So, Da Lat was our last stop in Vietnam and we headed to Cambodia to check out the temples at Angkor. We figured we couldn’t really come to this part of the world without visiting one of history’s most famous sites, but with so many other places on the agenda we didn’t have more than a week to allocate to seeing Cambodia. We spent about a week in Siem Reap and filled our time almost exclusively with visiting temples. We didn’t make it to all the temples around Angkor but we hit the highlights and saw a pretty broad range of temples.
Siem Reap itself was not a particularly interesting place, at least what we saw of it. It’s gotten a reputation as a kind of no-holds-barred party town and every night the young Western visitors flock to go out on Pub Street, where you can barely move because the crowd is so dense. We wandered the night market a couple of times—did not try any of the fried crickets/scorpions/tarantulas that are offered to tourists—and grabbed cheap drinks a few times to pretend that we are young and cool. We did find some good food, though! Kind of a mix between Vietnamese and Thai food. Also, the US dollar is used as a secondary currency in Cambodia which was kind of funny! You can get Cambodian riels or US dollars at most ATMs, and everyone takes (and often prefers!) dollars but you’ll get small riel back instead of US coins. But, people won’t take torn, dirty, or creased dollars! Which was what our wallets were mostly full of since no one cares back home.
For our tour of the temples we hired a tuk tuk through our hotel and had the same driver for several days. (All of the tuk tuk drivers hang out in the parking lots while their clients go explore the temples, and most of them have hammocks that can be hung from hooks on the tuk tuk frame, which is ingenious.) On one ambitious day we rented bicycles and rode a loop out around the park, doing some sightseeing on our own schedule. The heat and crowds in Siem Reap can get oppressive as the day goes on, so we got up and going pretty early every morning and had time in the afternoons to relax by the pool or in the air conditioning.
Angkor Wat itself is only one (very large) temple with many dozens of other complexes in the area surrounding it. They do not all come from the same era, many are separated by several centuries, so there are different styles and building techniques. Some of the older temples had already fallen into disrepair by the time others were being constructed. Many of them are still in ruins but there have been significant efforts to rebuild and rehab a number of the complexes—Baphuon was actually taken apart stone by stone, each piece labeled and carefully catalogued, so as to be restored bit-by-bit and then reassembled but then all of the documentation was burned in a fire and now the restoration crew has a gigantic jigsaw puzzle on their hands! At others, restoration groups have recreated pieces that were missing, to varying degrees of success.
Most of the temples are within a national park area and admission tickets are per day as opposed to per temple. There are also many people who do live within the area and entrance is free to non-foreigners. So while riding in our tuk tuk between the temples we also got to see local communities which was really interesting.
Here are the temples that we visited on our quick four-day tour of Angkor. We had been told that it’s best to save Angkor Wat for last as everything pales in comparison and it’s better to see the smaller ones while you’re still fresh. Glad we followed this advice as I think we would have felt burnt-out on temples a lot faster if we had gone straight to Angkor Wat first!
One of the largest temple complexes at Angkor, Preah Khan has some incredible carvings and bas-reliefs, large trees have grown over the walls as the jungle takes its land back.
Prasat Neak Poan
A small complex with a large square pool surrounded by four smaller pools, two large nagas encircle a small island in the center of the largest.
Prasat Ta Som
More incredible carvings, a huge tree completely overwhelms one of the gate towers.
A “mountain” complex with smaller rooms on top, carved stone elephants guard the base of the temple.
This temple is a pyramid-shaped “mountain” with upper tiers that have lotus-shaped towers.
Another temple fighting for land with the jungle, it is now held together by metal ties due to its original hasty construction.
Losing the battle to the jungle, some incredible trees are overtaking the walls of this temple, lending it an incredible atmosphere. It’s also know as the “Tomb Raider Temple” as a quick scene from that Angelina Jolie movie was filmed there.
One of our favorites, every facet of each tower has a giant face of Avalokiteshvara (216 faces in total!), the lower walls have some amazing bas-reliefs. It was pretty cool to wander around the large sculptures, but a little creepy to always have about a dozen faces looking at you. This one was also incredible because from a distance it looks like a pile of boulders, but the images become clearer as you get closer.
Our other favorite, this one is a bit further out of the normally beaten path and is unique in that it is carved of red sandstone and has some really incredible carvings. It is one of the smaller sites at Angkor, but the sheer craftsmanship makes up for anything it might be missing in size. The name means “Citadel of the Women” and it is dedicated to Shiva.
Kbal Spean, or “River of a Thousand Lingas”
Even further out and less-visited, there isn’t actually much of a temple left. There are some ruins in the jungle and you can see how the riverbed and riverbanks were carved; there are supposed to be many linga statues if you hike along the river but we didn’t see them. This one required a bit of a hike through the jungle which was a nice break from the heat and the crowds.
This is the place to be for a sunset view over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, you have to get there early in the afternoon to guarantee a spot as they only let 300 people up at a time. So, we had to hang out for a few hours. The air quality was pretty terrible but we could still make out Angkor Wat in the distance. Sunset came a bit early due to the pollution haze. The upshot was that we didin’t have to wait as long and the haze turned the sun an intense red. We also entertained ourselves by watching the other tourists taking “I’m holding the sun” pictures (just like we watched the tourists in Paris doing it with the Eiffel Tower, because we are terrible people…).
Most people got to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise, but in order to beat some of the crowds (and because we didn’t think the sunrise would be very exciting with the terrible air quality), we got there around 7:30am, missing the early-morning crowd and beating the rest of the later risers. It definitely lives up to its reputation! It is pretty magnificent and in incredible shape, it’s also huge compared to the others we visited. There are long walls completely covered in bas-reliefs depicted various historical and religious events. We also got to go up one of the towers and got some amazing views out over the complex. It is a similar style to many of the other temples, but is impressive for its sheer size; I’m sure we missed a good portion of it even though we spent several hours there.
This temple was dismantled by a team of archaeologists but their records were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime, leaving a giant jigsaw puzzle. Considering this, it is in quite good shape and we marveled at how they were able to put any of it back together. One of the walls has the profile of a very large reclining Buddha, which, like a Magic Eye puzzle, took us a while to see but once we did we couldn’t not see it.
The temples at Angkor were quite amazing and we enjoyed our time there as they were unlike anything we had seen before, but I think what struck us both the most about Cambodia were the friendliness and general happiness of the Cambodian people. Considering the atrocities that have occurred in that country in recent memory, there didn’t seem to be any bitterness and people always had a kind smile on their faces. This feeling was certainly contagious and we left the country in high spirits (especially since we were heading to some tropical islands)!
Next up: beach time on Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe.