Angkor Ruins and birthday treats in Siem Reap

Well, what a great few days! We’re now in Siem Reap and have been here for about 3 days. To get here we once again got on a bus (from Sihanoukville) with Paramount Angkor Express, which this time wasn’t so straight forward – it took around 11 hours and we had to go all the way back to Phnom Penh before changing buses to Siem Reap, but I’m not sure that there even is a direct road to Siem Reap so it couldn’t be avoided! Still, the journey was pleasant enough and only cost $12, plus we had the whole of the back seat to ourselves for half the journey!

When we got to the bus station in Siem Reap our personal tuk tuk driver from the hotel we had booked into was there to meet us. We had to wait quite a while to get our bags off as the bus boys had to unload all the random stuff they had put on board – including motorbikes, chickens, tables and plastic chairs! When we eventually got going we found out that are hotel was in the middle of nowhere! It seemed to take ages to get there and we hardly passed any buildings along the way. The hotel was dark and empty when we pulled up with about 10 tuk tuk drivers all parked in the driveway (the hotel is so far out that they have their own resident drivers to take guests wherever they need to go, for free!).

We were pretty tired and just wanted to get to our room, but first had to listen to the manager try to flog us all sorts of trips and tours and demand that we told her what we wanted to do before we went to bed! Then we were told that she wanted an extra $10 to put the air con on (i.e. give us the control) – something that was supposedly already included in the room rate. Rather annoyed already we told her we weren’t going to pay any extra and would go somewhere else instead – to which she replied “okay, you can have”. Result!

Satisfied with that, we went off to have a shower then headed into Siem Reap city centre to have some dinner (driven by the hotel’s tuk tuk man of course). We settled for a cafe called Easy Speaking on Pub Street, which was quite ironic as the poor waitress we had didn’t find speaking English particularly easy! We had quite a long wait for our food, only to be given the wrong order and I still don’t think the girl really understood what was happening even when she eventually served us with the right food! Saying that, it was tasty and cheap, so we can’t complain too much!

Over dinner we decided that we would spend the next day (my birthday!) visiting the famous Angkor Ruins so went back to the hotel to let them know so that they could sort out a driver for us (this particular trip wasn’t free of charge however – we had to pay our tuk tuk man $10 for the day). Plans sorted, we went to bed looking forward to seeing the reason we were in Siem Reap!

The next morning we got up bright and early – helped by the fact that the sun was shining! – had breakfast, then headed off in our tuk tuk to see the number 1 attraction in this area, Angkor Wat. We had heard so much hype about this temple which is described as “visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking” in our guide book and were quite excited when we drove closer, past the moat and caught sight of the main gate.

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However! As soon as we approached Angkor Wat itself we immediately had reason to be disappointed as most of the front of it was covered in scaffolding and green mesh! It completely ruined the look of it and we came away from our visit still not really knowing what Angkor Wat actually looked like! What we did notice however is that the building in itself is a bit of an optical illusion – when looking at it from the main gate, it looks two-dimensional and like a big long line of towers, but once you get inside you realise that it is actually a cluster of buildings with a central courtyard and towers of completely different dimensions!

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There was extensive restoration work going on with areas completely shut off or inaccessible to visitors. A bit of a shame when you’ve paid $20 to visit Cambodia’s star attraction.

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Nevertheless we tried to make the most of it and spent a good couple of hours looking around. There’s no mistaking that it’s an impressive building, particularly considering it was built in the early-mid 12th century and so much detail has gone into the carvings and towers. It is absolutely massive (possibly overkill for a temple) and surrounded by beautiful grounds where you can walk through forest towards the moat. You can’t come to Siem Reap without visiting Angkor Wat so we’re glad we went but the hype in combination with the scaffolding sort of ruined the experience for us!

Next, we headed to Angkor Thom, the ancient royal city and the last capital of the Angkorian empire. We went through the South Gate, which is crowned with four giant faces, before going to see Bayon – a very impressive 12th century temple – famous for it’s massive standing towers, covered in the faces of Buddha and Javavarman V11, the king who commissioned it.

Angkor Thom
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Bayon
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Bayon, to us, was actually much more visually interesting than Angkor Wat as it also had loads of wall carvings but was also in more of a ruined state, which just added to its ancient appeal.

