Adventures as Miss Saigon

Siem Reap – same same but better!

Posted on: February 4, 2011

After falling in love with Cambodia on our Christmas trip, Wendy and I were eager to get back. We had originally talked about going to Siem Reap and the nearby  Temples of Angkor in April, but mostly due to great weather, decided to bump up our trip to the beginning of our Tet (Vietnamese lunar new year) vacation. Flights to Cambodia are expensive, but had not been increased due to Tet, so away we went!

A 45 minute flight, a $20usd visa, and an airport pickup by 2 charming men from our guesthouse, and we were on our way past massive fancy hotels, into town and to our basic, but clean, $8usd/night room at the guesthouse. Siem Reap is a very small town that seems to only exist due to the tourism that the Temples of Angkor brings. There’s not much else to do in the town other than the temples, but we managed to keep busy!

Once we had checked into our room, we asked one of the men (later called “Mr. Two” by one of the guys who also pointed out “Mr. One”, “Mr. Three”, “Mr. Four” and so on) to take us to a children’s hospital where the Swiss doctor in charge holds weekly concerts on Saturday night to raise awareness for his hospitals. Dr. Beat “Beatocello” Richner plays Bach on his cello and speaks about his involvement in the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals that provide medical care to children whose families cannot afford to pay. In Cambodia where most of the population is very poor and medical treatments must be paid for upfront, many children would not survive without these privately funded hospitals. Dr. Beat’s plea was simple – from the older travelers, he wanted their money. From the younger travelers, he wanted their blood. And from those in between, he wanted both.

"talk let your cello"

On our first morning in Siem Reap, we set out on tuk tuk, with Mr. Two driving, to start our visit to the temples. It costs $40usd for a 3 day pass to the temples, and it was worth every penny. On our first day, we explored Angkor Thom, a 3km squared walled and moated royal city dating back to the late 12th to early 13th century. Inside Angkor Thom are multiple temples and points of interest, including Bayon (37 standing towers, many with giant stone faces, constructed in the late 12th century), Baphuon (a huge temple-mountain currently undergoing extensive restoration, constructed in the mid 11th century), Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area (constructed in the late 10th to early 11th century, it’s an impressive laterite and sandstone pyramid that served as the king’s temple and the tallest scalable temple in Angkor Thom), the Terrace of the Elephants (2 and a half meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas constructed in the late 12th century), and the Terrace of the Leper King (a double terrace wall with deeply carved nagas, demons and other mythological beings constructed in late 12th century).

Wendy and I infront of Bayon

Bayon

Bayon

Bayon

Bayon

Bayon

elephant ride at Bayon

Baphuon

Baphuon

Phimeanakas

steep tourist stairs at Phimeanakas

Phimeanakas

Terrace of the Elephants

Terrace of the Elephants

Terrace of the Elephants

Terrace of the Lepar King

Terrace of the Lepar King

Terrace of the Lepar King

At this point, Mr. Two somehow miraculously found us among a sea of tourists and tuk tuk drivers, and we headed out of Angkor Thom. Our next stop was Chau Say Tevoda (a small temple undergoing an extensive restoration project, built in the early 12th century) and across the street, Thommanon (another small temple built in the late 11th to early 12th century with many amazing carvings). Back to the tuk tuk and on to Ta Keo (constructed in late 10th to early 11th century, this is a towering but plainly decorated temple-mountain dedicated to Shiva, constructed wholly of sandstone), Ta Prohm (built in mid 12th to early 13th century, this sprawling monastic complex is only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth and has been intentionally left partially unrestored with massive fig and silk-cotton trees growing from towers and corridors…and as a side note, Ta Prohm was also used in filming for Tomb Raider), Banteay Kdei (a sprawling, largely unrestored, monastic complex constructed in late 12th century to early 13th century, built using an inferior grade of sandstone and using poor construction techniques, leading to much of the deterioration that’s visible), and Sras Srang (a picturesque baray opposite Banteay Kdei built in the mid 10th and late 12th century).

Chau Say Thevoda

Thommanon

Thommanon

Ta Keo

Wendy on the steep steep steps at Ta Keo

me at Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei

nun at Banteay Kdei that gave me a red bracelet and wished me good luck after I lit some incense

Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei

Sras Srang

Our final temple of the day was Angkor Wat…chances are if you have any images in your mind of the Temples of Angkor, Angkor Wat is the one you are picturing. Built in the early to mid 12th century, Angkor Wat is visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking. It’s a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an exterior wall measuring 1300 meters by 1500 meters, and the temple itself is 1km square and consists of three levels surmounted by a central tower. The walls of the temple are covered inside and out with bas-reliefs and carvings. In all honesty, as we walked towards Angkor Wat, I expressed my disappointment to Wendy. We had seen so many amazing temples that day and I wasn’t sure that Angkor Wat could live up to the hype that was surrounding it. Just before sunset, we climbed another massively steep staircase up to the very top of Angkor Wat, and I fell in love. The views and colours were worth the wait and the climb. It was unbelievable being in this beautiful temple, and it was sad to get “kicked out” before it was completely dark.

first glimpse of Angkor Wat

me at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

view from inside Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

me at Angkor Wat

closeup at Angkor Wat

sunset at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

me and the sunset just outside of Angkor Wat

After a full 8 hours climbing steep temples with high, narrow steps that were not designed for tourists, walking around temples and being in the hot Cambodian sunshine, we were ready to call it a day. We went for dinner on Pub Street, enjoyed 50cent draft beers, and headed back to our room at the guesthouse for well deserved showers and an early bedtime…we were leaving the guesthouse the next morning at 5am for sunrise at the temples!

