Siem Reap and The Angkor Temples
Henry was unsure about making the journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. “Is it just a load of old temples? Really?” I had been reading about the ruins of Angkor Wat and the many surrounding ancient temples and the use of superlatives had got to me, I admit it. All the “wonderful” and “breathtaking” type reviews as well as a recommendation from a colleague at home (thanks JTW!) inspired us to make the trek. In the end there were lots of old temples there but we enjoyed ourselves none the less.
It was with the view that we would go and see these famous ruins that we set off at about 7am towards the bus depot in search of passage to Siem Reap.
The 230 km journey was supposed to take 6 hours. All the reports were of a “fully paved road all the way” and we set off, hopeful that the bus we found ourselves on (for US $7 each) would have working air conditioning and, would get us all the way there in one piece.
For the first few hours of the journey I would say that the visibility on the road was down to less than 10m. The clouds of dust were astonishing really. How the driver managed not to hit even one bike, revealed at the last possible second, was a mystery. The dusty part of the road was very bumpy too.
About halfway through the journey we pull up at a stop in the middle of nowhere. There are maybe 5 or 6 buses parked at jaunty angles in the dust, a restaurant, an ice cream and a drink seller. The toilet was about 500m away, out the back. As I used the quite basic facilities (western style toilet bowl but no cistern, flush, seat or lid; bucket of water with a water scooper for flushing; bin to balance my bag on to keep it off of the floor and a door held shut by a rusty nail on a piece of string) I thought about how good these facilities were for a stop in the middle of nowhere (I’d even spied some soap paste provided by the sink while I was waiting!). That was when I realised I am officially quite well traveled in Asia.
After over 7 hours on the road (during which Henry wore out his battery playing games on his phone, I read a whole actual book and we both got hotter and hotter as the jets seemed to give up blowing slightly cooler, quite dusty air at us) we arrived to a delegation of eager tuk-tuk drivers. We had plenty of options to chose from and found ourselves in a hotel in the end and the following day we found a much nicer room in a small guesthouse which included breakfast and was cheaper.
We settled in there and immediately felt comfortable. We expected the city to be really touristy, and it is. It is the “gateway” to the Angkor ruins, Cambodia’s number one tourist destination, attracting nearly 2 million visitors a year. There are areas that exist entirely to deal with the year-round influx of short-term visitors who base themselves in the town. There are loads of guesthouses and hotels, small supermarkets, restaurants, laundries, travel agencies, money changers, market stalls and even a small mall, packed into quite a small area.
Walk about a kilometre in any direction though, and the guesthouses thin out, the eateries become far more authentic and the shops sell things people actually want like petrol, coconuts, water etc rather than souvenirs.
The roads here run at an even slower pace than Phnom Penh. There are a lot of people powered modes of transport on the roads – so many bikes! – along with hand pushed food and recycling carts.
We really enjoyed our time in Siem Reap. It was a calm, relaxed place with enough facilities to be comfortable and enough authenticity to really get an insight into the culture. The rates for accommodation were reasonable too. We had nice rooms with hot water, air con, TV, fridge, WiFi, nice furniture and usually a balcony and breakfast too. There are financial advantages to the traveller visiting one of the poorest countries in the world.
In our first few days we’d sussed out the layout of the town centre and started to visit the pagodas. The town is made up of a group of villages that surround a stretch of river; although they’ve long since merged into one town. Each of the villages has a pagoda (temple in a complex, usually with resident monks) in the centre; and our mission became to walk to all of them.
Cambodia as a nation follows Buddhism and 95% of people claim to practise the religion. Monks are a common sight, especially in the morning when they can be seen visiting local businesses and collecting alms (usually small amounts of money rather than food as the monks are fed at the pagodas) in exchange for a short chanted blessing.
Visiting all the pagodas in town proved to be a great way of seeing the real Siem Reap and also meeting monks. In all of the pagodas we found a calm and welcoming atmosphere and, (save one lone photographer at a single temple) no other tourists! We met quite a few monks. Most of them were in their late teens and early 20’s. They often approached us to say hello and practise their English. We had a few guided tours and even went inside the home of one monk, San Seth.
We sat on his floor and admired his hut while he told us about life as a monk. The main goal of all of the monks we met was to learn English. Their days revolve around lessons more than meditation it seems.
