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Published: October 2nd 2022
A banner in front of a temple. Back when I worked for an airline in Bangkok, I encountered a fair bit of human trafficking. If an inadmissible person was sent back to Bangkok, we were stuck if they did not have their real travel documents with them because they could not reenter Thailand. The most common solution was to send the trafficked person to Cambodia. The syndicates who smuggled them would send a runner with the trafficked person's real passport and a one-way ticket to Cambodia. From Cambodia, they would once again make their way back to Bangkok for another shot. It was a bad situation, and one where I was helpless to do much.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, I found myself with extra time on my hands in Singapore because I didn't have to begin working on certain family logistics. I therefore decided to cut short my time there to spend a few days exploring a site I've always wanted to visit. As an added bonus, I figured Angkor would be without the pre-Covid tourist hordes, which made this an even more attractive time to visit.
I arrived in a rainy Siem Reap late morning on Wednesday. As soon as I checked in to my accommodation, I headed out the door to explore Siem Reap. My first impression was that there were lots of Prius (Prii?) on the road. Siem Reap felt like your typical Southeast Asian tourist boomtown; you see lots of motorcycles, a mix of independent accommodations and hotel chains, a few small malls, Starbucks, and fancy coffee shops with English signage. I even saw a vet clinic with signage saying they can arrange the logistics to get lucky animals who have been adopted by foreigners to their new homes. But, these establishments were mostly empty, and it is clear that Cambodia's tourism industry hasn't recovered. Especially telling were
Caged birds at a temple. To "make merit", Buddhists would buy these birds and release them. Most of them end up getting caught again and sold again.
a couple of empty large restaurants with huge parking lots - usually such establishments cater to large tour groups.
After walking around a bit, I chose the venue for my first Cambodian meal - a hole in the wall establishment with locals and no tourists. The proprietor barely spoke English, so I pointed at pictures and ended up with a watery curry. After eating, I wandered into a supermarket for some provisions. There, I saw Cambodia's dual currency system in full swing. In general, foreigners are expected to pay in USD. However, Cambodia does not seem to utilize US coins, so change is given in riels, at a slightly advantageous exchange rate to the vendor, I might add. But, since riels only come in multiples of one hundred, you can't fault the establishments for rounding down. Even the cash register was programmed to calculate the change in riels.
After some more wandering, I returned to my accommodation as the dark clouds looked threatening. True enough, it started to rain soon after. That night, I woke up several times to the sound of torrential downpours.
My accommodation arranged a tuk tuk - which in reality was an autorickshaw
My Tuk Tuk
Phoan toying with the motorbike in a desperate attempt to repair it while I went to purchase my ticket.
powered by a motorcycle - to take me to the temples. I declined to hire a guide because even though I would learn more with a guide, I prefer to explore on my own terms. Besides, having a guide tell you things sometimes dampens my sense of awe. I decided that I would simply follow the greatest hits itinerary and cover the Small Circuit in one day, and the Grand Circuit the next. The going rate was USD15 for the former and USD18 for the latter. As this was the tail end of the rainy season, I didn't even bother with a sunrise or sunset trip given the amount of cloud cover.
Day One: The Small Circuit
Phoan, my driver, met me and we set off for the ticket office. We bounced along the wet, badly potholed backroads of Siem Reap and then joined the well maintained highway to the ticket office. It seemed as if Phoan's motorbike was underpowered. En route, the first signs of trouble emerged: I heard the engine backfire. At the ticket office, I bought a one day ticket for USD37 (the government is allowing one day tickets to be used for two days
The famous silhouette.
while tourism recovers) and returned to see Phoan toying with his bike. As we set off towards our first stop, his bike spewed white smoke... at least it wasn't black smoke. Everyone who passed us turned and looked. I wondered about asking Phoan to find someone else to take over the remainder of the day's itinerary. But, I have worked hard over the years to not micromanage, and I trusted that he would know what is best for the situation. Angkor Wat
Our first stop was the crown jewel of Cambodia, Angkor Wat. As soon as Phoan dropped me off, he said he would go to the mechanic, and he took off.
