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Published: February 25th 2012
Our first temple in the ancient city of Angkor Thom, each tower visible in the picture contains a face on each of its four sides. Lots of faces.
We had seen it coming, but having had no experience arriving in a city late at night, we were a little anxious about potential difficulties in finding transportation and a place to stay.Our bus pulled into a stopping area in the outskirts of Siem Reap at 12:30 am. By the time Matt had gotten the bags and stepped off the bus, Liza was already talking to a tuk-tuk driver. A very friendly fellow by the name of Thom, he had asked Liza what our plans were. We had an area of town in mind to search for lodgins, however he suggested that we let him take us to a place he knew. Not wanting to get scammed by a local with his own interests at heart, we were weary of letting him take the lead. He assured us that if we didn’t like the place he took us to, he would drive us to the area we wanted to go. We arrived at a guesthouse just behind a main boulevard and our driver woke up the owner, grabbed a key and showed us inside. The guesthouse and room looked more than serviceable, and at $8 per night we were quite satisfied
Liza meandering through the ancient corridors of the Bayon.
with Thom’s choice. His English being above average compared to what we had experienced thus far during our travels, we were interested in the possibility of hiring Thom to taxi us around for the next three days as we visited the temples of Angkor Wat. Thom had the same thing in mind. We discussed a plan and a price and went to bed satisfied.
Due to our late arrival, we decided to put off visiting the temples for a day. We slept in late and set out on touring Siem Reap. We hadn’t heard many great things about Siem Reap, as most feedback we received referenced it only as the location from which to visit the temples. As such, our expectations were relatively low. We departed our guesthouse with only a faint idea of where we were in relation to the downtown area. Over the course of the day and that night we found ourselves extremely impressed with the city. A daytime market operates in the main square near the slight river that flows through town. Never missing an opportunity to experience a market, we wandered through and took in the vendors selling produce and meat, and many of
They were quite intimidating when viewed up close.
the silk, spices, teas, coffees, and craftwork produced in the villages surrounding the city. A few blocks away from the market, closer to our residence, a couple of alleyways had been transformed into chic places-to-be-seen lined with bustling restaurants and bars. During both day and night time there was an added energy that infused the air when one turned the corner and ventured down Pub street or Alley street. As if eating in Siem Reap couldn’t get any better, nearly all restaurants offered 50 cent draft beer. After finishing lunch we decided to investigate a place called Les Chantiers Ecoles. Tucked away behind a side street off another minor street, we walked into a green courtyard surrounded by a one-story stone building divided into numerous workshops. The school was set up by the government and teaches locals traditional artisanship through an apprenticeship program. We saw workers learning wood and stone carving, lacquering, shaping metal, painting, and looming. The quality of the work was impressive and it was inspiring to see people given the opportunity to learn and improve skills that could provide them with a livelihood. As the afternoon faded, the day market closed up shop and the onset of
Where the royal parades would take place. Notice the size of the tuk-tuks on the left in relation to the structures.
darkness provided the backdrop for the night market. It spread from a permanent bazaar area across the main street in town, morphed into boisterous open-air restaurants, continued on into more shops and vendors and eventually merged with Pub and Alley streets which remained alive and vibrant with their restaurants and bars. It was probably the most electric atmosphere we had witnessed since Chiang Mai and we made our best efforts to enjoy it on subsequent nights.
Thom picked us up in his tuk-tuk the following morning to assist us in our main goal for visiting Siem Reap, to experience the temples of Angkor Wat. Imagine an area of over 60 square kilometers, mostly wooded, containing over 31 temples that were built between 800 and 1200 years ago. Now imagine trying to take it all in over the course of three days. The first difficulty we had was trying to gain an understanding of what life might have been like during the times these temples were built, and what purpose the temples served. As difficult as it was to come to terms with, we learned that the temples were erected solely as offerings to the gods. As massive as they
The forest taking back the temple at Ta Phrom, also known as the Tomb Raider temple. I think they shot a movie there.
were (and some were extremely massive), they were rarely entered, and entry was restricted to religious figures and royalty. Many, but not all of the temples, were contained within an outer wall and sometimes a moat, which would have served as the outer boundaries of the city. Because the use of stone was reserved for religious structures, all remnants of the cities have long vanished and one is forced to use their imagination to paint a picture of what life might have looked like. Considering the temples remained empty most of the time, they took up a surprisingly large portion of the area indicating how important it was for the King serving at the time to appease the gods.
