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The Name & History Behind "Siam Defeated"

09 Jan 2021 By Rahuldev Rajguru

The historical city of Cambodia, Siem Reap is a popular resort town and a gateway to the “Angkor” region. The City built in the 12th century, today has emerged as one of the world’s largest tourist attractions with over 2 million tourists visiting each year. During the 16th century, Cambodian (Khmer) King Ang Chan defeated a 10,000 strong Thai army when the Thai (Siamese) King Maha Chakrapat invaded Cambodia in 1549. Khmer King named the battleground "Siem Reap". Siem Reap housed the famous Angkor Wat. French explorer Henri Mouhot "re-discovered" Angkor in the 19th century as a village near Tonle Sap Lake. The expedition rediscovered a huge complex of Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. Majority of them are UNESCO heritage sites today. Grand Hotel d’Angkor , the first French built hotel in 1929 stimulated tourism in the area. Visits by Charlie Chaplin and Jacqueline Kennedy in the 1900s and Bill Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg, Michelle Obama in early 2000 increased the popularity of Siem Reap. It reached the peak of fame after Angelina Jolie starrer film “Lara Croft Tomb Raider” was shot in many parts of Angkor complex.

I got the opportunity to visit Cambodia numerous times and lived there for a brief period as part of my work. I had to cancel my first visit to Siem Reap due to food poisoning. It was disappointing as well as a monetary loss. With a heavy heart I returned unsure if I would ever be able to visit Cambodia again. I learnt from my local customer that Angkor Wat is considered a spiritual place and a visit denied to Angkor Wat is a spiritual sign. As a well-wisher, he wished me luck and God willing, I will be able to visit the place multiple times. Although I did not believe it completely at that moment, it turned out to be true! I ended up visiting Cambodia several times after that and also Siem Reap multiple times. I cherished each of my visits.

Lush-green landscape around the River with water wheel in Siem Reap city. Water wheels were used to fetch water from a stream to water the plants in early days.

Being a world-famous destination, there are many ways to reach Siem Reap. Many South East Asian airlines fly to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh . Both the cities are connected by road and air. For the adventurous and leisurely traveler, there is the option of a boat/ferry ride along the Mekong river. This may not be the most luxurious way to travel but definitely worth it for the experience. The 7-hour journey is best undertaken during the Monsoon season (March to July) as water levels are high enough for a boat to sail through. The boat meanders through many villages on the bank of Mekong River and you will experience the local Cambodian culture as well as the scenic beauty of the country. The Floating Villages are a world of their own. The economics of this experience is very unpredictable. The boat ride will cost you more than the bus ride and at times even more than the flight ticket. Yes, it is true! The flight is sometimes amazingly cheap. Once, I flew for as low as $29 one-way.

Pub Street: Nightlife in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the epicenter of Cambodia. It has emerged as a world-class destination and one would require 2-3 full days to experience the city and its unique attractions. Siem Reap is well lit at night making for a stunning sight with options available for the lavish as well as the backpackers. From street food and night markets to fine dining restaurants and boutiques, this city has it all. The city is teeming with tourists all year round but is not a crowded tourist destination. Amid the hustle and buzzle, you will always find a private spot for yourself and explore it your way and within your budget. This characteristic intrigues me to this day even after several visits. The ideal way to travel here is by Tuk-tuk especially if you havent experienced this before. Again, for the lavish, there is the option of hiring a car with the driver. I did both but prefer the Tuk-tuk especially when it is raining, the experience is unforgettable. The best way to feel the vibe of the city is to take a stroll down the city lanes, after dusk when it is cool. The places to walk around are Pub Street, Art Center, Night Market, and along the river from Royal Park with occasional pit stops at a variety of bars and restaurants along the way. A string of street food vendors are also lined up serving delicious local cuisine at pretty much $1 per dish. The narrow passages, lanes and alleyways in and around Pub Street and the Market are also worth exploring. The city is quite safe, barring sparse incidences of phone and camera snatching in deserted areas.

The night market, a shoppers paradise with Cambodian style of bargaining.

Angkor Wat Complex

Angkor means city and Wat means temple, hence this is a city of temples. The entire complex was built in early 12th century across a 2 square kilometers area, by the then Khmer King Suryavarman II. The main temple, which we all call Angkor Wat Temple was an eventual mausoleum dedicated to Hindu God Vishnu. It is a UNESCO heritage site as well as one of the archeological wonders of the world. When visiting, temple etiquette is of prime importance; dress modestly with arms covered and shorts that are below the knees. I do recommend reading some basics about its history and existence prior to your visit, as it will enhance your experience. I on the other hand will share how best you can leverage your visit and maximize the experience to cherish this memory for a lifetime.

There is a fee for the foreigners to visit the entire complex with options of single day, 3-day and 7-day passes depending on your level of interest in exploring this place. You pay everything in US dollars and they do accept credit cards. The passes need to be obtained at the main entrance office, which is a quick process as they have several counters. The fee is fixed and travels agents do not get any discount, so do not fall into a trap.

The picture-perfect entrance of Angkor Wat temple surrounded by lush-green garden the rows of palm trees.

