History and Culture in Siem Reap

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History and Culture in Siem Reap
With Angkor on its doorstep, Siem Reap is one of the most exotic places in the world; but its landscapes, sleepy pagodas, and fascinating (if sometimes horrific) history make it a uniquely Cambodian destination.
By Duncan Forgan, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Jon Sheer
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    Life on the Lake
    Tonle Sap is Cambodia’s great lake, an essential part of Siem Reap life. The huge expanse of water, which ranges in size from just over 1,000 square miles to around 4,000 square miles depending on the season, is a massive contributor to Cambodia's fishing industry, and is home to large communities that inhabit floating villages or stilt houses. There are many lake excursions you can take, but choose wisely. The floating village of Chong Kneas is a popular, and therefore rather touristy, destination for boat trips. Instead, make your way to the alternative: Kompong Phluk, a lesser-known cluster of small towns in a flooded mangrove forest.
    Photo by Jon Sheer
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    Learn about the Khmer Empire
    While the wondrous relics at Angkor hint at the power and wealth once commanded by the Khmer empire, there’s little in the way of meaningful information at the temples. For some insight into Cambodia’s glory period, visit the Angkor National Museum. Located on the road to Angkor from Siem Reap, this privately owned, state-of-the-art museum is a worthwhile stop for its educational value—and for its air-conditioning. Exhibits include illuminating accounts of the Khmer empire and its major kings, as well as background about Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Although the depth of the collection at the museum has been criticized, it is the only place in Cambodia that offers visitors essential context for the country’s star attraction.
    Photo by Lara Dalinsky
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    Cambodian Culture Revival
    Among the many terrible consequences of the Khmer Rouge regime was the destruction of traditional Cambodian culture. There was no place for arts and crafts in Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s scorched-earth agrarian philosophy, and artisanship suffered accordingly. Now, ancient disciplines like pottery are being revitalized, and visitors to Siem Reap can observe this renaissance. First stop: The Chantiers-Écoles des Formations Professionnelle, a school that teaches wood- and stone-carving techniques and classic silk painting to impoverished youngsters. The Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Centre is dedicated to reviving the traditions of pottery, art, tableware, and ceramics.
    Photo by Lindsay Davis
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    Phare Cambodian Circus
    After wowing audiences in Battambang Province for years, the performers of Phare Cambodian Circus are playing to even bigger crowds in Siem Reap. Founded by former refugees and developed to assist disadvantaged youngsters via the arts, Phare has evolved into one of the country’s most heartwarming success stories. Its popularity is warranted: Less a circus and more a thrilling combination of acrobatics, theater, and music, a Phare show is expertly choreographed, with narratives—many of them thematically associated with Cambodian history—that change regularly. Performances take place nightly in a circus tent behind the Angkor National Museum.
    Photo courtesy of Phare Cambodian Circus
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    Angkor's Obscure Temples
    Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bayon, and Ta Prohm are not to be missed; but for many travelers, the less-frequented ruins are equally rewarding. Highlights inside Angkor Archaeological Park include Preah Khan, which was dedicated by King Jayavarman VII to his father and which shares similar design features with Ta Prohm. Ta Som was built at the end of the 12th century, and has largely gone unrestored. Get close to see the animal carvings and other Buddhist iconography. The Ta Keo temple mountain dates back to the 10th century, and comprises five levels. It's a hike to get to this Hindu monument, but the views are worth it.
    Photo by Sebastian Wasek/age fotostock
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    The Cambodia Landmine Museum and School
    The civil war in Cambodia continues to claim victims, now decades after the end of open conflict. While exact numbers are difficult to come by, some estimate that armed land mines still number in the millions here. The country has one of the highest land-mine-casualty rates in the world, and it's not unusual to see amputees in Siem Reap and other cities in Cambodia. The Cambodia Landmine Museum and School provides social, historical, and political context for this situation, and raises funds to support a relief facility for at-risk village children. The museum also functions as an orphanage and educational venue for young victims of mines.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Retail Therapy, Khmer-Style
    Psar Chas is arguably Siem Reap's most famous local market, and is known for being the place to find everything from home essentials and touristy temptations to just-picked produce. If you're shopping for food, visit in the early hours of the morning when the aisles are packed with fresh vegetables, meats, and fish from Tonle Sap lake. Wait until the first rush has come and gone if you'd like to browse Buddha statues and regional Cambodian arts and crafts. At night, there's the Angkor Night Market near Sivatha Street, with an equally impressive inventory.
    Photo by Pietro Scozzari/age fotostock
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    Shadow Puppetry
    Shadow puppetry is another traditional Khmer art form making a resurgence, and Siem Reap has become known for its puppet shows. This is welcome news for the local artisans who go through the painstaking process of fashioning the puppets out of leather, usually in the likeness of gods and demons from the Reamker—an epic Cambodian poem based on the Hindu Ramayana. Elephants and other icons of Khmer culture also feature strongly. Kafu Resort & Spa hosts a puppet show every week.
    Photo by Yang Jun/age fotostock
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    The Tomb Raider Temple
    Ta Prohm is known as the Tomb Raider Temple, thanks to the Hollywood movie based on the popular video game of the same name. In the movie, main character Lara Croft (played by Angelina Jolie) hunts for ancient treasure; one of the locations used was this famously overgrown temple. Built in 1186 C.E. by King Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm has been left unrestored. A stela (commemorative slab) here indicates that the site was once home to more than 12,500 people. In 1992 UNESCO added it to its World Heritage list. Now, the temple's dark galleries and pillars stand among gigantic, tangled tree roots.
    Photo by Thuy Vi Gates
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    Temples Closer to Town
    If you're not suffering from temple fatigue after days at Angkor, Siem Reap itself has a number of interesting pagodas and shrines worth checking out. The most elegant, and one of the oldest, is Wat Bo, an active Buddhist monastery situated by the river near the old town. Another monastery, Wat Damnak, was once a royal compound, and is now home to the Centre for Khmer Studies. Wat Thmei was built as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Now a live-in monastery and orphanage, Wat Thmei houses a collection of bones belonging to massacre victims.
    Photo by Colin Roohan