $28 or 750 Baht. It was an 8 hour ride. The return ticket can be purchased from the bus company’s office in Siem Reap.
2. Tuk tuk ride from the bus company’s office to your hotel is complimentary.
3. Tuk Tuk rides within Siem reap are a $1 a person
4. The currency preferred by the locals is the US dollar, however it is helpful to change maybe $5 in Riel for small change or keepsake.
5. There are no coins accepted in Cambodia.
6. Tuk Tuk for an entire day of sightseeing is typically $15 a day.
This list is endless- many things can be googled now and of course do write in with your questions.