Siem Reap and Angkor are Cambodia’s most popular attractions. This was going to a most extraordinary experience: The temple complex of Angkor.
In 2009 I spent a week in Laos and the next week in Cambodia. In a series of six articles I am offering transcripts of my travel diary, a lot of photos and several videos.
Monday 6.7.2009, Luang Prabang (Laos) – Siem Reap (Cambodia)
Leaving Luang Prabang
The morning plane from Vietnam Airlines transported me smoothly to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Passing through the new airport based on traditional architecture went smooth as well. The visa cost me 20 USD. I exchanged some dollars at the airport. 1 USD to 3500 riel showed up to be considerably lower than the average rate in town (1:4000). By the way, dollars is as much a going currency here as the local riel. Some places they give the change back in both currencies and all prices are given in dollars. I had read about this being the case in Laos as well, but there it is much more common to use the local currency, the kip.
Arriving in Siem Reap
Enough about that.
I bought a moto-ticket in a counter for two dollars. A moto is, along with a kind of tuk-tuk, the mode of transport here. It is about sitting on the back of a moped. It went all right, and of course the driver knew of a guest house in the centre.
I took the first, but not the best.
- ANGKOR VOYAGE GUEST HOUSE, close to the Old Market and all the bar and restaurant streets. 20 USD. Boring, but free internet which did not function when I tried it. OK location and staff.
I went for a little walk in the neighbourhood. Not particularly nice, but lively with tourists and a lot of local people. Sunny and warm. I lunched and sat down in a kind of stylish, modern bar with a smoothie and updated my diary with the events of the last few days. Heavy rainfall.
First impression of Angkor
I had agreed with the moto-guy from this morning to venture out to the Angkor area for the sunset. With the cloudy weather this afternoon it could go well, but hundreds of others also wanted to give it a try. Both tour groups and backpackers hiked up the temple hill. It is called Phnom Bakheng.
There was a great view towards Angkor Wat, which we actually passed by on the way out. The last bit involved a steep climb up narrow steps to the top of the temple. I met a Norwegian couple who were on a 9 months round the world ticket. Lovely for them. They had by the way bargained the tuk-tuk price more than me and I did the same on way back. He insisted on 15 USD for the day, but we settled on 12 in the end. Heavy rains all the way back.
I rounded the day off with a good dinner in Bar Street, a beer in an Irish pub and finally Mekong whisky in my room. I even saw a program about Vikings (!) on History Channel on TV. There was an amazing amount of TV-channels from all over Asia and even Europe. I have watched BBC World a bit, very few news actually, in quantity.
Tuesday 7.7.2009, Siem Reap and Angkor
It was to be a breathless and active day. After an ordinary south-east Asian breakfast with scrambled eggs / omelette and baguette I moved my bag over to a pension two houses down the road.
- ANGKOR ENCORE (great word-play). It is located in the Old Market area with a shining entrance, stylish in rain forest wood. Top reception. Nice and clean room. They make the beds every day. Kind of naked in the room. Swimming pool. 20 USD gives more value added than last night. Very nice staff.
A gigantic area of 80 square kilometres packed with temples. The Khmer people’s heydays were from 800 to 1400 AD, and every king built new temples. On top of this proud period for the Khmers, around 1100-1200 AD, there were a million inhabitants in the area. Angkor Wat alone has a moat 200 metres wide. Large reservoirs were built to secure the water supply, and booty from wars in other countries financed grand buildings with fantastic carvings in all the bricks.
This is the largest accumulation of religious monuments and buildings in the world. They are dedicated to Hindu gods, intermingled with some Buddhist decorations and used for Buddhist worshipping these days.
After other peoples eventually beat the Khmers it all collapsed and the jungle took over. The locals continually used and still use all temples for Buddhist worshipping, but it was the French who “discovered” Angkor and made the area known to the outside world.
Extensive clearing and restoration work has gone on for more than a century, and still continues. There is much to do, much is in ruin. But there is a lot still standing, stunning, witnessing of a mighty people at a time we in Norway went on Viking attacks to the West.
Angkor appears now, under its protection as a World Heritage Site, as one of the most important and premier destinations in the world. And now I will spend 2-3 days to get acquainted. Sightseeing generally consists of a “little” tour of 16 km day one and the “big” tour of 26 km day two.
I started with Angkor Wat. First I crossed the large moat before the first wall, then across an even longer stone bridge to the temple itself at 4×200 metres in a square shape and with large buildings situated in the centre. Everything in Angkor made of wood has disappeared. The dwellings of the gods, or temples, remain. A large number of rocks have fallen down into piles.
Angkor Wat is “already” well restored with endless reliefs along the long sides. Let me be short here. Look at the photos and videos instead.
