We spent four days in Siem Reap, primarily touring temples, and could have easily stayed longer. There are a couple hundred temples in the complex, but most tourists focus on three. We saw each of these twice and several others. Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, was built in the early 12th century and originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Later kings converted it to Buddhism and vice versa. Carvings depict battles, mainly hand-to-hand combat, between the Khmers and their enemies. The Bayon Temple, within Angkor Thom, is covered with smiling faces. It was built in the late 12th or early 13th century by a Mahayana Buddhist king. He tried to make peace between the Hindus and Buddhists by incorporating symbols from both religions, however after his death Hindus removed most of the Buddha images. There is no official state religion today, guaranteeing religions freedom, but the king is required to be a Theravada Buddhist and most Thai follow this religion. When rediscovered in the late 1800’s all of the temples were covered with vegetation and organic debris. Much has been cleared away, and temples partially restored, except at Ta Prohm, a.k.a. the Tomb Raider temple, which is overgrown with trees.
19, November, 2019 – a floating village
We used the Grab App to get a taxi to the airport in Phnom Penh for half what it cost when arrived. Our 45-minute flight to Siem Reap was uneventful until Judith realized she was missing her new cell phone. After much angst, Find-My-Phone pinpointed it to the restaurant at which we had breakfast. Kind staff at the airport retrieved it and arranged to have it flown to Siem Reap where we picked it up then next day.
A tuk tuk driver took us to our hotel, oddly named and perfectly located Uncle Sam Villa. It’s a short walk to the shops and restaurants on Pub Street, but just out of range of the noisy bar scene. I immediately liked the feel of being in a smaller town. We met Jodie, a tour guide we’ve travelled with before and were introduced to Vanna, a tuk tuk driver she uses regularly. We spent much of several days being shuttled around by this very pleasant young man whose English is quite good.
We checked in and headed out for our first adventure through the countryside, stopping to buy our Angkor Wat passes, and visited a couple small temples and Vanna’s village before taking a long dusty drive to Kombong Phluk. This floating village is built on tall pillars to accommodate the rise and fall of the river. Some people live on houseboats tethered to trees. Traveling by riverboat we could see people repairing nets and catching fish. When we got close to the Tonlé Sap Lake, we transferred to a small pole boat for a magical ride through the Mangrove trees as the sun was setting.
We got back after dark and walked over to Pub Street for a light meal. Once again, our lights were out by 9:00.
20, November – Angkor Wat
Vanna met us out front at 5:00 a.m. and took us to Angkor Wat. There we joined hundreds of people waiting to watch the sunrise. I watched from outside overlooking the moat while Judith went inside the temple walls. While I’ve seen pictures of more spectacular sunrises, this one was lovely. I then spent a couple hours wandering around the many buildings, up and down stairs, exploring what must have been stunningly beautiful before the carving and colors were removed or weathered away. I ran into Judith just as I ready to leave, which is fortunate since our local sim cards have failed us. While we get bars indicating service coverage and can access the internet, phone calls and texts rarely work.
Our next stop was Bayon Temple where Vanna took dozens of pictures of us amongst the smiling faces. There were nice reliefs here too, depicting historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer. Ta Prohm was the smallest of the three, but interesting to see tree roots everywhere. We treated Vanna to a late lunch, including two popular Cambodian dishes, fish amok and beef lok lak, I like the former more than the later and it was much tastier than the one we tried in Phnom Penh.
Vanna was ready to keep on going, but we were wiped out so we had him return us to our hotel in the mid-afternoon. We rested a bit, then headed out for our almost daily massage. It was nice until the construction sounds that started up half way through. Judith’s friend Jolene joined us for dinner at a restaurant across the river that Judith found online. They tried adventuresome dishes such as chicken with red ants and roast honeycomb. I didn’t care for any of the food. On the way back, Jolene and I took a short detour to photograph the colorful lights along the river. By the time I got back to the hotel, Judith’s eyes were closed and the lights off.
21, November – cycling through temples
Yikes, my earliest wake up yet, just as I’m finally ready to sleep in a bit. We got picked 4:40 for a bicycle tour to the same temples we saw yesterday. There were only two other people in our group, men from America each traveling alone. We started with sunrise at Angkor Wat. This time I went into the temple hoping to get a picture from the lily pond inside, but with a smattering of clouds it wasn’t colorful. We were grateful for the cloud cover later as it kept the temperature down a bit. We were taken by van to a tent structure in the jungle where we had a hot breakfast before mounting our bicycles and heading out along a dirt path. It was narrow at times, forcing me to focus on the ground and confirming that I’m not cut out for mountain biking. We followed a path along one of the Angkor Wat moats, no longer filled with alligators, through rice fields and a village, before reaching Wat Thom with its arched entryways. We road on top of the wall from the south to the west entrance, then headed into the center of what was once a city to the Bayon temple. I gratefully wiped the sweat off my face with the small wet towels provided and took a quick walk through and around the temple. From there it was a short bicycle ride along roads to a restaurant where we were served tasty Cambodian food.
If Vanna had been available the next morning, I would have loved to do nothing in the afternoon. Instead we showered and got picked up at 3:00 to visit a few smaller temples in the northern part of the complex. Presh Khan was very long and interesting except for the loud high-pitched insects; at first, I thought I was hearing a siren in the jungle. Neak Poan was small, but the view from the boardwalk made the stop worthwhile. We watched the sunset from on top of another temple then headed back to town, stopping briefly at silver and silk stores on the way. I bought a scarf.
We had our worst massage yet, followed by a short foot massage at a different place. My masseuse there was cute, friendly and chatty. She bicycles an hour each way and works six days a week. (Legal working hours here are 8 hours per day, 48 hours a week. Employees can work up to 6 days per week). We ate dinner at the Red Tomato and surprise, surprise, were asleep by 9:00.
22, November – Farewell Cambodia
Ahh, I slept past 6:00. I then spent hours puttering in our room. I finally had a chance to post my Phnom Penh blog entry, a challenge given the slow internet and technical glitches with Word Press. Judith headed back to the Bayon temple with Jolene. I had a late breakfast, took a short walk, discovering cages of birds along the river, and met her at the Lemongrass spa for our best Khmer massage yet, this time with lemongrass oil. Vanna met us at our hotel and took us to the airport, where we hugged him goodbye. We flew to Bangkok, then to Phuket, reaching our hotel at 23:00, late for us.