On the top of Phnom Krom above Siem Reap's port these ancient pre-Angkorian ruins are a magnificent place to look across Tonle Sap lake.
TFor the vast majority of its visitors, the town of Siem Reap is just a dusty way-station
leading to the glory of Angkor Wat. But as Phelim Kyne recently discovered,
the vicinity of Siem Reap town itself offers a variety of little-known sightseeing
destinations that make the town worth more time and attention than just refueling
stops between day trips to Angkor
PITY Wat Bo. With the vast ruins of centuries of Angkorian civilization sprawled
around the perimeter of Siem Reap town, what enticements could a 19th century wat
just minutes from the central market possibly offer prospective visitors?
Plenty, as it turns out. During the late 19th century, Wat Bo was the center of a
collective labor of artistic love that created one of the most uniquely beautiful
frescoes in modern Cambodian history.
For more than 30 years monks and artisans worked side-by-side to transform the interior
walls of the pagoda into a huge, breathtakingly vivid work of art.
Flowing across the walls of Wat Bo is a collage of painstakingly-detailed paintings
providing graphic depictions of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs as well as chronicling
the reality of everyday life in Siem Reap a century ago.
Reflecting the dual roots of Cambodian spirituality, the south side of the pagoda's
walls depict the life of Gautama the Buddha on his route to enlightenment. Across
the hall on the north wall Lord Rama, the monkey god Hanuman and a host of other
Hindu deities are lovingly rendered in a tableau of the Reamker, the Cambodian version
of the Hindu epic the Ramayana.
Salted throughout both the Buddhist and Hindu frescoes are depictions of urban Cambodian
life at the time of the frescoes' creation.
Street scenes are represented with frank honesty, portraying everything from opium-smoking
Chinese merchants to 19th century courtesans enticing patrons from their balcony
On guard throughout the contemporary scenes of the frescoes are representations of
the French colonial presence in Cambodia, with mustachioed colonial administrators
rubbing elbows with bayonet-bearing French soldiers.
Although a century of war, neglect and the ravages of the Cambodian climate have
taken their toll on the frescoes, a remarkably large portion of the paintings have
survived. Present day monks at Wat Bo are happy to display the frescoes to interested
visitors in return for a donation to the pagoda.
In an area that boasts the monumental Angkor Wat, the mysterious Bayon and the foliage-choked
remains of Ta Prohm, the last thing any visitor would want to visit would be more
Wrong. Very close to the heart of Siem Reap town are two lesser-visited Angkorian
sites that offer classic examples of Angkorian architecture sans the crowds and the
necessity of buying an Angkor Wat visitor's pass.
The most convenient of these two locations is Wat Attvyea, about 10 minutes by moto
from the Siem Reap central market along the road that leads to where the boats from
Phnom Penh arrive and depart.
The ruins of Wat Attvyea, located on the periphery of the modern, functioning wat
of the same name, are a textbook example of 10th century Angkorian temple construction.
Unfortunately for Angkorian purists, the proximity of the Wat Attvyea ruins to Siem
Reap proper and their relatively unsupervised nature have made them particularly
prey to the depredations of artefact thieves.
Only one forlorn pair of apsaras remains intact at one of the temple entrances, the
remainder pried off the wall and spirited off to parts unknown.
The frescoe of Siem Reap's Wat Bo, escaped destruction by the Khmer Rouge. In the detail at right, three French colonial soldiers seem unaware of the passage of Lord Rama's chariot behind them.
By continuing along the same road that leads to Wat Attvyea one arrives at Phnom
Krom, the hill familiar to anyone who has taken the boat service between Siem Reap
and Phnom Penh.
Looming out of the flat expanses of water and land that characterize the Siem Reap
area, Phnom Krom stands above the small but bustling Siem Reap port.
While most visitors acknowledge Phnom Krom only in passing between arrivals and departures,
its summit boasts temple ruins among the earliest to be found. Constructed in the
seventh century (predating Angkor Wat itself by more than three centuries), Phnom
Krom was where Angkorian civilization made its distinctive architectural mark with
the construction of a temple overlooking the Great Lake on one side and the plains
that spread out behind it on the other.
For visitors leery of joining the lemming-like tourist parade up better-known Phnom
Bakheng to watch the sun set on Angkor Wat, Phnom Krom is a far more urbane alternative.
Devoid of tourists and their accompanying crowds of drink vendors and beggars, Phnom
Krom offers spectacular sunset views over the Great Lake as well as requisite views
of Angkor Wat in the distance.
Civil War Museum
The rather grandly named Civil War Museum is a new addition to Siem Reap's nascent
collection of in-town tourist attractions.
Located on a side road just two kilometers beyond the Grand Hotel on the road to
Angkor Wat, the museum will be a disappointment for those visitors in search of a
concise series of displays detailing the history and conduct of Cambodia's decades
of civil conflict.
Instead, and perhaps more appropriately, the Civil War Museum consists of a vast
display of various mines, rockets, bombs and firearms deployed in Cambodia by various
warring parties over the past three decades.
The Civil War Museum is the brainchild of "Mr Akira", a Siem Reap native
who spent more than half of his life both laying and defusing mines for Vietnamese
and Cambodian armed forces, then later as a civilian for the French demining agency
For those visitors who want to experience the frisson of a Princess-Diana-like walk
through a minefield, Akira has taken the innovative step of sowing the back lot behind
the museum with (thoughtfully defused) mines of various sizes, shapes and nationalities.
"Some day all the mines in Cambodia will be removed," Akira says of his
motivation for starting the museum. "I want this museum to be a reminder to
future generations of what mines were and what they did to our country."