West Baray: Siem Reap’s Secret Beach

I’ve mentioned my extreme like for Siem Reap a couple of times now, but I know that there’s a lot of people that are simply turned off by its touristy hustle and bustle.

Well, let me fill you in on a hidden little beach getaway that’s close enough to touch yet well off the beaten tourist path of Angkor, so off the path in fact that it’s only through a friend with a local contact that I heard about it at all.

Hammocks at West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Boats, tubes, hammocks and baskets of yummies: Ahhh, Baray.

West Baray: Not Actually Hidden and Actually Quite Significant

Referred to locally as just Baray (and pronounced more like the first part of “pariah”), the beach is in fact part of a two kilometer-square reservoir hidden 12 kilometers from the center of Siem Reap.

But the reservoir isn’t really hidden at all, in fact, it’s quite blatantly there as a giant chunk of water when viewed on a map.

View Larger Map

It’s also remarkably close to the Angkor complex (see those square marks in the top right corner?), and, along with the East Baray, now dried up, was a phenomenal reservoir in the Angkor civilization, thought to have either spiritual or agricultural significance.

The reason that the reservoir is ‘hidden’ at all is simply because it is highly overshadowed by the glamour of Angkor, with tourists rarely following the main highway to the narrow road that leads to Baray.

En route to West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
The narrow (but busy!) road that leads to Baray.

West Baray Today

Today, Baray is used by locals and very few tourists for swimming and occasional boating.

Boys play at West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Two local boys play on the beach. Their parents were there too, but were fully clothed.

When you arrive at the end of the narrow road, vendors to the right and left wait to greet you. There is fresh cut pineapples, durian, mango and papayas. Sugarcane juice, coconut juice and coca colas. Grilled birds and fish and raw meat. And all the overpriced patterned souvenir dresses, hippie pants, bracelets and purses you could want, in case you haven’t gotten enough in town.

From the bridge, you can see the reservoir:

West Baray from bridge, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
West Baray from bridge.

The Beach at Baray

A set of narrow stairs takes you down to the sand where boats line the water and hammocks dot the shore. A lady will come up to collect money for the tented hammocks  – 1000 riel per person – $0.25 that’s more than worth your time watching the locals dip into the water fully clothed, the fishermen tidying up their boats, and families peeling and eating quail eggs next to you.

The women and children that come around with food baskets will provide a much deserved snack. Almost anything edible is available: pineapples and mangoes, boiled eggs, crickets, beetles and scorpions.

.Yummy crickets and bugs to eat. West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Yummies hawked at West Baray, Cambodia.
Personally, the bugs just didn’t look that refreshing for a hot day.

The water is warm and it is a welcome reward, but the tented hammocks beckon – they are low to the ground, and wrap you in their pleather fabric unconditionally. Without you noticing they will lull you into slumber and you’ll have no choice but to pass out in the 35°C shade.

And between snoozes all you’ll be able to think is that two hours here is simply not enough: so close from everything and yet away from it all.

Hammock. West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Bliss from inside a hammock at West Baray.

Fun fact: You can see where East Baray was very clearly on the terrain map above – it still shows up as a block of blue!

Photo of the Week: Roots at Ta Prohm

If this looks like a bunch of rubble and chaos, well, you’re right. But I love this photograph, so take a closer look.

Strangling Roots at Ta Prohm Temple. Angkor, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

A couple weeks ago I wrote that Bayon was one of my favourite temples in the Angkor Complex, but Ta Prohm, often referred to as the Tomb Raider temple, was a close runner up for beauty.

After the Khmer empire fell in the 17th century, many temples were abandoned and left behind for nature to do with them as it pleased. Ta Prohm was consumed by jungle, its rooftops covered in seedlings carried there by wind or bird, and what resulted was nothing short of an art form: giant cotton and fig trees sprouting from the temple roofs, their roots slithering through the small crevices in its foundation, cascading down its walls, strangling it into ruin.

Now, held together by those very roots, Ta Prohm is in a sensitive position – allowing the growth to continue will result in the trees ripping apart the stone, but removing the trees will tear the building apart. Ironically, it is the trees that add so heavily to Ta Prohm’s magical appeal, the aspect that tourists remember best.

Luckily, restoration has been in the works for a couple of years now – a collaboration between APSARA (the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) and the Archaeological Survey of India for conservation of the temple…and the trees.

Stay tuned for more photos of Ta Prohm and the rest of the Angkor Archaeological Park coming soon!

The Faces of Bayon, The Smile of Angkor

Arriving at the gates of Angkor Thom, one of the city temples in the Angkor Archaeological complex, was like something out of a movie, or better yet, something out of an adventure book I’d read as a child.

