Angkor What!

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Cambodia, June - Cambodia

* We were in Siem Reap, Cambodia from June 19-23, 2015

After just over 2 weeks of awesome Vietnamese city-to-city hopping, we flew out of Hanoi to the next country on our Asia itinerary, Cambodia.  First stop, the town of Siem Reap, a small town that plays host to the tourists who come to see one of the wonders of the ancient world, Angkor Wat.

If you are a blog reader, you know how excited I get about archaeology, and I have definitely had my eye on Angkor Wat since my parents visited there over 10 years ago and brought back amazing stories and videos.  Just over a year has passed since our visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, so all the details are not as fresh in my head.  But we did take some notes while we were there, so I’m cobbling together the memories and reliving what was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

We spent 5 days and 4 nights hanging around Siem Reap, 3 of those days touring around the temples and structures of Angkor, of which there are thousands.  Yep, Angkor Wat, which most Americans have heard of, is just 1 of the thousands of structures in this ancient metropolis.  But for good reason, as it is the world’s largest single religious monument, and pretty freaking cool to see up close.  Most of the structures that have been restored at Angkor have a unique feel from other ruins we have visited.  They are very tactile, I think that’s the right word.  Tourists can climb ancient staircases, walk in ancient hallways and view intricate carvings really up close.  Even the temples that have been taken over by jungle foliage are accessible.  They are like big playgrounds that can be climbed and explored.

The city was built as the capital city of the Khmer Empire, which flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries.  That’s over 700 years of building, so the styles we saw across structures really did vary, with each king bringing his own preferences and groups of artisans.  Most of the temples contain detailed carvings of religious Hindu and Buddhist creation stories, historical records of what life was like during that time and floral and fauna motifs as well.  We spent 3 days cruising around the ruins of the city of Angkor in a tuk-tuk, and still, we didn’t even scratch the surface of the number of sites there are in the area.  The ruins are scattered throughout farmland and lake Tonle Sap, stretching for miles, and separated by modern day villages, farms and rice fields.

Tuk-tuks are the preferred transportation in Siem Reap and Angkor, and well most of Cambodia it seemed.  They are 2-4 seater carriages pulled by motor bikes, kind of like riding in a chauffeured convertible, sometimes getting fresh air and sometimes eating someone else’s dust.

I studied our Cambodia guidebook and scoured the Internet for hours planning our route through the archaeological park of Angkor.  I knew that in 3 days we could pack in lots of the temples if we planned our routes right.  And I read that after 3 days we’d likely be “templed out”, as most of the books call it.

Day 1 we hired a tuk-tuk from just out front of our hotel to take us around the ruins.  I showed the driver the list of places we wanted to see for the day and he agreed it was doable.  I think he also added in a few extra cool stops, along the way.  These tuk-tuk drivers know what they’re doing, as they drive people into the ruins every day.  We could have come with no plan and our driver would have shown us an awesome day worth of temples!

We drove out pretty far through villages to reach some of the farther away, less crowded, temples, like Banteay Srei and Beng Melea, and then stopped at Kbal Spean to hike to a river with ancient religious carvings.  Banteay Srei is an amazing jungle covered temple that we loved exploring.  After hundreds of years, nature really took over some of the Angkor ruins, so much so that the trees and vines have become a part of the beauty and mystery of the temples.  We paid a local $2 at the entrance to Banteay Srei to show us around.  He walked us over rubble consisting of huge stone thrones, and through crazy crumbling passageways around the tree trunks and vines of the jungle that have been slowly retaking the temple for hundreds of years.  It was definitely our Indiana Jones moment of the trip.

On our second day, we joined a tuk-tuk group tour to see the most popular temples, the ones that people who only spend 1 day in the park would have time to see.  Turned out we were the only 2 people on the tour, so we got a private tour for the price of a group tour!  We loved our guide, he was very informative without being overwhelming.  We saw the temples of Ta Prohm, Bayon, Ankgor Tom, Angkor Wat, and I think Prasat Kravan.  It was easy to see why this selection of temples is the most popular route, as they are all beautifully restored, with so much intricate detail and craftsmanship still visible.  Yet, they are all quite different in size and style.  Ta Prohm is a very popular tourist spot as it was featured in the movie Tomb Raider, along with a few other movies.  The jungle has taken over this temple and what’s left is definitely a unique blend of ancient archaeology and nature.  Bayon is a temple made entirely of carved smiling faces, of all sizes.  No one knows exactly who the people were that are portrayed in the stone, or if they were even real.  And of course, Angkor Wat did not disappoint.  We climbed the 3 stories of restored temple, in awe of the intricate and well-preserved carvings, and took in the amazing views across the complex out to the lake and beyond.

On our third and final day in the park, we were definitely on the verge of being templed out as the guidebooks predicted, but were determined to see a few last temples, including a visit back to Angkor Wat, but this time for sunrise.  So we woke up at like 4 AM, hopped in a tuk-tuk with our friendly driver from day 1, and headed into the park in complete darkness with a surprising number of other tourists.  We made it to what seemed like the most popular spot to watch the sunrise, and got an incredibly serene view of the gigantic stone temple in front of us.  As the sun came up, and we could actually see the hundreds of other people around us, also taking in the same view, there was a feeling of almost a group deep breath, like everyone realized how special a site we were all seeing together.

We went straight to a handful more temples, taking advantage of the quiet morning time when most tourists are still at their hotel eating breakfast.  There actually was not a single other tourist at any of the temples we saw that morning!  We let our tuk-tuk driver take charge and he took us to Preah Kahn, Pre Rup, one of the Mebons (I think the Eastern one), Ta Keo and Ta Nei.  Then we were totally wiped out, templed out and ready to hit the lounge chairs by the pool at our hotel.

Our hotel was located a little bit outside the main tourist area of Siem Reap, about a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride through a local neighborhood and market.   Downtown Siem Reap is pretty touristy feeling actually, with a street of bars that’s actually called Pub Street.   And although we enjoyed taking in some live music and drinking at the bars, it was nice to get some quiet time at our hotel by the tropical feeling pool.  We had some great meals in town, and massages too on our last day.  We got our first taste of Cambodian cuisine, which felt like a blend of Indian food and Southeast Asian food, with lots of curries and spices.  We found some yummy places to eat and explored the night market for snacks too.

We really enjoyed our time in Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor.  Although we did get templed out, looking back, it’s unreal to think of all the amazing ruins we saw during our time there.

To see the full album of Siem Reap photos click here.

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