Psar Chaa

Psar Chaa or the Old Market is a market in downtown Siem Reap, Cambodia. The market is quite popular with the tourists in Siem Reap as it is a traditional Southeast Asian market closest to the touristy area where you can experience going to a market just like the locals do. For foreigners who have never been to such marketplace, it could be quite an interesting experience and perhaps even shocking to the senses, as you would see, hear, smell, and if you like, taste things from the market that is quite different from the more sanitized/sterile environment found in modern supermarkets/grocery stores. At Psar Chaa you can also find souvenirs, and the experience of shopping for those and haggling for good price in itself is an interesting activity to do for some tourists.

Kristi and I had been to similar markets in Indonesia, so this was not necessarily in our plan to do, especially since we already found our souvenirs from Cambodia early on during the day. After our full day of sightseeing at the Angkor Archaeological Park, we had the evening free. It was also New Year’s Eve, so we thought we should at least explore the downtown area of Siem Reap for dinner and to see if there were any activities planned out to welcome the New Year. Our hotel, The Kool Hotel, was located about 15-minute drive from downtown, but they had a shuttle van going down there periodically until around 10 pm. We thought we would take the shuttle on the way there, and depending on the time we’re ready to head back to the hotel, we would either take the shuttle back if it’s still available or take a tuk-tuk.

The hotel shuttle drop point was near Psar Chaa, and to go to the main street where the restaurants are located, we would have to walk pass the street where Psar Chaa was located. It was already around 7:30 pm by then, and most of the market stalls were already closed, but there were still some stores that were open and we could get a glimpse of what could be found there.

The photo below was taken as we walked through the street near Psar Chaa. We saw this store that had sausage links and dried seafood hanging. It looked like this lady was looking at the store’s display, though I doubt she would get something from here to take home as souvenir.

Sausage links and dried seafood

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Khmer Massage

While traveling, sometimes you may encounter unexpected opportunities to ‘do what the locals do’ that may be out of your comfort zone, but if you keep an open mind and just go with the flow, you might come away with a unique experience.

As we finished our day trip, our guide Vanna mentioned that he was planning on getting a traditional Khmer massage after dropping us back at our hotel. He said he usually went for massage about a couple of times a week — which was good rest and relaxation time for him given his job as tour guide that required lots of walking. He asked if we would be interested in trying that. Kristi wasn’t feeling well and wanted to go back to the hotel, but she encouraged me to try that out since we had plenty of time before dinner time. Back when we were at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand, we skipped the opportunity to try out traditional Thai massage, so she said I should give the Khmer version a try.

It was an interesting experience. I was taken to a room with a row of mattresses, and was given a t-shirt and a pajama pants to change to in the nearby wash room. Once I changed clothes to that, the masseur came in and asked me to lay down on one of the mats. He said ‘hi, how are you doing?’ in English, but pretty quickly I found out his English was not that good and he barely understood what I told him. So I stopped talking and let him do his job.

The traditional Khmer massage is essentially a full body massage that addresses the muscles and the joints of the body. The masseur started stretching, pulling, and pressing various muscles of my body to loosen up any part that was stiff. He didn’t say much while doing it, but he said one word many times, ‘pain?’, whenever he thought he ‘tweaked’ my muscles or joints too much. It wasn’t really painful, but I learned that I’m pretty ticklish at some parts of my body. The massage lasted about an hour, and it did help relax the body after the full day of walking. It was also a unique experience that I didn’t even plan and normally I wouldn’t even think of doing.

I took the photo below before I left the room after the massage was done and I changed back to my street clothes. You can see the row of mattresses in the room.

Khmer massage

Souvenir

One consideration to make when you travel somewhere is whether to purchase souvenirs for your relatives or friends at home, and what to get for them that would be worth getting and spending your money for. Souvenir means ‘remembrance’ or ‘memory’, so it’s something that would remind you or the recipient of the place where it came from (or the person giving the souvenir). So you would like it to be something that the recipient would appreciate to get, and if it’s from a place you visited, it’s something unique to the place or represents the place. Other obvious considerations would be the cost, and potentially the size and weight of the souvenir to carry with you on your travel (perhaps also whether it’s legal to bring those back to your home country). Another not so obvious consideration is the source where you’re getting the souvenir from. Most people don’t really care as much about this factor (in the US, often times we would look for souvenirs from famous landmarks/places like the Empire State Building or Washington DC’s National Mall and find that those were manufactured overseas where the cost was much lower). But when you visit a developing country like Cambodia, sometimes this could make a big difference for the local people who make the souvenirs as you help provide them with the income they need.

After a whole day of touring around the Angkor Archaeological Park, we ended our day after visiting the Bayon temple inside the Angkor Thom complex. Before we headed back to our hotel, on the way our tour guide Vanna asked us if we would like to stop to look for any souvenirs from Cambodia, knowing that the following day would be another full day of sightseeing and we would go directly to the airport to leave Cambodia after that. I was thinking of possibly looking for some souvenirs for my friends later that night around dinner time, but I thought why not, we had some time and if it’s on the way, we could stop by to look around. So Vanna and Hour our driver took us to a store called D’mouj in Siem Reap on the way to back to our hotel.

