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Siem Reap reveals some of its secrets

Siem Reap reveals some of its secrets

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.

Ruins Overlooked

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

ruins, right?

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."


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