Third time at Angkor... Still spectacular!

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August 10th 2011
Published: November 4th 2011
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Getting to Siem Reap in Cambodia from Bangkok involves crossing the worst land border I’ve ever experienced at Poipet, and the thought of doing it again for the third time filled me with apprehension. Trying to dodge the numerous scams is tiring and the biggest scam of all on our previous crossings was the ‘fee’ that the Cambodian officials try to impose to speed up the processing of the visa. Last time we sat and waited for an hour while I bargained the fee down to $3.50 from $10 ($5 each), which seems stupid now looking back as $6.50 is hardly worth it, but when you’re essentially paying for nothing (there’s not supposed to be a fee, the visa is $20, that’s all) it’s all about the principle. This time though I had it mind that I’d just pay the extra just to get through quickly, hanging around at a border crossing with the kids for a few hours just to save a few dollars sounds like one hell of a crap afternoon.

We got the bus from the northern bus terminal in Bangkok to Aranya Prathet, the closest town to the border. The journey was four hours so not too long, but as we couldn’t be bothered to continue on through the border that day, we decided to stay the night there and continue on to Siem Reap in the morning. The next day we lazily got all our stuff together (we were in no hurry, we now had all day to get there) and grabbed a tuk tuk to the border proper. The tuk tuk of course dropped us off at the ‘official’ place to get our visas, which of course was complete bullshit so we grabbed our stuff, turned our back on the guys who were telling us we couldn’t get visas anywhere else and walked the 200m to Thai immigration to get stamped out of Thailand.

On that walk we didn’t get hassled once which was quite refreshing, we assumed it was because it was morning so none of the buses from Bangkok had arrived yet. We got stamped out of Thailand which was completely painless and then walked across to the Cambodian side. We had to fill out a basic health declaration and instantly a guy latched onto us (here we go), he then showed us the way to the visa department. It’s now moved to its own building and is indoors with air conditioning and when we got there I started to fill out the forms. Almost immediately an official approached and asked for our passports, and then proceeded to help me fill out the forms (as the boys have their own passports we have to get them visas too), he then asked for the $20 for each passport and handed it all in, immediately our visas were processed and the official gave us our passports back.... Now hang on, what the hell just happened???? A little speechless we went to Immigration, where again another official helped me fill in the forms and then got stamped into Cambodia. We walked out of immigration and the guy who showed us where the visa department were showed us to a free shuttle bus that would take us to the transport terminal 15 minutes further down the road. Sceptical as always we all boarded the bus (guy included) and immediately departed.

We arrived at the transport terminal a short while later and the guy showed us the options for onward travel to Siem Reap (or anywhere else in Cambodia we wanted to go) he then held out his hand (here we go)... for me to shake it! He wished us a pleasant journey and left... Now that certainly was a pleasant surprise, what was once my worst border crossing has now become one of the easiest.

Everything was new and the place was completely empty, I’m assuming because it was still morning so we booked a taxi at the desk for $48 which wasn’t the cheapest option, but it would leave immediately and take us wherever we wanted to go. We all piled in and got on our way to Siem Reap. Another change from previously was that the road between Poipet and Siem Reap is now all completely sealed and wasn’t the crappy dirt track it once was, so it was a pleasantly smooth two hour journey all the way there. We got the Taxi to drop us off in an area where we knew there were a few guesthouses and hotels and found somewhere to stay.

We decided to stay a while in Siem Reap as we weren’t really in any hurry and we like staying put for a while as it gives the boys more time to adjust to the new surroundings. We didn’t pack our days choosing instead to do things at our leisure, we swam a lot at a local hotel pool, we ate tons as the restaurants are quite good and shopped at the markets. It was also great as we had our fair share of tropical downpours so we could work our schedule around the weather.

As this was our third time in Siem Reap our intention was to visit some temples we hadn’t been to before so we wanted to go to Koh Ker, but due to the weather and road conditions we were told it would be a four hour journey to get there so hardly a day trip. Instead we visited Beng Mealea again, a temple quite far away from the Main temples of Angkor so it’s not included within the Angkor ticket, also as it’s quite far away (1 hour) it has virtually no people there.

