Sugar and spice and a hint of sour in Siem Reap (and the Angkorian Temples)

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Asia » Cambodia » North » Siem Reap
January 24th 2013
Published: February 7th 2013
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We woke at 6am and organised our packs. We were leaving Battambang and travelling the Sangker River by boat to Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, which we needed to cross on our way to Siem Reap. We headed up to our hotel’s rooftop terrace for breakfast. Battambang is not what you would call a picturesque town, and the view from the terrace was nothing more than a sprawling urban skyline of dusty buildings and factories. I had muesli with fruit and frozen yoghurt, while Ren had an omelette with baguette. We both had a hot Khmer coffee with condensed milk, which was a good start to the day.

We headed down to the hotel lobby at 7.30am and caught a minibus to the Sangker River. Luckily there was a pharmacy open on the riverbank close to the mooring of our boat, so I quickly popped in and picked up a packet of French aspirin (aspirine). I had an annoying headache that I couldn’t shake, and these were incredibly fast and powerful painkillers. We jumped into our long thin riverboat and headed off at 7.45am. The boat was nothing like what we were expecting. Memories of a huge river barge in Thailand had skewed our vision of what this boat was going to be. We were sitting knee to knee along each side of the boat, with precious little room to move in between. There was a basic shade cloth sheltering us from the sun, and a toilet that defied description (but I will try). Still, it was fantastic to be on the river, and I had been looking forward to this part of our journey. It turned out to be one of my favourite travel days of this trip.

I was the first to use the toilet. It was very basic (to say the least). It was at the back of the boat near the guy (captain) who was steering us up the river. It had no roof and faced backwards, so when you stood you were eye-to-eye with (and only a metre away from) the captain. He smiled embarrassedly and looked away. The river was extremely narrow and I didn’t want his attention distracted for too long, so I hurried proceedings. I also discovered that when people at the front of the boat stood up, they could see the back of my head over the shade cloth, which was highly amusing for all involved. It was one of the least private toilets I’ve ever used, but at least it afforded a round of applause for everyone who used it.

Due to a dryer than expected period leading up to our travels, the Sangker River was extremely low, and this slowed our journey considerably. The water level had dropped well below the riverbank, so our boat occasionally bottomed out on the river bed, and our view of the countryside was limited to the riverbank edge. Even when we stood we could hardly see beyond the wooden huts and villages than lined the Sangker. A young guy sat on the front of our boat with a very long pole, which he regularly used to push us away from the riverbank or lever us off the river bed. What was meant to be a five to six hour trip between Battambang and Siem Reap ended up being an eight hour journey.

After a few collisions into the riverbank and one direct hit from another boat (which smashed two metal roof supports on our boat and injured our guide’s leg), we eventually arrived at our first stop – a small floating river cafe. We’d expected to arrive at 10am, but it was past 11am when we finally moored. Apart from Kim and I, no-one had braved the boat’s toilet, so there was a desperate rush to use the cafe’s toilets. These weren’t all that much better – nothing more than a hole in the floor that went directly into the river below. You could see fish swimming beneath you, and depending on the river flow, whatever the person in the toilet next to you was doing. Those challenged by toilets were not enjoying this trip.

After an instant coffee and a break to stretch our legs, we jumped back into our boat and continued our journey towards Siem Reap. This time we didn’t have the young guy sitting on the front deck. We didn’t need him anymore – he had pushed us off the banks in the narrow, snaking part of the river, and he averted what could have been a disastrous collision with another boat. However, the river had now broadened out and our cruising speed had picked up. The heat from the midday sun was tempered by the spray from the river. It was very relaxing with the sun on our backs and breeze in our faces. We were about half way, and it was so much more comfortable than our 6 hour bus trip from Phnom Penh to Battambang a few days earlier. This was fantastic, and I was loving every minute.

Our guide prepared lunch at the back of the boat. She handed us each a polystyrene tray with a plain baguette, strawberry jam, happy cow cheese, mandarins, bananas and lychees. I wasn’t very hungry, but the food was great. I settled in and caught up on my travel notes (my laptop has a great battery). At one stage we pulled into the riverbank and jumped off the boat to visit a dilapidated old temple. Young river urchins (between five and ten years old) were running wild through the crumbling complex – it was their playground, and they were having a ball. They were fascinated by us, and they followed us everywhere. We marvelled at their freedom but were mortified by their poverty. An old public toilet was being guarded by a ferocious dog, so no one was game to use it. When it was time to leave, the children followed us back to the boat. Some even jumped into their own dodgy boat-like structures and followed us for a small distance as we continued our journey towards Siem Reap.

We finally reached the end of the Sangker River and ventured out into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. Water spray drenched us as we made our way across the great lake. We crossed the northern tip of Tonle Sap before turning into a small dirty waterway at Chong Kneas and made our way to Phnom Krom, where we docked and attempted to disembark. It was absolute mayhem trying to get off the boat. Remork (Cambodian tuk tuk, which is a motorbike that tows a covered trailer with seating) drivers were thick on the mooring – so much so that I thought someone was going to end up in the water as there was hardly any room to set foot on land. We shouldered our way through the crowd of drivers, struggled up a long set of stairs from the water’s edge and jumped into a minibus which took us into Siem Reap (about a 11km drive). This was such an ugly approach to one of Cambodia’s key tourist towns.

