Adventures in Asia: Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Cambodia

These posts aren’t happening in chronological order anymore; Cambodia was my final trip of exchange and since it’s the most fresh in my memory, I want to get it down first. Cambodia was a trip that I knew was going to happen during my exchange term (I was going to make it happen). I’ve seen enough photos of Angkor Wat to know that I had to see it if I was going to be in Southeast Asia for so long. And so, starting in January, I started tracking prices using Google Flights. Flights from Singapore directly to Siem Reap were looking expensive – they were around the 300 dollar range for a round trip ticket, for trips a week from that day and three months from that day. If we flew to Phnom Penh (about a 10-12 hour bus drive away from Siem Reap), the tickets were half that price. So, I just tracked everything and prayed that I would get lucky.

            At the beginning of February, I remember that I got an email notification saying that prices for flights directly to Siem Reap had dropped. I remember seeing that the prices hadn’t just dropped, they were 50% off. A round trip ticket was now $150, instead of $300+. And so, I booked my flight on the spot.

            40 something days later, it was finally time. We were going to be in Siem Reap for 4 whole days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and most of Monday) and so, we were planning on using two full days to do the temple exploration. It would be 3 of us going in total, and we had plans to hire a driver on each of those two temple days so that it’d be easier to get around. Seeing that it was the 3 of us, we also could afford to get a nice Airbnb at a fraction of the price of what we would normally pay if we were in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. We ended up choosing to stay at Aster Villa, which had more than enough space for the 3 of us, complimentary breakfast, and a nice pool.

            On our first full day in the city, we had a driver (Mr. Rattol — Whatsapp #855 87 312 269) pick us up at 8 am to start our day of sightseeing. We had actually met this guy the night before, as we had hired him to drive us to our Airbnb from the airport. We weren’t planning on using him for tours the next day (to be frank, we weren’t actually sure what we wanted to do the first day) but the whole ride to the Airbnb, he kept telling us of things we could do tomorrow and was trying to share so much information with us. Then, at the end of the ride, he looked us dead in the eyes and said, “Please think about tomorrow. Please don’t leave me.” For context, Cambodia is currently suffering a “tourist drought” given the COVID situation around the world. Chinese tourists are particularly big visitors to Angkor Wat and so because COVID disrupted a lot of their Lunar New Year plans, Siem Reap was lacking in tourist money this year. And so, when a driver looks directly at you and tells you to not leave him, what can you do?

            Mr. Rattol, the night before, had told us that because of COVID, Angkor Wat was offering a promotion where 1 day passes were now valid for 2 days. A 1 day pass is $37 USD so that actually is a lot. With that knowledge, we were going to do some of the farther out temples that were still part of the complex, and see a few other things the first day. Our second day would be a full Angkor Wat day.

            On our first day, we first drove to Banteay Srei, which is often nicknamed “the lady temple”.

The reason for this is because the name Banteay Srei means “citadel of the women” and because of this meaning, many people think that this is why this temple is much more petite than the other grand temples in the main Angkor complex, and why it contains pink limestone and many elaborate decorative carvings of devatas (minor female deities). The temple dates back to 967 AD and is the only major temple not to be built by a King. The construction is attributed to Yajnavaraha, a courtier and King’s counselor. It’s about 20 kilometers from the main Angkor complex and I am very glad that we chose to go with Mr. Rattol’s car, rather than a tuk-tuk, because of how dusty the roads were getting there. I’m glad that we went right in the morning because we got to see the light hit the limestone, revealing its pink colour, and we got in before the heat became unbearable at noon.

Surprisingly, Cambodia was the hottest place I’ve been in Asia so far (and I didn’t think that it would (or could) get much worse than Singapore’s climate). Every day gets to be around 37 to 38 degrees Celsius at noon, feeling more like the low forties. Despite the sweat, I liked Banteay Srei in that it was a nice introduction to the style of temples in Cambodia. Many people say that this temple displays wealth, power and the veneration of the gods in the tiny details and intricate carvings on the limestone. This, apparently, is very different from the sense of enormity and gravitas you feel when you approach a temple in the main Angkor Wat complex but I guess we were going to see that ourselves.

Next on the list was Beng Mealea, which is about 68 kilometres northeast of Siem Reap. It’s another temple that requires the pass, so make sure you keep that in mind when planning out your itinerary. It was built in the 12th century under Suryavarman II and was enclosed by a massive moat measuring 1.2 km by 900 m. I loved this temple even more than the first one we saw because it was all in ruins. It was just heaps of rubble everywhere, everything was destroyed. But it was like a beautiful chaos. It was often referred to as the “Titanic” of temples.

