Our journey began in the small South West Cambodian hamlet known as Otres Village. We said an emotional farewell to Maik who had really looked after us the past 4 days as an exceptional host during our stay. We got picked up in a minivan to take us to Sihnoukville for the departure time of 7pm. We were eagerly waiting to board the bus so that our 10 hour journey could just get on its way and so we could go to sleep. Anyone who has travelled in South East Asia, especially Cambodia knows that it’s never quite that simple! Shortly after arriving we were told that we would have to wait until 8pm before we could get a bus – fine, a one and a half hour wait, I can deal with that. Then, when the bus came and the driver opened up the luggage compartments there was leaking oil everywhere. Of course, the whole town got involved in trying to suss out the problem and get a solution underway. Children that were as young as four years old were given the job of going into the compartment and mopping up the aisle whilst the adults were busy fixing the leak and working the mechanics. All was good to go a further 1 hour later. Soon after the scheduled 9pm departure we were then told that we have to change bus because they couldn’t fix the oil leak. I could of told them that an hour ago. After lots of confusion and moving around we finally got on our bus at 10pm, 3 hours late. We then eventually left the bus stop. 45 minutes of driving later, on our new bus we stopped all of a sudden. Pulling back the curtains and squinting to see outside we realised…WE WERE BACK AT THE BUS STOP! Something was wrong with our new bus but they managed to fix it quickly this time and by 11pm, we were well and truly on our way to Siem Reap. Arriving at 6am in a new city is always disorientating but also rather exhilarating. We tiredly negotiated a reasonable tuk tuk fare to take us to our home stay in Northern Siem Reap. Zigzagging through the circuitous back alleyways we reached our home for the next four nights. We were staying at Community Homestay, a family run business by a lady called Ken. She had opened up her house to tourists 2 years ago and has made it into a spiritual home away from home. We prefer staying in people’s homes rather than hostels or hotels for many reasons. One being that when you stay in hostels/hotels you are usually surrounded by a sea of tourists and tour shops, which isn’t always an enjoyable thing. Staying in home stays you are usually in the thick of a traditional neighbourhood, surrounded by locals and their day to day living. After all, for me the whole point of spending a fortune travelling around the world was to experience peoples lives that are different to mine. Staying in a hostel full of Brits with Pizza on the menu does not appeal to me in the slightest. Another reason why staying at home stays is a morally good option is that you are contributing head on to that particular familys income. Hostels and hotels are usually run by larger businesses or one wealthy individual. A country like Cambodia with its difficult political and economic past needs income directly and supporting that by staying with local families is an educational and enjoyable way to achieve that. After enjoying a delicious Khmer breakfast of pork shoulder with noodle soup we were rejuvenated to begin exploring the town. What I love about Asian breakfasts is that in England if you eat a left over Chinese or Indian you are looked upon as an irresponsible scoundrel. Whereas with here you indulge in all of the pleasantries of rice and noddles without feeling any guilt! Today we decided to not explore the temples of Angkor Wat due to not sleeping the night before out of fear for feeling too tired to enjoy it.
Siem Reap has so much more to it than the temples of Angkor Wat. For those who are lucky enough to have enough time to explore the town itself, here is a clean list of 10 other activities that will keep you entertained.
- Pub street – Yep, you guessed it. Although I would describe it as ‘restaurants which facilitates outside drinking street’ (which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it) this is the perfect place to enjoy sinking as many 0.50c Angkor draught beers as you can!
- Spas – The grounds of Angkor are big and your feet need to be rewarded for taking you on such a profound journey. You can either opt for the more traditional foot rub around the endless spa parlours in the town centre or if you’re anti-conformist why not go for something a bit more daring;
- Music events – When I visited Siem Reap it happened to be World Music Day. Hard Rock Cafe put on an awesome free event showcasing bands from around the world. From Jesus and the Russian Mafia providing the town with a bit of funk to a Khmer Reggae and Ska band there will always be some form of music event whilst your in the town, especially in High Season.
- Circus – Phare the Cambodian circus is a traditional Khmer performance of stunts, acts and bravery. Tickets cost between $18-$25.