In the end we managed to see all these pagodas: (plus one that was not on the map so I could not find out what it is called)
- Wat Preah An Kau Sai
- Wat Preah An Kau Saa
- Wat Po Lanka
- Preah Ang Chek Shrine
- Wat Kesraram
- Wat Preah Prom Rath
- Wat Bo
- Wat Damnak
One afternoon I visited a local school. I had walked by the day before and been asked to go in by the children. I said I couldn’t (Henry was expecting me back) and the children said “come tomorrow, we have a party tomorrow, you can dance!”. So, I went along the next afternoon and ended up before long at the front of the class telling them about myself, answering questions and even writing on the board. It felt good to be behind a desk at a whiteboard again, picking questions from eager waving hands.
The standard of English was excellent, better than many of the adults we had been dealing with in shops, restaurants and guesthouses. And the school is entirely funded by donations. Many of the children work on the streets in the daytime and so school starts at 5pm. This young girl was made to stand up with her brother and tell everyone her story (in Khmer, with the teacher translating – she is a beginner in English because of her circumstances.) Through questioning she revealed that she earns about 25 – 50 cents (US) a day by collecting aluminium tin cans from the street. That is working all day.
It was not just for the benefit of the children that this girl was questioned, but for me, sat down on a rough wooden bench with the kids, and the 3 other tourists stood in the street outside, right next to the donation box. Eventually, the pitch was over and the party could begin. Every Saturday the children get some food (paid for by donations too) and some music. They scoffed their rice, omelette and milkshake ever so quickly and cleared away the furniture from half of the room. (It was like clearing an English classroom for a Drama lesson: a smooth, well practised operation where all the students are so eager for the next activity that the teamwork is superb.) The teacher’s laptop came out and the dancing began! I joined in for a good while but even though it was dark (about 7pm) it was still about 27/28° outside with no fans and pretty warm. The other tourists had long gone but I seemed to have gathered a few fans and my hands were in demand for twirls and the like. I drew a line when “Gangnam Style” came on though and stood back to try and capture their pure enjoyment and innocent energy in a photo.
It was 20 minutes after the official finishing time when I managed to get away, trailing children behind me like the Pied Piper. I had an escort of perhaps 8 back to my guesthouse and went back exhausted and hungry to tell Henry all about it.
Out of town for the afternoon
We paid for a tuk-tuk to take us out of town one afternoon. The intention had been to see a floating village that the driver had assured us could be seen by foot, without taking the government boat. This was untrue. After quite a drive we go in and find that a $20 ticket EACH was the only way to see the village. We did not have $40 on us and (although the driver offered to lend it to us!) we decided to head back and use the time he would have been waiting for us to take some pictures of some of the places we’d seen on the way.
The main stop was this village on stilts. It was not really floating as there was not enough water but we got to see how the real people live instead of what the government wants to show the tourists (and we saved $40.)
The Last Pagoda
To complete the set of Pagoda visits we had to trek to one we had seen on the way out of town, not marked on the photocopied map we had been using. We walked alongside the river in a south easterly direction and saw a lot of fishing activity going on, both in and out of the water.
Despite being in Siem Reap for nearly two weeks, we still had not seen the main draw: Angkor Wat and the many ruined temples near the town. It is the largest religious monument in the world, in the world! Here is an ariel picture I stole from Wikipedia:
Angkor Wat is part of the UNESCO Angkor World Heritage site and the whole site is VAST (400sq. km) containing so any temples that you would really have to love temples to want to see them all I think. Angkor Wat is about 1km square, not including the moat.
