09.07.2014 - 12.07.2014
Aside from hearing that the lost city of Angkor was South East Asia's equivalent of Machu Picchu and that it was featured in Angelina Jolie's movie "Tomb Raider",we didn't know much else about the temples of Angkor before we visited.
With so many places still to see on our world tour, we had to cut our time in Cambodia short unfortunately, and we only booked three nights in Siem Reap just 8km south of Angkor.
We arrived quite late and were happy our hotel offered a free transfer from the airport but our tuk-tuk driver didn't waste any time getting down to business. He bombarded us with questions about our plans for the next couple of days before we even climbed onto his tuk-tuk trailer! We hadn't actually discussed the details and logistics of our stay in Siem Reap, the only plan was to visit Angkor so we felt a bit pressured to make a decision without having had a chance to inquire about what a reasonable price should be. He obviously wanted to be our driver for the duration of our stay and although he seemed nice enough, we told him we would let him know the next day. Our biggest dilemma was deciding the number of days we would need to visit Angkor. We initially thought that there was just one temple, Angkor Wat but when we started planning, we realized that the city of Angkor was actually a huge complex of temples covering a sizeable area. Some people do it in one day, others buy a 7-day pass. We settled for 2 days and decided we would get up for the famous Angkor Wat sunrise on the second day.
Late night tuk-tuk ride to the hotel:
Plans changed the next morning over breakfast and we decided to do it all in one day to leave some time for Siem Reap and the surrounding area. We were used to the heat by then and considered ourselves reasonably fit so there was a good chance a full day would work for us. I didn't want to give up on the sunrise though so I held that thought and enjoyed the ride to the highly anticipated temples of Angkor.
Angkor Wat (which translates to "City Temple") is the most famous of the Angkor temples. It was built in the 12th century by the king of the Khmer empire and dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu deity. By the late 13th century, Angkor Wat gradually became a Theravada Buddhist temple which is still in use today. All the other Angkor temples were completed abandoned by the 16th century and began to recede into the jungle. Thanks to the Buddhist monks who cared for Angkor Wat, it became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Southeast Asia and is still, mostly intact.
Arriving in the ancient city of Angkor:
Our driver decided to leave the best for last so we visited the other significant temples around Angkor Wat.
When nature takes over:
More evidence of the power of nature at Ta Prohm temple, used as a location for the movie "Tomb Raider":
One of our favorites: Bayon temple, also known as the "Temple of Beaming Faces":
Some of the beautiful stone carvings we saw:
One of five gates into the ancient city:
Magnificent Angkor Wat:
Angkor Wat in 1866, shortly after its discovery by French archaeologists. Image in the public domain.
The lost city of Angkor truly lives up to the hype. It's a testament to the power and wealth of the Khmer Empire and an astonishing reminder of what human beings were able to accomplish with only the most rudimentary tools at their disposal.
Siem Reap is the city that feeds and lodges the million tourists who visit the temples of Angkor every year so it's no wonder it's the fastest growing city in Cambodia after the capital, Phnom Penh. Walking around the city center that evening gave us the impression there was probably not much left of the village it once was. Holiday accommodation, guesthouses and luxury hotels can be found many times over on every street, night markets catering only to tourists pop up every other block, tour agencies are a dime a dozen and there are restaurants to please every pallet including those looking for a "happy" meal, if you know what I mean. And no, I'm not referring to McDonald's.
Not really that inclined to splurge on a restaurant and in keeping with our street food tradition, we went to one of the night markets in search of some local delicacies. Greg's eyes lit up when he passed a Casio watch dealer because one cheap Casio wasn't enough - the black one he bought in Zanzibar for $6 had been repaired and was still alive and kicking - he had to have another one, preferably a different color.
A matching watch for every outfit:
"I just had to buy it, it was only $3!....should I get another one??"
Surprisingly, that one is also still ticking. My hat goes out to the cheap Casio replicas.
