Welcome to Cambodia! Siem Reap to be exact. We flew out of Chang Mai VERY early and made our way to Siem Reap. Here, we would spend 5 days and then head to Phnom Penh….from the long ago capital city to the new capital city. My plan is to structure this post a little differently, so feedback is always appreciated. Unless you are a history or archeological buff, I figured you might not want to spend a lot of time reading this post. So, I am going to give you some quick highlights of the first half of our trip and let the pictures tell the rest of the story…..
We had arranged to have our own personal tuk-tuk driver take us around over the next 4 days. He took us wherever we wanted to go and waited at each stop we made (all for $20 per day….how awesome is that!). Upon our arrival, and despite me being sick, he advised us to get our tickets for Angkor Wat rather than waiting until we planned to go, as the lines were notorious for being very long. After purchasing our tickets for the next 3 days, we headed to a temple in the heart of the city and a memorial to one of the killing fields that took place in Cambodia in the 70’s. To see the skeletal remains and read the horrific accounts of what was done to these wonderful people was very gut-wrenching, to say the least.
That evening, we went to this amazing Cambodian circus (Phare). It was nothing like the circuses in America. There were no clowns or dancing animals, it consisted entirely of phenomenal acrobatic stunts, skits, and dancing by young Cambodian artists. Definitely check out the pictures and video of this show – we were very impressed.
Our next 3 days were spent touring the temple ruins of Angkor Wat which is the biggest religious structure in the world. Each day was blistering hot (and humid), and we spent hours trekking and climbing the very steep, stone steps of about 11 different temples. After each day, we returned to our room for a much needed nap from the heat and exertion. What follows is a brief account of the first two days (we had decided to start with the smaller temples and save the granddaddy temple…Angkor Wat itself….for a sunrise visit on the third day).
Day 1: Our starting point was Pre Rup. This temple was commissioned by the Khmer King Rajendravarman over 1,000 years ago and is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. From here, we head back in time seven years to East Mebon, which honors the parents of Rajendravarman and is best known for the relatively well-preserved elephant statues watching out from the corners of the temple. Our next stop was the slightly newer Ta Som, which is being captured by strangler figs. This was an amazing sight to see. Next was the serene Neak Pean. You reach the temple (which sits on a man-made island) by crossing a rickety boardwalk over an eerie, tree-filled lake. The last temple on the Grand Loop is Preah Khan – a huge complex of corridors, sunny terraces and Greek-esque columns.
Day 2: Knowing that the first temple on our list today was the filming site for the movie “Tomb Raider” (which neither of us had ever seen), we made sure to watch the movie the night before. I can’t say that it really helped me to identify with the temple. I can say that it made for a ridiculously crowded experience which was not to my liking….especially for such an amazing temple :(. So, first stop was Ta Prohm, considered the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor Wat. It’s appeal lies in the fact that it has been swallowed by the jungle (although well manicured around the temple to preserve it) as you will see in the pictures. Ta Keo was next and built entirely out of sandstone. The summit of the central tower is 50 meters high. This temple was never completed, and one theory is that it was struck by lightning which was considered a bad omen. From there, we headed to Sra Srang and Banteay Kdei. Sra Srang was considered a pool of ablutions reserved for the king and his consorts. Banteay Kdei was constructed in the 12th century. It is believed that much of the temple is in a ruinous state due to hasty construction. Our final stop of the day was Ta Nei. This was considered similar to Ta Prohm in that it is moss covered and wrapped in the tentacle-like roots of the trees. This small temple captured the atmosphere of Ta Prohm without all the crowds, making it a quite enjoyable place to experience. This ended our first two days of temple tours.
As we made our way back to the hotel, our driver suggested that we do a sunset tour of a temple that sat high on a hill overlooking a huge lake and surrounding rice paddy fields. Despite being exhausted, we thought this sounded like a good plan. By this time, our driver had figured out that I did not like crowds and really appreciated sites that were off the beaten path….this was definitely off the beaten path! What we did not know is that we would be dropped at the base of a tremendous amount of stairs (no, I did not count this time) which then spit us out 1/2 way up the hill. From there, we were told it was another 2,600 feet to the temple (all uphill, of course). Then, wouldn’t you know, more stairs! We finally reached the top! We were both a hot, sweaty mess….yuck. The temple was nice, but the goal was to snag a spot for a picture perfect moment. Needless to say, that was no easy feat either. We had to climb down the other side of the mountain, perched on rocks, to find our ideal spot to watch the sunset. There were definitely very few tourists here, and it was quite a sight to see. We ended up pretty beat up by the time we made our way back down to our ride. We actually asked our driver if he was mad at us (totally in jest, of course! He laughed…..hmmmm).
Day 3: Known as the “small circuit,” this was one of the most intense of our three days at Angkor Wat. We began our journey at 5 a.m. in order to be at Angkor Wat (the biggest temple in the world) for sunrise. Silly me figured it would be quiet and peaceful for a sunrise viewing. After all, who in the hell wants to get up at 5 a.m. if you don’t have to??!! Well, apparently everyone going to Angkor Wat! Dan and I (and 1000 of our closest friends) all descended on Angkor Wat in the dark to try and snag the ideal spot for sunrise photos. It was beautiful, but definitely not the serene, peacefulness I had hoped for. Angkor Wat is literally the symbol of Cambodia and with good reason. This huge, and well preserved, complex starts with a walk over a man made lake. The temple was built over 1,000 years ago! Unusual for Hindu temples, Angkor Wat is west facing and is dedicated to the god Vishnu. For this last day, our tuk-tuk driver hooked us up with a fantastic guide. Once we finished with sunrise, we left Angkor Wat to the Bayon temple and would then return to Angkor Wat to fully explore it. Our hope was that by the time we returned, the majority of people in Angkor Wat would be headed to Bayon. Our plan worked perfectly, and the crowds were far less overwhelming than they would have been following the usual pattern of flow. Our first stop was the imposing South Gate of Angkor Thom. We hopped out of the tuk tuk before we went through so that we could see the demon and guardian god carvings, as well as the ancient city gates. Angkor Thom isn’t a temple per se, but rather an ancient city with a number of temples inside it. Next was the Bayon temple, famous for its towers and carved faces which look out in all directions. The upper levels of the temple have the towers and faces while underneath lies the cool, quiet and dark corridors. Once finished, we made our way back to the temple of Angkor Wat where we spent several hours exploring the temple and its grounds. By the time we returned to the hotel, we could barely walk from all the trekking and climbing. Our entertainment for the evening would be a dinner and Asapara dance show. Once again, our fabulous tuk tuk driver took great care of us and booked us front row seats.
All in all, we really enjoyed Siem Reap and were sad to be leaving it behind, but the adventure must continue. Tomorrow we would hop a propeller plane (yikes) and head off to Phenom Phen for some new adventures. Stay tuned for some wildlife adventures and a more in depth look at the killing fields of Cambodia.