Siem Reap is the small gateway town to ruins of Angkor, located 250 northwest of Phnom Penh and 15 km north of Tonle Sap. Running through the centre of town is the polluted Siem Reap river. Traces of French presence have survived in a small quarter of colonial buildings to the southwest side the rest of Siem Reap was badly damaged by bombing and civil war. In the early 1979-0, during the Pol Pot era, people were fed to the crocodiles in Siem Reap. There is a killing fields memorial to victims of Khmer Rouge to the northwest of the town. In 1979the province was the scene of heavy fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army. Since 1990 the Khmer Rouge have staged sporadic attacks on the civilian population and Cambodian troops around Seam Reap. In 1993 they massacred Vietnamese fishing families at Lake Tonle Sap, precipitating an exodus of the Vietnamese to the Mekong Delta. To safeguard Angkor, the government has stationed troops, ringing the entire zone of ruins.
Peace has not been easy to come to Seam Reap, but there is normal life around Angkor: farmers transporting goods in oxcarts, village women clad in sarongs cycling to market, Buddhist monks in the flowing orange robe out morning strolls, kids lolling about on the backs of water buffalo in green fields. For tourists this is a chance to see rural life. For local, tourist itself, however small in scale, is seen as return to normalcy after years of savage war and upheaval. A number of new hotels, guesthouses and restaurants have appeared in Seam Reap in the 1990s, catering first to visiting UNTAC troops and later to the Angkor bound tourists who arrived in the wake.
Anything moveable at Angkor has disappeared. Even the heads of the larger stone statues have been hacked off by treasure hunters. To guard against art theft, virtually all smaller Angkor statuary, wood items, and artifacts have been removed to museums, particularly to the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Thousands of pieces rest at the Angkor Conservancy, located several km to the north of Seam Reap, and you will need special permission from the Ministry of Culture in Phnom Penh to visit. The Angkor Wat Conservancy was established by French in 1907 when Seam Reap province was restored to Cambodia by the Thais. From 1953 to 1970 the Angkor Conservancy was jointly operated by the French and Cambodian governments. With the exception of period during WW II, the French at Angkor worked steadily, at times directing more than a thousand employees. In 1972 the civil war forced the French to leave.
Angkor Conservancy is a warehouse for some 7,000 sculpture fragments and artifacts from the Angkor region. Fresh concrete heads are stocked here, destined to replace ones removed from the Angkor area by bandits or Khmer Rouge. Museum staffs also removed heads before bandits can get to them. There are two floors of statuary at Angkor Conservancy. On the ground floor are the larger Buddha, Vishnu, and lintels; the upper floor houses smaller Buddha, hand fragments, stone animals and large wooden Buddha. Unfortunately, the pieces are not safe even here the place has been broken into several times.
TIME OUT IN SIEM REAP
If you spend a week or so in Angkor, it's best to pace yourself: one day at the ruins, one day off. Otherwise you'll suffer from cultural overload and become 'temple out'. Seam Reap presents a great opportunity to get out into the Cambodian countryside. You can witness facets of rural life unchanged from those depicted on the temple walls at the Angkor Wat 800 years ago. Roads are rough in these area, some time just dirt tracks. Taking a tour guide along is highly recommended, he can show you around the villages and show you how palm sugar and palm wine are brewed.
THE WEST BARAY
To reach the West Baray, head northwest from Siem Reap along Route 6. Pass the airport road and take the next turnoff to the right; this leads to a parking area at a dam at the south side of the West Barray. The West Barray reservoir was part of the elaborate Angkorian irrigation system, although researchers are not sure of its exact function. Originally, the West Barray and East Barray were two gargantuan artificial lakes. The West Barray is a two by eight km rectangle enclosed by an earth dike. Though it may have been used for irrigation, recent evidence indicates it was more likely a mooring place for royal barges, a fish-breeding site, or simply a place for bathing.
