Travel Dates: 2nd – 4th November 2013
Day 1 by Vicki
Our first full day in Siem Reap dawned hot and sunny, and we were raring to go. For most people in the group, today’s tour represented the main reason they came to Cambodia – to go to Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is the main attraction in a large collection of temples and stupas built by the Thai kings between 600 and 1500 years ago. Whilst the buildings are all understandably in various states of disrepair, they were fortunately protected from destruction during the war, with an unwritten rule apparently stating that no fighting should take place in the temples. This wasn’t always adhered to as they were used as a refuge and some bullet holes show that they had on occasion been attacked. Recently, restoration efforts have begun although with mixed success – an Indian team sent to help clean the temples used acid to remove the dirt, thus speeding up the destruction!
Our first stop of the day was Angkor Wat itself – along with thousands of others. Before we were allowed in Boreth decided to give us a bit of the history of the place, and the Cambodian people. Whilst it was interesting, everyone itching to get inside and have a look for themselves rather than sitting on the wall outside. After about 45 minutes, we were finally allowed in….and it was worth the wait.
The complex is incredible – surrounded by a moat and linked to the land by an imposing stone bridge, it seems to just rise out of the jungle. The temples were unknown to the outside world until French colonials came for a visit, and it was fun to imagine what they might have felt, after hacking through the jungle for days to suddenly come across this huge building.
All the buildings are lavishly decorated with carvings, everything from dancing Apsara girls to monkey soldiers and everything in between. All of the jewels that would have decorated the rooms have been pilfered, but even without the bling there is no denying the splendour of the place. The religion of Cambodia changed several times through the period, alternating between Hinduism and Buddhism, with elements of Animism also creeping in. The combination of Vishnu’s and Buddhas and all the associated characters means that there is something different to look at whichever way you turn.
The heat definitely adds to the atmosphere – in 35 degrees plus everything seems to shimmer, giving the complex a mystical quality. There is a central pond at Angkor Wat, where people would run naked to purify themselves before religious ceremonies. This was certainly an appealing option for many in the group at this point!
A quick pit stop for lunch at the “Angkor Wat view” and we were on our way to the next set of temples, called Angkor Thom – or when said with a Cambodian accent, Uncle Tom. It did take a few minutes to realise we were off to another set of ruins, rather than afternoon tea with Boreth’s family. Angkor Thom was once the centre of the largest city in the world, supporting a population of over 1 million people at a time when London had 25,000 residents.
Angkor Thom is surrounded by a massive wall, and leading up to each gate is a set of sculptures of Naga and Nagi, 7 headed serpents, being carried by warriors. Most of the warriors have now lost their heads but it would still make you think twice if you were planning to invade.
Despite the surroundings, the thing that drew the most frenzied photo taking of the day was a little monkey, sitting on a cart of mangoes. He was very cute, trying to steal one but being too small to move them. The owner of the cart eventually came back and started to drive off, but the monkey hung on for dear life – who knows where he ended up.
Bayon temple is a sight to behold – 54 towers with 216 craved stone faces peering out at you. It is a bit like a magic eye puzzle, at first you don’t see the faces and then all of a sudden, the only thing you can see is the faces. It is a real maze, with stairs and corridors and little rooms everywhere. It is much more compact than Angkor Wat, and at times, with all the tourists (including a large noisy French group) it felt quite claustrophobic. I made a sharp exit at this point and went to look at a couple of the outlying stupas, each containing big (4-5m) gold buddhas.
Our final temple of the day was the famous Tomb Raider temple, Ta Promh. This is the most ruined temple that we saw, and at times, it was an effort to stay upright, clambering over fallen rocks and uneven flooring. Some people were getting a bit templed out by this point, but this temple, being so different to the others we had seen still held our attention. The temple is basically a combination of trees and stones, and I couldn’t believe that some of the trees were still standing, they seemed at such impossible angles.