We were fading quite quickly after a full day of temple "trekking" in the heat so we settled for an average food stall within the night market. I mentioned earlier that I didn't want to give up on watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat but my resolve was also fading quickly. We didn't want to pay the entrance fee again just to watch the sunrise and go back so I researched ways to sneak in at 5am on a bicycle. It didn't look very promising and neither did the weather. One traveler even went into detail about how he did it successfully and why he refused to pay the fee for "ethical" reasons. He claimed that only a tiny percentage of the fee actually goes to the restoration and preservation of the temples and the bulk of it goes to Chinese investors. I'm not sure how much truth there is to that but it all seemed too much of a mission so early in the morning. I struggle enough as it is to get out of bed when the sun is already up! I try not to dwell on it but it's one of the things we regret not doing.
We had read that if we were looking for a taste of the “real” Cambodia, we should sign up for a tour of the Tonle Sap fishing villages, so we did.
We learned that Tonle Sap lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. During the dry season the lake drains into the Tonle Sap River which flows into the Mekong River. But in the rainy season (June to October), the huge amount of water in the Mekong causes the Tonle Sap river to reverse its flow and flood the surrounding area, including the fishing villages.
There are actually several floating villages located on, and around the lake. We chose to visit Kampong Khleang which is the furthest from Siem Reap and much less touristy. On the way, we drove past the village of Kampong Phluk where the houses are built on tall stilts. Although we were there in July, the water levels had not yet risen enough to cause any flooding. The guide explained that when the water level is high, the stilts are submerged, and the houses seem to ‘float’. What a sight that must be!
Pit stop on the way to Tonle Sap for some bamboo rice cake or kralan which is made with sticky rice, black beans or peas, grated coconut, coconut milk and cooked inside a bamboo stick on the grill. It was delicious!
More snacks at a market on the way:
The bag in the middle is MSG (or monosodium glutamate), a food flavor enhancer, which is unfortunately frequently used for cooking in Asia. It is known to cause headaches, fatigue and heart palpitations. Some research indicates the long term effects can be as serious as Alzheimer's and Parkinsons to name a few. Hope we didn't ingest too much of it during our time in South East Asia!
Driving past insect traps near Kampong Phluk:
I mentioned in previous posts how motorcycles are used to transport just about anything. These take home the bacon, so to speak:
Unfortunately not our own pictures, I wasn't quick enough with the camera but this is exactly what we saw.
Kampong Khleang features both a tall stilted village and a floating village.
Novice monks in Kampong Khleang:
We saw these kids playing near a monastery (couldn't really make out what the game was) and it turns out they were playing for money. The kid in the box was the treasurer:
Floating fishing village home:
Back in Siem Reap, we visited the old market where we admired the strangely wonderful variety of food for sale, including crispy fried tarantulas and barbeque snakes. It was such a bizarre foodie circus.
Insect shopping at the market - I settled for a cricket. It didn't taste as bad as I make it seem. I grimaced before my taste buds even had time to acknowledge the poor cricket. Classic mind over matter case.
We indulged at Blue Pumpkin which must be one of the coolest bakeries/restaurants in Siem Reap. A great place to relax and catch-up on blogging while it poured outside:
We concluded our tour of the city with a stroll through Pub Street, the happening/party hub of Siem Reap. Great for bars, people watching, shopping and food. We had read that Angelina Jolie's haunt while filming "Tomb Raider" was Red Piano but we didn't end up going or trying her favorite cocktail - Cointreau, lime and tonic - now named for the movie. We were quite content just taking in the atmosphere on the street.
Failed selfie on Pub Street:
We woke up early the next day to catch a local bus to Bangkok. We kept wondering what the catch was because it only cost us $10 each for the 8-hour journey but we had done the research and there was nothing to suggest we were in for a horrible ride. The bus dropped us off at the border and we were each given different color-coded stickers to wear depending on our final destination. We were told that "someone on the other side would show us where to go". Sure. The border crossing was a bit long - I think we were there for about two hours including time for a quick lunch while we waited for our minivan to depart - but overall, the journey was very smooth. We hit some traffic jams on the outskirts of Bangkok but we had been forewarned and the delay had been factored into the travel time.
We were meeting the Drurys in Bangkok and I think the excitement of having travel buddies for our time in Thailand kept us in high spirits through the journey and the time just flew by. I've mentioned the Drurys in previous posts and if you haven't read their blog yet, I highly recommend it as it's a great read. It's also up-to-date, unlike ours, so our time in Thailand is already posted (marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com). Our version of that great adventure with the amazing Drurys coming next.
Greg and Issy