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Published: July 29th 2019
Wow - there it is!
Who goes to Thailand for vacation and interrupt it by going to Cambodia? For as long as I can remember I have had the image of the sun rising over Angkor Wat
burned into my mind. What an incredible mythical place this must be. Thank you National Geographic for all the years of teasing. I convinced Nikkie to do it as a side-trip (it did not take too much convincing).
It was about an hour flight (it may have been a little bit longer) and we made it to SIEM REAP fairly late at night. I got visas ahead of time (they are also available at the point of entrance, but that was a massive line so I would recommend getting it ahead of time). Renting a car in Cambodia is impossible and by impossible I mean literally impossible. I looked everywhere and could not find a place to rent a car. I also read in places that it was not legally possible to rent a car (maybe things have changed). So, at the airport we were asked where we were going, stated our destination, were asked for $15, stuffed into a Mercedes SUV and off we went into the night. This
Our kind of place
was right as we switched to T-Mobile so we had unlimited international data. I started following the route on google maps and we were going in a complete different direction than what was shown on the map. Nikkie and I just looked at each other with concerned faces - "is this where we pushed our luck too far and were in the process of getting kidnapped?" At some point I even asked the guy where we are going because this does not seem like the right way to which he responded "don't worry sir, I will get you there". And then slowly we started bending around and before we knew it we were in front of the hotel. Over the next couple days we could kind of see why he took this route due to poor road conditions and traffic-jams on the main road.
I booked a room for a couple nights at the PAVILLON D'ORIENT BOUTIQUE HOTEL
. It was very appealing because in the description it said you also get a tuk-tuk driver included in the price. Yeah right!? They helped us with our bags and got us into our room. Our eyes were closed pretty quickly because the next day
was going to be our big day and we had to get up early (we also fell asleep pretty quickly because we were up at 5 in the morning and started our day in Ayutthaya, Thailand that day). That was our plans until the rains came. And did the rains come. I got up probably ten times that night to check if it had stopped raining. The next morning we woke up and it was still coming down with no end in sight. The breakfast was incredible as we were finally able to take in our surroundings in daylight. The gardens were lush with a gorgeous pool and we were sitting on a little patio while feasting on juices, yogurt in a little jar, croissants, fresh fruit cut into cute little shapes, eggs and sausage accompanied with great service.
We figured since it was raining we probably should try exploring the city so we asked if our tuk-tuk driver could come get us (he was there 15 minutes later) and off we went (yeah they were not joking - we had a free tuk-tuk driver) - how awesome is this. The streets and the scenery was straight third-world and
You think this pole can handle one more connection?
right up our alley. A paved main road with hundreds of little side roads painted red from the rain mixing with the red dirt roads. It was a deep-deep red. Everywhere you looked there were people on bikes - 3,4,5 or more people on one bike. Bikes dominate these streets. Powerlines being tapped with what looked like hundreds of lines running from an outlet. Fruits, veggies and all other things being sold on the side of the streets. A bustling/hustling world of people trying to get from point a to point b through pretty congested traffic. It was pretty clear this was a city trying to come to grips with and deal with tourist overload and trying to figure out how to accommodate it all and make it work.
We finally made it to the ANGKOR NATIONAL MUSEUM
and after what was a fairly steep entrance fee we were off into the hallways. By the way, the tuk-tuk driver just found a tree and said he'll be here when we were done. A pretty nice little museum built mainly around the local ruins, but I'd have to say they did a pretty good job explaining the history of the area. The
Pavillon D'Orient Boutique Hotel
Beautiful and delicious breakfast
greatest part to us of these new countries (new countries to us) is that we generally have no clue about the history so even reading about and understanding the Khmer empire was pretty fascinating.
Our tuk-tuk driver was right outside waiting when we were done. The hardest part always is finding a place to eat. Generally we have found asking the locals does not help because they just point you to the most touristy restaurant they can think of. We so badly want them to tell us where the true local places are, but most of the time we end up at some tourist trap because 1) they don't really think we want to go to the local place (maybe they think we can't handle it) 2) they have some connection where they get paid off for every customer they bring or 3) the true local places generally tend to be rundown so they want to put forth their best foot and send you to the nice looking place. Well unfortunately this was no exception. We were taken to the Panha Khmer restaurant. Yes, very Cambodian style food, but also very clearly a tourist destination. Lunch was fine. Nikkie
The masses gather for sunrise over Angkor Wat
had the fried rice noodles w/ chicken. I had a stir-fried local fish w/ Khmer curry sauce, shallot and lime leaves dressing (it was pretty cool since they presented it in the form of a fish made from cucumbers and red peppers). I also had the sour fish soup with coconut milk, melon, pineapple, Khmer spices, and red chili as a sort of starter which was delicious.