After Angkor Wat I went on with my private tuk-tuk river (the same as yesterday) to the even bigger Angkor Thom area. First to Bayon with the stone faces, then Baphuon, the royal palace Phimeanakas before I via the Terrace of the Elephants found my driver and took a short drive over to Terrace of the Leper King, Preah Paliley (and Tep Pranam I believe). Facing the Terrace of the Elephants is the large parading field with Kleang straight across. I’m writing all these details to make it easier to comment on my photographic material when I return home, because here impressions are being melted together.
Bring enough batteries!
Suddenly my video camera battery went flat and I had to go the 20 km back to my hotel to charge it an hour. In the afternoon I went to Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm. The latter is known by many for a scene from the film Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. It is here that the authorities have decided to give up the battle against the giant trees and it gives magnificent effects as the roots grows in between the stones. It is fantastic to walk around in this!
The sunset at Pre Rup rounded off day 1 in Angkor. The reddish rock gave a lovely glow.
And then over to my impressions. Read on!
Some people rent bicycles to go out here. It may give them a nice experience along the way, but it is easily 15 km just to come one way, and then there are a few kilometres between the temples in this gigantic complex. Laid-back in a tuk-tuk is more my way. I’m sweating more than enough as it is.
Good to know
Outside the temples there are stalls with T-shirts and other textiles, Buddha-figures, paintings and eateries. Tuk-tuk drivers get food at half price. But they all smile easily and are glad to have their photos taken with a “thank you” to the photographer afterwards.
Many of the temples have apparently been overgrown, some still have trees with enormous roots in between the stones, but otherwise the bush has been cleared. The temples are kept well along with sign-posted gravel paths up to and into the temples. Different stone types have been used and some have stood the test of time better than others, but many of the reliefs are in sandstone.
Back “home” I had a beer and a dip in the pool. In the evening I went for a walk in the Night Market with a lot of other tourists. I dined in the city centre. Plenty of young men offer tuk-tuk rides, but I’m staying close by. I’m glad I don’t have to go on an expedition just to go out in town.
Wednesday 8.7.2009, Siem Reap and Angkor
After breakfast I started the day at Preah Khan Temple, then Neak Pean and Ta Som. My sightseeing tour brought me further to East Mebon and lunch. Bought a T-shirt. Rounded it all off at Banteay Srey several kilometres away.
I have had quite enough of temples now. Luckily they are so different. Watch the films and pictures. I hope I’m able to hold them apart when I return home. I suppose I’ll have to consult photos on the internet for help. This evening I dropped by the Night Market and bought a hammock. I was kind of inspired by the locals who sleep in them under their houses on pillars. My hammock was not quite similar, but I look forward to testing it when I return home.
Also this evening I dined in the restaurant area, but dropped into several places both before and after for a coffee, shake or similar. It is quite interesting to see life unfold, with all its sounds and visual impressions.
Thursday 9.7.2009, Siem Reap
My driver took me to three places outside the central Angkor area. I went into one temple and looked at the others from the road. Enough is enough.
Then we took the long way out to Chong Kneas floating village, a weird place. In a bay or river at the large Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia many Vietnamese have found a home on their house boats. Complete with hair-dressers, churches, mosque and school. Many of them eventually move ashore. Strange.
Pool and sunbathing in town again. I paid my driver 60 USD for these days. More than expected.
I talked to a waitress in a bar. Oh my god how naïve some girls are about finding a boyfriend and move to a Western country. They know very little of this world. She tells me that between 10 and 12 in the night the street boys and western males come out and disappear into an empty school building right here in the middle of Siem Reap. It is tragic if Cambodia is turning into what Thailand once was and still is. Fortunately my guest house has taken a stand, informing us guests that “Sex Tourist Are Not Welcome”.
This trip to Laos and Cambodia is described in a series of articles.
- Laos (1) – Vientiane: This year’s vacation is in the form of an egotrip to the Far East, more precisely Laos and Cambodia. I was in this part of the world in 1985, but these two countries were at the time practically sealed off to foreigners. The backpackers are now pouring in, groups are following suit – and I want to see the countries before they turn into another Thailand.
- (2) – Vang Vieng: What’s wrong? Entering a backpacker’s haven on my own, twenty years older then the rest and what more?
- (3) – Luang Prabang: Ahhh! This is more like me. A fascinating landscape and a beautiful city full of temples, high on the World Heritage List in my opinion.
- Cambodia (1) – Siem Reap & Angkor: This was going to a most extraordinary experience: The temple complex of Angkor.
- NEXT CHAPTER: (2) – Phnom Penh: What a capital, what a past and (hopefully) what a future!
- (3) – Sihanoukville: Trying to get a tan in the rainy season. Here is the story of my last few days in Cambodia.
There is a YouTube playlist of Cambodia with eight videos, including the four in the text above.
I used these guidebooks in Cambodia (click to enlarge). The first is familiar to most readers, the second I made myself from various web-sources, Travelfish in particular.
I have a large collection of pictures from Angkor, Siem Reap and Chong Kneas. Browse all of them here.