We made our way to the Angkor Holiday Hotel, where we were staying for three nights. We were greeted with cold drinks and cold hand towels. The drink was very welcome, but I was freezing and couldn’t imagine using the cold towel. Everyone else was happy to cool down with the cold towel, as they were exhausted from the heat. I realised I had a fever – it’s not often that I am shivering when everyone else is sweltering. We checked in, dropped our bags in our room and did a quick 15 minute orientation walk around the town. We then headed back to the hotel, showered and ventured out to an all-you-can-eat buffet meal with a traditional Cambodian dancing show at the Koulen Restaurant (right next door to our hotel). I felt terrible, but the French aspirin from Battambang worked a treat. Within minutes my headache was gone and my fever seemed to be under control.

The show at Koulen Restaurant was pretty uninspiring, and so was the food. It was a huge buffet, but nothing stood out. It didn’t help that I’d almost completely lost my appetite. There was an enormous tourist crowd in for the food and show deal (somewhere between 600 to 1000 people), so it would have been difficult to cater for such a culturally diverse group. The traditional dancing show seemed to lack syncopation and passion – maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I think even I can see choreography that is not quite hitting the mark. I suppose that’s what you get for going to a tourist show in a key tourist town. We even gave up asking the German guy on the table next to us to sit down and stop taking photos in front of our table. When the show finally ended, we headed out to Siem Reap’s famous night market to pick up some fisherman pants for the tour of Angkor Wat tomorrow. On our way back to the hotel we dropped into a pharmacy to pick up some cold and flu tablets and a packet of strepsils. We also picked up some water and beer for the following few days and nights. We dragged our heavy legs back to the hotel and eventually crashed at 10.30pm. It had been a long, long day. I loved the boat trip, but I wasn’t all that taken with Siem Reap – at least for now. Maybe I’d enjoy it more if I felt a little better.

We woke at 6am, organised our travel notes, showered, headed out to drop our laundry off at a small street laundry and then headed back to the hotel for breakfast. The hotel’s breakfast room was massive, and it was literally teaming with tourists. I had muesli with fruit and yoghurt, and it was great, but the coffee was not so great. We finished breakfast, headed up to our room and prepared our packs for a day of temple exploration. We left the hotel at 8.30am in a minibus and headed to Angkor Wat.

We arrived at the Angkor Wat complex at 9am. We jumped out of our minibus, lined up for our photos and were issued with Angkor World Heritage 7-day passes within minutes. We jumped back on the minibus and travelled a short distance to the east gate of Angkor Wat. We walked along the earth causeway and sat on a few stones outside the complex for a brief introduction to the temple (where we were joined by a few hungry monkeys). We then walked around Angkor Wat for a few enthralling hours. It was an incredible architectural monument being enjoyed by thousands of tourists. Luckily it was an overcast day, so the heat wasn’t as intense as normal. Every now and then the sun would burn down upon us between breaks in the cloud, and we would scamper for cover in the shade. We left Angkor Wat at 11am and drove to the atmospheric Ta Prohm Temple, which is slowly being taken over by the entwining root systems of the surrounding jungle. This was a fabulous place, and I wanted to side with the romantics in allowing the temple to be gently swallowed by the jungle trees over the ensuing centuries. However, restoration is a high priority issue for historians, archaeologists and Cambodians, and I fully understand why. Without the restoration to-date, I may not have experienced Ta Prohm on this visit. I also wouldn’t have had my photo standing in front of the infamous Tomb Raider tree (even though I haven’t seen the movie or played the video game).

We were wilting and exhausted from walking in the heat, so we lunched at a local restaurant (Kolab Angkor Restaurant) at 1pm. The large beer and fresh coconut juice were very welcome. Neither of us was very hungry, so we opted to share a cashew nut and shrimp salad. It was fantastic! A young local boy was running rampant through the restaurant, holding on to waitresses’ shirts from behind and being dragged around the floor while they were carrying customer orders. He must have been the owner’s son, as all of the staff were extremely fond of him.

After lunch we jumped into our minibus and headed to the very small and very beautiful Banteay Srei (City of Women). This temple is characterised by its red sandstone and elaborate carvings. The ground we were walking on was red as well, and by this stage my feet were filthy (sweaty feet and red earth are unforgiving when wearing thongs/flip flops). As we walked around the temple, we met a group of mature men and women who were cycling around Cambodia. They were managing around 80kms per day. The guy I was speaking to must have been at least 75 – he was incredibly fit. He said walking around temples in the heat of the day was harder than riding on the roads, as the breeze created when riding apparently cools you down. While it sounded an ideal way to travel, wandering around cultural locations in lycra wasn’t an appealing look.

When we got back to the Banteay Srei car park at 4.30pm, we discovered that our minibus wouldn’t start. We tried push-starting it a few times, but it just wouldn’t turn over. We had to wait in the heat of the late afternoon sun for an hour until another bus came out to pick us up from Siem Reap. One of our travel group had been feeling unwell all day, and suddenly she was really sick. Vomiting on the side of the road in a remote location under a steaming hot sun is not an ideal travel scenario. We felt so sorry for her – we were willing the bus to arrive so she could just get back to the hotel and retreat to the comfort of her own room.

