First Day at Angkor – What Is It Really Like?

My first day at Angkor by bicycle taught me some valuable lessons and showed me what real Angkor is really like. It is not in my nature to sugar coat anything so I’ll say it how it really is. First of all, if you are into ancient architecture and find fascination with ancient Khmer civilization that was on top of the game in its time but then mysteriously vanished, then Angkor will blow your mind. However if you are not, every temple you visit after the first one will look the same.

Angkor Heat

I’m am used to riding long distances every day in all types of weather, facing the harshest of elements, but Cambodian heat is far more intense than heat of any other country I have previously visited. I spent 6 months on various islands of the Caribbean using bicycle as my sole means of transportation yet even though I was in the tropical climates with intense heat, it was nothing compared to Cambodia.

I met a guy from Vancouver, Canada who came to Cambodia from Indonesia and even though Indonesia is directly on the equator while Cambodia is much further north, he said Indonesia was just as hot, but Cambodian sun was way more intense.

An English fellow I met purchased a three day pass to Angkor and rented an air conditioned car to drive him from one temple to another so he got regular breaks from the sun and the heat yet he said he couldn’t do any more of it after one day. The heat was just way too intense to handle after he got out of the air-conned car space.

Angkor Touts

Cambodian sun will suck all energy right out of you within minutes, but there are far bigger dangers in and around Angkor that are far more difficult to deal with. Cambodian touts rely heavily on the sun which as I had mentioned sucks life right out of people leaving them completely burnt out after just a few minutes of exposure to it. The touts know that anyone who’s this exhausted can’t be 100% alert 100% of the time so they keep attacking all tourists with relentless intensity. All tourists are subjected to constant pressure from the locals so it’s only a question of time before one of them succeeds in taking advantage. If you’re lucky, it will only be money you will lose.

Combination of an extremely intense sun with inescapable heat wears everyone down way too much but constant pressure from the touts will force you to waste that little bit of energy you still have left on keeping them away. There is an endless supply of them. Once you shook one of them off, another three dozen will jump down your neck and won’t leave you alone no matter what you do. After they have pushed you to a point at which you believe it couldn’t get any worse, you will get a fresh score of them who will be twice as aggressive as the ones before. There is absolutely no escaping them and to constantly fight them off is extremely exhausting.

Angkor Crime

On top of touts and scam artists whose life purpose is to rip people off, Angkor is also full of extremely dangerous, violent criminals. Thousands of them possess weapons and explosive they’ve owned since the days of Khmer Rouge. The owners are for the most part former Khmer Rouge killing machines recruited as young teenagers to kill people on daily basis. They are used to drawing blood and seeing people die by their hand. They’ve been doing that since they were 14 and always got away with it. Little has changed since Khmer Rouge was suppressed. New, more dangerous form of it rules Cambodia today but for you as a foreigner, the most disconcerting part are the killing recruits who are nowadays in their forties and fifties and are as blood thirsty as they were when they were enlisted to kill.

The dangers of roaming through Angkor don’t end with former Khmer Rouge killing machines. Every Cambodian knows darn well that no crime against foreigners is ever investigated so all it would take it to butcher one with a machete and let them rot in the middle of the jungle where they will never ever be found. After one of those Cambodians got you, that will be the last time anyone has ever heard of you. Stray dogs will appreciate your maggoty flesh as they get treated like shit and are never fed by their masters so a little feast of this sort will surely do them good. BTW, Mahatma Gandhi once said that “you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals”. If that is true, than Cambodians are some of the most horrible people in the world. If you ever come to Cambodia, just take notice of how locals treat their animals and you still can breathe after it, remember the quote and draw your own conclusions.

Angkor Rapes

Despite obvious dangers, most visitors to Angkor will not experience problems as Angkor sees thousands of foreign visitors every day making violent crime in most areas difficult. That being said, wandering off populated areas or exploring temples solo is a very risky business. Yet it gets far worse if you are a girl. Cambodia is a rape capital of the world. Many, many and then some girls were raped in less frequented temples and none of it was investigated. Rape itself is the worst experience a girl could ask for during her travels, but getting raped in Cambodia also comes with additional, complimentary present – HIV!

None of the local girls dare to wander around after dark. They all lock up in their homes and always make sure a male they can trust, such as their brother is nearby because rape hungry Cambodians won’t stop at closed doors. Just about every Cambodian girl you ever get a chance to talk to has either already been raped or came this close to it. Shockingly, true Cambodian won’t shy away from any girl, regardless how young. Sexual abuse of children by Cambodian males is an every day thing and that also involves children who can’t even speak or talk yet.