I was surprised to see that Angkor Wat faced west, the cardinal point associated with death. Modeled on the mythical Mount Meru, Angkor Wat has a central tower to represent Mount Meru itself, a number of shorter towers to represent other peaks, several courtyards to represent the continents, and a moat to represent the oceans. Angkor Wat's famous naga bridge was closed for maintenance. To cross the moat, I had to use a pontoon bridge. As I approached the temple, a Chinese speaking guide approached
I climbed these steep, tiny steps to get inside the central tower.
me. I groaned inwardly when I realized I committed an amateur mistake by involuntarily reacting to him; in situations such as these, I usually pretend to not speak Mandarin, but it is hard for me to tune it out. I managed to shake him off eventually. As soon as I shook him off, an English speaking guide came to me. I managed to shake him off too.
Angkor Wat did not disappoint. I spent almost two hours transfixed by the sheer scale and majesty of the monument. I also climbed a steep flight of stairs (built for people with really small feet) to access the central tower, where I had a bird's eye view of the rest of the temple. I don't think I have been this awed by a single monument since Borobudur.
After exploring the temple, I called Phoan, and he reported that he was back from the mechanic. He rolled by a new minutes later. For the remainder of the day, his motorbike seemed to struggle, but at least it wasn't belching smoke. Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom comprises of several temples enclosed within the same moat. We entered via the striking South Gate,
Angkor Thom - Bayon Temple
The spectacular Bayon Temple with its 49 towers, each with giant faces staring at you.
which features a series of statues flanking both sides of the bridge across the moat. The gate itself featured a giant face built into the rock, and it was the first of many I would see. Once inside the city walls, our first destination was Bayon Temple, famed for its giant faces. It is believed that there were originally 54 towers in this temple. 49 of those towers stand today. It is theorized that the faces represent King Jayavarman VII as a god king looking over his domain. On the walls flanking the temple are intricate reliefs depicting everyday life and battle scenes. Once again, I was accosted by guides. I managed to shake them off. Bayon Temple is absolutely amazing. I strolled around the grounds in awe of all the giant faces staring at me.
I exited Bayon from the north and headed up to Baphuon. Access to Baphuon is via a eye catching elevated walkway. Baphuon is a large temple built on three tiers. I climbed to the second tier via another set of very steep steps for people with small feet. The view from the that tier was great. I decided aginst going to the top
Angkor Thom - Baphuon
The outline of the reclining Buddha at the back of the temple.
tier because an old injury in my right knee was starting to flare up. After coming down the steep stairs, I walked around the back to look for an Atlas Obscura site - a reclining Buddha built into the temple wall
. As with the other temples in Angkor, Baphuon was built in the 11th century as a Hindu temple. When the temple was converted to a Buddhist site in the 15th century, it is believed that a tower was demolished to supply stones for the reclining Buddha to be built into the wall. With some imagination, one could make out the outline of a reclining Buddha.
After exiting Baphuon, I walked through a forested area. The area wasn't signposted well, but I headed north along the path and encountered Phimeanakas, which also has an Atlas Obscura entry
. Phimeanakas is an atmospheric temple in the midst of the forest surrounded by a small moat. Access into this temple was not allowed.
My final stop in the Angkor Thom complex was the Terrace of the Elephants, which features elephant statues on the side of a wall. Inside the temple were well preserved reliefs. Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda
Once I was done with this marathon exploration of five temples, I met
View from above, looking down the steep stairs.
up with Phoan. Our next destinations were two small temples next to each other - Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda. Neither of these temples packed the same punch as the ones I viewed prior, but they were well restored. Truth be told, I blew through these two sites quickly as I was rapidly getting templed out. The highlight of these two sites was that I nearly stepped on a green and yellow snake in Chau Say Tevoda. It slid away from me into a crack between rocks. This presented me with a dilemma - I had to walk over those rocks to get into the temple itself. Should I risk getting bitten? I figured that the snake was probably more afraid of me than I was of it, so I quickly stepped over the rocks. Ta Keo
Phoan drove me to a restaurant next to the huge Ta Keo temple. There, I ate what is perhaps Cambodia's best known dish - amok, a thin curry based dish with chopped up vegetables and a choice of meat. I can't say I've been blown away by my limited sampling of Cambodian cuisine to date. I thought a country wedged between
The iconic roots wrapped around the temple walls.
Thailand and Vietnam would feature some bold flavors, but sadly that has not been my experience so far.