Our first experience at Angkor Wat was entering the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom through its southern gate. The gate itself was incredibly impressive and we had not even crossed over the threshold. A massive stone gate stood in front of us with intricate carvings and designs strewn across it. Massive stone faces were carved at the stop of the archway to ‘watch’ over all those entering. To add to the figures carved on the walls of the archway,
Yet another wall taken back by the trees.
the road leading up to the gate (as with each of the five gates into the city) was lined on either side with stone carvings. Gods lined one side, and demons lined the other. We took our time walking through the gate and admiring everything. Little did we know that this was only the beginning.
Our journey through Angkor Wat was far too intensive to go into explicit detail about every stop along the way. To avoid your boredom and to simplify our lives we figured we would highlight some of our top moments over the three days.
On the first day we were blown away by the sheer size of the grounds of Angkor Thom, including the Bayon Temple which was the first temple we saw. On the first level, the base was intricately carved with thousands of images, depicting what life in the 12th
century was like. As we ascended the stairs we got a better idea of why this temple was so famous – the faces. The Bayon Temple sports 54 gothic towers, each of which is decorated with 4 stone faces. Much like the Mona Lisa, these stone faces seemed to be staring at
Thanks to the time difference, we were able to watch the game at 6:30 am on Monday. The early morning did not stop us from enjoying a couple of beers.
you no matter where you stood. The slight grin on their faces, their all-seeing almond shaped eyes, and the sheer number (216 for those that haven’t done the math yet) certainly overwhelmed us Angkor newbies. Climbing higher and higher up the stunningly large temple brought us face to face with the massive carvings, and solidified our impressions of the Bayon and increased our feelings of excitement for what was to come. Leaving the Bayon and wandering around the grounds of Angkor Thom, an ancient city believed at one time to have a population of over 1 million people (when London was only 50,000 large, as our guidebook informed us), we saw beautiful terraces where massive parades showcasing military strength and the empire’s wealth once passed. Another stop on our first day took us to Ta Phrom, the temple where the first Tomb Raider movie was filmed. The beauty of these ruins lies in the way that Mother Nature has reclaimed the structure forgotten for so long. Tree roots envelop walls and grow straight out of archways and terraces. Despite the massive numbers of tourists, it seemed so easy to wander down a crumbling passage way and slip off on our
Rise and Shine
Our early awakening enabled this spectacular viewing of Angkor Wat.
own, lost amongst the ruins.
Our second day started dark and early, as Thom picked us up at our guesthouse at 5 am. We should mention that during this time, Thom’s wife was due to have their third child. With a false alarm the previous evening, Thom did not have much if any sleep before arriving to get us. Luckily his tuk-tuk contained a hammock and he was able to catch up on some winks while we explored the temples. We arrived at the world famous temple of Angkor Wat at 5:30 am, in time to find a good seat out front and wait patiently for the sunrise. We, along with hundreds of other tourists, witnessed the sky lighten in front of the majestic towers. Perhaps more impressive than the sunrise was exploring the temple, void of the usual masses, as the sun began to creep through the crevices and into the 400 m long corridors. Later on in the second day, Thom took us to two temples that we had not anticipated seeing nor had we realized their allure as they were not mentioned in our guidebooks and not recommended from previous temple-goers. Pre Rup and East Mebon
Exploring the Nooks and Crannies
Matt wandering through Angkor Wat as the rising sun began to colour its passageways.
were two temples built in the 10th
century, before Angkor Thom or Angkor Wat existed. Visibly different with their rust-coloured stonework, they were far bigger than we expected these lesser-known temples to be. Despite their age and decay, it was fascinating to wander around and consider their architecture in relation to those temples we had already seen that were built far later in the timeline of the Angkorian Empire.
