Siem reap is the small gateway town to ruins of Angkor, located 7 km away from Angkor Wat, 320 northwest of Phnom Penh and 15 km north of Tonle Sap. The closest city to the ruins of the temples of Angkor.
The name literally means place of the defeat of Siam referring to the victory of the Khmer Empire over the army of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya in the 17th Century.
There is a “killing fields” memorial to victims of Khmer Rouge to the northwest of the town. In 1979 the 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 Siem Reap. To safeguard Angkor, the government has stationed troops, ringing the entire zone of ruins.
Peace has been come to Siem Reap, A number of new hotels, guesthouses and restaurants have appeared in Siem Reap in the 1990s, catering first to visiting UNTAC troops and later to the Angkor bound tourists who arrived in the wake.
The area has been receiving foreign visitors to the temples for over 100 years. The town is actually a cluster of old villages, which originally developed around individual pagodas, and later overlaid with an French colonial-era center. The colonial and Chinese style architecture in the town center and around the Old Market.
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 Siem Reap. The Angkor Wat Conservancy was established by French in 1907 when Siem 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
TONLE SAP LAKE
Head south, about 12 km 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 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. 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.