After this it was back to the SPA @ PAVILLON D'ORIENT. We figured it was still pouring and walking around in this wet weather just can't be nice so why not just get a couple's massage. The massage was nothing special but at about $15 a pop for 45 minutes I am not going to complain. It was around 5 o'clock and we were still trapped in our room with the rain pouring down. We looked at each other and said "screw it" - we were here to see stuff so rain or no rain we are going for it. Our tuk-tuk driver was there 10 minutes later and off we were to ANGKOR CITY
. The excitement was building - I was pretty much like a kid the night before Christmas. The entrance
Luckily Nikkie and I split up so we got a couple different angles
fee was not cheap (just supporting the local economy). It was pouring all around us and it was still quite a drive to Angkor Wat
. We rounded the MOAT SURROUNDING ANGKOR WAT. At first you don't know it is right there. All of a sudden the driver stops and tells us we are here. We looked around in bewilderment - where is it? Did he not understand us? He pointed straight-ahead and told us the all too familiar phrase - "me waiting here when you come back". Apprehensively we approached the GATEWAY AT ANGKOR WAT. Still not sure where we were going. We passed through a "little" building made with the all too familiar multicolored blackish/ darkish sandstone. It was still pouring down and visibility was not much. I was trying to protect the camera any way possible. We passed through and there it was. The rain definitely put a damper on that first experience but we slowly made our way over while trying to take it all in - it's a pretty long walk and gives you plenty of time to walk mouth wide-open trying to fathom what you are seeing. For me this was a pretty surreal experience. I've
Because one is not enough
said this so many times in my life but one of those things I never actually thought I would ever see. We walked around inside. The rain was not fun, but it also meant we pretty much had the place to ourselves since no one else was there. Unfortunately, we were rounded up shortly after we got there since it was closing for the day. We slowly made our way back trying to take in as much as possible. Our tuk-tuk driver was there and took us back to the hotel. We had a quick meal and called it a night because the next day was going to be a long day potentially if the weather played along.
We were up by 5 the next morning and by 5:30 we were on our way again - this tuk-tuk driver was earning his keep. We were not the first one's there, but we were there by open. Today was a big day EXPLORING THE TEMPLES OF ANGKOR and we had to get in as much as possible. At one time considered the place with the biggest concentration of the world population (we are obviously talking hundreds of years back) these
Last one for good measure in case you did not see the first couple
complexes were built over hundreds of years between the 900's and 1200's. After many wars, bloody battles, take-overs, and slaughtering of people the complexes feel into obscurity and nature slowly took over what belonged to it. Locals still knew of the place but I guess it disappeared off the world map and the rest of the world really did not know about this marvel until it was discovered again in the late nineteenth century. From then on it was slowly cleared and restored to what we have today.
The iconic Angkor Wat picture is sunrise with the reflection of the temple in either one of the little lakes/ ponds in front. We battled for position as everyone and their mother had a tripod or camera out. Nikkie found a spot and I kind of wandered around looking for a good spot. And then the light came and it got lighter and lighter and the reflection became clearer and clearer and ... we both just had to stand there and admire an absolute spectacle that would be and is very hard to explain in words. A top 3 moment for me in all our travels (to date). The sun came
out for the first time in 2 days and we were able to see Angkor Wat in all its glory. We sort of followed the same little route we did the previous night. The BASS RELIEFS and CARVINGS at ANGKOR WAT is something that is hard to fathom. I'd like to say miles and miles (that would be an exaggeration I think), but the entire outer wall of the complex (keep in mind this is one of the biggest religious sites in the world) is covered with bass reliefs and carvings. And I am not talking about a little picture here and a little picture there. This is floor to ceiling and continuous telling story after story. Who did this (well we know this answer but standing there just naturally leads to this question when trying to take in this craziness)? How did they do this (we also know this, but hard to try and understand how they actually accomplished this)? An incredible feat of artwork that just blows the mind. And I will say considering the hundreds and hundreds of people that was present for sunrise it was a pleasant surprise to feel like we were the only people
Hard to believe there is not a person in sight considering the commotion at sunrise
there while slowly walking and admiring the artwork (probably an indication how massive this place is as people were in other parts of the complex or maybe most of them took off for other sites). We kept wandering trying to take in as much as we could. Up and down stairs. Around pillars and through windows admiring sculptures and structures from near and afar. Finding SCULPTURES and STATUES in non-descript corners. Walking over stones polished to a shine by millions and millions of weary-feet. So much to see and so little time. We had many other temples to cover but there was one last thing to do and that was walking up for the views from the central TOWER. Unfortunately we were way to early and it was not to open for several hours so we had to pass. To be honest that looked like a pretty steep climb and it was already well into the 90's with probably close to 100% humidity.
