Royal Residence is where the king of Cambodia stays on his visits to Siem Reap. Given that Siem Reap is Cambodia’s main cash cow thanks to proximity to Angkor Wat, king’s focus on Siem Reap is apparent. How much time the king actually spends in Siem Reap I do not know. Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodian capital city is far superior a dwelling to Siem Reap’s Royal residence.
There is a traffic circle on the corner of the Royal Residence which I believe is the only actual traffic circle in Siem Reap, though there is another one outside of town limit, on the intersection of National Road #6 and the road leading to Siem Reap Airport. The corner of Royal Residence facing the traffic circle has a large poster with an image of the king. The image is nicely illuminated at night. The Stone Bridge which goes across Stung Siem Reap on the opposite side of the traffic circle is one way only – you can’t cross it going east, only coming back towards the Royal Residence.
I have never actually been inside of the Royal Residence in Siem Reap (nor have I gone to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, since entrance fee is a bit too high) so I can’t comment on whether there is anything to see. I’m not even sure whether public is allowed to enter. My guess would be it’s not as I have never see its doors open or any foreigners walking in or out. It’s probably not used unless King Norodom Sihamoni or other members of the royal family are in Siem Reap.
The only significance of the Royal Residence for me was its immediate proximity to Royal Independence Gardens – my most favourite place in all of Cambodia, thanks to the Flying Foxes. A road to Angkor Wat also leads by the Royal Palace so unless you are staying in one of the hotels or guesthouses which are at far end of Siem Reap, you will have passed by it on your way to and from the Angkor Archaeological Park.
The Ya-Tep Shrine is unique in a way that it’s built right in the middle of a major road passing through Siem Reap (National Highway #6) so the road splits to go around it. Since Ya-Tep Shrine is a small structure, it only creates an effect of a traffic circle, not any major detours. Despite its small size, it’s a busy shrine that enjoys immense popularity among local Khmer people. It is said that the statue of Ya Tep that is housed within the shrine is a powerful spirit locally known as Neak-Ta. Neat-Ka spirits are localized, meaning that they protect the land where they are located and the people who live in the area. Ya Tep spirit is also believed to bring good luck to people playing the lottery so the shrine gets particularly busy on days of the draw.
While Ya-Tep Shrine is a standalone unit that’s not part of anything bigger, it is located right between two important landmarks of Siem Reap – Royal Residence is to the south of the shrine and Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine to the north. Ya-Tep Shrine is basically right in the middle of the road that separates these two.
The night when I discovered majestic Flying Foxes in the Royal Independence Garden and stayed to take pictures of people bringing offerings for the dead, the Buddha and the Monks since it was the beginning of Pchum Ben Festival was also the night I first saw Ya-Tep Shrine. Well, no kidding since it’s only half the road across. Local Buddhists who paid a visit to Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine also stayed for a player and burned incense sticks before the statue of Ya-Tep.
The popularity and high regard of Ya-Tep Shrine was truly evident. Each time I would be passing by on my bad ass bicycle, whether it was during the day or after dark there would be people kneeling and praying before the statue of their local protector. Speed bumps to the west of the shrine slowed down the traffic so vehicles don’t run into the island housing the shine or people who frequently come to the shrine to pray. Sadly, because of close proximity of several major landmarks, poshy hotels (Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor and Victoria Angkor Hotel) and Angkor Shopping Center, the area is overrun with Tuk Tuk drivers who will do their best to annoy the heck out of you while you are enjoying the sweet shriek of gianormous Fruit Bats. Ahh well… Tuk Tuk drivers, the plague of Cambodia.
As soon as I could recognize what was making that loud shriek I could hear from a block away I was impressed with extraordinary size and numbers of these bats. These bats are locally known as the Flying Foxes because truly the reference to a flying mouse would be highly disproportionate to their actual size. I would have never thought bats this huge exist. As I have later found out, Flying Foxes belong to the Fruit Bats sub group (Pteropodidae family) and some fruit bats are known to grow this huge. There were thousands of these flying foxes high up in the trees and since it was dusk, they were all waking up and started getting active. It took me a while to recognize a shape of a bat against the dark blue sky, especially since I’ve never seen a bat of such humongous size.
This entire place had an amazingly magical feel. First of all I found myself amidst beautiful garden with pathway lined with huge trees tops of which were a dwelling place of monstrous bats and secondly, in the middle of it all there was a small-ish, but gracefully illuminated shrine which was incredibly busy because it was the first day of Pchum Ben Festival and both nearby Ya-Tep Shrine as well as Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine are believed to gain magical powers this time of year allowing Buddhist devotees to deliver their food for the dead. I was impressed how none of hundreds of people visiting the shrine would pay any attention to overwhelming numbers of huge flying foxes above their heads. And similarly, none of the thousands of bats flying over the shrine would care about any of us humans down below. It was such a sense of incredible harmony between men and nature my heart felt like jumping out of my chest with joy. I’m very environmentally conscious and seeing animals strive in an area close to humans gives me some hope for our future as the species.
