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In this age of modern hyper-sensitivity, colonialism is a topic often discussed with the lenses of negativity and exploitation. That said, in some rare instances, fate would collude and cast light in the darkness; when it comes to Cambodia, French colonialism was the one thing which kept the rich history and cultural diversity of 19th century Cambodia alive when France established the kingdom as a protectorate.
During the 19th century, the kingdom had been reduced to a vassal state, with western provinces including Angkor annexed by Siam under King Rattanakosin, while the growing Vietnamese Nguyen Dynasty threatened the eastern regions of Cambodia. Since the 1800s the Mekong River basin, had been a proxy battlefield between Vietnam and Siam (now Thailand), Vietnamese forces occupied Cambodia for several years, and when Thai forces came to the “rescue” of the Cambodians, the kingdom became a battlefield.
Cambodian King Norodom, faced with the threat of the loss of a sovereign Cambodia and the division of the Kingdom into spheres of Vietnamese and Thai control, requested the establishment of a French protectorate in 1867. Surviving by exchanging the hegemony of its neighbours for dependency on France, it can be disputed that incorporation of the Kingdom into French Indochina forever altered the fabric of modern Cambodian politics, however, even its harshest critics agree that without French intervention, there wouldn’t even be a Cambodia today. While these are all topics worthy for further discourse (and another essay), this background is necessary for the context and a fuller experience of Southeast Asia’s nascent tourist destination – Siem Reap.
In what is likely to be an apocryphal story, Siem Reap takes its name from the Khmer term for ‘defeat of Siam’ (siem in Khmer), referencing the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and Khmer kingdoms when Siem Reap repeatedly changed hands. After enduring half a millennia of conflict, incorporation into French Indochina kept the city largely alive even if economically devastated. Hence, modern Siem Reap enjoys a confluence of Myanmarese, Thai, Viet and French influences added to its own Khmer heritage, very rarely does one get to influence such fusion.
See the temples. In 1794, Thailand annexed two Cambodian provinces, Battambang and Siem Reap. The former was prosperous agriculturally but the latter housed the “undiscovered” ruins of Angkor. Measuring 162.6 hectares, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. For centuries, it has switched religious affiliation depending on which Kingdom had control, from Hindu to Buddhist and back, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat has remained an immutable symbol for the kingdom. Set in the high classical style of Khmer architecture, it has become the national symbol of the nation.
One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged – French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot
Day 1: Visit Angkor Wat and the neighbouring temples
Combining two core foundations of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple, Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s prime tourist destination, situated only 7km from LUXUO’s favourite designer hotel, The Aviary. While a sunrise tour is often the preferred way of starting your temple explorations, it necessitates a 4am wake up call with breakfast consumed either hurriedly in the hotel lobby (since breakfast service is not usually available in the wee hours of the morning) or eaten in transit while on the tour bus, an even more miserable experience. Instead, one can opt for a sunset expedition which sees you departing later in the morning with the added benefit of fewer crowds and people getting in the way of your perfect gram.
Effectively rediscovered by the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot, Angkor Wat is breathtaking in its scope and architecture and heart breaking in its heritage and history, All throughout the grounds, broken relics and defaced carvings and sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities are reminders of centuries of conflict – first from belligerent kingdoms and then later from internal dictatorships. Nevertheless, Mouhot is not wrong in his assessment that it “rivals Solomon’s temple and grander than anything left by Greece or Rome”.
In 1898, the French decided to commit substantial funds to Angkor’s preservation, restoration work continued after independence but was interrupted by the Cambodian Civil War and Khmer Rouge control of the country during the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the work was undone either by exchange of gunfire around the ruins or the art thieves who raided the temples post-conflict. Angkor Wat is such a great source of national pride that it has been a part of Cambodian national flags since the introduction of the first version in 1863.
