Siem Reap And The Angkor Wat

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After three decades of slumber, it’s well and truly back and one of the most popular destinations on the planet right now. The life-support system for the temples of Angkor, Cambodia’s eighth wonder of the world, Siem Reap was always destined for great things, but few people saw them coming this thick and this fast. It has reinvented itself as the epicentre of the new Cambodia, with more guesthouses and hotels than temples, world-class wining and dining and sumptuous spas.

-- Lonely Planet

After finishing up with my Stray tour of Laos, I had a dozen days left before continuing my journey to Australia, so I decided to cross over into Cambodia and check out the Angkor temples in Siem Reap before heading for Bangkok.

Don Det to Siem Reap

To that end, I bought the bus ticket from Don Det to Siem Reap through Stray, hoping for a relatively quick and painless five to six hour journey. It turned out to be everything but quick and painless. We started out with a boat ride from our guest house to the mainland where we were walked to and left at the bus station. There we filled out our entry and departure cards and paid $31 (not the $28 'official' entry fee) to the bus company touts. Next, we were taken to the border and walked over to the Cambodian side where we sat around and waited for over an hour to get our passports and instructions on what to do next.

Soon enough, we found out that there is no busses going directly to Siem Reap - something I expected, but was hoping that Stray actually knew what they were talking about and their was some unadvertised bus. Instead, we hopped onto a bus heading to Phnom Penh and after a seven hour ride changed to another bus just 70 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. Another four to five hours later, we arrived to Siem Reap, well past 1am. So much for the 5pm I were expecting...

Cambodia And Siem Reap

A couple things that I noticed right away on the ride to Siem Reap were that the roads in Cambodia are in much better shape than they are in Laos and that there is a lot more traffic. People here seem to have a bit more income so there are a lot of cars on the road, while in Laos it was mostly buses, trucks, and mopeds. Similar to Philippines, drivers here just love to lay on the horn at every opportunity, especially with the roads being so close to houses and hawker stands alongside.

Siem Reap itself seemed like a very westernized city around its old downtown and pub street intermixed with Asian attitudes and extreme touting. As I have gotten enough of temples in the last month of traveling, I have not visited any and instead just took a stroll along the river one day. With the bridges crossing the river, it reminded me of Chiang Mai. Unlike Chiang Mai, I thought it was quite dirty with lots of trash in the river and in need of some repairs to seemingly nice looking, but crocked sidewalks.

Angkor Temples Day 1 - The Big Loop

After catching our breath for a few days with the Irish guys and the Swedes I met on my Stray trip through Laos, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed out to the ruins. It was only $24 for four of us to hire the tuk-tuk for the entire day so we decided to start with smaller temples along the 'big loop'. The first stop was Ta Prohm famous for its gigantic trees growing on top of the ruins. Tomb Raider was filmed there so there were a bunch of people taking pictures with that particular tree on the wall. Grabbing lunch after Ta Prohm, we were given a menu with prices about twice as expensive as what they should be so we promptly got up to leave and just as promptly were given a 'better menu' - same one with all prices $2 less...

After lunch we got rained on at Banteay Kdei, but on the bright side, the rain scared off the tourists so after it stopped, we had the entire place almost exclusively to ourselves for about 20 minutes. Sras Srang pool near Banteay Kdei was not very exciting, but I thought it was interesting how the shores were covered with stone steps all around the lake - quite an impressive feat. Next was Pre Rup - a kind of cross over between a temple and a pyramid and my favorite of the entire complex. Similarly to East Mebon we visited next, the two are made up of smaller brown mud bricks instead of the large stones.

Ta Som was next and was not much different from Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei, just smaller. Neak Pean is actually just a stupa in the middle of a man-made lake in the middle of a swamp. If you are wondering why, I am there with you - it was probably the biggest disappointment of the visit. We finished the loop with Preah Khan - the largest complex after Angkor Wat. There we saw our first and last snake of the trip - a meter long, finger-thick beast that promptly retired into one of the ruins.

Angkor Temples Day 2 - Biking Around Angkor Thom

For the second day, I decided to save some money and grab one of the free bicycles at the guest house and pedal around Angkor Thom on my own. On the way, I stopped by Phnom Bakheng hill which, supposedly, has a nice view of Angkor Wat and draws a lot of tourists in the evening. While the temple at the top of the hill was pretty nice, the view was anticlimactic. The trees covered most of it and even through 14x zoom of my camera I could barely see the general outline of Angkor Wat. I also visited small pyramid-like Baksei Chamkrong and deserted Prasat Bei before entering Angkor Thom.

Inside, Bayon was very interesting - a multi-level palace built out of large stones with most roofs and levels still intact - an impressive feat. Baphuon was also quite a big structure with the west side altered at alter time to make it in the form of sleeping Buddha. I parked my bike and did a lot of walking around the small temples neglected by the tourists before heading out the east gate to check out Ta Keo - another pyramid-like temple, but, unlike others, it was made out of stones instead of bricks so it was quite hard to climb up, but very interesting. I finished the day with a quick visit to Prasat Kravan, which was really small. In total, I biked about 20 miles that day - quite and impressive feat for someone that does not bike.

Angkor Temples Day 3 - Angkor Wat

I saved the most famous of Angkor temples for the last day of my three day pass. I was hoping to bike out there early in the morning to see the sunrise at the east gate, but that did not work out very well. Instead, I got there around 9am when it was already full of people so it became quite a challenge to get a few pictures where people would not outnumber the stones. Being the most touristy, it is also the most well kept/restored of the temples, with ongoing restaurations going on in couple of places. It was quite big and grandiose with multiple levels and terraces leading up to the gallery at the top with limited access. That was it for my Cambodian experience. With only a few days left to spend, Bangkok is next. I hear southern Cambodia and the beaches are really nice so I am pretty sure I will come back at some point to check those out, probably as part of a bigger trip through Vietnam and Thailand's eastern islands.

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