Moving 6 hours northwest brought us to the town of Siem Reap, the closest place to explore the Angkor ruins. When we got off the bus, it was raining and muddy. We didn’t know where we were or where we had to go, and there were several men coaxing us to get in their tuk-tuk for a ride into town (a few kms away). That’s what we get for being lazy and having a friend to stay with in Phnom Penh… In our confusion, a nice man from New Zealand approached us and offered to share his tuk-tuk with us to his hotel. On the way, we had the usual traveler chat. We mentioned the possibility of making to NZ at some point and he generously offered his help if we make it down that way. Traveler connections!
In town, we found a nice hotel to stay at with breakfast included for only $9. They even had a free fish pool for a foot soak. These little guys nibble off the dead skin on your feet!
The only reason to go to Siam Reap is to explore the Angkor Archaeological Park. Most people are familiar with the famous Angkor Wat, but there are many other temples and sites that comprise the ancient civilization. After some research, we opted for the 3-day pass because there’s so much to see. We came all this way, why try to rush it in one day? The pass was $40 and we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to all of the sites for the first 2 days, and then figured we could rent bikes to see anything we may have missed on the third day. I made my own route, which included some of the further temples, sunset on the first night, and sunrise the second day.
Day 1 started at 7:30am. We went all the way out to Bantay Srei first, which took about an hour driving through villages and rice paddies. Houses were propped up on stilts adjacent to bright green fields as children passed on bicycles. Bantay Srei is a smaller temple made of pink sandstone with intricate carvings that are believed to have been made by women because the designs are too fine for a man’s hand. Not a huge site, but a nice starting point. It was here that I bought a guidebook that would show us around and point out areas of interest for the next 3 days.
Next, we continued further north to Kbal Spien (River of 1,000 Lingas). This one isn’t really visited by too many people because it’s about 45km from the main sites and isn’t even a temple. From where we were dropped off, it was another 30-minute walk through the forest to get there. The attraction is the beginning of a river that runs all the way to the main Angkor sites. Because it was such an important water source, they carved religious symbols into the rocks and waterfalls to bless the water from its source. There is also a waterfall with carvings nearby.
From Kbal Spian we headed back to the main Angkorian sites. We only saw two more temples, which were impressive in their own right, then went to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. It was a bit cloudy and there wasn’t much of a sunset, but the view of the surrounding area was incredible. We even caught our first glimpse of Angkor Wat from there!
The next day started at 4:30am so that we could see the sunrise behind Angkor Wat. Again, the weather disappointed us with clouds and there wasn’t much of a sunrise. Regardless, we spent the morning exploring The 8th Wonder of the World. I really liked that we visited a few of the smaller temples first because it added to the immensity of Angkor Wat. I can’t imagine how people built this so many centuries ago. It’s so much more grandiose than the other temples and you can tell it took a lot longer to build. The architecture was unbelievable and the carvings were incredibly ornate. Bas reliefs continued as far as the eye could see, covering the inner walls. Angkor Wat literally means “city temple” because the outer wall encompassed a city with the main temple in the middle. Only the stone structures remain as the wood and clay houses have all deteriorated. However, the remains are unbelievable. I felt like a little kid in a playground because everything is so huge!
Around 9am we weaved our way to the structures that comprise Angkor Thom, another ancient city. Giant stone blocks materialized as we drove down the winding paths. Ancient warriors line the bridge before passing through the towering gate. Of the various sites, our favorite was Bayon, which has dozens of stone structures with faces on all four sides. These bear a striking resemblance to the king at the time and gave the impression that big brother is always watching…even centuries ago. Again, the scale of these things made me wonder how they were built without modern technology.
After a few more temples we came upon Ta Prohm. This one was different than rest because of the huge silk-wood trees that have grown in and around all of the structures. If you thought the architecture so far was incredible, wait until you see what nature can do! This was a stone-playground-turned-jungle that we wandered through and admired for over an hour. Tomb Raider was filmed here, too.
By 3pm we were completely worn out and headed home after two solid 11-hour days. Because of some minor confusion and a brief argument with our tuk-tuk driver, there was still one more large temple to see. Since we were too exhausted for bicycles by Day 3, I got a different driver to take us back so we could wrap up the Angkor experience. Preah Khan was another thing of beauty. The guidebook really helped us here and we spent about 90 minutes exploring. I just wanted to take it all in since I knew this would be the last site.
Once we were finished, Gabriella and I went into town and got a full-body oil massage for $5. Incredibly necessary after so much site-seeing! Overall, I was amazed at the Angkor ruins. The sheer scale of the buildings is incredible and there are so many to see. We probably saw a little more than half! The only negative aspect is all of the people that try to sell you food and souvenirs around every site. Small children are even used to sell postcards and magnets. Every food stall would have someone near the road, hollering for customers to come buy something. There were even those that would hang out inside some of the sites, trying to sell their artwork as you’re taking a picture of the ruins. I understand that it’s their way of making a living, but some just won’t take “no thank you” for an answer and it gets obnoxious. Despite this, I would absolutely recommend for anyone to check it out if they have the opportunity. Do the 3-day pass because 1-day isn’t long enough and 7-days just seems like overkill. No matter what, you won’t regret it. Now we need to go to Egypt to see the pyramids!