So beautiful and majestic was the artistic legacy of Angkor Wat and other Khmer monuments in the Angkor region that when France adopted Cambodia as a protectorate, one of its first orders was the invasion of Siam to re-take control of the ruins. It finally became a UNESCO World Heritage in 1992. Given its prominent position in Siem Reap’s cultural and artistic legacy, Angkor Wat is often the start and end of a day long temple tour around the area.
Another iconic temple is root-riddled Ta Prohm, otherwise know as Tomb Raider temple because it provided the mystical backdrop for the 2001 Hollywood production. Lara Croft’s exploration of Ta Prohm entered the once obscure temple into pop cultural consciousness, cementing the ruins as another iconic tourist attraction besides Angkor Wat and helping lure millions more visitors to Cambodia. Instagram under the “tree” immortalised by Angelina Jolie’s scene has become par course for over a million instagram shots since.
A typical temple tour of the Angkor region takes anywhere from 1 to 2 days depending on weather but it is LUXUO’s contention that there only 3 temples of note: the most important being Angkor Wat, the king of Angkor Archaeological Park, followed by Ta Prohm for its atmospherics and camera friendliness and finally, Angkor and Bayon. A two day temple tour is overkill – to non natives, visiting more than 4 temples renders each indistinguishable from the others.
Day 2: The Markets of Siem Reap
Further emphasising the “Southeast Asian cultural crossroads” nature of Siem Reap, it’s no coincidence that the Sino-Malay, Pasar (巴刹) and the Khmer Phsar all means market. And when the locals say “market” they don’t imply an Anglo-saxon perspective of fruits, vegetables and produce, in most developing East Asian markets, you can buy everything from meat to motorbike parts, fruits to fashion, DVDs and even home décor.
There are bargains to be had, only if you do indeed BARGAIN. Close to two decades of growing tourist arrivals has given rise to an annoying sales tactic where the first price offered is invariably an attempt at profit seeking from unwary travellers and naive tourists. Our advice? Whatever they offer, counter-offer half or a quarter and then go from there. That said, knock-offs aplenty, so buyer beware.
The first night market In Cambodia, Angkor Night Market is undergoing upgrading but is still open. The entrances have shifted, when you arrive from Sivutha turn to the left you will then see (Entrance A) Here you will find the new Island Bar at the front together with the Kroma House, behind which you will see CoCo House and many stalls offering a wide selection of local goods and hand-crafted (mostly) souvenirs, through to the back where you can find Baray Spa and enjoy a massage. That said, some of the souvenirs are not native to Cambodia and only folksy facsimiles from factories in China, so there’s a chance you’re not exactly taking a piece of Khmer culture home with you but at the very least, you are supporting the livelihood of a people who have endured over 500 years of historical bad luck. Also, don’t knock the stalls offering one hour US$5 foot massages, though skill levels vary, luck of the draw dictates that at least 50% of the time, you get a really solid veteran masseuse.
Tell the tuk tuk driver: Stung Thmey Village, Sankat Svay Dangkum
Phsar Chas or old market is geared towards locals (and tourists) so depending on the stall you visit, opening prices will vary vastly particularly when it comes to vintage watches and jewellery. Though locals often get their produce here, the market has grown popular with tourists and as a result, one can find all manner of silverware, silk, wood carvings, stone carvings, Buddhas, paintings, rubbings, notes and coins, and if you happen to be travelling with a female companion, attractively designed woven rattan bags and clutches.
It also offers a variety of Cambodian cuisine, from food stalls which sell a variety of rices, dried fish and pork sausages, vegetables and fruits, and Cambodian Prahok, a type of fermented fish paste unique to Khmer cuisine. Hints of French colonialism can be still be seen at stalls and eateries on the market’s periphery selling croissants, baguettes and spiced frogs. Cool gifts for that masterchef in your life might enjoy the various Khmer soups, spices, red chili slices and mixed nuts.
