You can tell if you have spent too much time exploring temples in two ways. Firstly, you start having dreams that you are Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, and second, you start making up stories about lizard people who once lived in the temples. We had spent too much time exploring temples.
We arrived in Siem Reap by overnight bus. It was an eleven hour bus trip from Sihanoukville, which left at 8.30pm in the evening. Given our lack of sleep in the tent, we were both out like a light as soon as the bus started its rhythmic roll out of the station. We had booked a “hotel bus”, which consisted of double beds, two beds high and around ten beds long. Ben and I had a top bunk, located right next to the toilet at the front of the bus. This meant we got the flavorful smells and the music, chatter and tooting. However, we only know this because we woke up around 7am to a blast of the horn, after a satisfying ten-and-a-half hour sleep.
Ready to start the day we walked around the town, stopping for breakfast, walking along the river, and perusing the local market (much to Ben’s disgust). The town itself is actually quite small and isn’t very busy, at least not in the quiet season. On each corner we passed a tuk-tuk driver saying, “Hello lady, hello sir, tuk tuk? No? How about tomorrow?” This is the music of Siem Reap. There is 50c beer available in every restaurant and plenty of Amok fish, curry and noodles to go around. After being in a tent for the past few nights we opted for a nicer hotel, the Visoth Boutique Hotel, with a swimming pool. The pool soon became our savior in the intense heat, especially after a visit to the temples.
For our first visit to the majestic Angkor Wat, we started around 8am and headed for the main temple grounds. We picked up a guide at the entrance and he spent an hour and a half providing us with information and taking photos of us in the “best locations”. It was useful to have a guide to provide some context to the temples and point out things like bullet holes in the walls. There were more temples than you could ever want to see, in various states of ruin. The temples were all 900-1200 years old. On our first day we visited six temples.
My favourite was Bayon, which consists of thousands of smiling Buddha faces of all sizes carved into the sandstone bricks. Whilst exploring the temple we were so enthralled in the passageways that we managed to get lost. At each exit (of which there were many) we looked out to unfamiliar land for our tuk-tuk driver, but he was nowhere to be found. With mild panic setting in, the smiling faces seemed to be smirking at us.
We also visited Ta Prohm, which is the temple made famous by Tomb Raider. As it was mid-afternoon and approaching 40 degrees, all the other tourists had vanished. We found ourselves wandering the corridors and alleys in the temples, getting completely lost, but feeling like we were discovering the temples for the first time.
The next day we got up at 4.15am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. As far as sunrises go, it was pretty good, but I probably wouldn’t do it again. I’m less of an early bird and more of an animal-welfare-type who lets the worm go free. Our hotel gave us a packed breakfast, so we wandered to a quiet section of the grounds and munched on our food. This was one of my treasured memories at the temples, as it was so quiet and majestic watching the temple come to life under the rising sun. At a more reasonable hour we went to explore another four temples. One had a giant moat, the size of a lake, which had been hand dug a thousand years ago. It now has swampy trees growing all through it, which gives it an eerie atmosphere. The last two temples had a series of very steep high staircases to get to the top. The Khmers believed this represented the difficulty in ascending to heaven. No pain, no gain.
On our third day, and by this point the temple dreams were becoming extreme, we went for a long drive out to the jungle. We climbed a mountain to reach a waterfall that had ancient carvings all throughout the river bed. It was amazing that the water hadn’t completely eroded them after a thousand years. At the end was a waterfall tall enough to stand under so, along with the locals, we stood under the waterfall to cool off. We also visited Bantay Srei, which is known as the citadel of women. What was curious about this temple was that it was very small, with tiny doorways and tiny windows. Women have been getting a raw deal for more than a millennium. It was the best preserved of all the temples, with many restorations taking place over the past century. The temple was beautiful, with intricate detail in the carvings and sculptures.
After the temple we were hungry, but unwilling to pay the inflated prices in the on-site touristic restaurant. We explained to the driver our predicament and his face lit up; “I know!” he said and whisked us away in the tuk-tuk. He took us to a nearby spot where he had his own lunch while visitors were in the temple. It was just a shack on the side of the road, with two pots of curry and rice noodles. Each bowl was only $1USD and we tucked into our meals. This was one of the more digestively risky meals I have had yet. Our driver was excited to share his favourite food with us and we chatted whilst eating. He explained that as a tuk-tuk driver, before he worked for the hotel, he would cruise the streets looking for fares. He said on an average day that he would make $5-$10USD. Some days he would work a 12 hour shift and not get any rides. He had learnt English and a friend recommended him for a job at the hotel, so he now earns around $20USD and work is much easier to come by. He considers himself very lucky and he always has a big smile on his face.
As our last evening in Siem Reap and Cambodia neared we went out for dinner to Tuk Tuk Tacos (delicious) and a drink at the recently opened Container Bar, a bar made from trendily designed shipping containers. I ordered a gin and tonic, but was given a very large shot of gin and a glass of ice instead. Surprisingly, gin and water is actually pretty good. This also sums up my thoughts on Siem Reap, surprisingly good. However, I have now seen enough temples to keep me going for a while. Just watch out for those lizard people.
Click here for the next in the series.