Siem Reap Rising
Anthropology, hospitality and technology join forces in the ongoing revival of this Cambodian city. Merritt Gurley runs part of a marathon, flies in a microlight and cycles hidden pathways around ancient ruins, exploring new ways of touring the temples of Angkor.
Published on Jun 19, 2015
It is 4:30 a.m. and I'm surrounded by halfnaked tourists. The bass thuds as Ludacris's "What's Your Fantasy" ushers in daybreak. I wanna li-li-li-lick you from yo' head to yo' toes, and I wanna move from the bed down to the down to the to the flo'.
I doubt that in even his wildest fantasies, the rapper imagined his raunchy hit echoing off the pinecone-shaped stone spires of Angkor Wat, painted gold from the dawn's Midas touch. The abrupt collision of ancient majesty with contemporary smarm certainly has my head reeling. The music inches down from deafening to merely very loud as the emcee makes an announcement: "It is time for the men's 42K to line up at the start. Are you ready?!"
Flying over Pre Rup temple.Eddie Smith.
This is the first-ever full marathon in Siem Reap, and I am definitely not ready. Just waking up this early has already pushed me to my athletic limits. I'm hoping these spandex-clad strangers assume I’m actually tackling the marathon, or the half marathon, or even the 10-kilometer run. My racing bib, with "3K FUN RUN” printed in giant bold text, is sure to spoil my ruse, so I wait until the final moment to clip it across my chest.
Usually I would argue that this "fun run" should be called a "short run" since running isn't fun. On this day though, I am close to a convert. The 3 kilometers are lined by a lake, dotted in vestiges of the Khmer kingdom and the air has that morning smell, fecund with promise. It might be the endorphins I keep hearing so much about, or maybe it's the chessboard of august 900-year-old architecture as the backdrop, but I'm actually enjoying the jog. Most of the participants are, like me, just out here to be a part of the adventure and to try a less conventional method of sightseeing in this well-trodden territory.
Over the past two years new roads both literal and figurative have been paved to Siem Reap's glut of ancient architecture. Never-ending renovation projects continue across the expanses, innovative technology has allowed scientists to uncover elements of this medieval site that had been lost to time and, perhaps in acknowledgment of this place's historic might, Google Maps in April added more than 90,000 photographic panoramas of the Angkor Wat complex to Google Street View. New hotels, tours, restaurants and shops are elevating the temple-hopping town to a multi-faceted tourism destination.
"Siem Reap is going through a boom," says Daisy Walsh, marketing communications manager at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap. Two years ago this address was the Hotel de la Paix, a swanky brand in its own right, but after a management change and makeover by designer and architect Bill Bensley, the Park Hyatt is now one of the most youthful and stylish five-stars in town. Bensley also led the recent Shinta Mani Siem Reap reboot. ("He knows how to take a great hotel and make it even better," Walsh winks.) With the flood of new boutique-style accommodations that have opened in the past year, including the lovely Anantara Angkor, Sala Lodges, Nita by Vo, and Suorskear, it takes that extra edge to stand out.
The Park Hyatt Siem Reap colonnade. Courtesy of Park Hyatt Siem Reap.
This kind of hospitality one-upmanship is a welcome change of pace for residents here along the Tonle Sap, where recent hardship, modern development and ancient history strike a cautious compromise. "There have only been 15 years of real peace," tour guide Yous Sapana tells me. "Only for four years we have had a decent road to Thailand. Before that, with all potholes and land mines, we couldn't go anywhere." Sapana was abducted by the Khmer Rouge at age 10 in 1975, and enslaved for three years. His life story, a tale of heartbreak and triumph, would make for a gripping biography, and the current chapter is one of optimism. "We are running 30 years behind and we are still in the process of learning," he says, "but we are making so much progress. It is not just Thailand that is happy, Cambodia is the land of smiling too."
"HINDU MONKS HAVE HIPSTER BEARDS,"
our guide Samnang Chann tells us, pointing to engravings on a column inside Angkor Wat, where sunrise today was serenely rap-free. Chann is full of quick tricks to suss out which iconography is Buddhist and which is Hindu: "Many arms, it is Hindu; two arms, it is Buddhist," he tells us.
I keep studying the walls, trying to channel archaeologist Noel Hidalgo Tan, who in May published a study on his use of a NASA algorithm to enhance digital photographs of paintings throughout Angkor Wat. The technique revealed images that cannot be seen by the naked eye: scenes of animals and gods that are of particular interest because they were drawn during a lesser known time in the temple's history, straddling the transformation of the monument from a Hindu to Buddhist temple.
Engravings in mid-restoration. Jago Gazendam.
Leading our group on a cycling itinerary by Grasshopper Adventures that winds through some of Siem Reap's most atmospheric temples, Chann teaches us about the tug-of-war between the two religious traditions in each renovation of the monuments. Often these lessons happen in blissful solitude. During long stretches of the day, the six of us are the only people in sight, with the lesser-known entrances and falling pagodas all to ourselves—a damn near miracle at a tourism destination that draws 2 million visitors a year. But that's the whole point of this bike route.
In Angkor Thom, where The Bayon temple's menagerie of giant stone faces sits pretty in the center, we ride atop the 8-meter-high laterite wall buttressing the complex, stopping to check out overgrown ruins and jungle clearings and to peer down at the men in canoes fishing the moat below. Back paths and hidden trails snake past the Terrace of the Elephants—a stone wall decorated in a parade of pachyderms, mahouts, garudas and lions—and smaller pagodas like Ta Nei.