We eventually arrived back at our hotel at 6pm. We picked up our laundry, grabbed some sweet and savoury snacks from the Apsara Bakery, picked up some more water from the local supermarket and retreated to our room. We were exhausted, and my appetite was virtually non-existent. I had a few bites of sweetish savoury bread and literally crashed. We had a very early start in the morning, and I knew I needed to be well rested for the day ahead.

We woke at 4am for a 5.30am start – we were heading to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise over the main temple. We jumped into our minibus at 5.45am and drove to Angkor Wat, arriving at 6am. This time we entered the complex via the main entrance leading up to the west portico. It was still dark, so we walked along the sandstone causeway by torchlight and found as quiet a place as possible to watch this fabled sunrise that is so ubiquitous in Cambodian tourism imagery. There were hundreds (if not thousands) of tourists already littered throughout the complex, but cloud was on the horizon, and it soon became evident that we wouldn’t be experiencing the sunrise this morning (which was meant to be around 6.50am). There were some serious photographers amongst the tourist throng – tripods were everywhere, but we were all in the hands of the weather. Still, it was a fantastic atmosphere, and wandering through the ruins by torchlight was a great way to start the day. This photographic pilgrimage happens daily throughout Cambodia’s peak tourist season, so there must be millions of Angkor Wat sunrise photos throughout the world.

Our hotel provided takeaway breakfast packs, so we found a small open air cafe within the complex and ordered hot Khmer coffees with condensed milk to accompany our food. Breakfast comprised a few small bananas, croissant and an omelette sandwich. I could only manage the bananas and croissant. It really is very rare for me to lose my appetite for such a long period.

After breakfast we jumped into our minibus and headed to Angkor Thom City, where we discovered pure, unadulterated tourist madness! On climbing to the top of the Bayon Temple, we experienced tourist numbers like never before. We were so busy watching where we were going and avoiding other tourists that we hardly looked up at the incredible temple structure we were visiting. It was a relief to escape the temple, which is hardly the point of travel.

We walked to the Elephant Terrace and enjoyed the stone wall carvings away from the maddening crowd. It was only 10am and we were exhausted, not so much from our 4am start but from the tourist bustle that had overtaken Angkor Thom. We knew only too well that we were as much a part of the mayhem as everyone else around us, but there are degrees of etiquette that seem to be lost on some travellers. We were planning a balloon ride to get a bird’s eye view of Angkor Wat, but it was too windy for balloons to operate. It was a beautiful day, with leaves falling around us in the breeze (as if it was autumn). We jumped back into our minibus and headed back to the hotel. We arrived at 11am – it wasn’t even midday, yet it felt like midnight.

We headed straight to our room and crashed. After sleeping for a few hours, we ventured out in the early afternoon to gather a few supplies, and then retreated to our room to catch up on travel notes. At 5pm we jumped into a remork and made our way to Siem Reap’s Foreign Correspondents Club for happy hour drinks, where we stayed until about 7pm. It was a very comfortable and relaxing place to unwind from the day. We then jumped into a remork and headed to the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant for dinner. We ordered grilled chicken, fresh spring rolls and salads to share between the four of us (Kim, Lee, Ren and myself). It was a very smoky atmosphere and a fantastic night with great friends. Unfortunately, my headache was worse than ever and I had absolutely no appetite. We finished our meal, jumped into a remork and headed back to hotel at 9pm. After organising our homestay packs for the next day, I swallowed a cold and flu capsule and fell into bed.

This was not one of my better travel days, due in part to the unregulated mass of tourists allowed to clamber upon the Bayon Temple. We couldn’t help but compare our different experience at Angkor Wat, where tourist numbers climbing the main temple were regulated to ensure a more disciplined and enjoyable experience. Maybe it was just a reflection of the way I was feeling – if I had been my normal self, the tourist throng of Angkor Thom may not have been so exhausting.

This is my second trip to Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. To say I’m excited is an understatement. The last time I was here was in June 2005. I really loved the main temples we visited. However, I have to admit that I don’t remember very much of the details. I wish I had kept a diary or blog. That trip was in June, which is off-peak season, but it was unbearably hot and I have a feeling this may have contributed to my lack of attention. In hindsight, I also think I was over-stimulated by the vast history lesson that accompanied the trip and overwhelmed by the heat and crowds. Yes, even in off-season the temples were crowded, so I really had to prepare myself for the onslaught of tourist buses on this trip in January’s peak season.