We spent about two hours walking around Angkor Thom, visiting the other key temples and buildings that are situated there, including the Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King, before getting back into the tuk tuk and heading to the next cluster of buildings.

Phimeanakas
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Terrace of the Elephants
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Terrace of the Leper King
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We had six more buildings to visit before our last stop, Phnom Bakheng, which we were due to see at sunset. These were Thommanom, Ta Keo, Chau Say Thevoda, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Prasat Kavan.

Thommanom
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Ta Keo
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Chau Say Tevoda
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Ta Prohm
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Banteay Kdei
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Praset Kravan
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By far our favourite was Ta Prohm, which has only partially been cleared of jungle overgrowth. It was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastry and is massive! To get to it you have to walk down a track into a jungle and there are fig and silk-cotton trees growing out from the corridors and towers, giving it a really cool jungle atmosphere. We could have spent ages exploring every nook and cranny of Ta Prohm, but had to make sure we were at Phnom Bakheng on time!

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Unfortunately for us, on our way to Phnom Bakheng, the skies started getting darker and sounds of thunder came creeping out of the jungle – it didn’t look like we would see much of a sunset if we didnt hurry! Phnom Bakheng is situated at the top of a mountain so it took ages to walk up the winding hill (we opted to walk rather than pay an Elephant to take us, plus we’d already done Elephant riding in Nepal!). Once we reached the temple we were faced with an almighty set of steep steps to the top, but once we got up there it was worth it.

The sun was already disappearing behind thunder clouds so we didn’t see much of a sunset, but there was an awesome view of the jungle, Tonle Sap lake and a distant Angkor Wat. We stayed for a while to look around (and catch our breath from the tough trek up there!) before heading back to our tuk tuk as the rain began!

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All in all, the Angkor ruins are pretty amazing buildings and worth the $20 it costs to enter the Archaeological Park – Ta Prohm definitely saved the day for us and we’d recommend that every visitor to Siem Reap goes to check it out – especially if you find yourself slightly let down by Angkor Wat.

Pretty cream-crackered, we went back to the hotel to get showered and cool off after the insanely hot day we’d had (the rain didn’t last long in the end and had stopped completely by the time we got back). Now, it was party time and we went off to Pub Street to celebrate my birthday!

Once again, we wanted to try something local (after the awesome Amok in Sihanoukville), but also wanted to make it a bit ‘special’ so opted for a Cambodian BBQ. This reminded us a bit of the hot pot we’d had in Hong Kong as you get a big bowl dropped into the table with soup poured round the outside of it and a griddle in the middle. Vegetables and noodles are then put into the soup to cook and the meat (you can choose from the usual pork, beef or chicken as well as snake and crocodile if feeling more adventurous) is placed on the griddle to bbq, along with a big lump of pork fat which gives it a delicious flavour! It was absolutely gorgeous and great to sit and throw in bits of meat and veg yourself to watch it cook (see mum, sometimes it IS fun to play with your food!).

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I was treated to a couple of glasses of really nice wine – something that I hadn’t had much of since we left London – and the meal was topped off with a lush ice cream sundae! Yummy!

After we’d eaten we went to Temple Club – a lively bar in the middle of Pub Street and had a great night drinking pitchers and ‘winning’ t-shirts for our efforts. This was definitely a birthday I wouldn’t forget in a hurry – it’s not often you get to spend it in Cambodia on a gorgeous October day!

The next day after a bit of a lie in, we had to catch up on ‘chores’ – i.e. washing nearly all of our clothes as we were running very low (I say we, but I really mean ME, as Richard just kicked back and watched Discovery channel). Then we went back into town to get something to eat – this time Richard tried Beef Lok Lak (basically beef and rice with tomatoes and onion on a bed of lettuce) but I’m not sure he was that impressed with this particular local dish! We also caught up with the blog (seems like we’re always ‘catching up’ with this!) before calling it a day and going back to the hotel.

We had planned to spend the next day booking our journey to Laos as well as having a look around the various markets in town, so wanted a good nights sleep so we could start nice and early! We’ve decided to stop at a couple more places before we get to Laos – Kampong Cham, Kratie and Stung Treng, so will hopefully get to see more of rural Cambodia on the way!

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