The East Barray is now dry. The West Barray, first constructed in the 11th century, was partially restored in the 1950s with foreign-aid funds. Today is about two-thirds full. The West Barray is fed by the Tonle Sap River; a small dam has enlarge the rice-growing potential of the area with water carried through a network of irrigation canal. The West Barray is also used for fish breeding. You can go for a swim along southern section. Situated in the West Barray is a small island you can hire a boat and row out to a sanctuary called the West Mebon. Much of the stonework has collapsed, though several towers on the east entrance to the temple have survived. It was here that a large bronze statue of Vishnu was discovered in 1936. It now sits in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
The ruins of Rolous are 13 km east of Siem Reap along Route 6. The ruins are of mild interest compared with the splendors of central Angkor, but the trip to Rolous gives you a chance to experience village life. Stop at the central market, a short distance east of Siem Reap, on the way out or back. The market is always engrossing, a great place for watching people. Cambodian women are partial to sarongs with blinding colors and patterns, which makes the place quite right. This is the most likely a reaction to the Pol Pot years, when everyone was forced to wear black. Upcountry a common form of transportation is the cycle-hauled wooden chariot. This workhorse can carry several passengers, a few hand of bananas, a score of chickens, or a mountain of vegetables-sometime all at once.
The Rolous ruins are among the oldest Khmer monuments in the Angkor area, dating to 9th century reign of Indravarman I. Two key temple sites remain, Bakong and Preah Ko. The latter consists of six bricks towers or prasats, arranged in two rows; the site is bounded by walls, with sandstone lintel decoration. Bakong is a five-step brick pyramid with a sandstone doorways. At the corners of the first three levels stand elephants hewn from single blocks of stone. Next to the ruin is an active Buddhist monastery. From here, you can continue south to the village of Rolous, which lent its name to the ruins.
LAKE TONLE SAP
Head south on Route 29, following the river by motor or rent bicycle, you can reach Tonle Sap Lake. Just south of the town on the left is a crocodile farm. About 12km from Siem Reap is Phrom Krom, a hill with an 11th century temple. From the ruins are expensive views over Lake Tonle Sap, the Great Lake. A glance with the map will show how it came by this name - it's an enormous fresh water sea.
Lake Tonle Sap fills with water during the monsoon season, but by February it shrinks to a fraction of its former size, becoming one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, yielding as much as 10 tons of fish per square km. The main fishing season is February to May. When the water recede, fish are preventing from escaping with nets and bamboo traps. Some are caught in the branches of trees, or in the mud, and simply picked up. Fishing families live in temporary huts that can be dismantled and moved forward as the water recedes. When the fishing season is over, fishing families return to their villages.
The flooding of the Tonle Sap covers the area with a rich mud ideal for growing rice. Farmers have developed unique deepwater rice strains the grow with the rising lake to keep the grain above the water. Under Pol Pot, large part of the flooded forest around Tonle Sap were sacrificed to expand the area for rice fields. During the war much of the rice seed stock was lost, and deepwater rice cultivation declined.
Coming from Siem Reap you reach a boat deck on the shores of Lake Tonle Sap. It's a scummy area, with boats loading and unloading goods, fish drying in the sun, and assorted video cafes. The lake itself is peaceful and uneventful, but hidden dramas abound, if you hire a boat for an hour, or row out yourself, you can reach a floating house suspended overhung bamboo-fishing holding pens. Families have fatten up the fish in the pens; some house are rigged with trapdoors that open so feed can be dropped. A fish pens may be three meters deep and hold thousands of fish. You don't realize how many fish there are until feeding time when you see them thrashing around in the water. This kind of 'fish farming' is also practiced in Vietnam's Mekong delta.
Because the lake keeps shrinking and expanding, a species of fish has evolved here that can survive several hours out of water, flopping overland in search of deeper pools. This species, known as hock yue, or elephant fish, is considered a delicacy in Asia. Another highly prized delicacy is the sand goby, or soon hock, a greenish-gray trout-like specimen. One company ships the fish live to Phnom Penh, where they held in tanks. For transportation to restaurants in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the first are placed in tanks filled with ice and mild sedative. In a semi-inert state they're air freighted in plastic bas pumped with oxygen. They must reach their destination within 16 hours. In Singapore restaurant, a single sand goby, cooked with ginger, chili, tomato, and mushrooms, is worth $40 - $60, depending on its size.