We woke at 5am on our last morning in Battambang to catch up on travel notes, as we were starting to slip behind with the blog. At 7am we wandered up to the hotel’s roof top breakfast room, where Andrew had muesli with yoghurt and fruit salad (there was no papaya in the salad which made Andrew happy) and I had an omelette with a crusty baguette. I'm getting very addicted to the delicious baguettes here, and I will really miss them when we go home. At 7:30am we caught a minibus to the dock, and Andrew went to a nearby chemist to buy what he hoped was aspirin (‘aspirine’ came in giant tablets and it's the strongest aspirin either of us have ever had – it killed a headache in 5mins flat). We then clambered quite gracelessly onto our rather small and basic boat for the eight hour boat journey down the Sangker River and across the Tonle Sap Lake from Battambang into Siem Reap. The boat was long and narrow and noisy and hot, but we caught a cooling breeze when we took off. There was a toilet aboard which was rather a selling point when we discussed the eight hour trip the night before...that was until we saw the toilet. It was a small squat, with walls that only came up to waist height – so the captain had a good eye level view of you! Only Andrew and Kim were game enough to use it, much to our amusement I should add.

It was a drier than normal dry season in Cambodia and the river was quite low, which meant a small boat was the only way we could travel. The river was wide and rather straight when we started off, but within an hour, it had narrowed and was bending around blind corners. We only realised how narrow when we suddenly came upon a boat coming the other way, and even though both boats passed each other with plenty of room to spare and there was no harm done, we ended up with our nose wedged in the riverbank shrubbery. The boat assistant sitting at the front of the boat had a long barge pole at hand to push us off again. We'd barely breathed a sigh of relief when less than 10 minutes later we met another long boat on a blind corner, and this time we didn't escape unscathed. We were sitting at the front of the boat and suddenly realised that we were heading straight into the side of the oncoming boat where a mother was sitting cradling a baby. Our boat boy managed to push their boat off with the handy barge pole. However, no sooner had that been avoided than we realised we were heading straight into the shrubbery of the riverbank again but at high speed this time. Simultaneously I heard yells for Thyda to watch out. Thyda was sitting at the back of the boat and the tip of the other long boat was headed straight for her. She managed to jump out of the way, but it still grazed the front of her shins! If the bent metal railing on the side of her seat was anything to go by, she could have been badly injured if she hadn't jumped so quickly.

The rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful as we gradually headed into deeper water. The trip provided a stunning revelation of how segments of Cambodians live. It took us through rural river settlements, where life on the river was laid open for us to see; and past floating villages once we got closer to the lake. Life here looked pretty basic and like hard work, but seemingly happy. Like the floating villages in Halong Bay, they have mastered the art of building a full village that floats. They zoom around in boats or balance artfully on plank walkways between houses. When I say full village life, I mean it – there are shrines, shops, market gardens, poultry cages and family pets!

At the three hour mark at 11am, we had a drinks stop at a floating cafe. I was watching my liquid intake given I didn’t wish to use the toilet on board, but Andrew had a coffee. We took the opportunity to use the toilet at the floating cafe and it was like nothing I've used before – a hole in the floor boards straight into the water, with fish swimming right under you! As our boat pulled away, we saw the woman at the cafe wash the coffee cups in the river water just downstream from where we'd just used the toilet. It's a good thing Andrew has a cast iron stomach! 😊

Thyda had suggested that we all chip in for a boat picnic lunch, and it was so much fun eating fresh baguettes with laughing cow cheese, pork buns, custard buns, bananas, mandarins, lychees, watermelon and pineapple.

At 2pm we stopped at a Buddhist Monastery referred to as the Blackwood Monastery (the temple is built of rare blackwood). It was a good chance to stretch our legs, but any attempt to use the monastery toilet was thwarted by a ferocious dog sitting outside it. The temple and it's grounds looked to be in disrepair, made more so by the fact that the local (floating) village children had made the temple their playground, which added to its derelict air. The children were very curious and followed us around, parroting a few English words they recognised in our conversations.

Alex, Hannah, Pru, Ella, Thyda, Kim and I played scategories to kill some time. It was a lot of fun and unsurprisingly got quite loud and rowdy. Some of our fellow grown-up passengers didn't seem to appreciate our humour...oh well, what can you do?

As we entered the wide expanse of the Tonle Sap Lake, the wind picked up and after an hour we all looked like we'd had a bucket of water thrown at us. Sitting around in wet clothes didn’t help Andrew's flu one bit. However, the trip was really enjoyable.

As we approached Siem Reap, the waterways got increasingly busier. Many tourists catch ferries out from Siem Reap to see the floating villages (as I did back in 2005). The area surrounding the dock is one big ugly construction site – a South Korean company is building a resort, with plans to dredge the lake to allow South Korean cruise ships in. No one seems to care that this could decimate the local fishing industry...obviously feeding the mass tourism machine is much more important than the local's already basic hand to mouth existence.

The dock was manic and chaotic at 4pm, with remork drivers yelling and pushing into the boat to get to passengers first. It was quite hard getting out of a wobbling boat, not to mention handling luggage with that throng pushing all around us. Then tackling a set of steep and narrow stairs with no hand rails nearly drove some of our grown-up group members to tears. What? No escalators?? Welcome to South East Asia! I'm not sure what exactly they were expecting. Nor why they would travel with bags they couldn't physically carry themselves.

We caught a minibus to our hotel, and the drive into Siem Reap from the docks isn't pretty by any means. However, given the fact that the river into town had flooded five years in a row, the government has now cleaned up and widened the river, and is in the process of relocating the locals from the riverfront stilt housing. While this helps with the flooding (and beautification) issue, I couldn’t help but wonder how the relocation worked out for the people who once lived and worked on the river.

