Cambodia - An Unexpexted Destination

Victoria Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap

When we moved to Singapore I was hoping to visit a lot of Asia and to learn about countries that I normally wouldn't hear much about living in the US. But I was thinking of countries like China and India. Cambodia didn't come to mind and didn't seem very interesting. I knew that it had been involved peripherally in the Vietnam War. Part of the Ho Chi Minh trail went through Cambodia and so the US bombed it repeatedly and even invaded it for a short time in 1972. And I had heard of the Khmer Rouge and knew that Pol Pot had led one of the truely monstrous regimes of the twentieth century there. But that was about it. Nothing that generated a lot of interest. There were a lot of places I wanted to visit and Cambodia wasn't on the list.

But that started to change last year. There was a big poll on the web to select the New Seven Wonders of the World. I followed it for a while and one of the places that was in the final group was Angkor Wat - a temple built about a thousand years ago in Cambodia. And during my reading on eastern religions I found references to Angkor Wat as being the largest Hindu temple complex ever built. It also showed up as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The designation usually indicates something of real historic or cultural significance. Then I saw some travel sites on the web that made reference to Angkor Wat. There were a lot of comments that it was really quite spectacular. Cambodia isn't that far from Singapore. And earlier this year the travel agency that we use, Country Holidays, was advertizing a special promotion on visiting Cambodia during the summer season. So we decided to book a trip there for a four day weekend not long after we would return from the US. It turned out that Cambodia is a fascinating country and our trip there was amazing.

Bridge approaching main gate in outer wall - Preah Khan

The hardest part of the trip was getting the dates nailed down. Our original plan was to go just a week after returning from the US. But HP had a major reorganization this summer that changed Sandy's reporting structure. Now she had to attend a staff meeting in San Diego during the time we were supposed to be in Cambodia. So we contacted Country Holidays and changed our trip. Then Sandy's new boss's boss wanted her in the US a different week. Yup, you guessed it. Right over the new dates for Cambodia. Then that meeting was cancelled. In all, I think we changed the dates four times. We got pretty discouraged. But finally Sandy's work schedule settled down and we had our trip set for August 10 through 13. The agent at Country Holidays deserved an award for putting up with our all of the changes.

Our arrangements through Country Holidays were similar to the ones we had in China. We had a dedicated local guide and a driver for our four days. We flew directly to Siem Reap, the nearest town to Angkor Wat. As seems usual lately our flight was about two hours late. Since we had gotten our visas before the trip we did get to skip the long line of tourists lined up to get on-arrival visas. That got us through customs and immigration very quickly. The Siem Reap airport is one of the smallest airports we have travele through (about the same as the airports on Bonaire or Grand Cayman). We found our guide, Mr. Pheakdey Hoy, waiting patiently for us outside. To make it easier for Western tourists, he goes by the name "Pakdei".

Pakdei explains the history of Preah Khan

We drove straight from the airport to the Victoria Angkor Hotel. It was near the center of town but was surrounded by trees with a park directly across the street (more on that later). We didn't even realize that we were only a half block off the main drag of Siem Reap until two days later. It was very quiet which is important for Sandy, the light sleeper. There was a good restaurant and a pleasant bar. We made good use of both while we were there. It was decorated in French Colonial style which was quite nice. Two 1920's style classic cars parked out front, the hotel limos, completed the atmosphere.

Our itinerary called for touring several temples that afternoon. Even though our flight was late it didn't really affect us much. We checked in, got settled in our room, and had time for a quick lunch by the pool. It was quite good and we were done in time for Pakdei to pick us up at 3 pm. The temple areas are only about 10 kilometers from town so it was just a short drive. Our first visit was to Preah Khan (pronounced PRAY KHAN), a large complex built in the twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. It was his capital while the larger Angkor Thom was being built. The name means "Sacred Sword" in Khmer and commemorates a major battle won against the Cham people. You can take a nice virtual tour but it really isn't the same as being there.


Preah Khan is surrounded by a moat and then a large wall. We approached the entrance over a bridge lined with stone figures. Along the outer wall, spaced every 50 meters for it's entire 3.5 kilometer length, are large statues of garudas, a mythical bird. Each of the statues is holding a naga - a god in the form of a snake. They are the guardians of the city. Inside the wall is a large wooded area which used to be filled with wooden structures which no longer exist. They were the residential and business areas of the city. At the center is a large stone temple complex that also housed a monastery and "Buddhist university". The temple had multiple courtyards and corridors and was quite impressive. This temple had not been extensively restored so it had a real "lost world" feel about it. In many places huge trees were actually growing on or out of the wall or buildings. You almost felt like you were in one of those movies exploring a lost city in the jungle. I think Sandy was hoping to bump into Indiana Jones while I was watching out for Lara Croft.

From there we went to visit Neak Pean. This temple has a series of pools that were used for worship. A large pool in the center was supposed to represent the mythical lake of Anavatapta in the Himalayas where paradise was located. It is surrounded by four pools that symbolized the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water. People who were ill went to the various pools to bathe and pray to be cured. In the center pool is a pyramid. There is also a statue showing an avatar of the Buddha as a horse rescuing drowning sailors. Since it was the dry season the pools were empty which allowed us to go in and visit the fountain areas of the pools. During the rainy season the pools fill up and are supposed to be quite pretty.

Our last stop was at Ta Som, a small temple but very beautiful. On our way back to the car we could see approaching storm clouds so our timing was good. We had finished just in time as it started to rain on our way back to the hotel. That evening we had a very good dinner in the hotel restaurant. We even had a relatively inexpensive bottle of viognier with dinner. Even with our flight delays we had great start to our trip.

Additional pictures

Walking down the main Causeway of Preah Khan