Ta Keo is a massive mountain of a temple with three tall towers. Built of sandstone, the temple was a different hue compared to the others I had seen so far. There are little stone steps to get you to the top. I gingerly climbed the steps despite my knee, and, after enjoying the views, I carefully climbed back down. Ta Phrom
Our next destination is also one of Angkor's most iconic sights. Popularized by the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
movie, Ta Phrom is a rubble strewn temple best known for the giant ficus trees that have taken root in the temple. Indeed, the giant roots that wound their way into the stones make for a stark contrast between nature and human construction. I wandered around transfixed at the sights. As I made my way around the temple, Leftfield's Song of Life
- a track that was played in the movie at the Ta Phrom scene - got stuck in my head.
While I was a Ta Phrom, I looked around in vain for the Dinosaur of Ta Phrom
, an Atlas
Obscura listing that claims that there is a carving of a stegosaurus-like creature in the walls of the temple. Rather frustratingly, the listing isn't very specific on where exactly the carving is located. I did not find it despite my best efforts. Banteay Kdei
Our last stop of the day was Banteay Kdei. To be honest, I was tired and templed out by this time, and I just walked around aimlessly. Phoan dropped me off at the west gate and told me to meet him at the east gate. I got disoriented and ended up back at the west gate, and I had to make my way back through the complex to get to him.
We made our way back to Siem Reap after Banteay Kdei. It had been a long day (almost 9 hours), I was tired, my right knee was hurting, but my head was spinning from all the amazing sights I had seen. Soon after Phoan deposited me at my accommodation, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour. As I reviewed my photos, I was a little bit bummed that they didn't turn out very well because of the poor light from the
The causeway across the moat leading to the temple.
Day Two: The Grand Circuit
The Grand Circuit covers a longer distance than the small circuit. But, despite its name and its heftier price tag (presumably to cover the cost of fuel), this turned out to be a much shorter day because there are fewer sights to see on this circuit. Phoan offered to take me to Bantaey Srei, located 30 km north, to view some unusual murals. I declined as I wasn't sure I could handle more temples, and also because my knee was hurting. Besides, I wasn't sure that his rickety motorbike would last the extra 60km roundtrip. Preah Khan
I met Phoan at 7.30am. The journey to our first stop on the Grand Circuit took us past Angkor Wat and through Angkor Thom, and onwards north to Preah Khan. The entrance to Preah Khan is a causeway across a moat that features stone figurines similar to the south gate at Angkor Thom. The main difference was that the figurines weren't as well restored. Preah Khan features lovely columns, and a tree rooted into the ruins that rivals Ta Phrom. Neak Pean
Our second stop on the Grand Circuit was Neak
The temple surrounded by water.
Pean, a small temple situated within a pond which is in turn situated on an island inside a large lake. To get to the island, I walked along a long wooden walkway that was just inches above the waterline due to the recent rain. The sight of the flooded lake with leafless tree trunks sticking out of the water was simply awe inspiring. Getting to the island, I wandered up the path to the pond. Neak Pean itself turned out to be a cute little temple in a peaceful setting. It has its own Atlas Obscura entry
. Ta Som
Ta Som is a compact temple with - you guessed it - yet another tree rooted into the ruins. This time, I circumnavigated the temple instead of walking through it, and I saw that the exterior walls were propped up. I don't think people would be allowed into the structure if this were in a western country. East Mebon
East Mebon is a three tiered pyramid with five towers on the top. There are elephant statues at the four corners of the pyramid. I climbed this temple and enjoyed the views. The sun finally came up at this point,
and I managed to capture some good shots with blue skies behind. Pre Rup
The final stop on the Grand Circuit, Pre Rup is a favorite for viewing sunsets. I was tempted to ask Phoan to bring me here for sunset, but I knew it would likely be futile due to the cloud cover. Pre Rup has two levels. The top level offers 360 degree views of the surrounding forest. Although the steps were steep, this climb was significantly less intimidating than the others. I enjoyed this last stop immensely.
We concluded our tour around lunchtime. I was surprised how quickly we wound this leg up, but I was also happy as I didn't think my brain could handle any more temples.
Phoan's motorbike struggled as he drove me back to my accommodation. When he dropped me off, I thrust a fistful of riel into his hands and told him it was my contribution towards his motorbike repairs. Phoan is a hardworking guy with good interpersonal skills, and I would hate it if he lost his livelihood.
That afternoon, I wandered again into Siem Reap for lunch and to wander around, and I got back
View from the top platform.
to my accommodation before the inevitable afternoon downpour.
Angkor certainly blew me away with the vastness and variety of the monuments. I think I bit off more than I could chew, but then, I didn't have more time to break up the temple visits with something else in between. Tomorrow, I begin my long journey home to Jeff and the cats.
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