Oddly enough, as I have found out later, flying foxes or any other kind of bats that can be found throughout Cambodia are habitually killed for food. Virtually anything that can be eaten, is eaten in Cambodia. Not only bats, but also spiders, cockroaches, snakes, toads and whole lot of anything that has meat on it. Luckily for Royal Independence Gardens flying foxes, because these gardens are right opposite Royal Residence and because of presence of holy Buddhist place (Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine), killing these fruit bats was strongly prohibited here. The Royal Independence Gardens were a safe-haven for Flying Foxes. It was a sanctuary where they could peacefully live and breed and both they do. They truly strive here.
I have fallen in love with Royal Independence Gardens immediately after this first exposure to it. I have fallen in love with shriek these bats make and with their sizes and numbers. This became my most favorite place in all of Cambodia and I would visit often, especially if I didn’t particularly feel well.
The shriek of Flying Foxes was like poetry to my ears. There were so many people around, but all I felt like doing to to take off my camera, walk up to the walkway amidst the trees where the bats live, spread my hands wide, kneel down and say: “Come to me, my babies. I have arrived at last!”
Call me a freak, this is how awesome Flying Foxes sound. It’s an insanely loud and hair-rising shriek but when you see the power these bats wield given their numbers and size, it makes you feel powerful as well. Fruit Bats were for the win. They never seemed to have come too low to get close to people and during the day, when they slept they were inhabiting highest branches of the tallest trees in the gardens. They kept their distance from people and none of the Cambodians seem to pay any attention to them. Everyone acted as if there were no bats there. Nevermind the deafening noise and blatant presence. I must have truly looked weird having been completely captivated by them.
Since it was already dark, taking pictures of fast flying Fruit Bats was extremely difficult. I also only had wide angle lens mounted on my camera so my options for capturing a decent photo of Flying Foxes were narrow (basically equal to none). So instead I went and visited the Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine which was entirely immersed in haze from burning incense sticks. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. I was unspeakably grateful for my bicycle because it was just thanks to it that I made it to this magical place on this evening. I could not have been asked for a better place to be on the first night of Pchum Ben Festival.
As I leaving Lucky Mall, I took my right turn on the traffic lights where Siem Reap’s Sivatha Bulevard is crossed with National Road #6. According to the map this was near direct way back to Two Dragons Guesthouse and I was really looking forward to munching on my fresh watermelon. As I started riding down National Road #6 and started getting closer towards Siem Reap’s Royal Residence, I noticed quite prominent shriek coming from the opposite side. According to the map, that’s the location of Royal Independence Gardens. Since it was already dark (it basically gets dark at 6pm every day in Cambodia), I didn’t feel like strolling Royal Independence Gardens, but the shriek was so paramount, I felt attracted to it and wanted to find out what was making it.
At first I thought there must have been some ponds within the Royal Independence Gardens with millions of some viciously exotic frogs who spend their nights trying to out-shriek one another and I wasn’t far from the truth. There truly are small water reservoirs at Royal Independence Gardens, but these were no frogs.
Another thing that instantly caught my attention as I started passing by the Royal Independence Gardens was tiny Ya-Tep Shrine in the middle of the road breaking traffic in half and another, bigger shrine called Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine on the left hand side, opposite Royal Residence palace, basically directly within Royal Independence Gardens. Because this was the beginning of the Pchum Ben Festival there were many people around and with all that shriek and major commotion I felt compelled to pull over, park my bike and hang around for a bit. I was truly looking forward to munching on my watermelon, but this could wait.
I’ve parked my bicycle by the small gate that was used as a barricade to prevent motor vehicle access to the Royal Independence Gardens. There was about 100 people around. Few street vendors were selling decorated flowers, incense sticks and live birds. The smell of burning incense stick was so prevalent, the haze from the burn was so thick you could touch it. I didn’t mind it as Cambodian incense sticks have really pleasant, oriental smell that’s not offensive in any way. This whole place seemed so alive now that the sun was down and Siem Reap was engulfed in the darkness of the night, I really wanted to stay and see what exactly is happening. Plus there was that continuous loud shriek that was raising so many questions and even though it added indescribable creepiness to the night, I was attracted to it and perceived it as music to my ears. Then at one point I looked up against dark blue sky of the night and my breath was taken away. There were thousands upon thousands of bats size of an eagle filling the sky. They were the creatures making that shriek, not frogs and none of the people seemed to mind. I was in awe.