Vegas in Cambodia: Siem Reap & Angkor Wat
April 18, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
Many travelers make only one stop in Cambodia – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat – and there was no way we could miss it. True to our expectations, Siem Reap was a Christmas-light powered swarm of westerners and the temples of Angkor left us stunned by history, craftsmanship, and grandeur.
As an extra treat, our friend Becky had moved from NYC to Bangkok last summer, and she came and met us for a weekend. Extra bonus, Becky works with a magazine that focuses on high end real estate and travel in SE Asia, and she was able to hook up a super fancy place to stay that her magazine may be reviewing.
Logistics (Transportation and Hotels)
We took a bus from Battambang to Siem Reap, which was super easy. We heard that it would be super easy to travel from Siem Reap to Bangkok. And while it was easy, it was quite unpleasant. It’s supposed to take 3 hours to the border, an hour to cross into Thailand, and then an additional 3-4 hours to Bangkok. It should have cost $9 total but we paid $12 (negotiated down from $15) for a VIP bus from the border to Bangkok, but instead we were put onto a minibus. More annoying, there was a ton of traffic or just unrealistic expectations, so the trip from the border to Bangkok took 7 hours, during which we were squished into the middle two seats in the last row with limited air circulation or air conditioning. Bah.
We stayed in Siem Reap 5 nights total. Our first and last nights, we stayed at the Downtown Siem Reap Manor. For $10, we had a private balcony, great room with two beds and a bathroom, an actual shower, plus a pool in the outside courtyard. It may be our best price-to-quality accommodation yet! Room #11 was definitely the win – there were two windows, so we were able to get a lovely cross-breeze.
The middle three nights, we stayed in a super fancy hotel called the Anantara Resort. As a welcome, we were given a ginger virgin cocktail and sticky rice flour cakes, and then shown to our lovely room. The pool was pretty spectacular, and they would bring you ice water and fruit skewers the minute you got out. The architecture was lovely, as was the interior design, where they managed to combine the boutique hotel experience with a touch of local design styles. The one issue we found is that the food service was both overpriced and not up to par with the quality experience of the rest of the hotel.
In Siem Reap
The main street in the tourist-land area is called Pub Street – a crazy Las Vegas style array of Christmas lights and neon signs, with a barrage of people offering food, drinks, happy hour, massage, fish massage, tuk tuk rides. There are an overwhelming number of tourists in all forms, largely powered by the fact that Siem Reap is a popular destination both for long term travelers and vacationers. More than anywhere else we have been in Asia, the downtown area of Siem Reap is a tourist Disneyland, with the local population eclipsed by visitors.
There is a huge market in the middle of town with a variety of – well, everything – for sale. Lots of clothing (in case travelers hadn’t acquired the requisite elephant print pants yet), dried mango, dried fish, feather dusters, and sports equipment. Siem Reap is known for a nightly circus show (run by the same company as the school in Battambang), which we had really hoped to make it to but unfortunately the logistics just didn’t work out. We did stop by a fish spa for a foot-cleaning, where the fish were a bit bigger in Laos, but the tickling sensation resulted in a nice softening (and dead-skin shedding).
The restaurants in Siem Reap are all a bit pricey compared to elsewhere in Cambodia. But at the same time, the cheap restaurants were not necessarily a good option: small portions and gross (potentially sickening) food make it that you spend extra money on a yucky meal. Comparatively, one night we ate at a fancy place across the river (Asian Square) where we paid the same $10 for our meal, but had impeccable service, live dulcimer-type music, water fountains, a jasmine garden, etc. Also, it should be noted that with half price happy hours, you can get some fantastic cocktails for $2 here.
We took a yoga class at the Siem Reap Hostel, which appears to be an upscale hostel (like a meatpacking district bar versus an east village bar in NYC). We walked in 5 minutes before the class was supposed to start. The teacher, Lindsay, arrived a few minutes later, jabbed at her mat with her toe to unroll it, looked at her phone, and then said in the least-welcoming way possible that class would start in a few minutes. Attitude is everything. Unfortunately, our first impressions held through the rest of the class, but it still felt good to practice led asana.
Angkor Wat Temple tours
We spent two days doing temple tours, and hired a tuk tuk driver for $20/day by finding someone we liked the day before. Our driver, Meng (email address or phone: (+855) 89 88 68 98), was fantastic. His English was incredible, he drove safely, always picked us up exactly when and where he said he would, constantly offered us ice cold water, and had a huge smile on his face. When we came out of a temple, he was inevitably waiting for us and would start waving with his bright smile the second we reached eye’s view. And, if we came out of a different exit, he had the tuk tuk where we were by the time we got to the road.