On the surface Siem Reap is everything you would expect a tourist town to be – loud, developed and with a street called ‘Pub Street’. I don’t need to say more, do I? However, I still found it charming and friendly. Even its seedy tourist parts were more grungy than repulsive, and it was nothing like Thailand’s tourist towns.

Our hotel – the Angkor Holiday – was plush, with multiple doormen, wide marble floors and lavish foyer furniture. When we were offered a cold towel and welcome drink, I knew the room was going to be just what we needed after that long boat trip. I have never been happier to see a shower curtain in my life – three days of a dry bathroom floor – now that's real luxury!

We explored the town around our hotel, which had the night market to one side and the Royal residence to the other. The streets around the Royal residence are lovely tree lined avenues and the walk along the river is beautiful. On our walk we came across a woman selling all manner of deep fried creepy crawlies, and it seems we were all very curious about fried crickets (but not so game with the bigger specimens). Lee had been offered a cricket on the bus from Phnom Penh to Battambang, and the verdict was that it was good. So a few of us crunched on some deep fried crickets which had been dusted with salt and chilli – it was actually very nice. I could have munched on a handful of them like I would salted nuts or chips. I was very pleasantly surprised at how more-ish it was. A bit further on the walk, we stumbled upon Siem Reap’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) on the riverfront, and made a date to come back there. Siem Reap away from the Royal residence and tourist area is still essentially a sleepy traditional dusty town which bears its fair share of war wounds.

That night we were quite tired, so we went with the easy option of agreeing to go to a group cultural show and dinner right next door to our hotel at Koulen Restaurant. I had misgivings about it, but we went anyway. As soon as we walked into the restaurant's cavernous depths and saw the masses of tables – and the massive buffet – I knew we should have gone elsewhere. Anyway, the show was better than expected and mercifully short. It covered a range of traditional dance styles and costumes. The food, however, was as bland and inedible as expected. To add insult to injury, the drinks were triple the price at other restaurants, and the meal was the most expensive one on the trip so far. The only highlight of the night was an ongoing standoff between Roger from our group and a very rude German on the next table, who continually stood up to take photos and blocked everyone's view. His poor wife was so embarrassed.

We then walked to the night market which was about three blocks from our hotel, and most of the group bought 'temple' pants. Andrew bought a pair of fishermen's pants, and I bought a pair of baggy low-crotched Indian pants. We walked back to the hotel via a pharmacy in Lucky Plaza to buy more cold and flu tablets for Andrew, and to stock up on water for long days at the temples. As tired as we were, I couldn't help but have a sticky beak around the massive supermarket on the ground floor, which seemed to stock all manner of interesting chips, lollies and drinks.

The next morning was another 5:30am wake up to write notes and prepare for a 8:30am start. We dropped off some laundry down the road and then had breakfast at the hotel buffet, which was an exercise in trying to stay away from the rude big bus tourists. As much as I like the Angkor Holiday Hotel, they seem to do a roaring trade with big bus tours. And we all know how much big bus tourists love a buffet! You would think these guys were stocking up on war rations! There was much pushing in, stealing of toast and trying to balance three plates at once; but the last straw for me was an older man who tried to pushed in to reach over my head and grab the last two pieces of watermelon that I had just reached after waiting patiently in line... cue my evil eye. He seemed suitable ashamed.

Our Intrepid Travel trip included a visit with a local guide to the temples of Angkor, but as luck would have it, the Angkor temples were Thyda's speciality, so she was going to be our guide. A guide is not only necessary to navigate the rather large complex in a short amount of time, but it also added a human element to the interpretation of the many myths and legends. We caught a minibus to the ticket office for the temples, where we got our personalised temple passes. The photo taking process was quick and we had our passes within minutes. The Angkorian temples were built between the 9th and 13th centuries when the Khmer empire was a very powerful influence in South East Asia. They were exactly as wonderful, and possibly even better than I remembered them to be. They are gigantic in size and presence, and crawling with tourists of all descriptions. They are falling apart but still have an amazing feel about them.

Angkor Wat was our first port of call. Built in the 12th century, it’s described in terms of being comparable to only a few other sites in the world like the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids. I can completely understand the comparisons in scale of design, devotion to a cause and the logistics of building something like this well over a thousand years ago. It also claims to be the largest religious building in the world. It’s referred to as the epicentre of Hindu Khmer civilisation, but because it was rediscovered and repurposed as a Buddhist temple, it hasn’t fallen into ruin like the other Angkorian temples around here.

On approaching Angkor Wat, it is very imposing and grand; and then at close quarters the detail in the extensive bas-reliefs and other decorative finishes is mind blowing. We entered through the less crowded east gate (essentially the back door) after a brief but intimidating encounter with a troupe of over confident crab-eating/long-tailed macaque monkeys who demanded bottles of water from us while we sat on some rocks taking in the magnitude of the temple before us.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a giant, wide rectangular moat. From the west, a sandstone causeway crosses the moat. The rectangular outer wall has a gate on each side, and the decorated main entrance on the western side leads to a long and wide walkway lined with naga (serpent god) balustrades. The walkway leads directly into the central temple, passing between two libraries in front of which are two reflection pools. The central temple complex has three storeys, which enclose a square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries. The corners of the second and third storeys are marked by the iconic lotus-bud topped towers; and rising high above the ground is the central tower.