We slowly made our way back to the entrance taking the "back-ways" and getting our last glimpses of Angkor Wat. Our trusted tuk-tuk driver was there waiting for us and so it was on to the
Windows and views
next complex. Angkor Wat is the best known of the complexes. ANGKOR THOM
is the biggest with several temples/ complexes located within its walls. We got goose-bumps driving through the entrance-gate. One of the coolest structures we have seen and brought back memories of the library of Celsus at Ephesus. First-up was ANGKOR THOM for the BAYON TEMPLE
. This is the famous temple for FACE CARVINGS. A smaller temple that you can really approach from any side, but there are only a couple ways to the top. At first the faces are not all that visible, but as you get closer you soon realize the magnitude and grandeur of these CARVINGS. Faces that stand taller than the tallest human beings and upon closer inspection seems like they were put together with several pieces of rock which makes this even more remarkable. There were local girls wearing the local garments and makeup just sitting around in some of the rooms of the temple - a fairly unique picture opportunity.
The complex itself is actually really big (bigger than Angkor Wat) and there are some directions, but not the greatest. We got some directions which we followed as we understood them. We did
My happy place
reach the Baphuon
which is a pretty cool structure. Took a couple ladders to climb up and some steep steps but we made it to the top with some really nice views of the surrounding tree tops. At the top level there is also these "window-frame" like stone structures which we had fun with taking some baby-bump pictures (yes our first little one is on the way and my wife is climbing over structures in the Cambodian jungle - God bless her heart).
After making our way down the "maze-fun" started. There were a couple other structures to visit and we started on what we once again thought was the right way but soon gave up just because of time. We knew the general direction for the way back so we started heading that way. And out of nowhere we ended up right where we needed to be - the TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS
and the TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING
. Incredible structures that defies any logic when it comes to how these could possibly have been carved - I would say ANGKOR THOM FOR CARVINGS is a must.
We did not spend much time here because we still had one last stop left -
Angkor WatTA PROHM TEMPLE COMPLEX
The inner sanctum
. Our driver obliged and soon we were there. This was the first time we saw kids hanging around begging and just being all over us. Luckily it was fairly short-lived. Once we made it past the entrance we were left in relative peace to explore. This is the temple complex known for TREES GROWING OVER TEMPLES. You walk around and you see massive trees growing around buildings. Massive trees growing up along the side of buildings. Massive trees growing through buildings. Buildings falling apart and trees growing from the rubble and through the non-existing roof. Massive trees growing on top of buildings. Just nature taking back what belongs to it. This is the site famous for some Tomb Raider scenes. The EMPTY DOORWAY GROWN WITH TREES is a famous scene from the movie - it is almost impossible to get a picture in front of this tree as the line is really long and some tourists just don't know the concept of waiting their turn. Some of them also take their sweet time taking way too many pictures, but over the years I have become much more tolerant of people taking their time and many pictures because just like
us they have probably traveled a long way, they have looked forward to this for a long time (if not a life time) and this is more than likely the only time they will see this. We explored for a good hour or so. It is not the biggest of temples but the scenes are mind-boggling. Pictures from all angles is possible - you just have to find it and that is party of the fun getting the creative juices flowing. This is a truly unique place.
Well our visit was done. You want to hear the crazy part - it was only 11 in the morning. We made our way back to the hotel day-dreaming about what we just experienced. Wow. Never ever would I have thought we would see this in real life. What an incredible experience. We got back to the hotel, had a quick breakfast, packed, and were on our way to the RAFFLES GRAND HOTEL D'ANGKOR
. The Raffles franchise is the creme-de-la-creme of hotels. I happen to get a really good price for the night (only way we would stay here). And so here we show up at this masterpiece of a hotel in a tuk-tuk loaded
You just have to keep looking for the right angles
with luggage. Only us. It was only noon and our room was not ready yet so we got to sit down on a patio overlooking the pool and got a couple refreshing drinks on the house served in some pretty neat looking elephant mugs. We were in our room soon and 5 minutes later we were down at the pool enjoying the mid-day sun with some snacks and some drinks.
Well if you know us you know the pool and lounging around is not really our thing. Most normal people would have called it a day after that exhausting morning. I did have one crazy thing in mind, but I really did not know if it was wise. SPEAN PRAPTOS/ KAMPONG KDEI
was my destination. A very old bridge about an hour from Siem Reap. Again bless my wife's heart for tagging along and being game for all these adventures. The hotel wanted to charge us an arm and a leg for their taxi. We ended up getting a taxi for $60. And so the drive started. A two-lane road with a local in the front driving and us in the back as he is flying through traffic. In and out of
Views of the Bayon Temple
traffic he weaved trying to drive as fast as possible while cracking jokes in his somewhat passable English. I feel like every couple minutes he tried to crack a joke. We just nervously sat in the back laughing at the jokes we got and fake-laughing at the ones we did not get or did not understand (some of them were funny). We asked him a lot about the country and the area and he was very happy talking about his motherland. We were surrounded by rice patties, flat landscapes, a setting sun and little wooden houses zipping by us. We were definitely in our happy place being off the beaten path.