The first day, the three of us (Jewels, Mitch, and Becky) met up with Aubrey, who we had met in Battambang, and did a four-person tour to three of the major temples. Most of the temples are either designed to represent mountains or islands, so you inevitably enter each one via really cool causeways or epic stairways, or both.
Angkor Thom is a huge complex. The Bayon Temple was a ridiculous first approach, with these huge face etchings on the tops of all of these tall towers. Then, still in Angkor Thom, we went to Baphoun Temple, then the ruins of the palace and the Elephant Terrace. It was interesting hearing about Thom’s gates, aligned with the cardinal directions: one for people, one for transportation, one for funerals (west), and one for the king (east). Each gate had a causeway coming off it with a line of big warrior statues holding a giant naga (7-headed serpent).
Then, we went to Ta Prohm, which is the Tomb Raider Hollywood Temple, with incredible trees (figs?) growing up, over, and around the temple ruins. It was spectacular to see the culture-nature interaction. What is interesting is that the tree and root structures simultaneously slowly destroy the buildings and walls while also holding hold together the stones.
We stopped by a little tourist area to see how they moved the stones and compacted the earth, then went to Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat, despite the boatload of tourists, was stupendous. It is rich with intricate carvings and incredible vistas from one place to another. We arrived too late to go up to the very top, but we also got to experience it as the crowds thinned out, which was really special. There are some places in the world where you have the sensation that you are walking on sacred ground: this is one.
It was particularly interesting for us to be here since we spent so much time in Incan Ruins just a few months ago. Incan ruins are all about functionality and clean lines – where the grandeur is in how perfectly the stones were cut and fit together, the way that the Incans somehow managed to build into sides of mountains, the size and scope of their buildings and the inaccessible locations they were in, or the complex systems for irrigation and water fountains. But, when it came to décor, the Incans did very little. For example, take the famous Condor Temple at Machu Picchu. It was a big-ass stone that was too big for them to move, and some other stones that vaguely looked like you could see an artistic rendering of a condor.
Here, ornate doesn’t begin to describe it. Every stone of every wall is inscribed with images depicting life on earth or mythical stories. The entryways to many of the temples were lined with statues, and every surface is intricately carved. If you walk into a doorway, you can literally look below your feet, on either side of you, above you, and see these complex depictions carved into the stone. However, they never mastered making a floating arch here, so they stacked stones in a somewhat precarious (to our untrained eyes) way.
The second day, we woke up early and went to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. We decided to sit on the wall outside of the main wall to watch it away from the crowds. There was an absolute stream of tourists going into Angkor, and it was nice to have some calm and quiet to watch the sun rise behind the temple. The sunrise made the sky glow and the water reflect the beautiful colors of the sky and silhouettes of the temple as it grew brighter.
Then, after a quick breakfast, we went to Preah Khan, which may have been our favorite of the whole trip. One of the kings, who is well known for a Hinduism to Buddhism switch and very prolific number of buildings, had built Ta Prohm (the Hollywood temple) to honor his mother and Preah Khan to honor his father. So, it was a similar style and in an even greater state of disrepair (with lots of stones to climb around), had some trees growing on rocks, but remarkably few tourists. It felt really special and holy, plus was an excellent level of climbability for exploration, without massive amounts of stairs (or tourists).
We stopped by several other temples, even as our temple-interest was wearing thin. Neak Pean is a little temple island in the middle of a lake with a bridge. Ta Som is a forest jungle temple with a cool entryway. Eastern Mebon used to be surrounded by a 5-meter deep moat and had great views you could climb to, plus is famous for a well-preserved elephant carving. Both that and Pre Rub used small bricks as well as the more common large stones in their construction. By the time we hit our last temple, Banteay Kdei, we had run out of steam for temple exploration.
I kind of wish that we had gone to one temple on a third day and just sat with a notebook and been in a single place. I feel like we did plenty of exploring and saw plenty of temples and had some beautiful special moments, but that we didn’t get to just sit and absorb the energy and history of any one place fully enough.
One more interesting note… many of the statues and carvings were missing their faces. We had wondered if there was some religious thing where the faces got taken off at some point because of changes in the culture and religions, but it seems that it was purely economic. The faces (qua faces) have high market value, so were stolen to be sold as historical art. Plus, there apparently used to be tons of jewels and gold plating on everything – especially the faces – giving economic cause to plunder these elements.
But can you just imagine how, at one time, the whole area must have glittered brightly in the sun?
Bonus photos! Thailand may have 7-11 at every corner, but Cambodia has 6-11. And, as we take pride in the amount of construction you can do with zip ties, we thought others might appreciate these nifty zip tie lamps.
As usual, here are some more photos for your viewing pleasure!