I was surprised to see that we had the entire back section of the first level almost to ourselves. Even though it got more crowded as we proceeded through the temple, it was nowhere near as crowded as I had expected for high season. Thyda suggested that it was because we had come in the morning as opposed to the more popular afternoon visiting time. I would highly recommend this, even though the afternoon light would have been more flattering for some photos.

The stairs to the third level were immensely steep (because reaching heaven is apparently no easy task). This level was closed to visitors in 2006 after a Korean tourist fell to her death while climbing the steep narrow stone steps. I climbed them on my last trip in 2005, and can attest to the degree of difficulty of those old steps. They have since built new wooden steps which are as steep, but are at least wider and have a handrail! They also now only open the upper level to a limited number of tourists, controlled with a queuing system. The reduced number of people at the top made the experience of walking along the narrow corridors very comfortable, and the cooling breeze made the experience even more pleasurable. The extensive views of the complex through the small windows is quite a sight. This was my favourite part of visiting Angkor Wat.

Like the other temples of Angkor, Angkor Wat is designed to represent the spatial universe. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its smaller peaks surrounded by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga balustrade is a symbolic rainbow bridge to reach the house of the gods. The temple depicts the relationship between humans, earth and the heavens.

This massive temple complex was dedicated to the eight-armed god Vishnu, but the three metre statue of him seemed oddly out of place to me, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe it’s because I find it strange that with such a sprawling complex and many wide open spaces, Vishnu has been placed in a cramped walkway seemingly too small for the large statue. Unlike the other temples around Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is west facing. In Asian cultures, the west symbolises the direction of death, so it is thought that Angkor Wat most likely served both as a temple to Vishnu and as a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II.

Angkor Wat is famous for having more than 3000 apsaras (heavenly dancing nymphs) carved into its walls, each of them unique. The detailed depictions that portray court scenes, entire battles and legendary stories were superb. The long walkways supported by imposing rows of pillars were spectacular. The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried more than 50km away (from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen) and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. The logistics of such an operation would have been enormous, involving the labour of thousands – an unbelievable feat, given the lack of cranes and trucks that we take for granted in contemporary construction projects. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants, yet it was still not fully completed.

Angkor Wat is certainly a master class in building. The size, scale and symmetry is astounding, not to mention it’s incredible beauty and spiritual significance. I was overawed by the magnitude and genius of the buildings. I walked around in a bit of a daze, trying to absorb it all in and attempting to imagine what it would have looked like back when this mighty civilisation was at the peak of its power.

After a toilet and coconut juice break at the nunnery near the south gate of Angkor Wat, we walked back to our minibus and drove to Ta Prohm (the famous jungle temple from the Tomb Raider movie). Ta Prohm is as commonly found on Cambodian imagery as Angkor Wat. However, Angkor Wat trumps it by being on Cambodia's flag.

Even though a decision was made to keep Ta Prohm as it was found – with all the giant tree roots growing through the temple walls – they have still cleaned up most vegetation from inside the temple and in the walkways. Unfortunately, this makes the overall effect somewhat like a Disney jungle set with 'take photo here' signs for those of us that need to be told these things. They have even built high wooden platforms that enable you to stand right next to the fig trees for that 'I was here' mug shot. I still love it very much, but I wish it hadn’t been tampered with so much. There are still some authentic scenes that warrant the nickname ‘jungle temple’ – once square doorways that are now slightly stooped and off kilter; wall carvings and statues that are black with age; window sills that were etched with lines of stone flowers now re-traced in light green moss; corridors that still remain blocked off by dislodged stone blocks; and small narrow corridors and out of proportion stone steps that made me wonder if the people back then were tiny but with very long legs.

Even though only the very large trees have been left, these create enough shade to make walking through and around the temple somewhat more comfortable than the others. The dappled light is also very, very lovely. The piles of giant carved stones toppled into dry fields adds an element of giants and other-worldliness to the setting. However, I did wonder how much longer the jungle temple will continue to feel like a real jungle temple.

I’m torn about the issue of restoration, and as with all things I think a balance is needed. I’ve seen the cheesiness and untruthfulness of over-restoration. It destroys a part of the history of the place by modernising it, and it can ruin the ambience and sacredness of a place – especially when you consider that it is being restored to someone’s idea of what it might have looked like in its day. Personally I err on the side of not restoring monuments, but doing enough work to halt the process of decay. However, this might be considered by some as a romantic view of life when considering that most of these sites are sacred or highly interesting, leading to both religious and tourist pilgrimages, which then leads to having to make sites safe etc. So where do you draw the line?

From Ta Prohm we drove to Kolab Angkor Restaurant for lunch, which is on the border of the Angkor Wat moat. I had a coconut juice, while Andrew enjoyed a much needed cold beer. We were too hot to be hungry, but it was a good decision to share a squid and cashew nut salad. It gave me the energy for an afternoon of more templing.