Fringing the old market is all manner of French or Euro-fusion cafes though the increasingly.gentrified adjacent streets with hipster joints and airconditioned pharmacies are still punctuated with eateries and restaurants selling authentic Khmer – Cambodian cuisine that haven’t been bastardised to Anglo-saxon palettes, so your dining experience is still very authentically Cambodian even if your shopping experience is now coloured by the abundance of bootleg Under Armour athleisure.
Tell the tuk tuk driver: 2 Thnou St, Krong Siem Reap
Night 2: Phare – Siem Reap’s answer to Cirque du Soleil
After close to a century of French governance, anglo-saxon influence on art and culture can be felt in entertainment acts like Phare. More than just a circus, and reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, Phare performers combine theatre, music, dance and modern acrobatic feats to tell uniquely Cambodian stories; historical, folk and modern.
Founded in 1994 by 9 young men coming home from a refugee camp after the Khmer Rouge regime, they were inspired by their art teacher who used drawing and performance art as therapy and wanted to share their skills with the poor, socially deprived and troubled youngsters in Battambang.
A talent incubator and school, young circus artists hailing from Phare are actually students and graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak’s vocational training center in Battambang. They will astonish you with their energy, emotion, enthusiasm and talent. Granted, though production values hampered by limited financial resources and therefore not quite as polished as its famed Canadian counterpart, Phare is in LUXUO’s opinion, Siem Reap’s answer to Cirque du Soleil.
Yes, the souvenirs at Phare are a little pricey but every dollar goes to rehabilitation, nurturing and training of young artists for Cambodia’s tomorrow.
Tell the tuk tuk driver: Phare Circus Ring Road, just south of the intersection with Sok San Road, 2km from Old Market & Pub Street
Tips: Buy tickets online before you go, it’s free seating for non-VIP tickets but ushers will make early arrivals fill up the back seats and late-comers get to (oddly) sit in the front. Best not to arrive too early. Prices start US$18
Day 3: Must see artisans of Siem Reap
A visit to Jayav Art led by French artist Philippe Brousseau is one where you will not leave empty handed. Brousseau specialises in clay casts and papier mache statues that really do look like they’re made of stone. They will even entertain polite requests to tour the workshop where the magic is made – everything from the small Bayon temple statues to the cool, stylised bird sculptures from The Aviary hotel can be found here.
Tell the tuk tuk driver: A 25 Street Charles de Gaulle, Krong Siem Reap. Opens 9am to 6pm daily. Closed on Fridays.
Born in Southern Cambodia, Cambodian artist Theam Lim grew up in the comrade school where he was, like thousands of children, drilled in brutal Khmer Rouge ideology. Thankfully, he was nine when the regime fell in 1978, just missing the conscription of pre-teen soldiers. Today, Theam retells the terrors through collective memory and his art, casting commentary on the social devastation of the present. A visit to Theam’s Gallery is a must.
Theam’s family was among the refugees who arrived in France in 1980. After receiving a sound artistic and technical education in the Fine Art School and in design at the Ecole Boulle, both in Paris, Theam returned to Cambodia to take part in the rebuilding of a country ravaged by decades of violence.
Like Phare, Theam’s artistic and technical prowess is culturally cathartic and socially relevant. He has investigated Khmer art and culture, exploring temples and pagodas across the country, visiting people’s homes, and studying previously hidden art and artifacts in order to express and re-ignite interest in the country’s rich artistic heritage.
Theam is one of the few returnee Cambodians currently involved in helping revive the craft sector, and has been enthusiastically doing so since 1997 by teaching teams of apprentices from the countryside how to use traditional Khmer craftsmanship to create art out of time-honored materials like wood, lacquer, silk, and cotton. Skilled art trainees work here under Theam’s personal tutelage whose main objective is the teaching as well as advocating the value of authenticity and quality, featuring strong cultural and artistic Khmer identity with distinctly modern creative edge.
Tell the tuk tuk driver: Veal Village, Phum Kokchack district, 50m on the right of, Street 30. Open daily from 8am to 6pm