In Ta Prohm, that monastery half swallowed by jungle, the effect of roots mangling the foundations is rugged, wild and cinematic, but not so great for preservation. The Archaeological Survey of India is rebuilding many of the crumbled main structures and reinforcing the trees to keep them from plummeting and taking down whole chunks of the temple too. Italy, Japan, France, Poland and Great Britain are among the many countries to have pitched in over the years, and New Zealand and China both have committed to multi-million dollar restoration campaigns. There is a giant appetite for Angkor architecture, and many nations are willing to contribute to its preservation—but time is relentless and the job is never really done.
Ancient ruins hidden by jungle. Eddie Smith.
This fact became glaringly apparent in 2013, when archaeologists Jean-Baptiste Chevance and Damian Evans used a revolutionary instrument called a lidar on a sevenday helicopter expedition to uncover the 1,200-year-old Mahendraparvata city, also known as Mount Kulen. The device used laser pulses to see through the jungle canopy, revealing that 36 previously recorded ruins were linked by a grid of roads, waterways and temples segmented into city blocks. The site is overgrown and parts of the terrain pose landmine risks, so the area is still a little dicey for the average tourist, but it is a goldmine for researchers.
Eager to embark on my own aerial archeological exploration, I head to the pastoral Jayavarman Airfield, the base for Aero Cambodia's microlight tours over Siem Reap. When we arrive, a young American guy beams as he unhooks his helmet. "I feel like Amelia Earhart." he yells over the microlight's still-quieting engine. "It's like the early days of flying." He steps out of a craft that looks like the lovechild of a hang glider and a helicopter, jabbering in excitement: "That was so awesome and amazing. What a perfect morning."
Aero Cambodia owner Brian Naswall, gives me a nod. "That's always the reaction," he says. "They have a permanent smile on their face that they have to go to the doctor to have removed." The grazing cows and pecking chickens on the airfield belie the serious certification process—created in concert with the Cambodian government—that was required to launch the service earlier this year. "It was about the same as setting up a mission to Mars," he says. I take it as an encouraging sign that Aero Cambodia is currently the country's sole microlight operator. Before, "they had tuk-tuk drivers flying these things over the beach. They almost crashed into a group of sunbathers," Naswell says, but now "Cambodia is one of the safest countries in the world for aviation. Usually money and power will buy you anything you want, but not in aviation here."
Lofty views aboard a microlight plane. Eddie Smith.
That's music to my ears as I slide in behind Eddie Smith, the pilot, on this two-seat plane. Naswell tugs on a rope that starts the engine, and it begins chattering like a pull-string doll. Smith coaxes the craft 500 meters into the sky and off the ground all is quiet. Compared to the thudding racket of a helicopter, this microlight operates at a whisper. Smith points out ruins dotting the plains, and iconic scenes of men and women tilling the rice paddies in Arcadian miniature. From this height the grand design of all the various religious structures takes shape: it is a maze of grids within grids, a mandala of interlocking squares. In my mind's eye I see the aspirations, reveries and toils of daily life 1,000 years ago.
We fly by the stepped pyramid of Bakong temple, Lolei, Preah Ko, and the itsy Prasat Prei Monti. We can't fly directly over Angkor Wat, as it is a protected unesco World Heritage Site, but we cruise close enough for a killer view. "Wave," Smith instructs me as we pass over a group of girls strolling through the field, perhaps to school. I comply and am met with peals of laughter and enthusiastic arm flapping in return. I wish they could jump aboard and see their home from this perspective, little Amelia Earharts all. She, after all, was the one who said, "Adventure is worthwhile in itself." She would have loved Siem Reap. +
Fly direct to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh with Cambodia Angkor Air (cambodiaangkorair.com); from Bangkok with Bangkok Airways (bangkokair.com); from Singapore with SilkAir (silkair.com) and Jetstar Airways (jetstar.com); from Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) and AirAsia (airasia.com); and from Saigon with Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com).
Anantara Angkor Intimate and elegant, the 39 suites of this boutique property surround a halcyon pool lounge. National Road No. 6, Khum Svay Dangkom; +855 63 966 788; angkor.anantara.com.
Nita by Vo Designed by the acclaimed Cambodian architect Hok Sokol, this new resort is all about subtle Khmer style and personalized touches. Sivutha Boulevard; +855 63 767 788; nitabyvo.com.
Park Hyatt Siem Reap Sivutha Boulevard; +855 63 211 234; siemreap.park.hyatt.com.
EAT AND DRINK
Cuisine Wat Damnak Led by chef Joannès Rivière, seasonality is the name of the game and the degustation menu changes every Tuesday. Wat Damnak Market Street; +855 77 347 762; cuisinewatdamnak.com.
Palate Stop by from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for happy hour, and you'll be served two for one drinks and free tapas on a terrace overlooking Siem Reap River. palateangkor.com.
Hive This bar/café combo serves up hearty breakfast burritos, moist muffins and creamy cappuccino in a buzzy bar atmosphere. Psar Kandal Street, across from Ivy Guest House; +855 97 763 3484; facebook.com/thehive.siemreap.
Aero Cambodia Microlight Flights Jayavarman Airfield, Airfield Road, National Highway 6; +855 23 469 7690; aerocambodia.com.
Grasshopper Cycling Tour +855 12 462 165; grasshopperadventures.com.