When you are in Cambodia, it’s not about whether you will be a victim of crime, it’s about when. If you are lucky, you will come and leave before someone pulls it on you. That by no means that you only met nice people. That simply means that you didn’t give them a chance to attack you. If you keep your eyes open, you will see how just about every Cambodian will check you out closely, carefully estimating what the content of your pocket could be and how difficult it would be to gain control of it. They are extremely skilled in thievery and anyone whose observant enough will notice how they always check you thoroughly out for what could be stolen, even if it will not always lead to an attempt to steal. Intentions are undeniable, though.

Angkor Roads

Because Angkor is so overrun with tourists, you will be a difficult target for most fishy Cambodians even though they will relentlessly wait for their moment. This is the reason why most tourists get out of Cambodia unharmed. Many of them lack the ability to read people or are simply too dumbed down to see the obvious but to their credit, they will come back from Cambodia with naught but happy memories. Ignorance truly is a bliss. Perhaps the key to enjoying your stay in otherwise truly dangerous Cambodia is to party it out completely oblivious to dangers as unless you try to be an explorer, the likelihood of something bad happening to you is reasonably low.

However – and that’s a BIG however… even though you may avoid being a victim of violent crime Cambodia is so riddled with, there is one thing you will not avoid not matter what – getting killed in a traffic accident.

Cambodians are the worst drivers in the world with virtually no traffic rules in place (or enforced) whatsoever. Their desire to compensate for their hurting egos takes flight when they sit behind the wheel of a motorcycle or a car. It makes them feel empowered so they honk horns all the time to let everyone know that their macho ego is coming through and force themselves in with no respect for bicyclists or pedestrians. Yes, Cambodia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, yet despite of all that, their drivers are so awful you are in even greater danger from being killed by a vehicle each time you step outside the room than by a blood thirsty Khmer Rouge killing machine. Just imagine how horrible the road situation must be if it’s more dangerous than their uncontrolled guns and explosives possessed by the killing machines who have been killing since their early teens. This is what real Angkor is really like. Being a photographer and a journalist makes me to walk around with my eyes open. Sometimes I wish I was different so I could live with blissful ignorance, completely oblivious to all the dangers a countries like Cambodia represents. I’d come and leave and would just write about warm locals who were extremely nice to me, because I didn’t see that they were faking it to get money off of me. I’d write about helpful locals who showed me hidden treasures because I didn’t see they were setting me up but their plan was busted last minute by a group of Japanese guided tourists who showed up at what could have been the crime scene had they not been there.

Symbolism of Angkor Thom

When Jayavarman VII built Angkor Thom, he made sure it’s well fortified but physical fortification was only part of the city’s strenght. Angkor Thom was also built to be protected by divine powers. There is deep symbolism in much of Angkor Thom’s architecture – let’s take a look at its most significant features:

Similar to the symbolism of Angkor Wat, the world Angkor Thom represents is enclosed within the rock wall that’s 8 meters (26 feet) tall beyond which there is the great ocean symbolized by the surrounding moat. 54 deities and 54 demons guarding each entrance to Angkor Thom represent 108 protectors of the city – the sacred number linked to the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

Photo: 54 Figures of Deities Guarding the South Gate to Angkor Thom
Photo: 54 Figures of Deities Guarding the South Gate to Angkor Thom

Nagas – multi-headed serpents held firmly by a row of 54 guardians on each side of the causeway leading to the gate across the moat represent serpent Vasuki from Hindu mythology. The serpents are ready to spit poison at the enemy out of each of their seven heads and have their tails erect to terminate all those who still make it through. With their seven heads, Nagas also serve as Khmer symbols of rainbow – the bridge between heaven and earth, between the world of the gods and the world of men.

To help keep watch over the city, Jayavarman VII crowned top of the city gates and the many towers of the state temple Bayon with faces of Lokeshvara. His compassionate, but attentive faces bearing the features of the king himself keep close watch over the city of Angkor Thom in all the directions.

Photo: Symbolism of Angkor Thom - Faces of Bayon Looking Over the Royal City
Photo: Symbolism of Angkor Thom - Faces of Bayon Looking Over the Royal City

Angkor Thom was taken over by sacking Chams in 1177 but the immortal city of Yashodhara was reclaimed for Khmer people by king Jayavarman VII in 1181. The king then built the wall and moat around it the fortification and symbolism of which proved so solid, future Khmer kings stayed in the city and remodelled Bayon, instead of building their own royal cities and state temples.

Exploring Angkor Wat

After much hustle and bustle, with nothing else getting in the way, I was finally laying my first steps across the sandstone causeway that bridges the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. Vastly unhindered, I wiped the sweat off my face into a t-shirt and headed straight against the sun. The wait was over, I am here, exploring Angkor Wat.

Photo: Exploring Angkor Wat
Photo: Exploring Angkor Wat

Based on Hindu mythology, Angkor Wat represents the center of the universe with five peaks of Mount Maru in its center. Being world’s largest religious monument, the name of Angkor Wat justifies its meaning in Khmer language – city which became a temple. When you go exploring Angkor Wat, you will find yourself within the walls of what was once a magnificent city. Today, Angkor Wat remains an architectural masterpiece of Khmer construction graced by almost 2,000 carvings of Apsaras and 600 meters of narrative bas reliefs.

