NOVEMBER 2015 – A free Tuk-Tuk ride from our hotel complimented by a warm greeting of our local Tuktuk driver jump-started our very first local experience upon arrival at Siem Reap (Tan Son Nat International Airport). We traveled across a long peaceful highway in an open-air tuk-tuk welcomed by the cold November evening air.
Our first tuk-tuk ride
Our hotel, Blossoming Romduol Lodge located just a short 5-minute walk to town center where attractions like Old Market and Pubstreet are located became our home for our almost 3-day stay in Siem Reap. It’s a nice choice especially if you are to take the sleeper bus to Phnom Penh as the terminal is just located at the corner of the street near the hotel, by the intersection of Sivutha Road, which is the main highway in Siem Reap.
Room accommodation is at USD80 (Php3,680) for 4 nights in a three-bed AC room with private bathroom and free breakfast. Our favorite feature of the hotel is the unlimited free use of fish spa – a perfect way to spend a lazy hot afternoon and temporarily relax tired feet from all-day of walking around town. The hotel also provides free use of bicycle, that we found as always available during our stay, to roam around town even at night. Riding a bicycle is a breeze since the attractions such as Pub Street and other night markets are just a few blocks away.
Upon check-in, we also tried out the hotel’s restaurant that offers fusion of Cambodian, American and Italian Cuisines. Our first Cambodian dinner comprised of Shrimp Lok Lak and the very gingery Chicken Amok – these being must try Cambodian dishes when in the country.
DAY 1: Exploring the Siem Reap Town by foot
After breakfast (included in the room accommodation) with a serving of egg, French Baguette and a cup of coffee or tea, we went off for a short DIY walking tour to experience the sights and sounds of this humble town.
We walked along the path of the small river that stretches through the town walking pass some sights such as the Old Market, Preah Phrom Rath and Angkor Trade Center.
Preah Phrom Rath
Walking around town made me realize how far laid back, or should I say backward, life in Siem Reap remains to be. Life around Siem Reap is too simple – no modern malls, few fastfood chains, no high rise buildings, no taxis or other public transportation around town and Tuktuk is the king of the road.
The town is highly dependent on tourism, with people engaged in selling souvenirs and as tuktuk drivers for temple visitors – and with their growing number roaming around town it might be quite a challenge to get sufficient number of customers. Simple luxuries like shopping malls in Siem Reap are simply defined by a few local fastfood restaurants and a some retail shops selling unbranded goods, others imitation of the original, confined in a 2-3 storey building.
Perhaps one noticeable sign that the area has just stepped a foot forward to embrace globalization is the limited presence of giant international food chains, with KFC being the only one in sight along Sivatha Road.
On duty – “At your service!”
What one would enjoy though during your discovery of the town is the warm smiles of its people that despite language barrier would take the extra mile to help out lost strangers. And when they discovered we were from the Philippines, whom they often mistook as Malaysians at first sight, an instant expression of “Ohhh Manny Pacquiao” would be blurted out – talking about Pinoy Pride.
Rotonda in front of Royal Garden
As our first stop that morning, we reached Royal Garden by the end of the river trail, where one can also enjoy a morning jog. It is a simple park, with semi manicured garden surrounded with tall trees – don’t set high expectations though despite its being tagged as the “Royal”.
It houses the Preah Ang Chek temple, which was filled with worshippers, paying their respect, lighting incense and taking family pictures outside the temple during the time of our visit.
Preah Ang Chek
Tall trees beside the temple also house quite a number of bats during daytime – Don’t forget to look up with mouth closed and watch out for the droplets :P.
Behind the temple is a dried up man-made lagoon where locals and students used to hang-out to pass time.
After taking lunch at KFC, we headed over for a mini souvenir shopping at Lucky Mall and Supermarket and the nearby Angkor Market.
KFC’s Pepper Chicken
These outlets not only offer local food and delicacies that you can bring as pasalubong for relatives and friendsbut also personal care items that you may find cheaper compared to selling price back home. An Adidas Ice Dive 500ml cost only USD8 (Php368) while coconut cookies can be bought at USD1.5 per small box.
THE FIRST SIGHT OF ANGKOR WAT: FREE SUNSET WATCHING
As the sun’s heat becomes way hotter during mid-day and nothing much left to do, we often go back to the hotel to enjoy the fish spa instead and go back to business by 4pm once the sun is not quite as harsh on the skin.