Beng Mealea is quite large and has had very little reconstructive work done to it, so there’s a lot of clambouring over piles of rocks and rubble to explore the place giving you a real sense of adventure, the boys were far more interested in digging in the mud but they were happy so we left them to it. Due to it being wet season it was very lush and green, but it also meant there was a lot of standing water and ferocious mosquitoes... we also saw a snake, and had to pull Nate back from running over to it and giving it a prod, which was a good idea as one of the guards told us it was venomous. Very little has changed at Beng Mealea in the last three years, they’ve added a walkway which snakes around and inside parts of the temple which was actually a good thing as it gave you some fine views over the ruins but other than that it was just as we remembered it, which was good as we loved it last time.

We were wondering whether we were going to visit the temples of Angkor while in Siem Reap as it would be our third visit and we count ourselves lucky to have visited somewhere most people only dream of seeing twice already. In the end I went with a friend using the visit as a photography trip while Faye stayed at the hotel with the boys, which is good for them as ancient temples wouldn’t keep toddlers entertained for more than 3 seconds...

We did consult with our tuk tuk driver that we organised though and he said he could get us all into Angkor Wat the evening before without buying a ticket. We know from before that if you buy your ticket the evening before you can go in straight away, essentially getting a free sunset at Angkor, but we weren’t sure it would work without buying tickets. We all piled into the tuk tuk and took the short trip out to Angkor Wat. After a lengthy discussion with the ticket checker near the ticket booths we were waved though no problems, excellent, the boys might not get to see all the temples but they’d be able to see Angkor Wat. We wanted to go down to the Lotus ponds for sunset as we really enjoyed it there last time and it turned out to be a good idea as it was deserted. I managed to get some good photos as the light dimmed and the boys loved charging around and digging holes in the sand. It also made me really look forward to the following day; Angkor was just as incredible as I remembered it, and I was ready for more!

The following day was an early start, being picked up at 5am ready for the sunrise... After grabbing our tickets ($20, took about 5 minutes) we headed straight to where we went the previous evening to watch the sunrise. The difference couldn’t have been any more pronounced as it was rammed with people and it was far from the peaceful experience we had the day before. I jostled in amongst the crown and waited while the sun rose bringing Angkor out of the darkness. Sure, it was beautiful but because of all the noise I much preferred our visit the night before. After the sun rise it was amazing how few people then went on to explore the temple itself, almost all of them left. This suited me just fine as it was a joy to wander around the majesty that is Angkor, taking photos of whatever I wanted with very few people to share it with. The dawn light hitting the stone was beautiful, it was peaceful, it was a truly amazing experience...

From Angkor we went to the walled city of Angkor Thom pausing briefly at the south gate to take pictures before stopping at the Bayon. The Bayon looks quite uninspiring from afar, pretty much like a huge pile of rubble, its beauty only becomes apparent once you get near enough to realise that you’re being watched by hundreds of serene looking gargantuan stone faces. We spent a while exploring the site before moving on to the elephant terrace, taking a detour along the causeway of the Baphuon and sneaking through an overgrown hole in one of the walls to find a rather ordinary overgrown temple nearby. We walked along the Terrace of the Elephants to the Terrace of the Leper King which is a u shaped wall of beautiful carvings protected from the elements by another wall and also a welcome respite from the sun which was pretty brutal. After a short break to fill up on ice cream we jumped back in the Tuk Tuk, headed out of Angkor Thom, stopping briefly at the north gate (south gate was better) before heading on to Preah Khan.

Preah Khan was one of my favourite temples on our previous visits for many reasons, mainly that it’s quite large and relatively un-restored giving you that real adventure feeling while exploring it, but also that a lot of the tour groups don’t visit it, so it’s not that busy, especially compared to some of the other well known temples. We spent a fair amount of time at Preah Khan, exploring all the doorways and marvelling at the huge trees growing through the structure. Also while we were on our way out one of the guards asked us if we wanted to climb one of the walls to get a better view, we of course said yes and he showed us a way up. Although not that high up the view of the site was pretty damn amazing and it was nice to get a different perspective of the place. The guard asked for a tip, which we didn’t mind giving, as it really was a view not to be missed.

