It was finally time to head north to Siem Reap, our final destination of the Cambodia trip. Siem Reap is probably one of the most well known locations in Cambodia, famous for it’s proximity to the Temples of Angkor. Situated in the northwestern region of the country, it immediately felt more touristy compared to the less visited province of Battambang.
We were picked up from the bus station and transported to our hotel free of charge by a local tuk tuk driver called Vicchay, a friend of Vany (who acted as our delightful tour guide in Battambang). The unspoken deal was that we would use Vicchay to transport us around the Temples of Angkor during our time in Siem Reap. There are various ticket options for Angkor, ranging from one day to one week. A week felt too long and a day too short, so the three-day pass felt like a good middle ground for us. The three-day tickets are still very expensive at $62 per person, but it’s a must when visiting Siem Reap, with Angkor Wat proudly displayed on their national flag and boasting the title as the biggest religious monument in the world. So it’s well worth it, and this money is being put to good use, gradually restoring the temples to their former glory days so we can continue to enjoy their splendour.
We were picked up by Vicchay at 8:00am to make the most of the cooler mornings but the sun was already making its presence painfully clear and we were sweating by the time we arrived at the complex to have our tickets checked.
Angkor was once the capital of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th – 15th century, ruled by various self-proclaimed ‘god-kings’. The Temples of Angkor were created to house ancient gods, combining creative ambition with spiritual devotion. The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland on the outskirts of Siem Reap drawing in almost 2 million tourists every year, making the preservation of the site even more of a challenge. There is both a Hindu (focusing on the worship of Shiva and Vishnu) and Buddhist influence at Angkor, with much of the architecture displaying imagery centred on these religious characters and their cosmology
1. Angkor Wat
We began at Angkor Wat, the most famous temple within the complex built in the 12th century. As mentioned, it’s the biggest religious monument in the world with its site measuring 420 acres. No wonder we spent 2 hours exploring the amazingly well restored Khmer architecture, picking our way through the Hindu mythology, bas-reliefs, moat and raised galleries of this Buddhist temple, before reaching the central quincunx of towers.
Our next stop was Bayon, also built in the 12th century at the heart of Angkor Thom. The temple, built by Jayavaraman VII, epitomizes the inflated ego of the King with its 54 Gothic towers decorated with 216 enormous smiling faces, bearing a similar resemblance to Jayavaraman VII himself. 1.2km of bas-reliefs adorn the temple, depicting scenes of everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. It was one of our favourites due to the massive faces that loom over visitors from all angles, and its higgledy-piggledy construction (much more jumbled looking than Angkor Wat), appearing to be on the brink of tumbling into a pile of rubble at any moment.
3. Ta Keo
Ta Keo is actually unfinished but would have allegedly been one of the finest of Angkor’s constructions. It was the first monument to be built entirely of sandstone and its summit reaches almost 50m high. It only took us 20minutes to whiz around this one but we spent a lot of time admiring the excellent restoration work that had taken place on the corners of the temples foundation.
4. Ta Prohm
The notorious ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. Ta Prohm sits in the dappled shade of the jungle, crumbling under the force of the vast tree root systems that have almost swallowed the temple whole. We loved the way the thick, formidable tree trunks and roots had forced and strangled their way around Ta Prohm, in some cases actually holding the collapsing temple in place. The lichen, creeping plants and sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy created a really unique atmosphere. It’s hard to believe you’re not actually on the set of a movie!
5. Banteay Kdei
This Buddhist monastery is located just beyond Ta Prohm and was our final stop for day one. We leisurely wandered through the main passageway lined with tumbling and overgrown courtyards enveloped in lichen. It was much more peaceful than the likes of Angkor Wat and by this point it was nearing 16:30. Our feet were feeling the effects of the multitude of steps up and down over the jumbled temple surfaces and we were ready to call it a day.
We decided to bite the bullet and set our alarms for 04:45am on our second day at Angkor in order to arrive in time for sunrise. We’d read that sunrise over Angkor Wat is an unmissable experience. We were picked up by Vicchay at 5:00am and driven to Angkor Wat as dawn was breaking. We had a pretty good position overlooking a lake at the base of the temple as waited patiently for the sun to make an appearance. It had rained during the night and we could already tell it was going to be a cloudy, overcast morning. As the sky lightened, there was still no sign of the sun, just a pale orange glow where it hadn’t mustered quite enough strength to burn through the cloud. We waited until around 7:00am before giving up on the sunrise, feeling a little deflated after getting up at 04:45am for no reason. On the plus side, it meant the temperature was much cooler for walking around and we had plenty of time to see more temples before crowds of tourists began arriving.
We tackled the ‘big circuit’ on our second day, which covered more ground than day one but actually ended up taking less time. We were finished by 12:00 noon, ready to head back to Siem Reap for lunch. However, this still meant a six-hour day of temple sight seeing so we were just as pooped as the day before!
1. Preah Khan
Preah Khan is one of the largest complexes at Angkor with a maze of vaulted corridors, fine carvings and stonework. It probably served as Jayavaraman VII temporary residence while Angkor Thom was being built. The temple includes an unexpected Grecian-style two story structure, resembling an exile from Athens. We had the temple almost entirely to ourselves so could really appreciate the tranquility of the place.
2. Neak Pean
This petite temple sits in a large square pool of water surrounded by four smaller square pools. The temple itself wasn’t particularly overwhelming and didn’t take long to look around, but the entrance leading up to it was a highlight. We walked along a narrow wooden boardwalk to reach the temple, surrounded by marshland and swamps. The views looked like something from a post apocalyptic movie scene.