The sandstone bridge across the moat is said to have replaced the wooden bridge that once existed to connect the outside world with the temple but has decayed overtime. The bridge as it is right now doesn’t have any railings or other barrier to protect people from falling into the moat. The balustrade is a body of a seven-headed serpent but only exists at expanded areas of the bridge. Yet because this is Cambodia and not North America, there were no signs warning people of not coming too close to the edge or risking the danger of falling into the moat. However there was a sign protecting the balustrade from damage that sitting on it could cause. Good call.

Photo: No Sitting on Balustrade - a Sign Warns
Photo: No Sitting on Balustrade - a Sign Warns

Several young boys spent the morning jumping off the bridge and into the moat to cool their bodies off and protect themselves from scorching heat. Others sat on the edge with hand-made fishing rods looking to catch the fish to eat for supper. Even though Angkor Wat is a popular tourist destination, the life for villagers doesn’t stop so they continue doing what they used to prior to the temples of Angkor becoming as popular as they are now. The presence of thousands of tourists doesn’t seem to bother them at all (or maybe it serves as a way to show off).

Few steps lead to the west gopura – an entrance pavilion that serves as a main gateway to the hallways and passages within the exterior wall. Bunch of locals were sitting at the doorway steps making me the only who could not wait to get inside to hide from the sun that was frying me alive.

To the left and to the right of this central gopura there are additional entrances with doorways large enough to allow an elephant through. This gave them the name of “Elephant Gates”. It is quite likely that when Angkor Wat was constructed, there were bridges across the moat each leading to either of the Elephant Gates.

Photo: Naga, the Seven Headed Serpent as Balustrade with the Elephant Gate in the Background
Photo: Naga, the Seven Headed Serpent as Balustrade with the Elephant Gate in the Background

To the right of main gopura there is small shrine still within the outer enclosure which contains a statue of Vishnu. This statue with eight arms is believed to have once been located in Angkor Wat’s central sanctuary (while the temple was still dedicated to Hinduism).

As I continued exploring the insides of the exterior wall, I noticed that there were many, randomly placed statues of both Buddha and Vishnu (mostly Buddha) there. You could tell one was nearby by smelling the essence of burning sticks. There would usually be some locals knelt before the statue, praying to the deity it represents holding their own incense stick firmly clasped between their palms. On top of people praying though, there would also be scam artists, often involving old women with shaved heads (female version of a monk) who would hand you a burning stick and prompt you to put it with all others in a holder at the statue’s feet for good luck and fortune, but the catch is that they would insist on a donation which as they claim would go to the monks and to upkeep the temple. This is obviously a scam. None of the money will be used any way other than personally by the person who gets it from you. These people hang around the spots where tourists go and abuse the holy place and the divinity portrayed for their own enrichment. They work with the moment of surprise, appearing next to you out of nowhere, handing you the incense stick. Unaware what to do, it is a natural instinct of a foreigner to take what is offered to the, so as not to offend anyone and show respect for a deity that may be anticipating this action. Unfortunately, once you take hold of an incense stick, it will be difficult to talk your way out of handing the money over. If anything is handed to you, don’t ever take it or it instantly means that you have to pay for it.

Even though passages inside the walls provide shelter from the devastating rays of Cambodian sun, they won’t offer many opportunities to cool off. It’s as hot or hotter within those stone walls as it is outside on direct sun. The sun roasts the stones every day and that heat radiates back keeping the corridors at the boiling point. You basically have nowhere to hide from noncompromising heat and unless you keep well hydrated, Angkor Wat is gonna burn you out sooner than you’d care to admit.

There is no electricity in any of the temples hence no chance of stepping in an air-conditioned room or at least as little as a fan to wash the sweat off your brow. Exploring Angkor Wat is an extremely hot and sweaty effort. I’ve met several people who underestimated Cambodian heat, purchased three day passes to Angkor but only used their first day. They could not handle any more of that heat and let the rest of their entrance pass go to waste.

Since there is no electricity within Angkor Wat, the only source of light is through the windows which are evenly distributed throughout the walls. Windows are nicely decorated with lathe-turned balusters keeping the awe ongoing no matter which part of Angkor Wat you are exploring at any given moment.

Photo: Lathe Turned Decorated Windows on Angkor Wat - Exterior Wall
Photo: Lathe Turned Decorated Windows on Angkor Wat - Exterior Wall

As the name of the temple suggests, Angkor Wat was once a city. The scale of the city became evident after I exited the passages inside the exterior wall and stepped back down onto a causeway that follows through until it reaches the cruciform terrace staircase of the central temple 350 meters further. Only houses of Gods were built of stone, human dwellings were built of wood and have long since been claimed by the decay of time. Vast, open areas on both sides of the causeway once housed dwellings for people who resided in Angkor Wat. Even king Suryavarman II’s castle was made of wood and is believed to have been located just north of the central temple. People did not live within the structures we see at Angkor today. Human dwellings are all gone. What is left are mountain-temples built for the gods, such as Vishnu to whom Angkor Wat was dedicated.