Vanna said they would wait for us in the van while we spend some time checking out the goods at the store. When Kristi and I entered the store, we were greeted by the store manager, an Indian gentleman who welcomed us and asked us if there was anything particular that we would look for. The store had all kinds of objects of arts and handicrafts on display, but the main collection seemed to be carpets and various textile-based products. From reading the guidebooks, I knew that Cambodia was quite well-known for its silk products, so I thought for some of my friends it would be nice to get silk scarves if the price was reasonable, as those would be quite light and easy to pack and carry in our travels. The store manager showed us the section of his store where he had the selection of silk scarves. They were quite beautiful and looked very nice. After picking some that we thought would match the color and patterns that our friends would like, we looked at the price, and found out that they vary quite a bit. I asked the manager why that was the case, and he said though all of the silk products there were hand-woven, they varied in quality, and also some were made locally in Cambodia while others were imported from his homeland, the Kashmir region of India. And though I couldn’t tell the difference as much, some of the scarves were silk, and some were actually cashmere wool. Either way, they’re high quality products.

We asked the manager to point us to selection that was made of silk and came locally from Cambodia, as we wanted to bring back souvenirs that are actually from Cambodia, not just bought in Cambodia but made elsewhere. We found the ones that were reasonably priced (expensive for Cambodian standard, but reasonable in comparison to the price overseas).

When the manager had his staff processing the credit card payment for our purchase, we had a nice conversation with him. He asked us where we’re from and where else we were going to go. When we mentioned that we’re from Indonesia, and we’re going to go to Vietnam and Singapore next, he mentioned that he’s been to Indonesia before, and that his family actually had another store in Hanoi, Vietnam, as well. He mentioned that though his family was originally from Kashmir, India (the region that had its share of war / conflict in the last few years), they had been away from home and lived and did business in Southeast Asia for years. He also said that he liked living in Siem Reap and going around the Southeast Asian region in general, and hoping that they would be able to expand their business to other cities in the region.

After finishing our purchase, we said goodbye to the store manager and left the store. We got the souvenirs that we wanted to get, so at least that’s one thing less to think about before continuing our trip. Now looking back, I thought it might be better had we gone to more ‘local’ store that was owned and run by Cambodians where we know the proceeds from the sales go to the locals, and who knows, Vanna and Hour might’ve taken us to that store because they got some kickbacks from the store for the purchase we made (pretty standard practice in tourism everywhere). Oh well… at least we had an interesting experience to remember, and we did get souvenirs that we were looking for and that the recipients did appreciate.

The photo below was taken during our dinner at a restaurant in Phnom Penh called Romdeng. It’s a restaurant run by an NGO with a purpose of providing street kids in Phnom Penh with some training in the hospitality business. The artwork hanging on the wall were done by some these street kids, and they had them for sale with proceeds going towards improving the welfare of the kids and their families. It’s an example of a socially-responsible tourism.

Romdeng Artwork

Bayon

Bayon is a temple at the center of the walled city of Angkor Thom in the Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The temple was built sometime in the late 12th century or early 13th century by King Jayawarman VII, who also built the capital city of Angkor Thom as well as some other temples like Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and Banteay Kdei. The temple is known for its 216 stone faces that adorned 54 towers, and a couple of elaborate bas-relief galleries depicting mythological, historical, and day-to-day scenes from that era. Since it’s one of the last temples built in Angkor, it was also the only temple built primarily as a Buddhist shrine, as compared to most other Angkor temples that started as Hindu temples but then converted into Buddhist temples.

We visited Bayon after we’re done visiting the Elephant Terrace inside Angkor Thom. As we’re entering the temple, we immediately saw the stone faces. Our guide Vanna explained how it’s still debated among historians about whose face that was depicted on these towers. It could be the face of Buddha, but some said it could also be the face of King Jayawarman VII, or it could be both as in the tradition in the Khmer Empire some kings considered themselves as devaraja (god-king). Vanna also noted something interesting in terms of the numbers. There are 216 stone faces on 54 towers, and Angkor Thom is 3 km x 3 km (9 km2 in area). Notice that the digit in the numbers (2+1+6 = 5+4 = 9) all add up to 9. Not quite sure what the significance of the numbers, but it’s pretty neat to see how symmetrical and precise the measurements are.

The other interesting thing to note was the bas-relief galleries that we saw at Bayon. It clearly depicted the life in Angkor at that era, and also commemorating events that happened that represented the high points of the Khmer Empire (e.g., scenes showing the defeat of the Chams by the Khmers).

The photo below was taken as we climbed up the stairs of the temple. It was one of the 54 towers with the four faces on. Along with the towers of Angkor Wat and the forest-consumed Ta Prohm, Bayon is among the most recognizable sights in the Angkor Archaeological Park especially due to these stone faces on its towers.