Alex from our group hadn't had a great morning and had already been sick twice at Angkor Wat, and the hot afternoon took a further toll on her. Our next temple was Banteay Srei, which was out in the country and about 30kms/40 minutes away from the rest of the temples. It wasn't a great drive for Alex.

Even though we were tired, the highlight of the day for me was Banteay Srei – not just for the exquisite carvings for which it is famous, but for the drive there too (apart from Alex being sick). Most of the villages near the main temples were very touristy with market stalls and restaurants, but the villages on the way to Banteay Srei were full of kids playing in the street, people having an afternoon nap, shops selling local supplies, houses on stilts and water buffalo grazing in brown dusty rice paddies. Banteay Srei was dedicated to Shiva, and the sandstone temple buildings are just beautiful. I loved the fine intricate carvings on red and pink stone that have defied time; the narrow hallways that must have been claustrophobic when all four walls and the roof were still intact; and the small square courtyards from which the three central towers glow red in the sun. It's a small temple in comparison to the others in the area, but the afternoon sun made long shadows of everything and gave it a mythical quality that I didn't sense in the bigger temples. The heat and dust also contributed to everything feeling hazy and slightly unreal. I kept reminding myself that the carvings that were so stunning in their detail were done in the 10th century!

We walked back to our minibus at about 4pm and found that it had broken down, and Alex who had stayed with the bus was sicker than before. We bought green mango and pineapple in little plastic bags to sustain us and kill time while the bus driver tried to fix the battery problem. We hung around until 5:30pm when a replacement minibus arrived, and by then we were all a tired and grumpy mess.

The heat was brutal on that first day, and most of us looked like we had heat exhaustion. Andrew was really struggling, and was only getting by with the help of the cold and flu tablets, and I had been carrying around a headache for most of the day too – but that’s the price of temple hopping when there is so much to see. Regardless of what season or time of day, clambering around the temples and navigating the crowds is hot and challenging work. Not to mention the total sensory overload!

There were children trying to sell stuff everywhere. The children are well versed in trying to sell pocket sized souvenirs, copied travel guides, strings of wooden beads and scarves. They flocked outside each tourist bus pleading, ‘Please madam you buy, one dollaaar’. We’re not buying anything from children, intentionally (check out Childsafe International’s website for our reasons for this). It is so so very sad.

We had a quiet night as we had a very early start the next day. Our only outing was to pick up our laundry and some dinner from the Apsara Bakery. The bread and pastries were lovely, but there was one outstanding item – a pandan and coconut pastry! I will definitely be on the lookout for that one again. Andrew’s appetite was still virtually nonexistent, so I had to use high level negotiation skills to get him to eat anything. However, I was impressed that it was day four of ‘the f-ing flu’ and Andrew hadn’t sat out any activities yet.

When the alarm went off at 4am, it was still dark outside but thankfully it wasn’t cold. This was the morning we were going out to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The group gathered at the bus, and a quick head count revealed that Hannah had also succumbed to Alex's illness. The bug looked destined to make its way around the group.

We drove to the entrance of the park, and after a ticket check (thank god Thyda had reminded us about our tickets before we left the hotel), we were on our way. Ten minutes later, torches in hand, we were walking along the giant sandstone causeway that stretches over the imposing, once crocodile-filled moat to the main entrance of Angkor Wat.

Once inside the west gate, our group continued along the path towards the inner wall that surrounds the temple. We sat on the front steps of the library on the right side of the causeway, with a reflective pool between us and the temple. We waited patiently as the gradual change from virtual darkness to light began. More and more tourists stumbled in, but they went to the library on the left, as it had a bigger reflection pool. Over the next hour the sky changed from black to a deep violet, and then into blue with teasings of very light yellows and pinks. And that was it. A heavy cloud obscured the sunrise at the last minute. Despite this disappointment, there was a serenity and peacefulness about this setting that I found beautiful. We waited until 7:10am and then wandered off to have breakfast. We settled into a restaurant in front of the monastery near the north gate of Angkor Wat and had the packed breakfast our hotel had sent us. A toasted sandwich with omelette (which tasted much better than it looked), a croissant and bananas were all very welcome.

We then drove off to our next stop – Angkor Thom. I couldn't help but smile when I saw the gates to the Angkor Thom complex again. It includes the Bayon Temple with its gothic towers, each decorated with four smiling Buddha faces. The last time I visited the temples, this one was my favourite, but this time I would have to say it was my least favourite! It was a Saturday and the crowds had quadrupled since the day before. As we made our way in through the south gate, we had to compete with loudly beeping tour buses and a very, very busy walkway crammed shoulder to shoulder with tourists. By the time we got to the Bayon Temple, it was so crowded we had to wait a few minutes at each doorway to let streams of people in and out. It got tiring very quickly.

The stone steps to reach the second level were tall and narrow, and it would have been worth the effort to walk amongst the towers with the Buddha faces at eye level. Unfortunately, the upper level was even more crowded, and it really was worse than a circus up there. We walked around the circuit once, took a few photos and then rushed back downstairs where there were no tourists screaming inches from my ears, and no pushy tourist elbows inches from my ribs.