Causeway is decorated on both sides with balustrades in the form of seven-headed serpents locally known as “nagas”. There are seven nagas on each side of the causeway. After about 50 meters, each of the nagas turns and that’s where an access point to the original city from the causeway is created. You can take the steps down to walk on the grass or to get to the libraries which are each on one side of the causeway further ahead.

Photo: Damaged Naga at the End of Balustrade Lining Up the Causeway to Angkor Wat
Photo: Damaged Naga at the End of Balustrade Lining Up the Causeway to Angkor Wat

Since it was an early morning and the temple ahead of me was not very photogenic due to strong backlight created by the rising sun, turning around to take pictures of the gapura behind me was awesome. There are some apsara carvings on the insides of the exterior wall which look great in the morning light and the whole wall also makes for some decent photos on its own.

Libraries are stand alone buildings with doorways on each cardinal point and are believed to have been shrines, rather than manuscript repositories. They are not that big on the inside, but the space gains on volume thanks to their height. They are otherwise empty and don’t attract that many people. Just as the rest of Angkor Wat, you will find temporary refuge from devastating sun rays, but no feeling of cooler air whatsoever. It’s as hot or hotter within the libraries as ancient stones bombarded by unceasing sunrays radiate heat of their own turning each of the libraries into a sauna.

Further ahead of the libraries are two ponds. The one on the left is where best pictures of Angkor Wat can be taken from. You can get the shape of the temple reflected by the waters of the pond and that simply can not be beat. There is no better spot to take pictures of Angkor Wat anywhere within the enclosure. Perhaps from the air, if you took a helicopter tour, then you could match the awesomeness of the pond picture, but unless you shell out for an option to get aerial shots, this is your best spot. Again though, it’s gonna look like crap in the morning because of strong backlight, however you do have to come back in the afternoon anyway so when you do, that’s where you’re gonna go to get your best shots of Angkor Wat.

Photot: Angkor Wat Picture with Reflection in the Pond Taken from the Popular Photo Spot
Photot: Angkor Wat Picture with Reflection in the Pond Taken from the Popular Photo Spot

It is said that the ponds have not been the part of the original design of Angkor Wat. The space they occupy was originally dedicated to the dwellings of city’s residents but after the city was abandoned and houses fell apart (16th century?), ponds were created in their place. The cruciform terrace that’s at the top of the staircase starting at the end of the causeway bears architectural elements that differ from the rest of the city making scholars believe that it was also added later.

Cruciform terrace contains a gopura that leads inside the central temple. Since the terrace is elevated, turning back and facing the sun illuminated area which was once a powerful and prosperous Khmer city offers yet better impression of its scale. Hidden under the line of trees along the northern exterior wall are stalls with beverages, snacks and souvenirs. You need to allow about (understand “at least”) two hours to properly explore Angkor Wat and take my word for it – 15 minutes under Cambodian sun is more than enough to handle at one time. By the time you have gotten to the cruciform terrace, it’s actually time to walk back down to hide under the trees and recharge bodily fluids with cold water or, better yet – fresh coconut. You’ll need more energy for the next step – exploring the Angkor Wat central temple.

Angkor Archaeological Park

All of those magnificent, world famous temples of the the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire that drive millions of tourists to Cambodia each year are housed within the Angkor Archaeological Park. Covering an area of more than 400 square kilometers, Angkor Archaeological Park is the largest religious complex in the world. Today, Angkor Archaeological Park is considered to be one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s International World Heritage Program UNESCO in 1992.

Angkorian-era of the Khmer Empire lasted between 9th and 13th centuries during which most of the famous tamples of the Angkor Archaeological Park were built. Some of the temples date back to the 8th century while the latest additions come from the 1500s.

The most famous temple of the Angkor Archaeological Park is, expectedly Angkor Wat with Bayon Temple located within larger Angkor Thom counting as close second. The complete list of all 53 temple ruins located within Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap Province of Cambodia is below:

  • Ak Yum
  • Angkor Thom
  • Angkor Wat
  • Bakong
  • Baksei Chamkrong
  • Banteay Kdei
  • Banteay Prei
  • Banteay Samre
  • Banteay Srey
  • Baphuon
  • Bat Chum
  • Bayon
  • Beng Melea
  • Chapel of the Hospital
  • Chau Say Tevoda
  • East Mebon
  • Kbal Spean
  • Kleangs (North and South)
  • Krol Ko
  • Krol Romeas
  • Kutisvara
  • Lolei
  • Neak Pean
  • Phimeanakas
  • Phnom Bakheng
  • Phnom Krom
  • Phnom Kulen
  • Prasat Bei
  • Prasat Kravan
  • Prasat Prei
  • Prasat Suor Prat
  • Prasat Top (East) 
  • Prasat Top (West)
  • Pre Rup
  • Preah Khan
  • Preah Ko
  • Preah Palilay
  • Preah Pithu Group
  • Roluos Group
  • Spean Thma
  • Srah Srang
  • Ta Keo
  • Ta Nei
  • Ta Prohm
  • Ta Prohm Kel 
  • Ta Som
  • Tep Pranam
  • Terrace of the Elephants
  • Terrace of the Leper King
  • Thma Bay Kaek
  • Thommanon
  • Wat Athvea
  • West Mebon

The entire Angkor Archaeological Park is located in Siem Reap Province with the town of Siem Reap serving its main tourist and business hub.

Additional pre-Angkorian and Angkorian-era temple ruins are located Takeo Province, south of Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh. From historical and archaeological perspective, the temples in Takeo Province are some of the most important, however their visual appeal and magnificance don’t match up to the temples of Angkor Archaeological Park.

Apsara Dance Siem Reap

I didn’t know much about Cambodia before I came to Siem Reap but being here, I learned about Khmer Classical Dance called Apsara Dance early on. They say no visit to Cambodia is complete until you have attended a traditional Apsara Dance performance and since Siem Reap is the heart of Cambodian tourism, many tourist venues offer Apsara performances on a daily basis.

Photo: Dimly Lit Stage with Lights Shining at Apsara Dancers from the Bottom
Photo: Dimly Lit Stage with Lights Shining at Apsara Dancers from the Bottom on Temple Club

Apsara Dance has been part of Khmer culture for centuries. This fact is evident from thousands of bas-reliefs found on the walls of ancient Angkorian and pre-Angkorian temples. This artform suggests that Apsara dancers were not mere ritual performers that entertained people during the Angkorian period. They were also believed to have been the messengers to divinities.

I have already been in Siem Reap for a week and have already had an honor of seeing an Amateur Apsara Dance, but wanted to also attend an actual Apsara Dance show which would be performed as it’s supposed to be – with choreographed story and traditional Khmer costumes. I kept my eyes open and went to enquire with several venues in Siem Reap about their Apsara Dance shows.

This was my last night at Two Dragons Guesthouse so I rode my bike to Apsara Theater because it’s in the same area (Wat Bo) to enquire about their admission fees. From what I was told by other people, Apsara Theater is the only air conditioned theater in Siem Reap and their shows are said to be the best in town. Unfortunately, they are also very pricey. At the time of my enquiry, the admission fee was $38 which included supper. The best show in Siem Reap or not, this price was out of my range. I wanted to see Apsara Dance, but I didn’t want to spend over thirty dollars for it. In Cambodian terms, this is a lot of money. It’s an equivalent to charging $1,500 for a show in Canada.

Several upscale hotels have big signs outside their main entrances advertising Free Apsara Shows however upon enquiring, I found out that while their shows are free, visitors are expected to order dinner which typically starts in a $20 range and seems to go up to infinity. This wasn’t an option either. I knew there was gonna have to be a free Apsara Dance show somewhere in Siem Reap in an establishment with reasonably priced food. And I found it in a club I wanted to avoid due to bragging sign that they are recommended by the Lonely Planet – Temple Club on Pub Street.

Photo: Apsara Dancer in a Traditional Khmer Dress
Photo: Apsara Dancer in a Traditional Khmer Dress

Free shows at Temple Club start at 7.30pm so I got there at around 7 to catch a decent seat. I had my telephoto lens mounted on the cam but my battery was running low. I expected the place to be overcrowded for the show, but it wasn’t. There were many people, but it was nowhere near full, which I have enjoyed immensely. It gave me the opportunity to move freely and find a decent spot for pictures and I didn’t have to spend the show kneeling so people behind me can see. I came to realize that even though this is a free show, they are running these free shows every night so it’s not a rare opportunity for anyone, hence attendance is hefty, yet not overwhelming.

I’ve order the fish from the menu which cost $5 – so far the most expensive meal I have purchased in Cambodia, however the taste and presentation made it worth it. If the way your food is presented on a plate makes for the restaurant, then Temple Club is the winner. And taste didn’t lack in any way either.

Photo: Apsara Dancer from the Free Show at Temple Club Upstairs
Photo: Apsara Dancer from the Free Show at Temple Club Upstairs

The show started by a three member Pinpeat Orchestra setting up their instruments on the side of the stage and playing traditional Khmer music for about 20 minutes. I was already done with my dinner so I just enjoyed the tunes. After about 20 minute musical intermezzo, a voice from a person on a microphone in a hidden spot announced the dance and introduced it briefly by explaining what it’s about. He said that rather than just being a dance, an Apsara Dance always conveys a story and told us what this first story will be about. Similar audio guidance was introduced before each new number.

