A destination that we vere really lookin forward to was seeing the Angkor-temples in Cambodia. The temples of Angkor are situated outside the city of Siem Reap, that, thanks to the massive tourism the temples have created, has an international airport and hotels and restaurants pretty much everywhere. It’s probably not “the real Cambodia”, but a great base for exploring one of the wonders of the world.
Arrived in Siem Reap late evening, jumped into a taxi and met a really nice driver named Narith. He said to call him if we needed a ride to the temples, and we got his number. We’d already booked a guided tour for day 1 and 2, and was planning on cycling on day 3. However, if our minds changed about the cycling we promised to give him a call – which we did – and regretted! (More on that later…)
In the evening we went to dinner at Jungle Burger, which, according to themselves, has the best burgers in Siem. They even had a Bob Marley burger, containing marijuana, but after giving us one look, the waitress decided that we were not allowed to order the Marley. The place is run by an expat from New Zealand, the burgers were really good and we got to experience a power-outage. The latter is apparently quite common and within minutes they had power from a neighbor with his own generator.
At Day 1 we were picked up at 8.30 by our guide Khemra from Happy Angkor Tours for a full day of temple hopping. We started at the temples around Roulous; Bakong, Prah Ko and Lolei. Roulous was were the first Angkor-area capital of the Khmer empire was established and hence these temples are among the oldest (9th and 10th century AD).
Then we went to Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei. These temples are contenders for some of the most interesting places to visit in Angkor, especially the latter with its well preserved carvings.
Then came the main attraction of the day (and the trip…?); Angor Wat. The temple did not disappoint. As we came driving up, seeing the five iconic lotus-shaped towers was awe inspiring. Angkor Wat is simply put, the biggest (by far) of all the temples – covering an area of… It is almost unbelievable that it was possible to build a structure like this with the technology (or lack thereof) they had in the Khmer kingdom one thousand years ago. This temple was built in the late 12th century by Suryavaraman II, who was one of the most important Khmer kings as he expanded the empire more than any other King. He wanted to build the greatest temple the world as he knew it had seen, as a symbol of his own magnificence. Apparently, almost four million people were involved with the building of this temple.
We stayed at Angor Wat until sunset, which was actually a bit of a let-down, since there weren’t really any great spots to see the sunset (main tower is closed an hour before the sun sets). But, we got to see some food-stealing monkeys and the wife of the Cambodian prime minister (we didn’t actually see her, but we saw the entourage, the security and the press…)
March may not be the best month to see the temples.. We were sightseeing for more than 10 hours in 38°C heat. A car with air-con was a much needed luxury.. According to our guide, it is far more pleasant to see the temples in December or January, when it is both dry and relatively cool.
Because of the heat and mosquitoes, eating indoors is more appealing than sitting in a garden restaurant. But, though we are sensible people, our foodie genes sometimes trumf our sensibility. That was why we ended up at a garden restaurant called Haven for dinner. Haven is run by a Swiss couple who offer trainee positions to young adults who are raised in Siem Reap’s orphanages. Food was great (Chicken Amok and Lok Lak), atmosphere was lovely and the cause is admirable.
The sun rising over Angkor Wat, with the five iconic towers reflected in the reflection pool, is probably one of the most desired photos and experiences for anyone travelling to the temples. At least it was for us. So we got up early (I’m talking 4.30 am -early) and walked through the temple’s gates at 05.15 am. As the sun wasn’t supposed to rise until 6.15 am, and peek over the temple’s towers at 6.40 am, you’d think we were there waaaaay too early – but people had already started to crowd at the reflection pool’s edge. We found a nice spot and set up our gear. Note: people queuing for a sunrise photo are not friendly and might use parts of your body to support their tripod if they think you are in their way. My shoulders and feet were popular supporting structures for a photo frenetic from China. I also enjoyed the man who tried to squeeze his way to the front row by saying “Excuse me, I’m here to take a photo so I need to be in the front…” Makes me wonder what he thought the rest of us were there for..
After 350 pictures of a rising sun, we headed for the rest of our temple excursion for the day. Bayon temple in side Angkor Thom is also a very famous structure, with many towers, all covered with smiling faces (216 faces in total), onward from there we went to see some smaller temples, but also the famous Ta Prohm, where the movie Tomb Raider was shot. Some of the smaller, less visited and less maintained temples gave us the feeling of being Indiana Jones on a new quest of discovering a hidden treasure! Of these, Ta Nei was a clear favorite.
Our final day in Siem Reap was spent on even more temples. We rose early for another sunrise at a different temple than AngkornWat, and our driver buddy Narith picked us up. However, it started to rain and we had to stay inside the temple while the dawn spread light over Cambodia.
We wanted to avoid the huge tourist crowds, but Narith apparently didn’t think it was a good idea, and refused to drive us where we asked him to. His car also broke down and we had to spend an hour waiting for ANYTHING to happen (he didn’t even speak to us or apologize for the delay in our schedule). Then he thought it was a good idea to ask us if we could go visit a tourist shop that gives him a bonus for every guest he takes there – as a favour to him. We were in a hurry to get to the airport, but decided that 10 minutes of our time wouldn’t delay us too much, and went along with his proposal, only to experience that his idea was that we should spend at least 20 minutes there, and maybe also visit a few shops more.. Not a nice farewell to a beautiful country and the impressive Khmer culture.
Would definitely want to see more of Cambodia, but not more of Narith.