Entrance to Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatTo be completely honest, I had been sorely underwhelmed by my visit to Angkor Wat the day before; maybe it was my expectations for it, all the guidebooks swearing it’d be breathtaking, or its size, too large for me to grasp completely, but it just didn’t wow me the way everyone else seemed to be wowed. I knew I was looking at something special, big, important…it just wasn’t that special, big or important to me.

So I was stunned when I arrived at Bayon.

Bayon Temple

From far away, Bayon actually looks like a glorified heap of rubble; besides a few stone peaks reaching for the sky, the whole temple looks more disorderly than sacred, and the stone blocks scattered around the premises only add to its ‘accidentally left behind’ atmosphere.  The rubble of Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut upon getting closer, something that resembles a face begins to peer from one of the towers. Soon, there is another, and then another, and all of a sudden the realization hits that there is much more to this temple than meets the eye.

History of Bayon

Bayon was built in the late 12th century for King Jayavarman VII as the official state temple of Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Empire at the time. Situated smack in the middle of the “great walled city,” the Buddhist temple is said to be one of his greatest achievements.

Bas-relief at Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatFollowing the architectural style of the temple-mountain, a representation of the sacred center of the universe Mount Meru, Bayon reaches over 40 meters high and expands its grandiosity over 10km2, its walls covered in a gallery of detailed bas-reliefs (shallow sculpted stone) that stretch for almost a kilometer, and depict historical battles, mythological events, and everyday life.

The Faces Of Bayon

A smile of Bayon

But it is perhaps the greatest attribution to Jayavarman VII that holds me where I stand in awe: from the 54 towers that look out onto the city materialize 216 smiling faces, watchful and reserved. It is breathtaking, bizarre, and almost otherworldly.

Rumored by many to be more than just a coincidental resemblance to the king himself, they stand almost four meters tall, carefully observing as they blend in and out of the slabs of stone from which they themselves are assembled.

It is fitting: generally accepted as the embodiment of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the faces exude compassion for their audience; as a representation of the king, they retain a sense of distance from it –

the wide forehead, broad nose, deep nostrils, almond eyes, and that smile, almost clown-like, upturned at the ends, is a graceful union between serenity and control.

The Smile of Angkor

Bayon is considered one of the most beautiful temples of Angkor, and I can see why – there is a magic in walking among the faces, as if each holds the secrets to a hidden past. But the temple itself is still shrouded in mystery, and that’s the most beautiful experience of them all: standing face to face with the enigmatic smile of Angkor, and letting Bayon slowly reveal itself.

Three in a row. Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Siem Reap: More than just Angkor

Arriving at Siem Reap, the town at the foot of the Angkor temples made infamous by Tomb Raider, I expected a small, dusty town trampled by tourists as they did their token three days at Angkor Wat before they moved on to bigger and better things.

Walking among giants. Siem Reap, CambodiaI was wrong.

Siem Reap is a huge tourist destination (about 3 million visitors a year) but this means it’s actually quite expanded. On top of that, because of its history – Siem Reap means a “flat defeat” of the Thais for one thing – there is quite a lot of culture lurking beneath its touristic façade:

First, there’s the exquisite French Quarter which houses the fancy resorts, the National Museum, and a stunning park lined with tall imposing trees filled to the brim with bats.

Then there’s the lovely riverside for strolling along, dotted with colonial style houses and local restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

There’s an Old Market area where the locals shop for fruits, seafood and clothing, which is also filled with food stalls and souvenir stalls and almost any-trinket-you-can-imagine stalls.

There’s the Night Markets, where women weaving traditional Cambodian scarves blur with local entrepreneurs selling original printed teeshirts that blur with everyone in between hocking patterned dresses and souvenirs.

Walking towards the Night market. Siem Reap, CambodiaAnd of course, there’s the silk farm you can tour, the Artisan center, a floating village, a bird sanctuary and performances of the traditional Apsara dance that you can view.

And for some nightlife, there’s Pub Street, which, yes, has a large red neon sign that points to it, but is actually not that horrible, and has decent restaurants and bars including the Temple Club which features free (and good quality!) Apsara dances every night.

Angkor Wat...reconstructedThe reason most people visit Siem Reap is for the Angkor Archaeological Park, and the temples are well worth checking off the tourist to-do list.

But Siem Reap was an unexpected darling in Cambodia that offered not only temples fraught with history and religion, but also a steady dose of culture and nightlife that I just wanted to inhale.

I wish I stayed longer. And I definitely hope to come back.