Angkor Wat is another destination I was hoping to conquer post-Japan but never made it, so it went on my ever-growing bucket list. With my Bagan visit less than a month prior, this trip has been an embarrassment of temple riches. My friend Natalia flew out from LA to spend two weeks in Cambodia with me, and I was thrilled that we would be visiting the temples together. Our overnight VIP bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was sufficient but… interesting. There were two levels of semi-reclined beds, but they were only long enough for people under 5’4” so I had to bend my knees to fit. The beds were also very narrow with two jammed together on either side of the bus, making it extremely awkward if you didn’t know the person next to you. Thankfully I did.
We chose the Tanei Guesthouse because it was close to the center of town and had a pool, which turned out to be a lifesaver after hours of walking around temples in 90 degree heat. Downtown Siem Reap is uber touristy. Popular Pub Street and its offshoots are littered with restaurants and bars offering visitors Khmer and Western cuisine along with $.50 or $1 draft beers. Cambodian BBQ is big here, and is a cross between Korean BBQ and Japanese nabe. At your table they place a grill with a moat around it, into which they pour soup. Veggies and noodles go into the soup while meat is grilled on top. Since crocodile was on offer, I insisted we try it. Turns out it was just chicken’s rubbery cousin, but I’m glad we sampled it.
We hired a tuk tuk from our hotel at $15/day to take us around the temples. Upon arrival we bought a 3-day pass for $40, expecting to take it slow and do three partial days. I mean, you can only see so many temples, right? How wrong I was. Below is a breakdown of what we saw each day.
First stop: Angkor Wat. I’ve seen it in photos a million times; those three iconic peaks climbing towards the sky. Sometimes when seeing such sites in person the response is, “Yep, looks just like the photos only bigger.” As with the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat teased from a distance, but it wasn’t until walking through the first gate and seeing it framed in the archway that its grandeur was fully revealed. Wow. It is the symbol of Cambodia (the temple is on their flag), and the epicenter of the Khmer civilization. The sandstone blocks fit together like Legos with carvings found around every corner. Narrow hallways open onto large courtyards which lead to more doorways and corridors. Signs with arrows pointing in different directions advise on the “possibility of visit”, allowing visitors to explore as they choose instead of the constraint of a pre-determined path. That’s one of the things I loved most about the Angkor Temples- being able to sidestep across ledges and climb over giant stones, navigating like I was Indiana Jones. Aside from the few roped off areas, usually for reconstruction efforts, you’re free to roam. It was a great start to the day.
From Angkor Wat we moved onto the huge Angkor Thom complex which includes Bayon, Bauphon and other smaller temples. Trees, pools and dirt paths surround the temple area which covers more than five square miles. We were given specific directions from our tuk tuk driver as he dropped us off at the south gate, and would pick us up near the Terrace of the Leper King. Map and phone in-hand (with compass app opened), we navigated the grounds and found our blue-shirted driver among the multitude of others hanging out in a dirt lot.
Next up were Takeo and Banteay Kdei. We were starting to see more temple ruins, and I realized how put together Angkor Wat was. I actually prefer the more crumbly ones with fallen stones and tree invasions- a more relatable representation of their age.
Sras Srang (sunrise)
Ta Prohm- My FAVORITE!
We opted for sunrise at Sras Sreng because our tuk tuk driver told us it would be much less crowded than Angkor Wat. Well, he was right… but it’s not crowded for a reason. The temple was just a small sandstone platform overlooking a pool of water. The sky was hazy so the sunrise wasn’t spectacular, but it opened the door to an early Ta Prohm visit…
Tour groups usually visit Ta Prohm mid-day because of the shady trees, so our driver suggested we go just after sunrise when most people stop for breakfast. He certainly got this one right. I can’t even put into words what it was like walking through this near-empty temple. The hairs on my arms stood up. It is one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever been, along with Nigatsudo Hall in Nara, Japan. Ta Prohm is at the top of most peoples’ list, and for good reason. This is the site of the movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider (which I never saw), and is affectionately known as the jungle temple because of the enormous tree roots that hug sandstone walls. It looks as if the surrounding forest fell madly in love, weaving its tentacles so tightly that the trees and temple have become one. There just aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice, and photos only tell a small part of the story, but I’m going to overwhelm you with them anyway. Please indulge me.
Oh yeah, and we saw some other temples that day as well. They were actually amazing, and I really appreciated that they were different enough to induce the jaw drop each time . Just when I thought I was templed out, we’d stop at “one more” and I’d be glad we did. They all have their own wow-factor, although some more than others. Our attempt at a more laid-back half day failed as we spent a full seven hours exploring.
Angkor Wat (sunrise)
Banteay Srey (45 min. drive from the major temple area)
We returned to Angkor Wat for sunrise since we skipped it the day prior. We figured it was the “thing to do” for a reason, and how many chances do you get for something like this? Ok, I can do the 4:30am alarm again. It was definitely crowded and the hazy sky didn’t provide a glorious sunrise, but I felt apart of something by being there, flashlights glowing as people searched for the perfect spot. And seeing the temple in a barely-there silhouette, then watching it slowly illuminate was magical. Since many people watch the sunrise and then go to breakfast, we took the opportunity to re-visit the temple and compare against the others we’d seen. What we did not anticipate was the witnessing of Angkor Wat corruption! Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it did play out like a bad spoof comedy.
Corruption is rampant in Cambodia (not unusual for a developing country), so when we witnessed the pay-off at Angkor, we were fascinated by the absurdity, documenting with photos like we were going to release a scandalous expose. The stairs to the top towers were closed and blocked off with rope, as they were the first day we visited. Natalia and I commented on our bad luck just as I spotted a man hand a $10 bill to the guard, who then moved the “Do Not Enter” sign out of the way and allowed the couple to climb the stairs. GASP. Passersby looked dumbfounded as the bribers made their way up with the sign behind them.
One woman even walked up to the guard and asked if it was open, to which he shook his guilty head and muttered “no” without looking her in the eye. She was clearly new to the game as she accepted his answer and walked on. Then a small group of guys caught on and walked over to the guard. A minute later the sign was moved and they were ascending the stairs just as people who entered from the other side (with help from his cohort, no doubt) were coming down. Apparently nothing is sacred anymore- not even 1000 year old temples.