On Boxing Day we boarded yet another bus, this time from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (still Cambodia). The drive took us over long sections of bumpy dirt tracks through little villages of thatched roof huts on stilts with children and dogs playing outside while the family water buffaloes cooled off in the bright green algae pond next to the huts. After the bumpy ride we were dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The waiting Tuk Tuk drivers torches where the only lights and they picked up all the dust in the air from the dry dirt road. The dust gave the appearance of thick mist which made it feel like we were in an Indiana Jones film.
The next day we had our first chance to see what we had come to Siem Reap for – Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is just the town near Angkor Wat (as you cannot stay within Angkor Wat). Angkor Wat is a vast city of massive and ornately decorated temples built from about 800AD to 1200AD. The site was then abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle only to be rediscovered by the French in 1860. The biggest temple – Angkor Wat itself (Wat just means temple) is the world’s largest religious structure. Technically, Angkor Wat is just one of the temples, but it lends its name to the whole complex. Some of the temples are only partially cleared of jungle so there are trees growing through walls to give the real ancient ruin experience!
On day 1 we hired a Tuk Tuk for the day to do the ‘small circuit’ which is the main tourist lap which includes most of the big hitting temples, the bigger loop is the ‘grand circuit’ which goes to the more remote spots. First up we headed for Angkor Thom, which used to be a city in itself, supposedly with a million inhabitants. Stone buildings were only for the gods, so the wooden dwellings that would have surrounded have long since disappeared. The biggest temple within the giant walls of Angkor Thom was the Bayon, which contained 36 towers, each with a face on all 4 sides cut into the grey rocks.
Below the towers were a series of spooky corridors and partially restored walls. We then explored more of the temples, terraces and other structures within Angkor Thom. We had already become accustomed to the constant pestering by stall owners if you strayed too close which is sometimes unavoidable.
“Hey Sir / Laydeee – you wan cold wataaaah? One dollaaaaah.”
“10 postcards, one dollaaaah”
They all pronounced it exactly the same as one another, even the little kids who would follow you for a while trying to sell you stuff like wooden recorders, fans or postcards. We found it quite funny after a while. After Angkor Thom we went to several temples of various ages, sizes and state of repair. Most have been at least partially restored. Our final stop of the day was Angkor Wat itself. The complex sits within a square of walls, each side over a kilometre long and the walls are surrounded by a 190m wide moat. We crossed the mote on the stone walkway leading through the gatehouse and into the grounds of Angkor Wat. The temple itself is really impressive, with 5 spires towering with the tallest middle one reaching 65m. Inside it was covered in intricately carved pictures. That concluded day 1, it had been silly hot (35ish) so we were exhausted. The temples had been as impressive as the seemingly romanticised guide books say so.
The next morning our Tuk Tuk driver picked us up at 4.30am to take us to see sunrise over Angkor Wat. We got there in pitch darkness and secured a spot right on the edge of a pool of water that separated us from the temple. By 6am there must have been 2000 people there to see the view, so we felt quite smug that we had arrived early enough to get the best view at the front (as our Tuk Tuk driver had insisted was necessary). And what a view it was. Even though it was cloudy, the sunrise over Angkor Wat was spectacular with the reflection in the water only disturbed by huge pink lotus flowers and the occasional tiny frog jumping out. The spirituality of it was stifled somewhat by the size of the crowd and the Chinese lady stood near us who was watching the latest episode of her favourite soap opera out loud on her iPod (Katy asked her politely to turn the sound off and the woman looked shocked to be asked. Seriously though, why get up at 5am to watch sunset but then actually watch TV instead?).
After the sunrise the crowds disappeared back to hotels so we took the chance to go into the Angkor Thom temples again, this time minus the crowds, which made it a far more pleasing experience. Somehow, the quieter a temple is, the better it is to explore. Luckily, the tour groups tend to just plough through a temple visiting the main parts, so in the bigger places it is always possible to find a secluded bit of ancient ruin.
We realised that early mornings were a far more rewarding way to see this place. So for the next few days we had some early starts and by doing that managed to avoid the crowds and the worst of the heat. The temples are spread around quite a large area, all joined by dusty roads, with mostly just jungle or the occasional hut village in between. The scale of this place really hit us when we were on bikes. We cycled around 12km from the guest house to ‘Ta Prohm’, also known as Tomb Raider Temple after it was used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie. This one was only partially recovered from the jungle, so there are loads of huge tree roots snaking their way through the walls and parrots swirling through the tress overhead.
We also meandered through a local village towards one of the smaller ruins which is more out of the way. We were the only people there, even the path to it was overgrown, but all that really remained was a few piles of rock. The village was far more interesting. There were cattle pulling carts around, kids trying to fly homemade kites while the men tinkered with fences or engines. As we passed through on the way back to the road, the ice cream man arrived. He had a cool box attached to the front of his bicycle and he rung a bell as he moved along. Watching all the little kids faces light up and run towards the ice cream was really funny. We had to head back to the guesthouse soon after as it was just getting too hot, but we covered about 30km, mostly in temperatures of 30+.
We opted for the grand circuit on day 4, with another early start to see sunrise at Sra Srang which is a huge rectangular pool. It was another impressive view but we didn’t stay long because we were keen to visit the Tomb Raider temple again early in the day so it would be quiet. It worked, and in the half light of the early morning the place had a magical feel to it. Katy took the time to do some paintings while Jason did some wandering around a deserted part of the temple which was more collapsed and reclaimed by the jungle than the rest of it. After clambering up a crumbling slope of a wall to take a photo I (Jason) heard a movement behind me, I spun around to see what I thought at first was just another lizard. But then I realised it didn’t have any legs and was slithering. It was bright green and a bit over a foot long. Unfortunately for me, the only way out was to climb back down past where the snake was lurking. At the time I didn’t think much of it, so I just climbed back down assuming that the snake was long gone. We later looked up the snake online to find it was one of two types – both highly poisonous. Phew.
For the remainder of the day we rode our Tuk Tuk around the grand circuit and explored many temples, including the one we eventually decided was our favourite. It was called Pre Rup and it is described by the guide book they hand out as an “Architecturally and artistically superior temple-mountain”. Couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
It was a steep climb up to the top and the views of the surrounding jungle were excellent, so good in fact that we returned next morning for sunrise. It was the best sunrise we saw, with the fewest other people. At one point we had the whole massive place to ourselves.
That evening (the 30th) the guesthouse held a big party for New Years a day early (so they did not have to compete with the big parties in town the following night). It was really good fun, they had cooked loads of Khmer foods and had big ice boxes full of refreshing Angkor Beer. They also had an Apsara dance performance (traditional Khmer dancing) with live music which was a nice surprise – It’s a bit like Thai dancing but requires better balance.
Our final visit to the temples was the following morning to see the aforementioned sunrise at Pre Rup. The temples of the Angkor Wat complex were everything we had hoped for. The extra effort to avoid the heat and crowds really paid off and we feel that we stayed long enough to really explore and enjoy it. Our last night there was New Years Eve, so we headed into town to join in the party on ‘Pub Street’ which had turned into one big street party. Next up was a 9 hour bus ride to Bangkok on New Year’s day. Well, it was meant to be 9 hours, but that’s another story…