As we intended to take the Small Circuit Angkor Tour the following day, we walked around the Old market and Pub Street and let Tuktuk drivers approach us and negotiate for tours. Luckily, the first persistent Tuktuk driver that approached us agreed to tour us the following day for USD16 (good for 3 pax). Additionally we hired him to take us to the ticket booth and see Angkor Wat sunset that day for USD8 (good for 3 pax).
Going to the ticket booth – street scene going to the temples
The travel from town to Angkor Wat can be quite long, hence the price. In addition, “Bhuti”, our driver, had to wait with us until 5pm until we were allowed to purchase ticket for the following day. Since we only allotted a day to explore Angkor Wat, we find it more prudent to purchase the ticket (USD20 for one day) a day prior not only to prevent the hassle of falling in line for tickets early in the morning but also to avail of the free sunset peek of Angkor Wat when you purchase your ticket after 5pm the day prior the tour proper.
Since we arrived early, Mr. Bhuti offered to take us to the Killing Field nearby without no extra charge just so we can pass time. Though the interaction with Tuktuk drivers can be intimidating at times especially that you have to bargain to prevent overpricing, you’ll encounter some who would be more than willing to show the hidden gems around town despite the difficulty in speaking in English.
Though the famous ones are located in Phnom Penh, there are also killing fields in Siem Reap such as Wat Thmey. Inside the complex were several stupas, a temple and a small tower that houses bones and skulls of the victims during the Pol Pot Regime, serving as a testament to the dark past that shook an entire nation thru brutal slavery.
Come 5pm, tourist flock at the ticket booth to buy tickets and proceed to Angkor Wat to see the sunset. The day concluded with a sight of the setting sun, shedding its last streaks of light over Angkor Wat. Though not as stunning as what we expected it to be, the mere first sight of an ancient structure that stood through time is nonetheless captivating enough.
A hint of sunset over Angkor Wat
We were able to further enjoy our night in Siem Reap by exploring the night scenes around town through biking. We juggled the poorly lit streets of the town center, cautious of passing vehicles beside us.
We stopped by the very lively Pubstreet where tourists convene after a tiring hot day of temple hopping. The entire street is closed from all types of vehicles even bikes and the alleys are filled with people having booze and enjoying the vibe of varied loud music from establishments in the area.
It is also where one can have a taste of different Cambodian streetfood including exotic servings tarantula, crickets, snakes and silk worm, the latter being the most bearable for my appetite I guess.
For dining options, Soup Dragon Restaurant is at the corner of Pubstreet offering delicious Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes that we had for lunch during our last day.
Spring Rolls, Pork with Cashew and Stirred Beef
Asians will always be Asians – condiments on every table
For dessert, there is also a newly-opened Blue Pumpkin branch near Pub street for ice creams and frappe.
The cafe’s cozy ambiance
And some famous pizza parlours for the adventure-seekers.
The retail shops are also alive during this time of the night so I took advantage to buy souvenirs – a Pashmina Shoal for USD5 and Silk Scarf for USD3.
Though prices at the Night Market and the daytime Old Market do not necessarily differ for all items, bargaining for the lowest price remains as key for shopping in both places to get the best value for your dollars. Apart from the typical T-shirts (USD2 low quality basic tees) and food, silk scarfs are also lovely and economical pasalubongs. Ref Magnets cost USD1 while a mini Apsara Dancer Figurine costs around USD3. Mainly due to proximity, the Old Market is a convenient choice for souvenir hunting if only you could endure the bargaining. Paintings of Angkor Wat are also a popular merchandise among shops here, I personally bought 2 medium-sized paintings for USD15. The night concluded with a relaxing stay at the fish spa and an ice cold Angkor Beer.
DAY 2: DISCOVERING THE MYSTICAL ANGKOR TEMPLES (SMALL CIRCUIT TOUR)
We were fetched by “Whata”, Bhuti’s brother and our new Tuktuk driver, by 5:30am the next day to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
In the midst of the darkness, a lot of people, most with flashlights, gather by the lake in front of Angkor Wat to witness the spectacle of the rising sun casting its rays over Angkor’s main temples. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy morning and the sun did not fully rise.
Come daylight, people started to wander around the halls of Angkor Wat but our driver suggested that we explore other temples first to avoid the crowd (and the unwanted photobombers).
