Our journey to Cambodia began with a long bus ride from Bangkok to Siem Reap. The border crossing gave us a little taste of what to expect in Cambodia, and it was slightly hard to swallow. Thailand may not be wealthy, but Cambodia is clearly poverty stricken. Immediately after crossing the border the streets were lined with merchants and beggars selling rotting fruit and food covered in flies. We got a fast taste of the corruption too, as border officials charged us five dollars more than the listed price for our visas, and scammers boarded the bus beforehand to try to sell fake visas at ten dollars over the cost.
The tourist town of Siem Reap was a little different though, as it was built up and slightly wealthier due to the constant flow of visitors to Angkor. We settled in at a hotel that was far nicer than we normally stay in due to a killer deal on Agoda. Score! We came to Siem Reap not having done overly much research about Angkor; we only knew it was big, so we intended to rent a motorbike and drive ourselves around it for three days. Once we arrived, we quickly found out that wasn’t a possibility. The park management only allow specially licensed tuk-tuk drivers to drive around the park, and it was even larger than we thought (in case you’ve never seen one, a tuk-tuk is a motorbike with an open air cart behind).
The Angkor temple complex is home to over 1000 ruin sites, and spans an area of about 400 square miles. Just recently, more ruins were found deep in the jungle using thermal imagery. The area boasts the largest religious monument in the world which was built by the enormous Khmer empire around the 7th century. It supported over one million people during the height of the empire, which is a LOT for an ancient civilization. The immensity is a little overwhelming, and it was clear we would need a little more time to figure out what we were doing. We decided to spend our first day in Siem Reap planning our visit, since we needed to decide to which temples to visit (it’s not possible to do them all) and find a driver that we liked, since we’d be spending a lot of time with him.
The closest modern city to Angkor is Siem Reap, and everyone uses it as a jumping point to visit the archaeological sites. The hotels and drivers all offer two tours, the small and large loops, and suggest that you follow them. However, the internet told us that tourists flock to the site in troves and if we followed the loops we’d have hundreds of people in all of our photos and no room to walk. They also told us that April is easily the hottest month of the year, and it would be hell to visit the temples this time of year. Yipee! I spent several hours researching and carefully designed an itinerary that would help us avoid the crowds, and we spent the rest of the day finding a reasonably priced tuk-tuk driver that would follow it and gearing up at the infamous Pub Street night market for our visit with hats and plenty of water. In retrospect all of this was probably unnecessary as the crowds were light compared to most other times of the year. Like I said, April is hellishly hot. If you’re interested in the details of our itinerary, what we paid, where we stayed, and general info on visiting Angkor, I’ll be writing another post about it later!
We discovered that the key to avoiding the crowds is starting early, so we began our first morning by getting picked up at 6 am. We started our tour at Ta Prohm temple, of “Tomb Raider” fame. It simply blew us away. It’s difficult to describe how impressive the temples are, and although the photos are beautiful they cannot do it justice. Every inch of stone was intricately carved (or at least you could tell it had been), and the shapes were magical and enchanting and unlike anything I’d seen before. Over hundreds of years the jungle has grown in and around and over the temples. Giant strangler figs cascade over the walls, the stones are covered in moss and grass, and the floor is sprouting plants in most places. It created this magical sublime feeling that inspired a deep respect for the power of nature. We were shocked at the immensity of the site; even though there were many other tourists at Ta Prohm, one of the most famous temples, we still found ourselves completely alone during much of our visit.
This trend continued throughout the day as we visited most of the grand loop, starting with Banteay Kdei, then Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Sohm, Neak Pean, Preah Khan, Tommanon, and ending at Ta Keo. It was a long day in the HOT sun with many, many crumbling stairs and by the end when we finished up at sundown (around 6:30) we were exhausted and passed out right after dinner. It was well worth it though. One of the best parts of visiting is that each temple is noticing the subtle differences. Angkor was built over hundreds of years and ruled by several emperors, each of which had their own religious priorities and personal tastes. The temples are built of many different kinds of stone and have different carvings and patterns. Some, like Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, are relateively flat, immense, and jungle covered. Others are tiny and surrounded by a lot of open land, like Ta Sohm and Neak Pean, and still others are pyramidal and tall such as Pre Rup, East Mebon, and Ta Keo. Our favorite one to explore, and the most underrated temple in our opinion, was Preah Khan. We spent around two and half hours seeking out every nook and cranny, and I’m fairly certain we still missed some. It had a similar feel to Ta Prohm, being completley overtaken by the jungle.
All of the them have the same basic plan, which represent the mountain that was the home of the Khmer gods. A central structure with (typically) five towers is surrounded by concentric galleries and then, much farther out, a series of walls and sometimes a mote. Some of the temples are shrines, other served funerary purposes. One of the most surprising parts of visiting was the large number of people living within the complex. Angkor is managed by APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) and they allow an entire community of Cambodians to live within the grounds of the temple complex. The citizens of Angkor crowd the temple entrances and sell their crafts to visitors.