This is the temple that Hollywood took over to film the Tomb Raider films, which generated some excitement in the group. Having not seen the film, this was a bit lost of me, but nevertheless it was an impressive temple that we could have spent a lot longer in, had we not been with the a tour group who were keen to get back to the hotel pool.
After a quick drive back to Siem Reap, we were back at the hotel. Some of the group had gone to an Artisan’s school and workshop, but we decided to pass on this. We would have happily spent more time at temples, but given the choice between the school and the pool, we took the pool. Whilst it was only the size of a plunge pool, it was a welcome bit of luxury!
Dinner was traditional Khmer food at a restaurant just off pub street, as recommended by Boreth. We opted for the “personal dinner” option rather than heading out with the group, but we did join Inga, Roar, Jerra and Ana for a drink in the Angkor Wat? bar later in the evening. This was an incredibly noisy bar with music blaring from all sides making conversation very difficult. After a few drinks, anticipating a long day tomorrow and looking for some peace and quiet, we headed home to bed, leaving Ana ploughing through a bucket of cocktail (this is no exaggeration – the cocktail came in an actual bucket) and Jerra nursing an Absinthe and coke….
Day 2 by Rich
This morning I awoke to a poorly Vicki. She had been up during the night with an upset stomach. Other than my brief stint of feeling sorry for myself in Chengdu this was our first encounter with illness. As Vicki had not slept much and still had a sore stomach she made the unhappy decision to sit out the day so I headed to breakfast alone. Today’s activity was an optional part of the tour, a boat trip on a lake to visit a floating village. Even though an optional extra, almost everyone in the group had elected to come along.
In breakfast I found a few people to eat with joining Zoe and Libbie as we tucked into a second day of high quality breakfast. Yesterday there was muesli and strawberry yoghurt, bacon sandwiches and waffles which went down very well. Today’s selection was more egg based which isn’t great for me but the cereal followed by beans on toast still did the trick. Anyway, while chomping through my breakfast and explaining Vicki’s illness to the others, in she strolls. Not wanting to be kept down by a mere stomach bug, Vicki had decided to brave the day.
This was quite brave of Vicki as first thing we were back onto a bus for a drive to first a small village market and then on to the lake. Arriving at our first village at 8:30am, Boreth encouraged us all to have a beer as all drinks were included on the trip. Not wanting to offend him, Meg and I obliged and had a very early start to the days drinking as we strolled the market with a beer. Next to the market a wedding was happening. There was a marquee filled with people enjoying a wedding meal. Although early in the morning which would be unusual for a wedding for us, this is nothing special for them. The wedding food would continue to be available to anyone who came throughout the day and probably several days either side.
At the lake we hopped straight onto a boat. Again, good luck to Vicki with her tendency to experience travel sickness compounding how bad she already felt. On seeing the person sat in the driving seat we were all a little concerned. A young boy of around 6/7 years old was there. Luckily his dad soon came aboard and we had a slightly more experienced captain. The little boy did steer at some points as his dad attended other tasks and was more than happy to take our tips at the end of the trip.
The boat ride passed by a floating village which consisted of houses on stilts. The lake was calm except for the tourist boats passing though. Locals were getting on with their lives, sorting their mornings catch or tending to fishing nets. We had the choice of inside or on top of the boat. For the outward trip I sat on top with some of the others. The view was great and we enjoyed waving to the local children and seeing the sights. All manners of life were living on the floating village. I wonder what it is like to be a cat, pig or chicken stranded away from dry land. At least the humans had use of boats to get in and out.
Our destination on the lake was a landing point with a restaurant and walkway through the mangroves. Shortly before this we had stopped in a secluded area where there was an optional swim. Rob was the only taker yet his enthusiasm made up for the rest of us. Back in the mangroves we explored the walkway before some had a refreshing drink. Having already had 2 beers and with another ready on the boat for the return trip I passed. Vicki was however very appreciative of the stomach calming Coke.