Kids selling souvenirs
Roaming around the ruins of the temples of Angkor transports you back in time, a time where there was just nature and a firm belief to a supreme being, walking pass structures and monument that shape a society as Cambodia.
Angkor, which meant “Capital City” in Khmer and “Holy City” in Sanskrit, became the capital of the Khmer Empire in the 9th to 15th century (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668). Each temple in Angkor is purposely built by each reigning king to pay respect to their Hindu gods, often with a central temple symbolizing Mount Meru, supporting significance of these structures in Hindu religion.
Angkor temples are admired not only for its architectural design, intricate stone carvings and bass reliefs depicting the different facets central to Cambodian life but also for its religious significance for the people of Cambodia. With temples sutiated in the middle of the jungle, a temple tour serves as an instant nature retreat for willing travellers.
Approaching the gate of Angkor Thom Complex, we passed by a bridge lined up with different Hindu figures, that appeared to be guarding the passage/entrance to a mystical world.
A fine day to explore the temples
Similar to Angkor Wat, the Angkor Thom complex is also enveloped within a body of water. At the heart of Angkor Thom is Bayon, which is one of the most famous temples of Angkor mainly due to its many four-faced Buddhas carved on huge temple stones. At this point, Whatta bid goodbye and allowed us to roam around the complex on our own, showing us a map of temples that we can explore by foot.
The four-faced Buddha, said to be a smiling portrait of the King himself, was also dubbed as Monalisa of Southeast-Asia (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/cambodia/angkor-thom-bayon-temple). Compared to other temples in Angkor, Bayon seems to be primarily a Buddhist temple that incorporates Hindu elements.
Isn’t it obvious I so love the facade of Bayon?
Intricate carvings on the bas relief as you roam around the temple depict scenes from legends and historical significance.
I have to say, this temple took a lot of our time as we enjoyed discovering its seemingly never-ending halls.
You’ll need to literally crawl up and down stairs
Never forget to look up at its ceiling and you would be amazed (or feel fear) on how the temple is formed from piles of rocks seeming glued together in a very organized manner.
Believe or not, this is the ceiling forming a dome of one of the towers of Bayon.
After leaving Bayon, we walked north towards another temple in sight, Baphuon, which turn to be one of our personal favorite. The entrance towards the temple seemed to be an inviting path, a long catwalk stage that would lead to you towards the central temple.
Unlike other temples that would only take one or two floors, this challenges visitors to climb through steep STAIRS (I really mean steep, forget about going on heels!) until you reach the topmost floor that would let you enjoy a good view of the whole complex.
The fruit of our labor climbing to the topmost floor.
Towards the exit, you’ll notice a pile of bricks interestingly forming an image of a reclining Buddha.
TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS AND TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING
Beside Baphuon, we passed by the two flat temples, Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. Facing the parade ground, these serve as viewing deck of the King during processions and for watching his victorious returning army.
Terrace of the Elephants
Terrace of the Leper King
At the end of the trail, we already found Whatta waving towards us with his tuktuk. Amazingly, Tuktuk drivers are really attentive to their guests as you’ll be surprised to see them right at the exit once you step out of each temple.
We rode the Tuktuk to continue our journey to the rest of the small circuit temples before we went back to see the details of Angkor Wat. By that time, we were already feeling a bit “templed out”, as if all the temples appeared as already similar and non-distinctive from each other. Passing by a slightly paved road enveloped by trees in a seeming jungle is a breather.
Templed Out rather “too tired”
Leaving Angkor Thom through the victory gate, we passed by two temples at the opposite side of the road, parallel to each other – Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda. These seemed as minor temples in terms of size compared to the other temples we visited that day.
CHAU SAY THEVODA
A significant part of Chau Say Thevoda was said to be restored, one can notice the newly built parts and reliefs around the temple. They say that the flower carvings in the central temples can be considered as a distinct feature of this temple.
Entrance to the temple
On the other hand, the Thommanon temple’s distinct feature, which I only discovered after google research after the trip, is the Devatas carving on its walls in sampot (Cambodian Skirt) holding a flower in a unique way. The gopuras (entrance) of both temples, with its equally intricate carvings and frames offer an interesting composition for your photography.
To beat the summer heat, a local ice cream aka “ice drop” in the Philippines, only with flavors like Taro, Coconut, and Durian.
