Every country in Southeast Asia has its “thing” they are recognised by. Thailand has the islands with their gorgeous beaches and crazy parties, Vietnam has the green mountains and the motorcycle rides, Indonesia has volcanoes and rice terraces, etc. And Cambodia? Cambodia has Angkor Wat. Sure, there’s more than that, but the temple complex of Angkor is the number one reason travelers visit the country. My friend Buyana and I were part of that crowd.
After spending 8 hours on a bus that took us from Bangkok all the way to Siem Reap, we made it to our hostel right on time for dinner. The bus is direct, it costs around $15 and it’s government property so you know you will make it to the other side of the border (port of entry: Poipet). Just one warning: be prepared for some frustration with the Cambodian officers at; they will rip you off. No matter what any website says, you will have to pay at leat $10 extra to get your visa on arrival.
I already talked about Siem Reap in a previous post, so if you wanna know a bit more about the city and the food, go check that out.
Most people head over to Angkor to watch the sunrise, although some prefer to catch a few more Zs and just enjoy the sunset. Either way, the place will be packed, with the biggest crowd standing by the lake in front of Angkor Wat where you can get the typical photo of the temple’s reflection and the sunset/sunrise light. If you are expecting to see my version of that photo, you’re bound to be disappointed: I didn’t take it. Partially because it hadn’t rained in weeks, so half the water of the lake had evaporated, so…
We followed some experienced travelers advice and decided to go against the tourist flow: we began by witnessing the sunrise (not really…by the time we got to the viewpoint the sun was already up) at Phonm Bakheng temple, then went over to Bayon Temple, followed by the Elephant Terrace and then we took our lunch break. Then we went to Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, and ended with a long walk to Angkor Wat itself, starting from the back and ending at the entrance. So in a few words, we did the short circuit the other way around.
The most convenient way to visit the complex, is by hiring a tuk tuk driver for the day. You can either do it through your hostel (ours worked there) or negotiate with one you can find around town, the previous night. They usually pick you up at 5AM, though if you really want to make it on time to watch the sun rise above the temples, you might want to leave a little earlier as the queues at the entrance are rather long. The drivers will ask you which circuit you want to do, with the short one being a one-day deal and the long one taking about 2 to 3 days.
The entrance ticket for a day is $20. The pass for 2 or 3 days is $40 and $60 for a week.
It was 42 degrees Celsius on that day, so you can imagine how lovely and presentable I was, especially considering I wasn’t wearing the lightest of clothes since I wanted to be respectful — until I saw most girls wearing the shortest of shorts and tank tops. Nonetheless, I was glad we had a tuk tuk driver to take us around from one temple to the other. Walking was not an option and biking…well, we just didn’t want to turn into a puddle of sweat.
The tour started with sunrise at Phnom Bakheng. Including my friend and I, there were six of us. It was quiet and peaceful, and the view was just beautiful. I could have stayed there much longer than we did, but there were so many more temples to visit, we couldn’t stay for more than 30 minutes. Most people go there for the sunset (normal circuit direction), but if you do it this way, you will avoid the masses. Be a hipster, don’t follow the crowd.
Standing atop a hill, Phnom Bakheng was built during the 9th century, two centuries before Angkor Wat. The symbolism in the architecture of the temple is extensive and it would take me an entire post to tell you all about it (if I knew it all), but I’ll limit myself to tell you that it was dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god, and because of the large number of visitors that hike up to the top every day, this temple is one the most endangered ones in the complex. Half if it is under constant construction and/or renovation. So let’s try to keep those fingers on the camera and not all over the walls and statues, guys. The Hindu gods will thank you for that.
Once our time was up, it was time to head over to Angkor Thom, an area northwest of Angkor Wat that includes a number of temples and the restaurant where most visitors have lunch while the drivers take a nap.
Before arriving to the first temple, the Southern gate welcomes visitors, standing at the end of a bridge that provides a serene morning view of the surrounding green forest.
Bayon temple is one of the most distinctive in the complex. Mostly knows for the numerous marble smiling faces sitting of top of columns scattered over the top terrace, the architecture is easily distinguishable from the traditional Khmer style. Though it was initially built as a Mahayana Buddhist temple, the predecessors of the first king modified it and adjusted it to their preferences, adding Hindu influences first and Threaded Buddhism later on.
While strolling around the area, a local guy approached me, telling me he was a student and occasionally worked in Angkor as a tour guide to practice his English. Without me even consenting to his help, he began to tell me all kinds of details and stories about Bayon and its architecture, which to be entirely honest I forgot most of, but I do remember it was quite impressive.
Buyana and I knew he was just doing it for the money as we had been previously warned about that type of scam, hence why we didn’t really believe all he said. Although if all he said was false, then that guy could have a brilliant career as a lawyer because the way he told those details and tales were just too convincing and fascinating not to believe him!
The funniest part was right at the end, when we were about to leave the temple. We got to the “backyard” of Bayon, where only a few of us were sitting around taking a break, when all of a sudden I see one, then two, then five monkey coming down from the walls, the columns and from behind the corner, all aiming at us as if we were their lunch special for the day. Some of them were walking in slow-mo and made me feel like I was in the horror version of the movie Planet of the Apes. More like Temple of the Apes!
The first victims were a couple, all dressed in white, that had a plastic bag with water and some snacks with them. Needless to say, one monkey grabbed it, the girl screamed and dropped it, and the little thing opened the water bottle and drank from it! No joke! Those creatures are smarter than us! And while I was slightly panicking and backing up with the rest of the group, my friend was all happy to see monkey for the first time and got close enough to the little devil to film it drinking water. She was so excited.
And to think apes are my favourite animals!! Oh, the irony! Although in my defence, I love orangutans, the sweet and loving kind of monkey that would never hurt a fly with their cuteness.
We all survived, even if some of us had to give up our food and/or water. The tour however was not over — it wasn’t even lunch time yet!
But I’ll tell you more about it on my next post, so stay tuned for that!