- Handicrafts – there are an unlimited amount of handicraft shops where you can not only buy unique gifts but also get the opportunity to make them for a fixed price.
- Markets – Siem Reap boasts 6 markets; central, night, Psar Chaa (old), farmers, made in Cambodia and Art Market. Whatever you want you WILL find it at one of these 6 markets. Me and Georgia had a very successful shopping trip buying new shoes and souvenirs (which were definitely needed)
- Kings Road – Across the river from Central Market is Kings Road, a vibrant food and bar village which encompasses a wide range of restaurants that offers Khmer and Western food at good prices usually accompanied with live music from 6pm.
- Wat Preah Prom Rath – Had enough of temples? If you’re able to squeeze one more in try and go to a temple which is active today. Impressive architecture and dynamic colours makes for a energetic set of pictures.
- Royal Gardens – The Royal Gardens is a good escape route from the city centre with peaceful walkways to take a stroll though and relaxing spots to sit and read a book.
- Angkor National Museum – I didn’t go to the Angkor Museum but the reviews look really good. The only thing that put me off was the $12 entry free which I think is abit steep. If I come back to Siem Reap I will definitely check it out though.
Before I go into detailing the preferred route when touring Angkor Wat, it is worth mentioning that little over a week ago Khmer archeologists used laser technology called LIDAR to determine that ancient Khmer cities lay hidden beneath the vast maze of temples. Scientists think that they are between 900-1400 years old with there being multiple cities, some the size of New York City. They can map waterways, houses and separated gardens using the laser technology. The results have now initiated the thoughts that the Khmer empire was the largest on Earth at that moment in history.
So when you’re walking around the temples, just stop and think for a second that below you could be a whole undiscovered city. The question is, do we disrupt the Angkor Wat temples to create a portal to this mysterious metropolis or do we leave it where it belongs, below one of the true wonders of the world?
Angkor Wat; a 3 day exploration
The majority of tourists correctly decide that buying a 3 day pass to see the temples of Angkor Wat is the best way to maximise the money spent on the ticket. Like most people, visiting the smaller temples (if you can even describe them as small) first and leaving Angkor Wat until last is the ideal route to take. There are many temples that I did visit and many temples that I didn’t. However, the route I took was more than enough for me in every respect and I would recommend other travellers to the largest religious site in the world to follow suit.
Banteay Kdei – This contemporary Buddhist temple was built in the 12th to 13th century by Jayavarman VII.
Srah Srang – Opposite the E entrance of Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang (translated as ‘Royal Bath’) has retained its water for over nine centuries. Using a Bayon style of architecture it was built during the reign of Rajendravarman and later finished by Jayavarman VII.
Pre Rup – This Hindu temple was built by Jayavarman VII in 961AD making it one of the complexes oldest temples. It was the state temple of King Rajendravarmans powerful capital.
East Mebon – Another Hindu Temple, East Mebon is surrounded by the ginormous East Baray (a Baray is a large artificial reservoir). The reservoir of Yasodhara as it was known under the reign of Yasovarman I supplied up to 55 million cubic tons of water to the city from the Roluos River. In each corner are steles engraved with Sanskrit poems declaring it under the protection of Ganga, otherwise known as the Goddess of Indias’ River Ganges.
Ta Som – Built at the end of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII this small temple was known as ‘the Jewel of the propitious white elephant.’
Prasat Neak Pean – Walking along a causeway surrounded by swamps you will reach an arrangement of 5 ponds with the main pond housing an island in the middle with a tower situated on it. Built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th Century, Neak Pean represents the Himalayan lake of Anavatapta. Although a sacred Hindu healing site it was rebuilt using a lot of Buddhist symbolism.
Preah Khan – Dating back to 1191AD this stunning Buddhist city was also used as a university which held a capacity of over 1000 teachers. It was built on the site of a major battle between the Khmer and the Chams giving it the name ‘lake of blood’.
Day Two – Central Angkor
Angkor Thom is one of the largest Khmer cities founded by Jayavarman VII and was likely to of remained the capital for approximately 500 years. To visit the 900 hectare site of Angkor Thom enter through the S gate which can be reached by crossing the bridge over the moat. You know you’re heading in the right direction when the towers with huge faces carved into them are looking down at you.