Afterwards, we quickly passed and had a sneak resting time at Ta Keo. The temple is under restoration during our time of visit, with modernity in the form of different construction equipments being a seeming distraction to the supposed ancient ruin visit. By this time our feet is too tired to walk up the stairs towards the central temple.
Construction on-going at Ta Keo
Too tired to go up (Yes coming on heels is my biggest mistake)
After a quick cold water break (1 liter of water for USD1), we went straight to one of the famous temples of Angkor mainly because of its Hollywood appearance in Angelina Jolie’s movie Tomb Raider. Ta Phrom seemed like a temple hidden in the middle of a jungle.
Entrance to the main temple
This only explains why the famous Banyan tree, which is also considered as a sacred in Buddhism, swallowing the halls of one of its temple became the highlight of every visit to Ta Phrom.
Upon entering the west gate, one would have to walk through dusty tree-shaded path leading to the main temple. One can stop by to admire paintings from local artists but also arts in different forms such as on leaves among others. Music from playing band comprise of victims of land mines can also be heard in the area.
Approaching lunch time, we decided to stop by a restaurant in the temple complex to eat lunch with Whatta at Palmboo Restaurant. The restaurant ambiance is great, with view of the king’s swimming pool which Whatta mentioned of dragon boat races during festival season. Meals were quite pricey though perhaps because there’s a charity component when you eat in this restaurant as it is said to provide employment and trainings to willing locals.
SRAS SRANG AND BANTEAY KDEI
Yellow Noodles with Pork
Before going to Angkor Wat, we stopped by 2 minor temples in close proximity to each other: Sra Srang and Banteay Kdei. Apparently, Sras Srang is almost in complete ruin located beside a body of water said to be the king’s bath/swimming pool (http://www.mountainsbeyond.org/events/Cambodia/Siem%20Reap/SR091003d.htm). Unfortunately, by this time, camera’s battery was already drained, hence the downloaded photos.
Meanwhile, we took the time to rest (again) under a tree inside Banteay Kdei Temple. The main temple is partly shabby, with temple stones scattered on one side of the temple. With the same king that mandated its construction, its main gate or gopura assimilates that of Bayon bearing the four-faced Buddha. (http://www.ferretingoutthefun.com/2013/02/28/temples-of-angkor-outer-circuit/
). Despite being in this state, it appeared to be a functioning temple as a shrine where worshippers make offering can be found in the temple near the entrance.
To conclude the tour, we headed over to Angkor Wat to personally witness its splendor and its intricate bas reliefs that made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list. No doubt it proved to be the grandest temple in terms of land area. The temple is seemingly enveloped within a lake, adding a sense grandeaur as one passes through the bridge towards the temple gate. Within the temple ground is a small lake, with reflections of Angkor Wat seen through its waters.
Upon entering the main halls of Angkor Wat, a long, seemingly never-ending hall filled with bas reliefs narrating a story of appearing spiritual significance will capture visitors’ attention.
The long hall at Angkor Wat with bas reliefs on the left side
With the little grasp of Hinduism and Buddhism information from college, I tried to identify and make sense of the narration sculpture on its walls, with images of Brahma and Garudas in scenes depicting a battle came to mind.
At the end of the tour, Whatta drive us back safely to the hotel and gave him the USD16 – the last words he said that almost stuck us is “Thank you for your help” with the warmest smiles he got. It was not in fact a “help” as it was a payment for a service to us. But perhaps, with the struggles of the people that we witnessed in Siem Reap in earning a living, earning a little amount may be such a big thing.
Indeed, the one-day visit to the temples of Angkor has that magic to transport its visitors in a time, walking pass structures and monuments that shape a society as Cambodia. Though these bas reliefs may seem like a piece of ancient art to be admired for a person from a different culture and religion, the temples of Angkor somehow reminds me that spirituality is so important, apparently became so central in Cambodian life that its leaders dedicated several structures to achieve said purpose.
My one big Angkor Adventure
Exploring around town took me back to one reality that we always tried to surpass in the modern age: and that is the simplicity of life. And I guess, realizing this once in a while reminds us to count our blessings that surmount the basic needs of man. From the feeling of awe from the GRANDEUR of Angkor temples to the renewed sense of appreciation of life you get from simple interaction with the locals, Siem Reap surely is one overwhelmingly humble surprise of an adventure in the eastern side of the world.