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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 13.4691, 104.041
One of the reasons Laila and I wanted to go to Cambodia was to visit Angkor Wat. We traveled to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh by the Sorya Bus Company, something I would not recommend to anybody. (Take the Mekong Bus Co. instead.) The supposed 6 hour trip ended up taking almost 8 hours as the bus kept stopping to pick up people or to let them off, or, in one memorable incident, to let the passengers out into a field to relieve themselves. The men went first, of course, and then the Khmer women followed, hiding behind bushes as best as they could. Not one of the western women tried this; we all waited until the bus stopped at a horrible place that only had "athletic" toilets, basically, holes in the ground, or as Laila says they call them in China, "squat pots." But I digress.
Siem Reap is a lovely town. I wish we could have spent more time there. There is a beautiful river that runs through Siem Reap; we walked on the crooked sidewalks beside the river, meandering through this pretty city. Our hotel was the Sweet Dreams Guesthouse, a lovely place tucked back behind side streets off side streets, very quiet, comfortable, inexpensive, and run by a friendly family. One of the relatives asked us when we were going to Angkor Wat; he would take us there in his tuk-tuk from sunrise to sunset, waiting for us while we explored as many temples as we wanted, all for $15. We had read that the going rate for this service was between $12-15, so we hired him for one day. He would even wake us in the morning so we would be in time for sunrise. Everything was taken care of.
Dawn occurs before 6AM in this northwestern part of Cambodia. Our driver woke us at 4:30AM; even though Angkor Wat is only a few miles away from where we were staying in Siem Reap, we wanted to have plenty of time, and not miss the sunrise. Riding in a tuk-tuk in the early morning dark is quite chilly; I was glad I had brought along two scarves to wrap up in, but the wind was still cool. Everyone has to stop at the ticket area, buses, cars, bicycles, tuk-tuks, and every individual has to go in to get his/her picture taken for his/her very personal ticket. It is a good system, and seemed to work smoothly, even with all the crowds. Everyone gets back in their vehicles again after buying tickets for the short ride left before entering Angkor Wat.
Neither of us had thought to bring a flashlight, but the moon was full, so when our driver let us off, indicating where he would be parked once we were through exploring this part of Angkor Wat, we could just see where to walk, but had to follow other peoples' flashlights at some of the steps. The moon was full behind us, the sky was beginning to lighten in front of us, flashbulbs were going off all around us; it was a magical setting seeing the temples' outlines in the full, and then half-dark. We walked with the crowd, finding the best spot to see sunrise by listening to vendors selling fresh hot coffee, hoping their helpful information might spur you on to buying from them.
It soon became apparent to me that the day was becoming increasingly cloudy, that we would not see sunrise at Angkor Wat, but most of the crowd did not give up (or face reality on this day), and kept standing or sitting, facing east, cameras at the ready. It took quite awhile for the crowd to disperse, and begin exploring the temples at Angkor Wat. We were disappointed, but not terribly so, as the experience of just being there, and being a part of it, was wonderful enough. So, now in full daylight, we continued on into the main temple.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire for 400 years, from 800AD to about 1200AD, and after the demise of the Khmer kingdom, it was abandoned in 1431. There are many temples at Angkor Wat; it is a huge complex of temples of varying sizes. The confusion for many is that the whole complex is called Angkor Wat, but this one temple area is also called Angkor Wat, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Many travel books say either to see it at sunrise, or later on in the day, when the light is best, to see all the incredible bas reliefs, statues, and carvings. We must have spent a couple hours wandering through this one complex, wondering if, indeed, our tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us.
He was. The next temple we drove to was Angkor Thom, where the battery in my camera died. All in all we explored eight or more temples, each one different, each one amazing. We were lucky that the day was not sunny, as the clouds kept the temperature lower than it would have been as all day we climbed up and down stone stairs, or walked along roads or dirt paths between temples built close to each other. At the last temple we walked up a hill to see sunset, although the sky was still cloudy, so we knew we wouldn't really see it. The view was beautiful; we could see in every direction, plus see Angkor Wat in the distance. Some visitors ride elephants up to this temple, but I felt the elephants were abused; they had no food or water, they were constantly hit with sticks to make them go faster, and they walked on hard roads all day long, carrying people from the north gate to the south gate. The elephants were not happy.
At some of the temples, vendors laid out their wares. Only in Angkor Wat did we experience aggressive sellers; I have not seen this anywhere else in Cambodia. At the exit of one of the temples several small children surrounded us, and would not leave even though we kept telling them we didn't want anything. I even pointed out to the oldest girl that many other people were coming that she could try to sell to, but she persevered in following us, even as we walked into the street to try to get away from her. This incident was the most unpleasant thing that happened all day.
Lunch happens just when it is needed, after several temples and about halfway through the day. There are many vendors selling food, and a long row of tables and chairs are waiting at the right spot, perfectly situated. You can either pay the prices they ask, or if you enjoy bargaining, as Laila does, you can get lunch for at least half-price. The food was good; the bathrooms nearby are very disgusting. And then you continue exploring other temples all afternoon.
By the time we were exhausted the day was over; we could not have fit another temple in. Many people buy tickets for three days, but both Laila and I had known that one day at Angkor Wat would be enough. We were templed-out. Our tuk-tuk driver took us back to the Sweet Dreams Guesthouse, and we certainly slept well that night.
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