Mr. Two was ready and waiting for us with a car (no tuk tuk today) when we made our way downstairs just before 5am. Driving in the dark, we headed to Pre Rup (built in the late 10th century, it’s an architecturally and artistically superior temple-mountain with beautifully carved false doors and an excellent view of the surrounding countryside, richly detailed and well preserved carvings, with historical importance). Wendy and I were quick to get out of the very air conditioned car (we were freezing!), and sat in total darkness outside of the temple, looking at the sky and watching shooting stars.

the moon from outside Pre Rup

Soon after, Mr. Two joined us and told us it was time. We were not prepared for climbing temples in the dark, so instead of a flashlight, I used the light of my iPhone to illuminate my way up the massively steep, narrow temple-mountain stairs. Keep in mind that most of these temples have not been altered for tourists. Some have basic, steep wooden stairs (like Phimeanakas), but most offer no such luxuries, and safety railings or guards are unheard of! The steps were almost as high as my knees, and half the size of my foot, so I climbed them sideways and slowly, especially in the dark. Mr. Two, Wendy and I were the only people at Pre Rup for sunrise, and we sat in the dark silence at the top of the temple-mountain, waiting. The early morning and steep climb completely paid off as the sun began to rise and the temple we were sitting on began to show itself. Amazing views, breathtaking colours, and about 100 pictures later, we were ready to climb back down the temple-mountain (always the more difficult part, I found).

at the top of Pre Rup

at the top of Pre Rup

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

Pre Rup

the stairs at Pre Rup that we climbed in darkness

Pre Rup

sunrise at Pre Rup

sunrise at Pre Rup

Pre Rup is golden in the morning sun

Pre Rup

my shadow at Pre Rup

Pre Rup

Wendy and I at Pre Rup

We back tracked a little bit and had breakfast and delicious coffee with Mr. Two at a little restaurant. Wendy and I were both taken with Mr. Two’s incredible smile and Cambodian charm. After breakfast, we headed to East Mebon (a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers, constructed in the late 10th century, with inscriptions recording activity at the temple as early as 947AD).Next was a 37km drive out of Siem Reap (which was the reason we were in a car and not a tuk tuk) to Banteay Srey (loosely translated as “citadel of the woman”, built in late 10th century, the walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple, and wasn’t discovered until 1914 by French archaeologists).

East Mebon

East Mebon

East Mebon

Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

cute Cambodian kiddos at Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

Banteay Srey

On our way back from Banteay Srey, we stopped at the Cambodia Landmine Museum, run by Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who began clearing landmines in 1997. The Landmine Museum exists to tell Aki Ra’s incredible story (in September 2010, he was selected for a CNN Hero award), to tell the horrors of landmines and all explosive remnants of war, and to care for the children victims of landmines who live at the center. Aki Ra is doing amazing and dangerous work, and has dedicated his life to making a difference, and to making his country safer.

Landmine Museum

Hero award at the Landmine Museum

at the Landmine Museum

After the Landmine Museum, the temple tour continued with Ta Som (built in the late 12th century, it’s a small, classic Bayon-style monastic complex consisting of a relatively flat enclosure, face tower gopuras and cruciform interior sanctuaries), Neak Pean (a small island temple located in the middle of a baray, with the central temple sitting at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools, the temple is faced by a statue of the horse, Balaha, saving drowning sailors, constructed in late 12th century), and Preah Khan (a huge, highly explorable monastic complex full of carvings, passages and photo opportunities constructed in the late 12th century).

Ta Som

Ta Som

Ta Som

Neak Pean

Neak Pean

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

me at Preah Khan

An incredible 9 hour day at the temples was complete at 2pm, and Wendy and I ventured back to Pub Street for a quiet afternoon of drinking cheap draft beers and reading our books. Sleep was well deserved that night, and we were in bed again by 9pm.

our tuk tuk with a flat tire

Our last day at the temples was relaxing. The morning started around 9am, and Mr. Two took us via tuk tuk to the Roluos Group, 13km outside of Siem Reap, to visit three temples. On our way to Roluos Group, our tuk tuk suffered a flat tire and we had to stop at a roadside “garage”, where the tire was fixed in record time. When we finally reached Roluos Group, we went to Loiei (built in late 9th century, this is the ruins of an island-temple built in the middle of a now dry baray, consisting of four brick towers on a double laterite platform), Preah Ko (six towers displaying set on a platform, all beautifully preserved carvings, originally surrounded by walls and gopuras of which only vestiges remain, constructed in late 9th century), and Bakong (built in late 9th century, this is the most impressive member of the Roluos Group, sitting at the center of the first Angkorian capital, it stands 15 meters tall and is 650 by 850m at the outer wall, it represents the first application of the temple-mountain architectural formula on a grand scale and set the architectural tone for the next 400 years, also displaying a very early use of stone rather than brick).

Lolei

Lolei

Lolei

Preah Ko

Preah Ko

Bakong

Bakong

me at Bakong

Bakong

The rest of our time in Siem Reap was spent wandering the small shops and night market, indulging in a $6usd 1 hour full body massage, a Dr. Fish foot massage, fantastic food, and relaxing at coffee shops. I truly do love Cambodia…for whatever reason, it’s captured my heart completely. It’s sad for me to think that I won’t be returning to this country for quite some time…it costs a lot to fly there from Vietnam, and the other option of taking a bus is so time consuming that it’s not realistic of me to think that I will be going back there during my time in Southeast Asia. My pictures and memories from Cambodia will keep my love alive until I return there, years from now. I love you, Cambodia!

me at the fish massage

fish massage

fish massage

fish massage

All information about the various temples comes from the Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide.

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