People call the Bayon Temple Buddha faces enigmatic, but to be honest I’m slightly creeped out by them. Their deadpan stone smiles leave me feeling the last laugh is on us in some way. I had to tell myself to get a grip – they’ve stood there for centuries and will most likely be still flashing their stone smiles for another few centuries to come. But I still don't trust them. In my defence, I have watched far too many Dr Who episodes for my own good.

We then walked to Ba Puon Temple, but not surprisingly, our whole group took one look at the crowds and decided that we would just admire it from afar. I have since regretted this decision, as the photos we took from our uncrowded vantage point are quite beautiful, and it doesn’t look THAT crowded. However, I think the simple answer is that we’d just had enough.

We then walked to the Elephant Terrace and strolled by its stone walls to admire the carved elephants, now pink with age and skinnier with erosion. It was easy to see that this would have once been a very beautiful terrace from which parades were viewed.

By now the heat and stickiness of an airless day were starting to hit, and even though it was relatively early, we were really ready for a break from temples. Back at the hotel we showered, napped and settled into writing notes until my massage date with Kim at 3:30pm. We went to a massage place Kim had tried the night before, but it was a little disappointing when we realised that the two girls massaging us were more interested in us than in the massage! There was no tip, especially after we realised that the hour massage only went for 45 minutes.

After two days of the bustling grandeur of ancient Angkor temples, we thought the perfect antidote was to meet for happy hour drinkies at the Siem Reap FCC. We met Kim and Lee at 5pm on the dot, and Kim and I began working our way through the cocktail list, starting with the FCC Feast cocktail. It was a letdown (I've had toothpaste that tasted better). However, the Freezing Angel and the Irish Brownie were much nicer. By now Kim and I were fairly happy, and Andrew and Lee were in fair shape too. Andrew is starting to settle into gin and tonics, and the FCC is a great place to do it in!

We caught a remork to the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant (a recommendation from Thyda) and had a feast of grilled chicken, fresh spring rolls with teuk trey (fish sauce with crushed peanuts), and a shrimp and long bean salad. The food was really delicious, but poor Andrew still didn't have his appetite back. We wrapped up the night and headed to the hotel, and were reminded along the way that it was Australia Day. We were just off Pub Street, and there were shorty-short wearing girls dancing on the street draped in the Australian flag. Yep, the bogans have landed here too. Regardless of being put in a position of even more national ridicule by our South African and English friends, we had a lovely remork ride home. 😊

Well, it's been a very full three days! I loved visiting the temples, but just wish they had limits on the number of people they allowed in at one time. It would make the experience so much more civilised. My love for big bus tourists has suffered an even bigger blow than normal, but unfortunately I think we will be seeing more of this kind if tourism in the future, especially at iconic tourist destinations. I will end this post with one last thought on the Angkorian temples – what impact would it have on Cambodia if a fraction of the foreign money used to restore/over-restore the temples was instead used to ensure every Cambodian had access to clean water and sanitation?

Tomorrow we leave for a homestay in Kompong Thom – see you there people!

Postscript – For the better part of a whole day, Andrew thought Thyda was saying we were going to see ‘Uncle Tom’, when she was actually saying ‘Angkor Thom’. Luckily he didn’t ask why we were visiting her Uncle Tom! 😊


8th February 2013

Some provocative comments there! We as travellers/tourists cause so many of the problems as well as providing some income to solve them. The plastic water bottle disaster has been largely solved for us by buying an ultra violet wand and using it on all tap water. Magic! Like you we were in Angkor Wat some time ago, maybe nine years ago with two teenagers and the temples were busy but not crowded. Hate the idea of all those tour buses... I, unfortunately, did buy from some young girls. A scarf from every one, I think. Your questioning about school always brings out the pat answers but like not giving to beggars you are right in not buying from them. Thinking responsibly is one of our \'must dos\'. Loved your photos as always.
11th February 2013

Thanks Meryl! We had 100s of photos from the temples...the blog forced us to sort through them. I think if managed well, tourism could have been such a boost for Cambodia - but with most of the money going to overseas investors it's hard to see how it could be changed in the future...
9th February 2013

The crowds can really get you.
More than the sweltering heat, the lines, the crowds can really spoil it sometimes, though never totally. Hope you feel better as you go along. (Btw, i doubt I can use that river toilet too ) ;-)
11th February 2013

Re: The crowds can really get you
I agree Lili, especially crowds with no manners! I wish I had taken a photo of the toilet on the boat :)
20th February 2013

I was laughing out loud at the toilet description. The funniest bit is that so many people waited until the cafe only to find a hole with fish. This might be gross, but it reminds me of diving in some areas -- fish will eat anything. Like you guys commented, I found myself thinking many of the similar things that you thought. I'm also writing a blog that talks about the whole concept of restoration like Ren mentions, too. Thanks for the childsafe link, I will pass it forward as I found it very illuminating. Safe travels!
20th February 2013

The floating cafe toilet was hilarious; and speaking of gross...some people seemed to attract more fishies than others! The Angkor Holiday Hotel (where we stayed) is a childsafe hotel and I saw a few others in Siem Reap too. Of all the research we did before we travelled to Cambodia, childsafe's philosophies were the most aligned with our own thoughts on these things.

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