Something that also made it unique was how much greenery there was. The temple, apparently, had used to be utterly consumed by jungle, but some of the dense foliage has been cut back and cleaned up in recent years. We spent all our time there just walking around, walking on the main path and then taking turns here and there to find ourselves on trails of stone that were more “off the beaten path.” There was so much to see, and it was all absolutely in ruins (which made it more exciting). It was fun to imagine what once stood there, and to imagine the gradual decline of it.

We had some lunch at a place that Mr. Rattol recommended. I had Sweet and Sour pork with pineapple, and had sticky rice in jackfruit for dinner (I was clearly missing the mango sticky rice from Thailand, still)

After lunch, we headed to our final big stop of the day which was the floating village and Tonle Sap lake. Mr. Rattol took us to Kampong Phluk, which is a floating village that consists of mainly stilted houses. We got to the front and deliberated for a long time about whether or not we wanted to pay the $18/person entrance fee to actually go check out the village and the lake. Our main issue was that it was dry season in Cambodia, meaning that the village wouldn’t actually be floating (and hence not really worth the $18), but still part of us was curious to see what it was.

            Finally, we chose to go in and we were so glad that we did. We first saw people trying to find fish in very low water levels.

Then, we saw the village. All the houses that we passed by were essentially just wooden houses on high stilts (undoubtedly for when the water would rise to a much higher level). We were astounded by the living conditions in the village; we couldn’t believe that families were living in these houses that were covered with nothing more than some plastic tarp. We saw huge families congregated in one house, with pets roaming around.

            We were actually happy that the village wasn’t completely immersed in water, as it allowed us to get out of the car and just wander around, rather than have to go by boat. We walked past what looked like to be a wedding celebration, with music playing and people sitting around outside waiting. We also walked past an English school for children. We saw that they were in the middle of a lesson so we went to poke our heads in. When they saw us, the teacher invited us to interact with the children. That was such a highlight for me of the whole trip to Cambodia. I chatted with a few of the kids and they were so eager to practice their English. They’d ask question after question – “What’s your favourite colour? What’s your favourite food?” Then, after they ran out of questions, they took out their reading book and started reading me everything on the page to show me how good they were. I couldn’t stop smiling, it was such a moment to be in.

            After our little brief stroll in the village, we headed to do a cheap boat ride on Tonle Sap Lake (it was only about $1 USD from what I remember). The lake was another highlight on the trip. It was only about 1 metre in depth during dry season, but at the peak of rainy season, it could get up to 9 metres in depth. Our boat driver (and his younger helper) took us around the lake and brought us to a restaurant that seemed to be at the middle of the lake. We got off the boat and enjoyed some beers while lounging and overlooking the lake. It was great way to end off the day.

            For dinner, we headed to Viroth’s Restaurant, which was a “pricey restaurant” for Cambodia. Pricey, in Cambodia, was having to buy $7 to $8 USD for a main course. We knew we could get a meal for cheaper but since we didn’t have too many dinners to begin with in Cambodia, we decided to “splurge”. We tried the curry they had (which is a Cambodian special) and paired cocktails with it to finish Day 1.

            Day 2 was an early start for us; it was going to be our big Angkor Wat day. We hired another tuk-tuk driver for the full day to take us around to all the different temples in the main Angkor Wat complex from sunrise (5 AM) to sunset (6 pm). For 13 hours of his time and the use of his tuk-tuk, he only charged $30 USD. The currency really works in your favour pretty much anywhere you go in Southeast Asia (except for Singapore haha). And he ended up being amazing – he knew we were dying of heat exhaustion and so, every time we came back from seeing the temple (he would never come in with us because as a tuk-tuk driver, he has to sit outside with his tuk-tuk) he would have fresh cold towelettes and ice water ready for us. We probably went through an entire case of water between the three of us in just half a day but he was ALWAYS waiting for us with a smile and with more water and more cold towels.

            Sunrise at the main Angkor Wat temple was incredible. It’s forever stored as one of my favourite memories of exchange. After our driver (Mr. Pich — Whatsapp # 855 92 666 181) came to pick us up at 5 AM, he drove us straight to the road where all the other sunrise-seeking tuk-tuks were parked. He dropped us off and told us that he’d be waiting right there for us after the sunrise; we just have to follow the line of people to get to the spot for sunrise. So at 5 AM, we were feeling around in the dark, following the shadows of people in front of us for a couple hundred metres. Finally, we arrived to the little man-made pond in front of the main temple and just waited with the crowd. I’ve seen pictures of the crowd at this spot before sunrise to know that COVID really has impacted the level of tourism in Cambodia. It was still busy, as you can see in the picture below, but noticeably less so. We, together with the other tourists coming from near and far, waited together in the dark for close to an hour and slowly, we watched the sky turn to pink, then to orange, and then to a pale light yellow marking daybreak. I’ve always been a fan of sunrises because of how still everything seems to be that early in the morning and here, despite being around probably a hundred bodies, it all still felt quiet and peaceful.