After Preah Khan we stopped for lunch at one of the many roadside eateries before jumping back into the Tuk Tuk for the long journey to Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is a little way away from the main temple group and is dubbed the ‘jewel of Angkor’ for its exquisitely carved exterior. It’s quite a small temple and last time we visited at sunrise, so we could have it all to ourselves briefly before the masses turned up. This time our tuk tuk driver assured us it wouldn’t be busy as it’s lunchtime so everyone else would be eating. The site at Banteay Srei has changed beyond all recognition from the last time we were there with a visitors centre with quite a large souvenir market attached. I’m guessing it was there to control the flow of people for when the site was at its busiest but thankfully our driver was right, there were very few people there at all. We spent a short while admiring all the carvings as the sun was at its strongest and there was no shade but also as it’s not that big it doesn’t take a lot of time to get around at all. We then headed back to the tuk tuk for the journey back. On the way back, in-between falling asleep and dropping my half empty coke can we took a token stop at a rather ordinary temple who’s name I can’t recall (it really was THAT ordinary) before stopping at Ta Prohm.

After navigating through the scrum of hawkers we made our way into the temple. Ta Prohm is one of the more famous Angkor temples as it has many large iconic trees sprouting out of the ruins themselves giving it such an amazing look that it almost borders on film set, it’s hard to believe it’s real. Sadly there is a lot of reconstruction going on, just like the second time we were here and they’ve added a lot of wooden walkways and podiums in front of the more iconic trees ruining any chance of getting a good photo full on. I understand the reasons of course, not many trees would be able to withstand the footfall of a thousand Korean tourists trampling on its roots to get a photo day in, day out, but I couldn’t shake the memory of my first visit to this temple. It was empty, nothing was being restored and it was exactly how a temple ruin in the jungle should look. It was my favourite of all the Angkor temples on our first visit, it certainly wasn’t this time, it’s gaining the look of a theme park which is not good at all...

After exploring Ta Prohm we were ready to go back to the hotel but the tuk tuk driver urged us to visit one more temple so we thought “what the hell” and went with the flow. I can’t even remember the name of the temple, it was a little like Ta Prohm only smaller and was quite interesting but it had loads of hawkers inside who pestered constantly so I’m not sure I enjoyed it that much. After this temple we asked the driver to take us back to the hotel, we were done, completely templed out.

Am I glad I went to Angkor for the third time? I sure am, sure it’s changing and some of it not for the better in my opinion but you cannot help but be blown away by it no matter how many times you visit. It still remains the highlight of SE Asia in terms of sights in my opinion and I’d probably visit it again next year if I got the opportunity, but for now we move onwards to Phnom Penh, the nations capital.

Additional photos below
Photos: 54, Displayed: 32


4th November 2011

Amazing photoshop on pics :) i didnt think of this ! great pics too... i was there in 2008, nothing seems to have changed!...check my blog ! bye Anu
4th November 2011

gorgeous pictures!
4th November 2011

Such a sham about Ta Prohm - that was one of our favourites too...we remember being the only people there and getting some fantastic photos. The changes you describe are part of the reason we haven't been back, too scared that our memories of Angkor wouldn't live up to the renovated and restored reality! Brilliant pictures as usual! Hope you are all well and enjoying yourselves
5th November 2011
Angkor Wat at sunrise

So beautiful!
Gorgeous photographs and an interesting blog! We're living in Phnom Penh at the moment and are taking a break in Siem Reap next week for the Water Festival, so your blog was particularly interesting, informative and well enjoyed! Thank you. Happy travels to you and your family!
6th November 2011

Thank you for making me wince I keep on putting off Angkor Wat to head off to other is clear Ta Prohm must be seen sooner rather than later.
6th November 2011

fantastic pics
makes it look even more spectacular! enjoy the water festival!
9th November 2011
The Bayon

Great picture.

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