We prepared ourselves by going to bed early and charging our camera batteries. By 4.15 the next morning we were up and before 5am we were waiting for our pre-arranged bargain tuk-tuk to show up. He didn’t, and we were ambushed by a gang of street children. They wanted to play with my torch, I thought, but what actually happened was one of them got into my bag and grabbed a pouch of bits and ran off with it! I noticed immediately (as my bag isn’t generally ever open walking along the street) and after confronting them (with another couple of tourists who were coming out of a bar) it was magically ‘found’ behind a nearby bike. I think I got it back because it contained no money. I kept saying “I need it back, it has my medicine in there!”. It seemed to work. It would really not have mattered too much but I was not about to go through the day without the pouch (which did contain paracetamol and Tiger Balm – so it was medicine) as it also had my daily allowance of loo roll in there! Also, if we had not got it back it would have been the first time, in more than a year on the road, that either of us had had anything stolen. After all that fuss, we were running late for the sunrise. We quickly negotiated with another driver who was hanging around and we were off to see the spectacle of sunrise at Angkor Wat. We were not alone. By the time we reached the outskirts of the complex (only about 6km out of town) many other sunrise seekers could be spotted. We paid for our one day pass at the entrance ($20 each). There were 3 and 5 day passes also available but we knew we would not be needing more than one full day of ruins. As we left the tuk-tuk and started in the dark towards the temple the sun was just beginning to light up the sky. It was still very early but it was very busy indeed. We did manage to get a couple of nice shots in the end though, so the 4.15am start was worth it.
We had a rare breakfast of banana pancakes with honey and super strong coffee (the Cambodians don’t mess around with anything else) at one of the many dedicated breakfast shacks and prepared ourselves for a day of temples.
So, Angkor Wat was the first stop. It really is enormous. It was started in 1125 and was originally built as a Hindu temple and was then sort of converted for use by Buddhists. All the sunrise seekers seemed to dissipate quickly around the site and it did not feel too busy; we explored most of it in relative peace and quiet because it was still so early. I don’t really know what to say about the temple. It was big. It was old. It was very impressive that it had been built so long ago and was still standing and surviving a couple of million visitors a year clambering around all over it.
We walked, took pictures and I earwigged in a bit on some of the information from the paid guides and was, to be honest, bored in moments. The detail with which one expert spoke of a bas-relief made me very glad to be seeing these temples independently, at our own pace and not as part of a group (with the expectation that we will politely pay attention and meet back somewhere at a certain time.)The view from the top tier was very impressive but unfortunately only I got to see it. We knew in advance Henry would not be able to enter that part of the temple wearing only a vest. He made the call that he did not want to buy a t-shirt just for that and so waited for me at ground level.
We were there a good couple of hours and we did not see every nook and cranny. By that time though we had had the Angkor Wat experience and decided to press on to the next site.
We’d already given the driver the power to organise our whole day, only specifically requesting 3 temples.The plan was for him to show us some other places in between.
All in all we saw:
- Angkor Wat
- Banteay Kedi
- Ta Phrom
- Chau Say Tevoda
- Angkor Thom
I’m not going to write about all of them as they were all in the same vein. I’ll just show you a couple of pictures and give you some highlights.
We visited the famous Ta Prohm right in the middle of the day and apart from when we were leaving Angkor Wat, it was here that the sheer number of adult and child sellers of all sorts were to be found in their highest numbers.
What is surprising is that Ta Phrom is being renovated and they are actually in the process of removing a lot of the trees because of the damage that is being wrought on the stone work. Already, many of the famous ‘post card’ shots have changed or are no longer accessible It is quite surreal and ‘other worldly’ I suppose. The several thousand other people there spoilt that a bit though.
Our final stop of the day was Bayon, which is located at the centre of the Angkor Thom complex. It is another very large site. Bayon is famous for the large faces that adorn the dozens of towers of the temple. We were suitably impressed and I liked how close you could get to the faces once you climbed the narrow steps.
There are over 200 faces to admire, all with the same serene smile. It is thought there are so many that you basically cannot escape the smile while you are there.
After about 11 hours of temple spotting we were ready to call it a day. We scrapped the idea of sunset at another temple (which we’d heard gets very busy) and headed back at about 4pm. Our driver was pleased as he had told us a short while before that he was tired because he had been working since 10pm the night before; when we had negotiated with him at 5am he was about the go home after working the night shift!
A couple of days after our day at the ruins we caught the bumpy, dusty bus back to Phnom Penh. We stayed in a new area of the city, around street 111 and near to the Ourssey Market. We had to arrange our visas for Vietnam and once they were back we left the country on another long coach journey on the last day that our Cambodian visa was valid – Christmas Day.
To see more photos from our time in Cambodia, visit the new Cambodia album on the Gallery page.
Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia: 3rd – 25th December 2012