As the heat was picking up I took the shady option and stayed inside on the return leg. Those that went on the roof did look a little hot and crispy when we returned. With everyone having already had a few drinks on the boat, we continued the party on the bus. Meg passed round beers to several takers and we headed back to Siem Reap. There was only one stop on the way back. Boreth assured us that the ideal accompaniment to our beers was grilled frog. I was well up for this and found it to be a delicious snack. At first I was a little worried as I bit into it and didn’t get the expected taste. Turns out the frogs are stuffed so the texture inside was nothing to worry about.
In Siem Reap we were ready for food after our morning of drinking. The whole party moved to Khmer Family Kitchen where the others had eaten the night before. I don’t think anyone had Khmer food though, most opting for pizzas, burger for me and safe Caesar salad for Vicki. Tired after lunch we returned to the hotel where Vicki had a long awaited nap. I made the most of the pool while she slept.
Shortly before 4pm I headed up to the room to tell Vicki that I was off to explore some temples back at the Angkor Wat site. Included in our tour was a day pass to the temples which costs $20. Vicki and I had upgraded ours to a 3 day pass which are sold for $40. I was ready to start making the most of the extra $20. Not wanting to be left out and feeling a bit better from her nap, Vicki decided to join me.
We headed outside and for once we did want a Tuk Tuk. As is always the case when you actually want something, there were none to be found. A short walk along the road and one pulled up beside us. Mr Leng offered his driving services out to the temples for an explore then sunset view for $10. We accepted and were soon zooming off to the temples.
Yesterday we had done the big 3 temples that are on the tourist trail. Today we wanted to experience more peaceful ones. We decided to explore more of the Angkor Thom (Uncle Tom again) complex. We only touched on it yesterday so without the group we had a better opportunity to look around. Being there alone was a hugely different experience. We explored a temple that was a mix of pyramid shape and jungle temple, linked by pillared walkway and long terraces. There were also a number of ponds where monks were swimming. It really is a shame that most people miss out on these temples, just doing the big 3, as they have so much to offer and easily equal the popular ones. One day really isn’t enough to do Angkor Wat justice.
By staying of the well trodden tourist trail we found we had the temple practically to ourselves. We were probably outnumbered by the young boys who had been sent to practice their English, sign you up to mailing lists and get money out of us to fund their education. We were willing to chat to them however if you strayed of their known spiel you were in trouble. [Him: Manchester football good. Me: Which team? Him: Manchester football good…I can only assume he knew there was only one team in Manchester worth knowing about.] Safe to say, they got no cash from us as we didn’t want to encourage sending children begging even if it really was for a good cause.
The final stop on our exploration with Mr Leng was the sunset temple. This is the most popular spot for sunsets so gets very crowded. We were only just in time so it wasn’t too busy walking up the hill to the temple. We passed a few viewpoints with fine sunset views. When we arrived at the top it was extremely crowded and hard to see the view. It wasn’t a particular fabulous sunset yet there were still hundreds of tourists present. We let them crowd the front of the temple and found a quieter spot at the back.
The sunset temple was very reminiscent of our time at Bagan in Burma earlier this year. The whole Angkor Wat area and Bagan are very similar and we couldn’t help making comparisons. We think Burma wins on sunset. The view from their sunset temple is over a flat plain with many other temples around. Here it is over jungle and rice fields so you don’t actually see the light on the temples. Still it was worth the climb up and sometime you need to go with the crowds as they are in the good places for a reason.
After carefully heading down the hill (one Japanese lady wasn’t careful enough and was left on her bum with a crowd fussing around her) Mr Leng returned us to Siem Reap. Before we departed we enquired about a tour for the following day before our flight. Unfortunately he was busy but called his friend Mr Kheng and arranged for him to collect us instead. Mr Leng said he liked us a lot and as we departed offered me a big hug. We now look forward to meeting Mr Kheng to see if we get the same.
Dinner tonight was the group farewell dinner. We were taken by Boreth to a restaurant on the far side of pub street. The service there was extremely slow as this was another restaurant catering for multiple large groups. One thing we won’t miss about the tour is the effort and time taken in eating with a large group.
