Angkor Wat and the area of Angkor is a beautiful, sweeping landscape full of history. The rulers of Angkor started construction about 1000 years ago and over time built an incredible city. Originally, the temples were built with the Hindu gods in mind, and since then has transformed into a Buddhist complex and an ancient capital for tourists around the world to see. Currently, the temples are in the process of being restored from rubble back to structures again. We couldn't spend much time in Cambodia, and we missed some of the other historical and beautiful sights, but everyone we met told us to make sure we went to Angkor, so we did. It was well worth the detour.
To get to From Laos to Cambodia is a simple, yet surprisingly daunting task. Although the Laos-Cambodia border is not as scam ridden as the boarder Cambodia shares with Thailand or Vietnam, the scams are still there, as always. First, the passport service scam asks to help you across the border by taking your passport to get the exit stamp for you, usually asking for an extra 3-10$…we snuck by that one. The next, the exit stamp fee scam has the Laos border officials asking for a 2$ “overtime fee” (at 11am on a Monday…) to exit the country. Once the rest of our bus happily and ignorantly paid, we were stuck paying too. Next, the “health quarantine” is the first thing you see as you approach Cambodia. Apparently it costs 1$ if you don't have a copy of your vaccination card, but it's also free if you casually walk by. I would have stopped if they asked me to, but they just charged whatever tourists stopped at their booth first. As you can see in the picture below, the area is not intuitive. After walking around in circles for several minutes we realized we needed to literally walk across the invisible border and ask around until we hit the visa office. Officials are banking on the fact that tourists get tripped up in the area and fork out whatever extra “fee” is asked for by someone in uniform. Finally, after a quick and easy visa on arrival, we jumped in the bus, insisting on the bus with AC that we paid for and not the 3.5 wheeled van off to the side that they reserve for overflow. Four hours later, we landed in Siem Reap and started our adventures.
The first morning (and every day after that) we were up at 4:30 AM to beat the sunrise. We began our Angkor tour by paying $20 for a tuk-tuk escourt all day. Unlike Bangkok and much of Thailand, I actually trusted my tuk-tuk driver here, and I was stoked to find out he spoke English well and could shine a little light on the history of the area. We went to a lot of places on the first day, as we did the “short” circuit of temples. To start, we watched the sunrise at Phnom Bakheng, a temple on the only hill in Angkor. The tourist numbers were small and the view was gorgeous. After this, we went to Bayon, Baphon, Preah Palilay, Tep Pranam, the Terraces, Preah Pithu, the Twin Temples, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, and of course, Angkor Wat. Bayon Temple, the Temple of Faces, was Danielle's favorite of the day. The towers of the temple are covered in carved faces, (over 200 in the whole complex) giving the temple a very unique style. My favorite was Ta Prohm, or Tombraider Temple. This temple is very over grown, and the huge 200+ year old trees, reminds us that nature will be here even after we are long gone. Finally, Ankor Wat was, as promised, huge, impressive, awe-inspiring, and packed to the gills with tourists.
That day, at the second to last temple, I twisted my ankle. Apparently this is extremely common because 10% of the folks in our hostel were limping with ankle wraps. Since I was injured, we took the next day off and enjoyed AC and hot pot for dinner.
Given the injury, we splurged and got another tuk-tuk for our second day exploring the ancient city. The start of the day, we caught the sunrise at Pre Rup, which was even better and less crowded than the first sunrise. After that, we visited Banteay Srei, which is a beautiful temple an hour away that is apparently so intricate that many scholars believe it had to have been designed by a woman. Luckily, we arrived early, because as we left dozens of Chinese tourist busses began unloading through the temple. As we maintained pace to stay ahead of the crowd, we visited Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, and East Mabon. Learning from our mistakes the previous day, we brought our own lunch to avoid the outrageous cost for fried rice, and sat back with some tea as we talked about the government with the locals. For dinner that night we caved and bought pizza and ice cream. Real cheese and imported crusts quickly reassured us that we made the right decision.
The last day we went cheap, rented some surprisingly smooth bikes for 2$ each, and headed out for the sunrise as always. Today, however, we started by embracing the crowds and headed to Angkor Wat for the sunrise that gets even the sleepiest people up at 4:30am for its beauty. It was worth it. Although the left reflecting pool was packed to the gills, the right was not too crowded and we had a great view of the sunrise, the temple, and the reflection with only a few hawkers around.
After Angkor, we wanted to hit all the temples that we hadn't been to yet. We theorized that if it's not part of the typical short or grand circuit, maybe no one takes the time to visit. We visited brick temple, Bayon (again), Krol Romeas, and Banteay Prai. The last two were completely isolated, and we were free to photograph and screw around as we pleased. Next, we searched for the botanical gardens, which were a bust, and then we unintentionally mountain biked through the park on our shabby 1980's cruisers (equipped with baskets). After much delay and a few close calls with trees and sand, we finally found out last stop, Ta Nai Temple, which was awesome and fairly empty, as promised. After we finally found the road again, we headed back to relax in the AC. Before we left for Malaysia the next day, we treated ourselves to one more round of hot pot, and a beer with a friend Danielle hadn't seen since elementary school.
Siem Reap was incredible, and anyone making there way to Cambodia shouldn't miss it. Now on to Malaysian Borneo!
Grant and Danielle