Monday, May 13, 2013

Siem Reap, Cambodia - Background Information

Yesterday evening, we returned from a long weekend in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Given that our time in Bangkok is limited and we are further constrained by Kevin's travel schedule and move-related activities, this was only one of two weekends that we would be able to make the trip before we leave. So, although I do not like the kids to miss any learning / school days for family vacations, we left very early Friday morning to maximize our time in Cambodia. It seems that school is frequently closed for one holiday or another but, of course, not this Friday! In retrospect, the kids learned so much about Cambodia and its history, politics, economics and religions that I don't have any regrets that they missed a day of school.  

I know several families that have driven from Bangkok to Siem Reap - it is about a 7 hour drive (very direct) and I am told the roads are in good condition. Driving is safe and it is a great way to see more of both Thailand and Cambodia. However, there can be very long delays (up to 4 hours!) at the border to cross from Thailand into Cambodia and then back again. Since Siem Reap is located less than one hour by airplane from Bangkok and we were on a tight schedule, we chose to fly Bangkok Airways out of Suvarnabhumi Airport. 

Flying out of Bangkok and looking out over the rice paddies and the Gulf of Thailand.

This was our first time flying Bangkok Airways and I thought it was a good experience. My biggest "plus" for Bangkok Airways would be the free checked luggage policy. We checked three bags (yes, we tend to overpack!) and didn't pay a cent. Compare that to Air Asia which nickles and dimes you for every bag, every kilogram your bag weighs, every breath you take, etc. 

Even though the food was a bit of a mystery, there was a (free) meal served. Not that we ate it. 

And fruit.

The airport in Siem Reap was very small and we had no trouble getting through customs and immigration. We used our diplomatic passports and had gotten visas at the Cambodian Embassy before leaving Thailand. I should note that English is spoken very well by almost everyone in Siem Reap and the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency (good news for my  mathematically challenged brain). 

At the airport in Siem Reap, it is very easy and inexpensive ($7.00 USD) to hire a taxi for the drive to town. If you provide your flight and arrival information to your hotel, most will arrange to have a driver waiting to transport you to the hotel. Several hotels had been recommended to me and we stayed at the Royal Crown Hotel and Spa. I chose this hotel primarily for its great location - just across the Siem Reap River from the French Quarter and Old Market area. It was very easy for us to walk to restaurants, "Pub Street" and the night markets. The Royal Crown was also convenient to the airport (15 minutes) and provided very easy access to tour the temples. While the hotel was not luxurious, it was clean, well maintained and the staff was friendly and helpful. We stayed in a penthouse suite which sounds much more impressive than it actually was. We had a very large room  with one king bed and two twin beds (in an alcove) as well as large sitting area and a large bathroom (shower and separate bathtub). Breakfast (more than adequate but not as good as that provided in the larger hotels) and wireless were included in our rate. 
Cambodia is bordered by Thailand to the North and West, Laos also to the North and Vietnam to the East. Siem Reap is (approximately) in the area of the black circle on the map below and is the capital city of the province with the same name. The large lake below Siem Reap is called Tonle Sap Lake and it is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The current population of Siem Reap is just over 900,000 (compared to the total population of Cambodia which is almost 15 million).

Translated, the name Siem Reap means "Siam Defeated" and refers to the Khmer Empire's victory over the Kingdom of Thailand in the 17th century. However, Thailand ultimately prevailed in a later series of conflicts and defeated Cambodia to control Siem Reap from the late 1700's until 1907 when it was returned to French control. 

The famous temples of Angkor (our sole reason for visiting Cambodia) are located about 15 minutes north of Siem Reap. The temples of Angkor date from the Khmer kingdom that dominated Cambodia (as well as large areas in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos). The temples were built by a dozen Khmer kings at the height of the empire (during the 9th to 13th centuries). In the 19th century, French explorers rediscovered the temples of Angkor beneath the thick jungle. After acquiring Siem Reap in 1907 through the Franco-Siamese agreement, the French began restoration work and the temples became one of Asia's primary tourist attractions until the late 1960's. 

Things began to change in 1970 as Cambodia was not only fighting to survive the spillover of war in Vietnam across its borders (and the ensuing bombings by the U.S. and Russia) but also trying to control the internal insurgency of the Khmer Rouge communists. The seizure of Siem Reap and the Angkor temples by the North Vietnamese communists in the early 1970's effectively ended the tourism boom in that area. The Khmer Rouge seized control of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia in 1975, beginning a bloody civil war and Pol Pot’s brutal reign of terror and genocide. The province of Siem Reap was a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and violent attacks around the temples and between Siem Reap and the border with Thailand continued even after Pol Pot was overthrown and went into hiding. The political turmoil finally began to calm when senior Khmer Rouge leaders began to defect in 1997 and after Pol Pot died while under house arrest in 1998.

Although the temples are significantly damaged by decades of war, looting and vandalism as well as by the decay from the forces of nature, they are still amazing sights and so worth a visit. Angkor Wat is probably the most well known temple in the area but there are hundreds of temples found throughout the area. Angkor Wat was our first stop and I will post about that visit tomorrow. Before we left Thailand, I spent some time adjusting the lighting, focus, etc. on my camera. I *think* I figured it all out but I need to go through the 620 (!!!) photos I took to see if I was successful or not.

Have a great Monday!

1 comment:

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