As it was the final night in Cambodia a few more drinks were in order (we had recovered from our morning drinks at this point). Vicki decided to pass and get home early which was partly thwarted by Rob taking her and some others on a very long and not so scenic route back. For me, beers, Jaeger bombs and dancing followed accompanied by the Guernsey girls, Norwegian boys, Jerra and Meg. At midnight I sensibly called it a night ready for our early start the next day. (Vicki: I knew Rich had made it back when I heard him shouting “don’t give him more dollars!”. Apparently, our travel companions were trying to be overly generous with the tuk-tuk driver, and Rich wasn’t having any of it!)
Day 3 by Vicki
After Rich’s night time exploits, I was more than a little surprised that he was willing to get up when the alarm went off at 5am. He did have some difficulty in working out what was going on, and what clothes to wear, but I’ll put that down to lack of sleep rather than alcohol…
Mr Kheng was ready and waiting for us, and in no time at all we were shooting through Siem Reap on our way back to the temples in time for sunrise. I was amazed at the the number of people up and about already, lots of people getting stalls ready, and even some runners. I guess when you live in that climate you to make the most of the time when it is not roasting hot.
We decided to go to Angkor Wat for sunrise, despite the fact that it would likely be overrun with people. As Rich said above, there is a reason why some temples are busy at sunrise/sunset. We arrived in plenty of time and claimed a spot slightly away from the majority of tourists.
After a bit more exploration of Angkor Wat, where I felt very conspicuous in a bright pink T shirt, we headed back to Mr Kheng, and set off for some of the lesser known temples. On the way, Rich spotted a small temple on side of the road that he fancied a look at, so we pulled over. Never one to miss an opportunity, mountain goat Rich was clambering up the temple before you could say ancient monument. This caused some issues with an American family who were also looking at the temple. Their small child (Kathleen) was suddenly desperate to climb the temple, much to her parents annoyance – she kept whining and moaning and eventually was allowed to climb a few steps, but not as far as Rich, which was probably for the best. You know it is steep when Rich is coming down backwards!
Our next stop in the Tuk tuk was Preah Kahn, another temple similar to Ta Promh, with lots of trees growing out of the walls. This one was a bit of a maze though, with corridors full of identical rooms – we could see why this temple is described as a “hall of mirrors”. As it was still early, we were lucky enough to have this one almost to ourselves. The lack of tourists really does enhance the experience – if we went again, I would be tempted to do all my site-seeing either very early in the day, or very late, just to avoid the hoards.
Our final temple was Neak Pohn. This is a very different one to any of the others – it is a small stupa completely surrounded by water. We crossed a long wooden bridge to get to the viewing area, but that is as far as you can go, and this gives it an isolated feel – like the person who built it wanted it to be revered from a distance, giving it a mythical quality.
Looking at the time, it was now about 8.30am, and our aim was to be back at the hotel just before 9.30am in time for breakfast. We could have just gone back early, but instead decided to give the tuk tuk driver a laugh and went for a run. Trying to communicate that despite having hired a tuk tuk, we wanted to run part of the way back was quite tricky. You could see what was going through his head, “crazy westerners…you want to RUN? in this heat?” but he gamely took our rucksack and followed us very slowly down the road, much to the amusement (or confusion) of the other road users. It was quite hot by this time, and after a only a couple of minutes in we were sweating buckets. Never the less, we ran back to the previous temple, a solid 2 miles. We then got back in our tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel, very grateful for the breeze generated by speeding along with Mr Kheng. It is a shame that it is so hot – running would be a great way to see the temples. Someone has obviously had the same thought as me – there is a half marathon around Angkor War in December. Unfortunately we are in Malaysia then, or we could have been persuaded….
After a very quick breakfast (we arrived about 1 minute after the official end of breakfast) and some packing, we headed back out to the tuk tuk to go to the airport. Luckily, Mr Kheng had done this before and helpfully provided ropes to tie the luggage on. It was a great way to end our trip to Cambodia, and I think we will definitely be back in the future, to see all the things we couldn’t quite squeeze in this trip.