The last day also started bright and early, not on Thom’s suggestions but because Liza wanted to watch her New York Giants play in the Superbowl. We were downtown at 6:30 am to find a packed bar filled with ex-pats and travellers alike. Too bad that most were Pats fans. Our final day in Siem Reap was filled with numerous surprises. The first surprise was that Thom’s wife had her child the previous evening. On our way to the day’s first temple, Thom took us by the ‘hospital’ to visit his beautiful new baby girl. Expecting his third child to be a boy, Thom had not yet come up with a name for her and left the decision up to us. We told him that we would have a suggestion
Wandering around the top terrace of an 1100 year-old temple.
by the end of the day. The last temple on our list, located 50 km out of town, was called Bantey Srei and is unanimously considered to be the Angkorian temple with the most beautiful and elaborate carvings. A little smaller and a little more run down that we expected, the carvings still managed to live up to the hype. Through all of our temple visits we had a hard time comprehending how these carvings could be produced covering multiple extremely heavy stones, especially with the tools available 800 years ago. Seeing the beauty of the carvings at this final temple only compounded these feelings.
Although finished with touring us around temples, Thom was not finished with us quite yet. As he dropped us off at our guesthouse, he told us to be ready at 6 pm, as he was going to take us out for a surprise. On his arrival, we hopped in his tuk-tuk and he escorted us to a local Khmer market/carnival. As per his description, it was a place where locals came to unwind after work, to bring the kids for a relaxing evening filled with fun, and to be around friends. We wandered the
Attention to Detail
The temple of Bantey Srei is known for its intricate carvings. This is but a sample of some of the spectacular work that we witnessed.
midway section, played a couple carnival games, won a few beers, and then we crossed the street to an open air restaurant. We let Thom do the ordering, and he went at it. We were served a dish consisting of cubes of barbequed beef, alongside a platter of raw vegetables. In front of each of us was a small dish of creamy fish sauce (not the fish sauce often mistaken for soy sauce in the grocery store) and a selection of ingredients to add to the dipping sauce. Those ingredients consisted of peanuts, garlic, lemon grass, chili peppers, and ants. Yes ants. Fried ants. We decided that being in Rome, we should do as the Romans do, so we loaded up on ants and feasted away. They actually didn’t taste that bad. We finished our platter of beef, and then a second. We found the bottom of many beer cans. After a while, Thom told us of a friend of his that owns a bar, and instead of paying him in cash for tuk-tuk rides, he pays him with beer. He asked if we would like to go visit and we said ‘of course.’ We loaded into the tuk-tuk and
Much like the other temples we took in, but the carvings were on a whole different level.
made our way to God-knows-where. We walked into the entrance of a building that looked more like a club than a bar and were escorted into a private room, followed closely by two girls. The room had a table with a U-shaped couch surrounding it, large enough to seat more than 10 people. In front of the table was a TV and DVD player. On the table was a flat of beer. As Thom handed us a microphone we quickly realized that we were in our own private karaoke room. Thom, the two of us, his owner/friend, a karaoke technician, and two girls whose job seemed to be to fill up our glasses every single time we took a sip of beer. The karaoke started out timidly, but as the beers disappeared, so did everyone’s inhibitions and before long, everyone’s voices sounded like angels (to themselves.. not to everyone else). Growing a little weary of how much beer our tuk-tuk guide was drinking, and also realizing that we had no idea where in Siem Reap we were and thus had no other option but to have him drive us home, we quickly made the decision to race every person in
Matt posing for a picture with our tuk-tuk driver Thom and two of his daughters the day his third daughter was born.
the room to the end of the case of beer. Drinking an uncomfortably large amount of beer, we showed our Canadian roots and did our best to ensure our safe travels home. We said goodbye to our new friends, piled into the tuk-tuk and went for one last ride on the town. Thom’s driving seemed as good as ever, which either meant that he was an excellent drunk driver or that we had succeeded in eliminating his supply of alcohol. He dropped us off at our guesthouse, we said our thank yous and goodbyes and parted ways. Our experiences at the temples of Angkor Wat lived up to our expectations, but our connection with our tuk-tuk driver Thom and the insight it gave us into life in Cambodia was completely unanticipated and an experience that will endure above all others. We also named his daughter. P.S. We see the number of views for each of our blog posts rise, and know that there are at least 30 people consistently reading the blog, but for the most part, we don't know the names that correspond to those views. We would love to know who all the people are that are
At the Fair
Thom's surprise destination.
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