We started our second morning of Indiana Jones-ing even earlier than the first and got picked at 4:45 to catch the iconic sunrise at Angkor Wat, the largest and most well preserved temple and the namesake of the world wonder. Ankor Wat certainly has an impressive silhouette, and with a reflecting pool positioned perfectly in front with the sunrise behind, it makes for a breathtaking view. It was a surreal experience. After the sun came up we began to explore the temple, and it was the most crowded of our visit. Angkor Wat is most famous for the bas reliefs that encircle the outer walls of the central structure, which tell the story of a great war and some Hindu epics. The very top of the temple afforded beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. After a couple hours exploring, we commissioned our fantastic driver to take us back to the hotel for breakfast and a quick nap. We were exhausted, and had read a lot about the dangers of getting “templed-out” and losing the novelty of the experience, so we needed a break.
We had our driver pick us back up at 2 to explore the largest complex, Angkor Thom. We started with one of the most famous temples, Bayon, or the temple of faces. This structure was, by far, the most imposing and impressive from a distance. Each of the towers has several faces carved into it, giving the distinct impression that the temple itself is watching you. The most exciting part of exploring the inside of the temple was the large family of “wild” monkeys that live there. These Rhesus macaques call Bayon their home, although they aren’t very welcome there. There’s a constant and hilarious battle going on between the security guards and the monkeys, who simply run up the walls of the temple out of reach when they’re chased. The sight of around 20 monkeys jumping around the towers made for an unforgettable memory.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the various smaller structures within Angkor Thom, which is far larger than any of the other sites and is home to many temples rather than just one. We loved the sublime feeling of the smaller temples tucked away in the jungle that haven’t been restored. APSARA has restored much of the larger and more popular temples, piecing them back together and even re-carving new stones to replace missing ones. The smaller ones in Ankgor are tumbledown piles of carved stones overgrown with massive strangler figs, and they were some of our favorite spots in the park. By the time the area closed at 5:30 we were wishing for more time to walk on top of the outer walls of Angkor Thom next to the mote, and would start a little earlier if we could do it all again. Feeling exhausted once we returned to the hotel we went straight to bed.
Our final day at Angkor we ventured out to the farther edges of the complex to visit Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei. The two hour drive was worth it, as Kbal Spean quickly became another favorite site. It is easily one of the least restored temples; in fact, there is no temple structure, only a series of carved stones tumbling down the bottom of a river bed. To get there you have to hike 2 km uphill through the jungle in a dried riverbed, and we loved the hike. The ruins follow what remains of the river, and we felt particularly adventurous hiking through forest to discover a new carving. It gave us a sense of what the first people to discover the Angkor temples must have felt like, and I can certainly understand the rush that comes with archaeological discoveries.
The next temple, said to be the most beautiful, is also called the “lady temple” because the carvings are “so delicate that only a women’s hands could’ve done it”. Banteay Srei is constructed of gorgeous red sandstone, giving a unique pink color that isn’t found elsewhere in Angkor. The little temple only has three main towers, a long hallway, and various bits and pieces strewn about that don’t necessarily fit in anywhere. Despite the small size, it definitely deserved a visit as the carvings are the most well preserved in the entire park. They are incredibly intricate and detailed, depicting apsaras (dancers), garuda (eagle-man gods), naga (snake gods), and so many other things that I never learned the names.
After exploring the temple we headed back to the main area to catch sunset at Phnom Bakheng, the most popular spot for sunset in the area. Situated on top of a mountain and being pretty tall itself, Phnom Bakheng offers spectacular views of the surrounding area and (apparently) an amazing sunset. We toughed out the long hike up to the top 3 hours earlier than the sunset, since they only let 300 people up to witness the spectacle. We waited up top for around an hour and half when storm clouds rolled in and threatened to ruin the sunset. We made it back down to our tuk-tuk just as the rain started and went back to the hotel for a quick dinner before getting picked up to see the Phare, Cambodian circus.
If you are ever in Siem Reap, you must see this show. The circus is run by a charitable organization that takes in impoverished orphans and teaches them the skills to become circus performers and provide for themselves. The show tells the story of a young girl living in Cambodia during the oppressive reign of the Khmer Rouge, and it’s incredibly sad. In the later 70s and 80s Cambodia was ruled by a communist party lead by Pol Pot. Famine was widespread and torture commonplace at the time. Over 2 million Cambodians were brutally slaughtered during the Cambodian genocide, an attempt by the government to use social engineering and reform to become entirely self sufficient. Despite the heavy subject matter, the circus still managed to be fun and incredibly entertaining. The performers were highly skilled and did many stunts that I’d never seen before and didn’t know were possible.
The next day we grabbed a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We came to tour the killing fields, where the millions of Cambodians executed by the Khmer Rouge are buried. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone suspected to have ties to the former government of Cambodia as well as Christians, Buddhists, and people with non-Cambodian ethnicities. It is still possible to see the bones of many of the victims in these mass graves, and the atrocities are still fresh. Many of the Cambodians living today were around during the genocide. I desperately wanted to ask about life at the time, but it’s difficult to broach such a sensitive topic.
Being already worn down and saddened by the extreme poverty and desperation of the Cambodians we’d been around, we couldn’t bring ourselves to visit the killing fields. We were bone-deep tired, and couldn’t stomach the atrocities we would witness by visiting the mass graves. I’ve visited a couple concentration camps in the past, and it takes an emotional toll on the mind that’s hard to explain. It’s hard to understand how such cruelty can exist in humans. Instead, we spent our two days in Phnom Penh walking around to see the various temples in the city and relaxing in our hotel, eating tasty food, and giggling at the silly shows on TV. Our last morning we went to airport early to catch a flight to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to start our next great adventure: a motorbike trip through the Mae Hong Son loop.