A single girl in a traditional Khmer costume came on stage slowly pacing her way from the back towards the front of the stage with little impressive about her, but an amazing hand movements. Additional 4 girls joined her later during the song for a synchronized, yet slow paced dance. Apsara is very slow. The beauty and magic is not in speed and neck breaking stunts. It’s in an amazing sense of balance and posing. Faces of Apsara Dancers bore blank, emotionless look throughout the show. The emotions were expressed through an absolutely mind-boggling movement of their hands and fingers.

Photo: Finger Movement - the Staple of an Apsara Dance
Photo: Finger Movement - the Staple of an Apsara Dance

When you watch Apsara Dancers perform a number, it all seems very easy because the dance doesn’t involve any tossing, jumping, spinning or otherwise dangerous routines. However it is not easy at all. There is a great deal of flexibility and unsurpassed balancing in the most unimaginable positions. But most of all, Apsara Dance is a showcase of how much can be told through the movement of fingers. If you are a hand person, the dexterity of their fingers will blow you away.

I have enjoyed the free Apsara Show provided by Temple Club immensely. I didn’t stay until the end because my camera battery died and I was getting eaten by relentless mosquitoes. I had to go back to the guesthouse and apply a thick layer of Muskol to be able to go back outside for a beer (which also helps to keep mosquitoes away by supplying the body with B Vitamins).

The only negative about the show had nothing to do with the show. Pub Street is the “to be” place for all tourists after dark and that’s precisely where you would find them in the late hours. Because of that, Pub Street also attracts countless touts and other locals looking to score some hard cash off of tourists. There is a band that performs outside and their loud bells sound too distracting and take away from an enjoyable show. It’s unfortunate, but Pub Street is all about who’s gonna be louder. It spoils the experience a little but performers have no control over it and are definitely not to blame. Other than this one negative, I have nothing but the positives to say about the Apsara Dance in Temple Club.

My stay in Cambodia was slowly becoming complete. I have already seen the Apsara Dance, but still had the biggest adventure ahead of me – exploring the temples of Angkor Wat and the rest of the Archaeological Park. I had my mountain bike which was gonna serve as my sole means transport and was going to move to a guesthouse that was both close to Wat Preah Prom Rath where I was teaching English and it was on the road that lead directly to Angkor. The only thing I needed was a day without rain.

Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap

Center for Khmer Studies is located within the Wat Damnak compound in Siem Reap. Aside from being at the forefront of promotion of Khmer culture in the world, Center for Khmer Studies also focuses on research and education among Cambodians.

Photo: Sign Informing About the Center for Khmer Studies Building
Photo: Sign Informing About the Center for Khmer Studies Building

Center for Khmer Studies is a US corporation recognized as a tax-exempt institution which basically means that they can legally and officially collect donations and issue tax deductible receipts to donors (I believe all that is possible – not sure, I’m not an American myself). While I was unable to verify how big a chunk of donations goes directly towards operations of Center for Khmer Studies and how much is kept as “administrative fees”, I remained positive that this is one institutions where charity scam is not a daily bread operation. Unfortunately, scam charities are not uncommon in Cambodia so anyone who’s been here long enough will grow very wary of anyone using charitable purpose as store front. However as it turns out with Center for Khmer Studies, they have something to show for their donations so this would be one of few NGOs where at least some, if not most of the donations go towards actual good cause.

Photo: Small in Size, but Big in Significance - Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap
Photo: Small in Size, but Big in Significance - Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap

Part of the Center for Khmer Studies is a walk-in library which is the largest in Cambodia outside of that in capital Phnom Penh. The plaque by the library says that library of the Center for Khmer Studies is under high patronage of His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni. As far as size of the institution is concerned – it may not be a monstrous behemoth, but despite its smaller size it’s recognized worldwide and has been chosen by many foreign scholars who came here to study Khmer culture.

Photo: Entrance to Center for Khmer Studies at Wat Damnak Area
Photo: Entrance to Center for Khmer Studies at Wat Damnak Area
Photo: The Carved Gable on Top of Center for Khmer Studies Building
Photo: The Carved Gable on Top of Center for Khmer Studies Building
Photo: Blooming Tree in Front of Center for Khmer Studies Building
Photo: Blooming Tree in Front of Center for Khmer Studies Building

Wat Damnak Photo Gallery

As you will be able to tell from the photo gallery below, Wat Damnak is one of the most beautiful pagodas in Siem Reap and Cambodia all together. While today it serves as a pagoda, it was once a royal palace, which explains its magnificence. That’s also where name Wat Damnak comes from. In Khmer language, Dam Nak means Palace. Former Cambodian king – King Sisowath used Dam Nak as his residence.