            Then, we started our temple run with the temple that we were already at, which was the main Angkor Wat temple. Here might be a good time to do a quick brief on the history behind the Angkor Wat complex as a whole. The whole site, or complex, stretches over an area of 400 km2, including forested area. The whole complex contains temples that date from the 9th to the 14th century and really showcases the influence that the Khmer Empire had on the region. In fact, many of the big temples served as capitals of the Khmer Empire.

            In the whole day, with Mr. Pich as our trusty driver, we hit 12 different temples. This blog post would go on way too long if I were to describe each of them in depth so instead, I’m choosing to just list them and talk about the ones that stood out the most in my memory (because to be honest, after a while, the three of us agreed that they all looked very similar)

  • Angkor Wat (for sunrise)
  • Bayon
  • Bamphuon
  • Ta Keo
  • Ta Prohm
  • Banteay Kdei
  • Pre Rup
  • East Mebon
  • Ta Som
  • Neak Pean
  • Preah Kahn
  • Phnom Bakheng (for sunset)

The ones that most stood out to me were Bayon, Ta Prohm and Neak Poan. The ones in between those three often resembled other styles, which is why they weren’t incredibly unique.

Bayon and Ta Prohm are probably the two most visited temples at the Angkor Wat complex. The Bayon temple dates back to the 12th century. It really showcases the creative genius of the king who commissioned to have it built, with its 54 Gothic towers and 216 gargantuan smiling faces. The faces are probably the most memorable aspect of Bayon; it was incredible that even 9 centuries later, the faces and their details remained largely intact.

Ta Prohm, on the other hand, was memorable for a different reason. It’s often called the Tomb Raider Temple because it’s where Tomb Raider was partially filmed. What makes it so unique is that unlike the other temples in the main Angkor complex, this one looks like it’s been “swallowed by the jungle”, which is what had made Beng Mealea unique as well. The stone, combined with the overgrown tree roots and greenery, makes for a different feeling. You’ll be shocked out how the tree roots seem to just try to swallow up the façade of the temple.

Lastly, Neak Pean was less of a temple and more of a little island retreat, which is why we loved it. Named “the entwined serpents”, Neak Peak dates back to the second half of the 12th century and is essentially a small temple located on an island in the center of a water reservoir. To see the temple, you walk across a wooden walkway in the middle of the reservoir. It felt very picturesque and was a very different feeling from all the stone that we had been seeing all day.

By the time sunset came, we were more than exhausted. As we sat at the Phnom Bakheng temple waiting for the sun to set (behind a layer of clouds, unfortunately), I thought about the day that we just had. Exploring the temples – moving in and out of stone gates and hallways – was definitely an experience that is unparalleled. What else can you compare to the experience of climbing up temples that date back to the 11th or 12th century, and seeing a bit of Siem Reap from the top? How can you replicate the feeling of looking up and seeing stone towers that seem to rise indefinitely? How can you describe in words the feeling of what it’s like to feel so small, yet so empowered, by these structures?

To celebrate the end of our most tiring day, we headed to Pub Street for the night which is the tourist hub of Siem Reap. I remember the first time I saw it, I was stunned by how touristy it all was (and I honestly didn’t like that). I had just come from Myanmar the weekend before where tourism still wasn’t big yet and that meant there was a “local” feel everywhere you went. After comparing that to Pub Street, while I do think Pub Street was more entertaining, I liked how Myanmar was more untouched. Nonetheless, at Pub Street, you’ll find all your restaurants and bars there so it’s a great place to spend a few hours with friends. You can find beer for $0.50 a glass, and cocktails for often no more than $1.50 or $2. Everything is such a steal (if you have the right currency, of course).

For our last 2 days in Cambodia, we took things slow. We had seen most of what we wanted to see and now we just wanted to enjoy being “on vacation” (as if every weekend hasn’t been a vacation for us since the start of exchange). We visited Psar Chas market to pick up some souvenirs, explored the War Museum, mailed off some postcards, got a massage, and then spent our last night in Cambodia once again at Pub Street and at the Night Market.

            When we had left Singapore for Cambodia on March 12th, I hadn’t yet known that it would be my last trip and that I’d be heading back to Canada in a week’s time because of the escalating COVID situation. I had so much planned for the last month – Vietnam, Phuket, maybe a trip to Laos, East Java, and Bali. I had no idea that Cambodia would’ve been the last getaway for my one and only exchange, but nonetheless I’m still grateful because it was a good way to end off the temples and tourism in Southeast Asia.

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