3. Ta Som
The most impressive feature at this temple is the huge tree that overwhelms the eastern gate, draping its roots over the archway. It’s not quite as extraordinary as the tree root formations that strangle the temples of Ta Prohm, but it didn’t have the same level of crowds and made for an excellent photo opportunity. Along with every other visitor, we were captivated by a ridiculously long line of ants walking along the temple walls, going about their daily business.
4. East Mebon
This Hindu temple features elaborate brick shrines dotted with neatly arranged holes, which original plasterwork was attached to. The base of the temple is guarded by perfectly carved stone elephant figures. It was nice to be able to gain some height by climbing to the top of this temple and gaze out over the forest. It’s only when you reach an elevated temple that the sheer size of the Angkor complex is truly apparent.
5. Pre Rup
Pre Rup is a popular spot for sunset as there are wonderful views over the surrounding rice fields, but it was only midday by the time we arrived, and after the disaster of a sunrise, we weren’t hanging around for 7 hours. The temple may have served as an early royal crematorium, but today is perilously close to collapsing. Much of the construction is propped up by wooden supports. East Mebon and Pre Rup both reminded us of the style of temples we saw in Bagan, Myanmar. They looked more like ruins and had less detailed carvings on the stone surface. Their red, dusty appearance was also familiar as well as the height of the structure that we were allowed to climb.
We felt totally exhausted after day two of exploring the Temples of Angkor and crashed out as soon as we were dropped off at our hotel. We felt like two days was plenty of time for us to get our fill of Angkor. While you could spend more than a week exploring every nook and cranny of the array of temples the complex has to offer, two days on the trot of any activity satisfies our needs quite nicely! The Temples of Angkor really are as amazing as everyone suggests.
In the evenings after all of the Angkor excitement, we headed towards Pub Street for food and drinks. Pub Street is full of tourists and teeming with bars, restaurants, bright lights, bad music and 50-cent beer. We came for the beer. The restaurants are, as expected, overpriced for what you get, so we preferred to eat elsewhere, closer to our accommodation, and wonder in at night when the crowds began to fill out the streets. It’s a great place to people watch, grab a pancake for dessert from a street vendor, and mooch around the many excellent souvenir shops.
One evening we braved the infamous ‘fish pedicure’. The idea is that you plunge your crusty feet into the tank of water filled with hungry, toothless carp who greedily eat away at all of the dead skin. Sounds great?! Initially it was impossible to keep our feet in the water for more than 2 seconds, as the sensation was so tickly. We didn’t realise we’d dived straight in with the big fish and quickly moved ourselves to tanks with less intimidating fish in them. It was hard to relax but we began chatting to an Australian-British family opposite us who were struggling just as much as us. It was hilarious when anyone new joined the group as they’re spluttering gasps for mercy made everyone laugh. As we chatted it took our mind off of the tickly sensation and we began to enjoy it for a good half hour while we sipped on our complimentary drinks. We highly recommend.
We enjoyed lots of great Khmer food in Siem Reap, from the best fish amok we’ve ever had, to juicy BBQ skewers, and a compulsory trip to the Bugs Café. The Bugs Café is a self-proclaimed ‘insect tapas restaurant and cocktail bar’, but the point is they serve tarantulas and we wanted in on this. Many Cambodians cook and eat insects at home so it’s not a novelty for the locals. But the Bugs Café takes more of a fine dining approach to this with an extensive menu that confused our taste buds. We weren’t quite sure what we would enjoy so opted for the sharing platter for two people. This consisted of: two wild spring rolls with ants, one insect skewer (tarantula, giant water bug, scorpion), one Mediterranean feuilletes with red ants, one tarantula doughnut, one feta and tarantula samosa, and one cricket and silk worm wok. It was a little tricky to get over the appearance of the insects that still looked like insects when they were served, such as the scorpion and the waterbug. The crunchy texture of the bugs was also a little off putting, but many of the dishes we tried didn’t taste like bugs at all. The samosa and feuillettes had strong flavours like feta and spinach that overrode any insect influence, so they went down a treat. The tarantula doughnut was also a highlight and the cricket/silkworm wok was easy to eat and very flavoursome. It was the insect skewer that proved most difficult as the scorpion had a vile flavour and the tarantula arse was also a toxic musty flavour that we couldn’t hack. It was definitely a fun experience and we’re glad to have dipped our toes into this very Cambodian cuisine, but maybe not again any time soon.
Our final day in Siem Reap was spent chilling at the hotel pool (we found a bargain hotel with a pool for our stay here) in between some rain showers, and browsing various art galleries and markets in the city.
We departed Siem Reap and headed to Phnom Penh, from where we would catch our flight to Kuala Lumpur the following day. It’s been an amazing 25 days exploring Cambodia. It’s is one of the friendliest countries we’ve been to and has some of the most delicious food (we will be making an amok curry as soon as we’re set loose in a kitchen). We were slightly wary that the weather could have had an impact as we were travelling around the country during the rainy season. However, we were greeted everyday by sunshine and blue skies. We did witness the odd rain shower, and a couple of thunderstorms, but this simply made the country more luscious, and the grass a luminescent green. Everything went pretty smoothly during our time in Cambodia with many happy memories to reflect on. Hopefully Malaysia will be equally rewarding and exciting!