Move over Angkor Wat :

Posted by-Kalki Team

There’s more to Cambodia than its famous temple. Such as elaborate Tomb Raider sets, fried cockroaches and Kampot pepper.

In Siem Reap, or even Cambodia, Angkor is everywhere. Invoked in all forms, from its silhouette on the Cambodian national flag to its name on the country’s cheapest beer — the largest religious structure in the world, Angkor is a source of great national pride — and the country’s biggest source of income.

What remains of Angkor, the seat of the Khmer empire that flourished from the 9th century to the 15th, are its awe-inspiring stone structures spread over 400 square kilometres, although some have been reduced to rubble. The town of Siem Reap, less than 10 km away, is the gateway to Angkor. It is also party destination, gourmet delight and tourist-friendly cliché all rolled into one.

So of course my first stop after setting foot in Siem Reap was to head straight there. My appreciation of Angkor Wat may have been marred by the fact that I was woken up at the unearthly hour of 4 a.m. to ensure that I made it there in time to catch the sunrise. I expected a golden dawn with the sun’s rays setting fire to grey stone that survived centuries of war and religious tumult. What I got instead, was a seat on a damp patch of grass next to a hundred other groggy tourists, all either yawning or focusing their hi-tech camera equipment to capture that postcard-perfect image of Angkor Wat and its silhouette reflected in a pond of pink lilies.

While Angkor Wat has made it to innumerable bucket lists and listicles, the beauty of Angkor is that it has much more to offer, as I discovered later. When a sudden shower sent masses of tourists scurrying for cover around lunchtime, we made our way through a narrow wooden causeway across a water body. Called a “baray” in Khmer, this artificial reservoir used to ensure multiple crops of rice in a year, and today makes for a gorgeous photo-op. When we reached Preah Neak Poan, we were treated to what felt like a private viewing of the 12th century temple dedicated to the Intertwined Nagas. The temple is much smaller in size than many of the other Angkor temples, but more than makes up with the serene beauty of the two nagas and the four small pools around them.

Another point that locals and guides will repeatedly drive home is the fact that Angelina Jolie shot the video game-inspired Tomb Raider at the Ta Prohm temple. But pop culture references aside, much like beauty, what you see in these temples too lies in the eyes of the beholder. Some see ruins and attempts at restoration, some see the aura a Hollywood actress left behind and some see trees that have grown into the sandstone blocks, forming little alcoves where nature is continually worshipped even as Hinduism and Buddhism took turns — albeit violently thanks to warring kings — to claim the temple.

Download any guide to Siem Reap, from the infamous Lonely Planet to a ‘fast and easy’ guide, the first warning you’ll receive is to make sure you don’t get ‘templed out’. And even the most enthusiastic history buff can be affected.

But, Siem Reap is prepared to welcome all kinds of tourists. From the infamous Pub Street where revellers can choose to give up all the peace and quiet gleaned from the Buddhist temples of Angkor, to the more popular Psaar Cha area where the Old Market is situated, or even the Night Market on Sivatha Street — there’s nothing you can’t find here that won’t remind you of every other tourist destination in the world.

And, if all else fails, there is the food. The famed Fish Amok is fish curry steam-cooked in banana leaves, and draws its flavour from the kroeung, or curry paste, and generous amounts of coconut milk. Beef Lok Lak, a Khmer dish that gets its spicy kick from the local Cambodian Kampot pepper goes great with the traditional sticky rice. Team it with a side of Sombai, a rice wine infused with local flavours, and you have a winner.

But be warned, Cambodians are not delicate eaters. Anything that moves is fair game for them, which is why you’ll see many stalls selling an assortment of fried creepy crawlies — scorpions, cockroaches, ants, spiders — nothing is off limits for the Khmer. But locals have caught on that they can make more money by charging shocked tourists to take a picture of their wares than trying to sell them deep fried insects, so be prepared to shell out a dollar for a picture! If you are serious about tasting insect food, then the Bugs Cafe where they delicately stuff ants along with pesto into puff pastry or serve tarantulas in fried tempura batter, might be a better bet. There’s also crocodile and snake meat for the truly adventurous. Being too chicken to try any of these, unfortunately, I can’t recommend one over the other — but I can recommend paying a dollar to take pictures with the fried crawlies to send to friends back home — a better souvenir cannot be found in Siem Reap! source - the hindu

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