After Battambang, I came back to Siem Reap, where I had previously spent 3 days.
It is a small Cambodian city where rice paddies are a quick bicycle ride away. As I had mentioned before, Siem Reap is mainly frequented by tourists for the Temples at Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire (9th to the 15th century).
There are over 1,000 temples at the Angkor Archaeological site! Many are in ruins and only rubble remains, but a good number are visitable, including the most well-known, Angkor Wat, which is said to be the world’s largest single religious monument.
You can see on the map below the large complex of temples on top and Siem Reap on the bottom portion. Each square represents another temple. The distance between the two outermost temples is around 25 miles.
I bought a 3-day pass, which allows you to go up to 3x in one week.
In one day you can see only a handful of temples before they all start to look the same in your tired, hungry and dehydrated head. It requires some planning to visit the temples as they are a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap and certain itineraries that make more sense than others. Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is “not to be missed” so you need to plan for that too.
The first day of my 3-day pass (which I actually did prior to Battambang & meeting my friends Lara and Grant) – I split a tuk-tuk with 2 Dutch travelers in my hostel. This is generally what is done, unless you want to splurge and hire an air-conditioned car or unless you’re part of a large tour group that buses you around.
A tuk-tuk driver who hung out at my hostel, “Rooster Man” – he earned this moniker as he had the unique ability to mimic a crowing sound – promised to pick us up at 5am in time for the 5:30am sunrise at Angkor Wat. There are two small bodies of water in front of Angkor Wat’s entrance and as the sun rises you see the reflection of the facade, which is supposed to be magnificent. After that, Rooster Man would bring us along the “small loop” of the complex to 5-6 other noteworthy temples. We would be back at the hostel for lunch and a nice cold beer. Sounded great!
Everything went as planned, he showed up at 5am and we blasted away on his tu-tuk through the dark-but-getting-lighter night. 15 minutes in, he turned around and just seemed to confirm that we were going to Angkor Wat. We said “yes, Angkor Wat. Water. Reflection.” He nodded and said he would bring us to the area where there were less tourists. Every guidebook warns about the masses of tourists that get up early to see the sunrise and reflection of the temple and then head back to Siem Reap town for breakfast and a nap before tackling the rest. We anticipated it would be a madhouse so any secret nook he knew was golden.
Alas, at 5:30am we did not descend upon Angkor Wat but a large lake with a crumbling tower on the far end that indeed reflected back on the water…but could have been any bell-tower like structure, on any lake, anywhere in the world. We quickly tried to remedy the situation, but instead of driving us quickly to Angkor Wat, he began arguing his case about how we had asked him for this specifically, etc, etc. Finally, he drove us to a dirt road and told us to walk straight. For 15 minutes we walked along a deserted strip in a forested jungle and eventually find ourselves behind Angkor Wat.
At this point the sun had risen (5:50am) and we made our way to the front of Angkor Wat only to see the masses of tourists making their way back to the charter buses or tuk tuks. BIG FAIL.
Sunrise Part I
Sunrise(n) Part II (at Angkor Wat)
Although my introduction to what some argue is the 8th world wonder was less than spectacular, the upside is that my Dutch friends and I were able to explore Angkor Wat completely unencumbered by other tourists.
The periphery of Angkor Wat (above) – all to myself!
A detailed carving (below)
At Ta Prohm: temple largely left as found. Popular among tourists for its jungle surroundings and spectacular integration of nature and architecture. And maybe because Tomb Raider was filmed here (below)
Example of tree roots and temple in harmony (below)
Getting my inversion-fix (at Ta Prohm, above)