Bayon

The Elephant Terrace

The Elephant Terrace is an area inside the walled city of Angkor Thom in the Angkor Archaeological Park north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. The terrace is a raised platform at the end of the Victory Lane (coming into the city through the Victory Gate in the east side). This was where King Jayawarman VII would be standing to view his victorious army marching in through the gate returning from battle. It is called the Elephant Terrace for the carvings of elephant heads on its east face. Today what remains is just the ruins of the platform, but you can still go up there and stand in the middle of the platform and see the panoramic view of the surrounding open field and the present highway going through the Victory Lane.

We stopped at the Elephant Terrace area as the next stop in Angkor Thom after the Victory Gate. Our tour guide Vanna gave an overview of the area and some of the carvings that we saw. What I remember most however was standing in the middle of the Elephant Terrace, looking around, and imagined in my head what it might’ve been standing there near the King welcoming the troops marching into the city after a victorious campaign, and having the open field in front of the terrace filled with residents of the city. That must’ve been quite a sight…

We also walked around a little bit to a nearby area called the Terrace of the Leper King (named for a sculpture found nearby that had moss and discoloration on it, looking like someone with leprosy). By then honestly I was quite tired after walking around under the heat for a while, and I was ready to take a break. What’s interesting I remembered was the walking path nearby to continue to other sights in Angkor Thom went through a cluster of stores and restaurants — very strategically located to cater tourists needing a break from walking around in the area. We ended up continuing our walk towards where our van was parked, but we saw many other tourists stopping by there to take a break. So that was a successful strategy from the tourism planner I suppose.

The photo below was taken from the Elephant Terrace. I used my wide angle lens to capture the expanse of the view. You can see the Victory Lane right in front in the middle.

Elephant Terrace

Victory Gate

The Victory Gate is one of the five entrance gates into the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom in the Angkor Archaeological Park north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Four gates, one for each cardinal point, lead to the temple of Bayon at the center of Angkor Thom. There is another gate on the east side that leads toward the royal palace. The East Gate from Bayon is also known as the Gate of the Dead, as it was used as the gate where the body of the dead kings were taken out from the city for the last time. The East Gate towards the palace is also known as the Victory Gate, as it was the gate used by the Khmer army to enter the city after a victorious battle campaign.

Each gate has similar architecture design. There is a causeway across the moat that surrounds the wall of the city. On the sides of the causeway you can see a row of devas (demi-gods) on one side and asuras (demon / giants) on the other side, each holding the body of a naga (serpent). This represents the scene from the Hindu myth the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Above the entrance gate, there is a 23 m high tower with faces similar to those seen at Bayon.

We stopped at the Victory Gate before entering and exploring Angkor Thom. Our guide Vanna pointed out the devas and the asuras from the myth. The day before he actually told us the story of that myth when we saw the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. Honestly I couldn’t follow the story as there were many turns in it, and there were so many names mentioned that I couldn’t keep up on who’s who. Later on I found an online text retelling the story (as well as the explanation on the symbolism behind it), and after reading it slowly, now I think I kind of get it. The main scene of the story was the tug of war between the devas on one side and the asuras on the other, both holding the long serpent, and in the middle there is a mountain that serves as the churning rod to churn the ocean. At the Angkor Thom gate, it’s like this scene was depicted in quite large scale; you have the large devas and asuras on both sides of the causeway, and the gate’s tower in the middle in a way is like the mountain at the center of the churning scene. Another interesting observation was that there were many names in the story that sounded familiar to me: Indra, Candra, Vasuki, Vishnu, etc. These are names of Hindu gods that were adapted into common people’s names in Indonesia back when the Hindu influence was strong there.

The photo below was taken from the causeway leading into the Victory Gate. You can see the row of devas on the left side of the road, and the tall tower / gate in the middle. As size comparison, you can compare them with the tuk-tuk that was about to go through the gate.

Victory Gate

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is a walled city complex in the Angkor Archaeological Park north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. The city was built by King Jayawarman VII in the 12th century, and the city was the capital of the Khmer Empire for several hundred years until it was abandoned sometime before year 1609. It is believed to have sustained a population of 80,000 – 150,000 people. The complex is about 9 km2, shaped in a square (3 km x 3 km), with five gates (one in the north, west, and south sides, and two in the east side). The surrounding wall is about 8 m high and flanked by a moat. Inside the complex, today visitors can find ruins of several temples and the royal palace and terrace. At the center of the city is the temple of Bayon, famous for its towers with their stone faces.

Our first encounter with Angkor Thom was during the drive from Angkor Wat to Banteay Srei. The modern highway actually goes through Angkor Thom. We entered through the South Gate, drove to the center past Bayon, and continued through one of the East Gates knows as the Victory Gate. We came back again and stopped at several parts of Angkor Thom on the way back after we visited Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm earlier in the day.

The photo below was taken as we drove throught the East Gate known as the Victory Lane. It was the entrance where the victorious Khmer army would march into the city after winning battles against their neighboring enemies (like the Chams). As we drove through the Victory Lane, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it would like with thousands of people lining the entrance welcoming their victorious troops.

Victory Lane