I highly recommend visiting this entire complex with a knowledgeable guide. It is important to research and identify a genuine guide to get optimal benefit from this tour. Also, organize a customized tour for your family to enhance the entire experience. This is definitely worth a few extra dollars.

The complex opens at 5 am daily and closes at 6 pm. Plan to be at the main temple 20 minutes before sunrise to secure a vantage point and watch the sun rising from behind the temple. Besides, you will beat the heat as the day progresses; its quite humid and hot out there. Also, there will be less visitors early in the morning and you can have leisure time visiting the temple. Stock up on food and water before starting out because it will be a long day with a lot of walking 10 kms at the least. As I mentioned earlier, the locals believe that the visit to this temple and your experience is entirely spiritual. I have started believing in this because I have visited the temple several times but unfortunately have not seen the sunrise during any of my visits thanks to the cloud covered skies. The sun played hide and seek with me and it seemed like the rain god probably wanted to lure me into visiting repeatedly. The main temple complex is enormous so take your time to visit every part of it as they all tell a unique archeological and architectural story. If you are interested in photography then inform your guide in advance so that he can plan and prioritize the visiting points accordingly. Also, be careful and mindful of the leechers who hunt for smaller groups with a better guide. At times, they even barge-in and monopolise your guide. Cambodians are gentle and friendly people and may not know how to ignore such people and shoo them away. Passes for the next day can be purchased the previous evening itself to facilitate witnessing the sunrise and head straight to the main temple the next morning.

The Reflection Pond: the architecture of Angkor Wat offers you its full reflection in the pond irrespective of which side you are viewing it from.

Ta Prohm is one of the most visited complexes after the main temple in Angkor Wat. It shot to fame after the Hollywood movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider, featuring Angelina Jolie featured several parts of this place. It is also known as Tomb Raider Temple. Ta Prohm (Ancestor Brahma) was built in the early 13th century by Khmer King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. It was a Buddhist monastery and university. Ta Prohm is still undergoing stabilization and restoration and is a joint project of Archeological Survey of India and their Cambodian counterparts, APSARA. Large roots of ancestral trees as old as 500 years surround a major part of the temple courtyards and corridors creating a mysterious space in the temple. This is also one of the most picturesque complexes in Angkor Wat. This is a location where one would spend a considerable amount of time delving in the details and taking more photographs.

About 200-year old tree enveloping the ancient temple drives a flood of tourists to Ta Prohm.

The Baphuon is a three-tiered temple built in the 11th century by Khmer King Udayadityavarman II and was dedicated to Hindu God Shiva. It is a pyramidal representation of mythological sacred five-peak Mount Meru. A large part of the temple complex had collapsed by the 20th century. A large-scale restoration work through the Anastylosis process began with archeologists marking 300,000 blocks with numbers and labels organized across 10 hectares surrounding the temple. A second restoration project was launched in 1996 known as the largest 3D jigsaw puzzle in the world. The restored temple was finally thrown open to public in 2011. I have spent hours in this complex during each of my visits and have discovered new things every time. A visit of this temple is at the top of my recommendation list. Climbing stairs is a bit of a workout and a bit scary, but the view of the temple from the upper level is worth all the effort.

The architectural marvel of the 11th century, Baphoun temple as seen from the third tier.

Buddhist Khmer King Jayavarman VII built the mesmerizing Bayon Temple during the late 12th to early 13th century. It represents the creative genius of the most celebrated Khmer King of Cambodia. Bayon (originally Jayagiri Victory Mountain) stands in the middle of the capital city of Angkor Thom. From outside, this temple looks more like a rubble but the magic becomes apparent inside, especially on the upper levels. Unfortunately, upper levels are currently closed for restoration and are scheduled to open again in 2022. The temple restoration work is a collaborative effort of Japan and Cambodia. The Bayon temple has 54 Gothic Towers decorated with 216 gigantic smiling faces of Buddha. Each tower has 4 faces of Buddha in each direction and all the faces are not exactly similar. There is a theory that the faces are representations of Jayavarman VII himself. This is a top choice temple in the complex and is best visited during late afternoon.

One of the 54 Gothic towers with 4 smiling Buddhas carved and facing each direction.

Khmer King Jayavarman VII established Angkor Thom (Great City) in late 12th century spanning about 12 sq. kms and it was the last capital city of Khmer empire and lies on the west bank of Siem Reap River. The current Angkor Wat complex resides within Angkor Thom. The design of Angkor Thom was adopted from the mythological theme of Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean).

South gate of Angkor Thom with the bridge depicting Serpents and Demons (Samudra Manthan)

Hindu King Yasovarman built a Lord Shiva temple Phnom Bakheng in the 9th century. Located atop a hill, it is a 30-40 min climb and the view of Angkor Wat main temple amid the jungle, Siem Reap city and Angkor Thom is spectacular. Visitors throng the place in the evening to catch the sunset atop the mountain. It is believed that Phnom Bakheng has a spiritual strength due to which the airplanes don't fly over the mountain.

Landscape view of Angkor Wat temple from Phnom Bakheng

It felt like traveling out of an ancient era as the sight of Angkor Wat ruins started fading. It was now time to experience the vibes of present day Cambodia, the highlight being the Floating Villages.


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