Bayon – One of my favourite temples Bayon took over 100 years to build and was the state temple of Jayavarman VII. The structure of this temple is one of the most complex in the world, as well as its history. Since construction began in 1200 it has embodied different religious phases from Pantheon of the Gods, through Hinduism and most recently Buddhism. You will probably spend the majority of your day at this temple.
Bapoun – One of my other favourite sites was built by Udayadityavarman II in 1060 as his state temple. It’s current state of being something of a ruin should not elude from how important this temple pyramid was. I particularly liked walking across the causeway supported by many fine pillars – although I did almost fall off after shouting at a Chinese tourist for littering. A word of warning, climbing to the top and back down again is quite a feat as the stairway is very very narrow in length.
Leper King Terrace – The terrace was most likely built under Jayavarman VIII during times of mass restoration in the 13th century. On the SW corner enter the trench and zig zag your way through the carved armed warriors on either side of the wall.
Elephant Terrace – in central Angkor Thom the Elephant Terrace looks out over the Royal Square. It was used for Royal receptions with the carvings on the sides giving it its name ‘Elephant Terrace’.
Tep Pranam – This Pagoda was under construction when I visited but you can still see the giant sandstone Buddha which is still worshipped today, over 500 years after it was built.
Preah Palilay – North of the Royal Enclosure you will stumble across a wooden forest with a small Buddhist temple towering into the sky.
Angkor Wat – The central temple that is world famous. Get up early to catch the sun rise over the towers of Angkor Wat. Built by the influential Suryavarman II between 1113 – 1150. One of the most sublime Khmer temples that was a city within itself that was designated to Vishnu.
Chao say tevoda – Another site erected during the Angkor Wat period was Chao Say Tevoda. Funded by the People’s Republic of China this ruin has had major renovations.
Thommanon – adjacent to Chao Say Tevoda this small yet elegant temple. In an extremely attractive setting it was restored in the 1960’s keeping it a well persevered building that dates back to early 12th century during Suryavarman II reign.
Ta Keo – One of the whole sites oldest buildings this late 10th century ‘temple mountain’ was the model for the much more famous Angkor Wat.
Ta Prohm – My favourite temple out of my 3 day visit. This temple appeared in the blockbuster ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider’ movie. Built during the 12th-13th century by Jayavarman VII this temple consists of concentric galleries accompanied by stone towers and gopuras. This site is a traditional ruin that you can expect to enjoy for at least 1-2 hours.
To wrap things up nicely here are 5 tips you should follow when visiting Angkor.
- Cycling – Initially I was determined I was going to cycle from temple to temple until I had a proper look at the map. Instead I decided to hire a tuk tuk driver for the 3 days to take me round. I am so glad I did, riding tiredly in the 38 degree heat would be way to exhausting. Unless you are seriously fit I would recommend hiring a tuk tuk driver to maximise your enjoyment of the temples.
- Tuk Tuk Drivers – Don’t go with your hotel or hostel when they offer you a tuk tuk driver for your Angkor Wat experience. They will massively over charge you. Go out into the street and negotiate a price with a tuk tuk driver that way. You could easily save up to $20-$40 by doing this.
- Floating Village – A lot of your operators and hostels offer a floating village tour with your Angkor Wat tour for a heightened price. Don’t do it. The floating village is nothing more than a hoard of tourists on boats in the middle of nowhere. A typhoon destroyed the majority of the village some years ago and there is nothing to see. Also any money that you pay to see the floating village does not go towards helping the victims of the disaster.
- Buy a 3 day pass – Angkor Wat is seriously too big to discover in a day. Although the temptation of only spending $20 for a day ticket looms in the back of your mind, I would spend double that and get a $40 3 day pass. You won’t regret it.
- Staying safe – there is very limited shade when exploring Angkor Wat.We were walking around for hours in 38 degree heat and it’s fair to say we sweat quite abit. I would bring at least 4 litres of water per person with you as you will most likely spend between 4-7 hours on each visit there.