Roughly an hour later we got there. Our driver dropped us off and said "I'll be right back" and before we could say "boo" he was gone. This was one of those "knot-in-your-stomach" moments. Here we were in the "middle-of-nowhere" Cambodia standing in a red dirt road. The locals cycled or walked by looking at us very suspiciously. We were standing there with a wallet, a camera-bag, the clothes on our back and no driver. Oh well. We walked down the embankment and got some good views of
Climbing the steps to the temple
this gorgeous bridge. Constructed in the 12th century and one of the few Khmer bridges still standing. We got our pictures of this beautiful bridge surrounded by the setting-sun. We climbed back up the embankment and walked to the other side. The stares continued and all we could really do was smile and nervously talk about how we will talk about this moment for the rest of our lives. The carvings on the bridge were incredible. Both sides of the bridge is guarded by these beautiful cobra-like statues. And 20 minutes later here we were still with no driver. He finally showed up and you could probably see the relieve on both of us without us really saying anything. The drive back was all of the same - in and out of traffic with some nerve-wracking moments. He finally dropped us off in the center of town. A really cool experience.
One of the biggest surprises to us was how widely accepted the US dollar was. As a matter of fact, it was pretty hard to take out Cambodian Riel at the bank, but I finally managed to get some. Surprise-surprise the driver only wanted US dollars. Crazy. Luckily,
The faces of Bayon!
I had some US dollars so we settled with him and went on our way. Also as a matter of just general caution in especially these developing countries - any note/currency you get that is really used and worn will generally not be accepted as payment. So be very careful when getting used currency as change because you might not be able to use it later on (you can always take it to the bank however and exchange it). The center of town was definitely very touristy and much much different than the rest of Siem Reap. We found a restaurant and had a pretty good local meal of amok fish in a coconut w/ carrots, potatoes and rice.
The rest of the night was spent walking the little stalls and shops selling cheap touristy stuff while sipping on some street-made smoothies. Eventually we headed back to the hotel for a well-deserved rest after a looonnnngggg day. The events of the next morning will forever be remembered in this household. We were staying at a Raffles hotel. Their breakfast is legendary. My wife's favorite meal of the day is breakfast. She will give up or sacrifice a lot for
As with all things it is incredible to see these in person
a good breakfast. Can't tell you why but somehow this just did not click with me that day. I love eating the local food at little local restaurants. I wanted to do local breakfast with all my might. Yes, this was a pretty expensive trip and at $55 a pop (I believe that was the price) breakfast at Raffles was not a cheap option. So we took a tuk-tuk into town and found a restaurant. We had a couple lattes, waffle with fruits baked into it, caramelized bananas, peach ice cream (really good) and toast w/ avocados, goat cheese and tomatoes. The breakfast was actually pretty good. Nikkie was very quiet and did not say much. It was either on the way back or as we were packing our bags at the hotel that she just let loose and ripped me a new one on how all night long last night she was looking forward to breakfast at Raffles. In my defense she never once said that she was dying for breakfast at Raffles. In her defense this is something I should have known. This is something I really should have known. To add insult to injury the restaurant did
The size of these are incredible
not accept credit cards or Cambodian riel (US dollars only so I had to run to the ATM as I used all our US dollars the previous night - more ATM fees). So till this day this is a pretty big joke/discussion point in our household on how I denied my wife eating at Raffles and how instead I opted for avocado toast.
We headed back to the airport talking about how much we packed into a couple days (and I think Nikkie still definitely brooding over the lost Raffles breakfast). What an incredible, incredible experience that we consider ourselves so lucky to have experienced. Good
- People are extremely friendly and helpful in Cambodia. This is really the case most places we go, but these guys go above and beyond. Bad
- there were lots of rain and we considered ourselves pretty lucky to have gotten a clear day for site-seeing
- it is fairly expensive in Cambodia compared to Thailand
- almost exclusively uses US dollars Advice
- when visiting these temples/ sites I would suggest taking a walk around the entire complex first to get a sense of the size and grandeur and
Truly an experience to be able to see these
then hit the insides
- we always give this advice but summer in Asia requires tons and tons of water drinking
And so, the end of an incredible journey fulfilling a dream that we always thought would just be a dream. Even though it required out of the way travel we were really glad we put this on the itinerary. We crossed-off six items including Angkor Wat, exploring the temples of Angkor, Angkor Thom, and Spean Praptos. So 322 down and 5,459 to go.
Til' next time from incredible Angkor Wat
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