My first impressions of Siem Reap were: 1) there were no people; 2) they had a whole lot of hotels / guesthouses; 3) it was hot and dusty.
Later on I’d find out that #1 was not true at all, but both #2 & #3 were right on target.
We arrived in Siem Reap well past 10:30 PM last February 7. It’s a little under a three-hour flight from Manila, but Cambodia is an hour behind our local time. Upon exiting our plane, we were greeted by a gust of warm, dry air. I remember thinking that it wasn’t so different from back home, at least in that regard (it’s just more humid-hot in the Phils).
Though their airport is small, I loved how they utilized traditional architecture to make it unique. I think it’s the only airport I’ve been to that isn’t modern and isn’t interchangeable with any other airport. It’s a good introduction to the small but definitely memorable city of Siem Reap.
We headed straight to Ta Som Guesthouse, where we were booked for the next four nights, passing through the hotel-laden National Road No. 6. Ta Som is a four-storey house tucked away along the main road, with a Caltex branch only a few steps away. The facade is painted a girly pink, and later on, we’d find out that my friend, Patrese, and I were upgraded to a pink and red triple sharing room–at least for our first two nights there.
Ta Som is simple yet gives much bang for the buck, especially for a budget-conscious traveler. The rooms are clean, well-sized, and they offer daily complimentary bottled water and breakfast. They also have free transfers to and from the airport via car.
The real trip began the next day, with a walk to the nearby Angkor National Museum. On our way there, we passed by the Royal Independence Garden, which provided a lovely, idyllic setting for our first photo shoot (LOL). It surprised me to find people jogging around the area, given how HOT it was, but there’s dedication for you.
Angkor National Museum is a fairly new museum (opened last November 2007) that mainly focuses on the history and culture of the Khmer civilization. Admission is $12 and you need to shell out an additional three bucks for a headset. We decided to go without, and depended on the English texts and videos, and the occasional Q&A with a random museum personnel. The tour starts with a three to four minute video which provides a background of the museum and its eight galleries. It makes for a good visit prior to the main event that is Angkor Wat, particularly if you, like us, don’t intend to hire a tour guide. Through the galleries, we got a better knowledge and understanding of the Khmer heritage, which helped us appreciate the temples more.
After that, we crossed the street to Khmer BBQ Suki for some much-needed sustenance. It’s a bit pricey by Cambodian standards, but we all enjoyed our first real meal in the city. I had the fried rice with chicken, which was served in a carved-out pineapple, along with an iced black coffee to fuel me up for the Temple Run up ahead.
From there, we flagged down a remork (our Cambodian friend corrected us when we called it tuk-tuk, apparently that’s the Thai name for it) to take us to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Our driver, Vannet (not sure if I spelled his name correctly), waited for us as we purchased our tickets at the main entrance/admissions. We got the three day passes, which cost $40 and are valid for any three days within a span of a week. They even take your ID photo and print them on the pass to make sure that you don’t lend your pass to anyone else. It makes for a cool souvenir at the end of your trip. We later discovered that park guards would check the passes each time we’d enter a temple complex.
I’ll tell you now that my travel buddies are bonafide dessert lovers. Well, two of them are; our only guy loves food, period (rather, anything with balls). As for me…you know how I am about my coffee. So it wasn’t a surprise that we made a detour to Angkor Cafe, which is conveniently located right across the entrance to the grand Angkor Wat.
Angkor Cafe is by The Blue Pumpkin, probably the most popular dessert bar in Siem Reap. They’re known for their ice cream concoctions, which my friends eagerly sampled. I, on the other hand, opted for an affogato — the perfect compromise between sweet, creamy dessert and bitter, strong caffeine, in my opinion.
When we were finally fully recharged, we headed for our first temple: Bayon. We originally thought we could walk it, but Vannet quickly disabused us of that notion. The park grounds are so massive that you need to take either a bike, remork or some other vehicle to go from one temple to the next, especially if you want to save all the walking and trekking for the actual temples.
Bayon is the central temple of Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire and one of its largest cities. If you look at it on a map of the archaeological park, you’ll see that the area of Angkor Thom is much bigger than that of Angkor Wat. It’s made up of several temples, with Bayon being most recognized for the numerous stone faces carved all over its remaining thirty-seven towers. It is said that there were forty-nine towers originally; however, the loss does not detract from the grand impact of the temple.
It’s easy to get lost in Bayon. Apparently, the reason behind the complex plan is that several different kings implemented their own changes to the temple during their reign, instead of destroying it and building a new one. Even though there are several signposts telling us the “way of tour”, we’d get distracted by a particularly detailed bas relief or a mysteriously shadowed hallway.
We eventually found our way to the west entrance, where Vannet said he’d be waiting for us. After several attempts at jump shots in front of the outer pavilion, we took off for the temple that put Siem Reap in the map of modern pop culture — Tomb Raider’s Ta Prohm.
No other temple I’ve been to thus far demonstrates the battle between nature and man as vividly as Ta Prohm does. To get to the temple, we had to walk into the forest and were engulfed in the stippled shade of the trees. The whistles, chirps and buzz of unseen creatures rang in our ears as we took in the awe-inspiring sight of huge tree roots snaking over, into and through the walls of the temple. It was intentionally kept in its natural state, which involved a lot of maintenance as the trees that make the temple so outstanding are also the reasons behind its decline.
We had reserved Angkor Wat for sunrise the next day, so we asked Vannet where it would be nice to see the sunset. He drove us to Pre Rup, a less-known temple that’s part of the East Baray complex or the Big Circuit. It’s a temple mountain and, with the absence of trees, is an ideal spot for watching the rise and fall of the sun.
My friend, Patrese, had been looking forward to climbing a lot of stairs, and she got her wish as we trudged up three levels of narrow, steep and partially eroded stone steps to get to the main platform. There, we joined a surprisingly healthy number of tourists who’d staked out their own spots on and around the five brick towers of the temple. Unfortunately, a cover of clouds ensured that we wouldn’t see the sky painted in oranges and reds. We decided to call it a day and made our way down ahead of the crowd, stopping on the second tier to take photos overlooking a cluster of three towers.
// Photos c/o myself, Patrese, Dec & his trusty and well-missed tripod
// If you’re interested in learning more about Siem Reap’s temples, check out the guidebook “Ancient Angkor” by Michael Freeman & Claude Jacques