We left Phnom Penh and it’s Killing Fields on a bus, bound for Sieam Reap and the Temples of Angkor Wat. It was a big old bus that left perhaps 90 minutes late from the scheduled departure time. It was going to be a long journey we thought.
When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Thailand and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!
It turned out to be a long, very dusty very bumpy journey. Another journey where at least one passenger was vomiting each time the bus was moving. After the third stop it seemed fair to scream “try sipping water, don’t chug down mango juice, you stupid woman”. Then I realized that was just in my head.
We’d opted for a little luxury in Siem Reap, a hotel with a pool. Their tuk tuk drivers were waiting for us when the bus pulled in, in the middle of nowhere. Here’s a tip. When you read the reviews about which buses to catch and which not to catch. Don’t ignore them. Otherwise, you too, will end up on a big old dusty bus that takes most of your natural life to get to your destination.
We arrived in the dusk, which quickly turned to dark. And we received yet another reminder to not believe everything you read on the the internet. The pool was lovely. However, the balcony overlooked a crocodile farm. Any hint of opening the door or window filled the room with the pungent smell of crocodile poo. It may clear out your sinuses. It will sear off any hairs on the inside of your nose. It will probably scorch your brain cells, but I don’t recommend it for anything else.
The next morning we eschewed the idea of sunrise over Ankor Wat and set off at a leisurely 9am. We had two tuk tuks (US$15 each plus an additional US$5 for the sunset) for our tour of the temples. And there are lots of temples here.
We’ll be stopping by the main three, Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon.
First stop, Ankor Wat itself.
Ankor Wat is the earthly representation of heaven. Each of the Cambodian kings strove to outdo each other by building temples. No one lived in these temples, they were simply for worship. The culmination of temple building was Ankor Wat – it’s the world’s largest religious building. The temples in this area (the old capital of Angkor were built during the period 802AD to 1432.
The US$20 ticket covers you for one day. You will need to show it at each of the temples you visit and your photo will be on it. Don’t lose it, we were told, you’ll have to buy a new one.
Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was that there were a fair few people, but my first impression wasn’t jaw dropping. It was more a little “Oh, that’s it then”.
This wasn’t a Great Wall of China moment..
It became more impressive as we got closer.
We picked up a guide (who also spoke French and Russian) and got a US$15, 45 minute long tour around Ankor Wat. If I were to do it again, I’d take the all day guide offered by the hotel for US$30.
Each king was expected to build a temple and dedicate it to his patron god, usually Shiva or Vishnu. Then there were temples for ancestors and finally the mausoleum for the king. This, of course, had to be bigger and better than his ancestors.
It was around the 12th century that the Khmer empire went into decline. The court moved to Phnom Penh. The temples and city of Angkor were ceded back to the jungle.
It’s quite remarkable now, that this complex is literally right in the jungle. As you climb to the top of Bakan (the tower in the middle) in the center you can almost see it growing back over again.
It was the French we have to thank for “discovering” Angkor – in the 1860’s. Although the Portuguese had also first “discovered” it in 1614. To cut a long story about different explorers discovering Angkor short, the first foreign tourists arrived in 1907. Apart from the period during the Khmer Rouge regime – they’ve been visiting ever since.
The construction really is quite incredible.
It’s amazing how the temple lines up perfectly along compass lines, oriented perfectly to the west.
Unlike the other temples, Angkor Wat was never abandoned to the jungle. Even when the Portuguese, French, English discovered it again, it was a working monastery and temple.
Angkor is famous for it’s apsaras – that’s heavenly nymphs to you and me.
There are more than 3,000 here, sporting 37 different hair styles and very shiny boobs. That’s from decades of visitors trying to rub some good luck onto themselves. Or that’s what they say anyways.
Everywhere you’ll find someone wanting to sell you something. Especially the kids. And they do seem to pick on the weakest in the group. They’re superb at turning on the tears. If only they’d consider a career in IT sales I don’t think Silicon Valley would have anything at all to worry about..
Next, a brief lunch stop (at nowhere that I’d recommend). Don’t just go where the tuk tuk drivers take you, we’d got lazy and it was mediocre food at very western prices). Now, it was time to embrace our inner Angelina at Ta Prohm.
Ta Prohm – Yes, this is the Tomb Raider Temple.
And right from the start there’s an incredible atmosphere. Sure there were lots of people here and yes it was hot. But somehow there’s the feeling that the jungle is in control.
Much greener and less manicured than Ankor Wat, Ta Prohm is in an almost arrested state of decay.
Tumbledown blocks seem held sometimes almost by magic.
Tree roots curl impossibly in, under and around buildings.
Your mind imagines them growing, reaching out and including you in this macabre tableau of decay. They are giant snakes, not solid immovable trunks.
They’re very much alive and they’re coming to get you. I may have nightmares after this.
Moss covers almost everything.
And, as you can see, it is possible to avoid the crowds.
Our final temple is Bayon. We want to see the sunset, so we’re on a tight timescale now and have to keep moving.
First, though, Baphuon, close by. We walk along the promenade and climb to the top. This, to me, in it’s semi-renovated state feels so much more genuine than Angkor. As we walk through the woods, making our own path, it’s incredible to see yet more blocks There are fallen buildings and memories of what this must have once been like.
It’s good to end our temple tours here in Bayon. The serene smiling visages of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara beam down on us from all around.
There’s time for a few more shots, as the day stills, and the light starts to fade. The brightness goes out of the sun and we head to Phnom Bekheng. It’s where we’ll watch the sunset.
The authorities have put limitations now on how many people can be up on this temple. At one time there were as many as 5,000 people. Now the numbers are limited to 300 sheep, so we become four of them.
The sunset isn’t spectacular and our walk back down the hill in the dark is memorable only for being dark and busy. Luckily our tuk tuk drivers find us in the scrum at the bottom and take us back to wash off the dust of the day in the pool.
Tomorrow we head for Thailand and Bangkok – more on our bus journey here, but first it’s Pub Street, a little bit of the Khao San Road from Bangkok here in the old capital of Cambodia. It’s not at all what we were expecting here in Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, but the beers do wash away the dust of the day too.
Angkor Wat Resources:
Don’t forget to book your buses, ferries and trains – and confirm your travel. Easybook have the largest network in South East Asia!
- Siem Reap Hotel – The Hang Tep
- Our guide book in Cambodia is Lonely Planet Cambodia
- Nattakan Bus Company – direct to Bangkok Mo Chit from Sieam Reap