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine blew my mind right out because of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding my discovery of it. The presence of thousands of Cambodian Flying Foxes that circled over Royal Independence Gardens where the shrine is located gave it the movie-like feel. Subtle but pronounced illumination of shrine’s edges and distinct roof draws eyes of passers-by after dark and since it was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine was enveloped in a haze of smoke from hundreds of burning incense sticks which is part of Khmer ritual surrounding the Festival of the Dead. There was no other temple or shrine anywhere in Cambodia that would leave me with profound impressions similar to those I felt after visiting Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine.

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine - Beautiful Little Shrine
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine - Beautiful Little Shrine

History of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine

As its name suggests, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is dedicated to two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm. Two standing statues located inside depict these two Buddhas: Preah Ang Chek is the taller Buddha and Preah Ang Chorm is the shorter Buddha. Local Cambodians believe that Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine provides protection for entire town of Siem Reap. Legends have it that when Khmer Rogue, who were on a mission to destroy religion in Cambodia, entered Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine and attempted to remove both Buddha statues, these were growing heavier by the second until they’ve reached such weight that Khmer Rogue cadres were unable to move them. Aside from beliefs of its indestructibility, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is also believed to bring good fortune to newly married couples and is therefore frequently visited by newlyweds on their wedding day.

Buddhist Devotees Gathered Round Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to Commemmorate Pchum Ben Festival
Buddhist Devotees Gathered Round Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to Commemmorate Pchum Ben Festival

Inside Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine

As soon as I was done admiring heart-stopping Fruit Bats I proceeded to pay the visit to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. The place was incredibly busy with whole families coming in and out all the time. There were Buddhists praying at every part of the shrine, whether it was inside before the statues of two Buddhas or outside by large pot where devotees put their burning incense sticks.

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine Photographed at Dusk, Before Full Night Set In
Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine Photographed at Dusk, Before Full Night Set In

Pilgrims and Beggars

From what I found out, Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is a place of great reverence for pilgrims and beggars. It was easily noticeable that all visitors entering the gates of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine gave the beggars some money. There were quite a few of them and from my independent observation, they were cashing in big time. Out of hundreds of families I saw come in, virtually every members would give them some. They probably made more cash there in one day that all those families see in a year.

Despite my solid and well reasoned philosophy that I don’t give to the beggars, I caught myself breaking my own rule on the steps to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. There was this boy who was incredibly crooked. He was crawling around the ground with all limbs and facial features crooked really badly. He was obviously not faking his condition and it seemed pretty bad, however as I have observed later, he was not disabled enough to safely grab at handed money and store it in his large pockets. He truly needed massive pockets to store all those bills that were coming in large numbers from everyone entering the shrine. My beef with him was that he came chasing after me as I was walking in, and did the same as I was walking out. I told him I gave him already and just because he sees me again, it doesn’t mean I was gonna give him again. I did not have this type of budget, no matter how much I would like to help. He was extremely hard to get rid of as he knew real well how to use his disability to his advantage.

Crooked Beggar who Makes a Lot of Money at the Steps to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
Crooked Beggar who Makes a Lot of Money at the Steps to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine

Street Vendors at Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine

The area along National Road #6, on south west corner of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine houses several street vendors selling flowers, decorated coconuts, incense sticks and live birds. These items could be bought by the Buddhists heading to the shrine and used as offering for the Buddha statues inside. Most of these made good sense to me, except from live birds. I don’t know how they capture these beautiful, wild birds, but somehow they do and keep them in small cages where many of them are cramped together. Bottoms of these cages are sprinkled with dead birds who suffocated in confined space, or were trampled by too many other birds inside, or simply beat themselves to death trying to escape.

Some Cambodians Make Their Living by Capturing Wild Birds and Selling them at Shrines for Release by Buddhists
Some Cambodians Make Their Living by Capturing Wild Birds and Selling them at Shrines for Release by Buddhists

People who buy these birds, hold them between their palms they keep locked together as if in a player, often close to their mouth with eyes closed while they utter a prayer in their minds and then they release them. This is an extremely sad sight for me as I feel strongly for the animals and while some of those released birds take off happy to be returned back to their wild homes, many try to fly but go straight for the ground. Their wings are too crippled from being caged for so long, or they’re broken from overcrowded cages, or they are otherwise disabled and can’t fly anymore. You can find these dead birds sprinkled all over the grassy padding of the Royal Independence Gardens and it’s truly a sad sight. I couldn’t believe this abuse of birds was happening and that local Khmer people think it’s really awesome. They think Buddha likes it when they release the birds in the wild, but they don’t take into account what birds go through in order to be available for sale and subsequent release. Very sad 🙁

Dead Bird in Royal Independence Gardens - Some People Turn This into Business
Dead Bird in Royal Independence Gardens - Some People Turn This into Business

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine on Pchum Ben Festival

The shrine was so alive it was breathtaking. The shriek of thousands of bats above was dubbed by chatter of hundreds of people below. There was a traditional Cambodian band playing traditional Khmer music on the right hand side of the terrace, several Buddhist Monks were kneeling on the left to accept offering from devotees and give them blessings. The inside of the shrine was getting filled up with offering from devoted Buddhists. It was dark outside but the smoke from incense sticks and the lights of the shrine created a peaceful and mellow atmosphere in which anyone could enjoy themselves by just sitting and observing. Which is exactly what I was doing. I found Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to be a magical place and visited it often. Besides, the Fruit Bats were the coolest thing in all of Cambodia.

Traditional Khmer Band Playing Music at Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine
Traditional Khmer Band Playing Music at Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine at Night Photo Gallery

Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine at Night Photo Gallery

This photo gallery contains pictures of Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine in the Royal Independence Gardens in Siem Reap taken at night. This was also the first night of Pchum Ben Festival so the shrine was being continuously flooded with Cambodians bringing offerings for the Buddha and food for the dead. Few stalls selling decorated flower bouquets, decorated coconuts, burning incense sticks and live birds were nearby so devotees can purchase those for use within the temple. There was a band with traditional Khmer instruments set on the shrine floor playing traditional Khmer music. Few monks were seated on the side to give people blessings and take offerings of food and clothes from devoted Buddhists. Inside a small room, there were two statues of Buddha and people were hanging flower rings on them, touching their hands or just leaving other offerings at their feet. Hundreds upon hundreds of incense sticks were being lit up and burned in a large ashtray. The smoke from these could be smelled and seen half a mile away. Devotees also prey before the Buddha images with their palms joined together for a prayer while burning incense sticks are held between the palms. Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine is a small, but nicely located and beautifully built shrine that enjoys vast popularity among people of Siem Reap. The gallery is below:

Pchum Ben Festival in Cambodia – Feeding the Spirits of the Dead

As I was receiving my introduction to Buddhism, I was told about the reason why Wat Preah Prom Rath pagoda was so full of people, why traditional Khmer music was being played from a loudspeaker why there was so much food all over the place. It was the first day of Pchum Ben Festival, which was loosely translated to me as The Festival of the Dead or sometimes as The Festival of the Souls (or spirits).

Pchum Ben is a Buddhist Festival but even though Cambodia is surrounded by other Theravada Buddhist nations, Pchum Ben is only celebrated in Cambodia and nowhere else. Pchum Ben Festival celebrations last for 15 days with final, culminating day falling on the 15th day of the 10th month of the Khmer calendar. Granted, Khmer calendar is different from the Gregorian one which is the one used by western countries so even though it was the beginning of September, the Pchum Ben Festival has already started.

Cambodian Buddhists Praying During Pchum Ben Festival at Wat Preah Prom Rath Temple
Cambodian Buddhists Praying During Pchum Ben Festival at Wat Preah Prom Rath Temple

The most prominent observation a foreigner notices during Cambodian Pchum Ben Festival is the fact that it involves a lot of food. You see Khmer families coming to temples and pagodas carrying dishes with food which they arrange along the walkways while they spend hours chanting prayers inside temples, kneeling before statues of Buddha. As it was explained to me, the food is meant for the dead. The premise of Pchum Ben Festival is to feed the spirits of the dead. Cambodians firmly believe that the act of feeding the souls of their deceased predecessors will make their stay on Earth more enjoyable.

During Pchum Ben the spirits of the dead descend from the spirit world and walk the Earth. Those who are still alive prey for their souls and offer them food. As it goes with Buddhist Monks in Cambodia, people also bring food for them. The festival is very spiritual and considerably one of the most important festivals in Khmer calendar. As the history of Pchum Ben has it, the festival was originally celebrated for three months but has been shortened to 15 days as modern lifestyle makes 3 months of celebration complicated.

After me and my girl guide were done talking about the life of Buddha, we went to the prayer hall where several people were already gathered and chanted their prayers as one while their chants were played back from a loudspeaker. As confused westerner, I asked if I could join them for a prayer and take a few pictures while I was at it. There was no issue with that as Cambodians are vastly tolerant of foreigners when it comes to cultural and religious differences.

Pchum Ben - Festival of the Dead, Notice the Time on the Clock. I Had 15 Minutes Till my English Lecture at 5pm
Pchum Ben - Festival of the Dead, Notice the Time on the Clock. I Had 15 Minutes Till my English Lecture at 5pm

This was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival but as it became apparent during the following 15 days, Pchum Ben was a big deal for Khmer people who take the festival very seriously and dedicate most of their focus to it while the festivities last. Even Cambodians who are otherwise non religious would prepare their food and bring the offerings to one of the temples. during Pchum Ben Little did I know at the time that the most significant events of my personal stay in Cambodia will be directly connected to Pchum Ben. Let the festivities begin!