The Preah Vihear trip had been, what is probably, the defining experience of my Cambodian travel. The temple was breathtaking and it would end up stealing the glamour from the famed Angkor temples of Siem Reap. However, that was the town I was headed to next, to see the temples and begin the ending of my South East Asian adventures. I was also going to meet up with some old friends which I was really looking forward to!
Experiencing Siem Reap
Getting to Siem Reap meant taking another minivan. The minivans from Preah Vihear left early in the morning and I asked the hotel to arrange for one. The journey was almost 7 hours long and an adventure as always. The Cambodian minivan really does test limits of transportation. They stuff in just about anything, from humans to motorbikes and furnitures! I lost my seat when, sometime on the way, the rear half of the van was collapsed to make room for two huge wooden chairs. It was fun though!
Cambodian minivans never disappoint!
Siem Reap is a quaint town with a stream flowing through it. Most of the tourist area is concentrated in a 500m by 500m area around this stream. I was making my way to the far end of this area, to a hostel that Eitan had suggested. As before, his suggestion turned out to be quite nice and I took up a bed in the huge dorm.
I was meeting up with old friends in Siem Reap but I had gotten here early. So I had a few days to kill before it would be time to do proper touristy stuff (read, the Angkor Temples). At first I was at a loss as to what I would do all these days and contemplated a short trip to Battambang. However, it turned out that Siem Reap had much to offer.
The first thing I did was to check out the nightlife in the city. I was handed out a flyer for the Siem Reap Pub Crawl while walking down the famous Pub Street and I thought it would be a nice way to get acquainted with the city’s nightlife. Plus, it would have been a great place to make new friends. So I joined the pub crawl that night and it turned out to be amazing fun!
I made a few new friends that night and they turned out to be a real fun batch. We met the next night as well and danced till the wee hours of the night. Siem Reap is one place where you will never fall short of options to party! Amazing clubs, cheap beer and good music. I really liked how the crowd spills over to the streets and starts dancing there itself!
The hostel was a nice place to chill out as well. They had a swimming pool that I made good use of to lounge around. We had some unexpected guests one evening when a horde of children invaded the pool to the amusement of everyone present. I tried asking their guardian if the kids were from some school but she was not so good at English. Instead, she handed me some local savouries and smiled as I gobbled them up. 🍮
I did some walking around the city as well. I went to random pagodas in the town, checked out some cheap eateries for daily food and discovered a great cafe which served delicious cupcakes!
As delicious as it looks 😋
Walking around town
On the third morning, Arjun and Devashish joined me for another one of our yearly outings. Although I had made plenty of new friends on the road, it is always good to be back in the company of old friends!
Since they were tired with all the travelling they had to do to get there, we roamed around a bit, lazed by the swimming pool drinking beer and ate crocodile burgers and had ecstatic shakes to kill the day.
Local specialty 😁
We figured out a rough itinerary for the following day and called it an early night so that we could begin early the next morning.
The next morning we headed out for the Angkor temples on our rented e-bikes. We got a three day pass which we thought would be sufficient to explore the temples. We did manage to cover a decent amount that day despite the frequent showers that delayed our schedule.
The temples were beautiful and verdant, but I will let the pictures do most of the explanation.
There are way more pictures of the temples that I clicked. You can find them in the album at the end of the post.
We were armed with a map and a route recommended by the guy who had sold us the e-bikes. Banteay Kdei was first of the many temples we saw that day.
Ta Keo is aptly named the mountain temple. It rises quite abruptly and the stairs were a steep climb up. Arjun had some difficulty finding his footing. 😅 Ta Keo’s restoration was being supported by the Chinese government.
Thommanon is a pair of temples that were relatively free of the tourist rush. We stopped here for a bit and attempted some “Temple Run” photography.
Temple Run 🏃💨 👹
Bayon is probably one of the best known Angkor temples after Angkor Wat. This temple is famous for the towers with smiling faces. Contrary to how I had imagined, the faced did not look that creepy! Although the pictures barely do justice to the overwhelming presence of Avlokiteshvara all around.
I see you!
Siem Reap Tip #1
The Angkor temples are spread across a huge area with random temples sprawling throughout. There are many small temples that pop up here and there and then, of course, there are the more famous ones. If you are not a super history buff or an archaeologist or a specialist of some kind, do not aspire to do them all!
We returned to the city after a tiring day of temple hopping. We had been slowed down considerably by the intermittent rains and the e-bikes were also giving us a little trouble. So we returned the bikes and asked a random tuk-tuk driver if he would take us around the next morning. It turned out to be less of a hassle than we had imagined and we had a sealed deal in a couple of minutes. Our tuk-tuk driver told us to be ready at a sharp 5:30 AM so we called in another early night.
Early mornings are always painful. Our first destination was the famous Angkor Wat temple which people flock to before sunrise to get a picture of the temple against the background of the rising sun. The pictures over the internet had me believing that the temple stood behind a vast pond, but it turned out that those pictures were shot in front of nothing more than a stagnant pool of water.
The meh moment
Angkor Wat though, is massive and flanked by an equally massive moat, making it the biggest religious monument in the world! It is well maintained as well with a near complete restoration work. My epitome temple experience, however, had been Preah Vihear and Angkor Wat did not match up to the hype that surrounds it. Perhaps the swarm of tourists played a role in spoiling the experience. We checked out the temple quickly and made our way out. We were trying to stay ahead of the tourist wave that would spill over from this temple.
Against the dawn sky
Murals and gallery
We were at much more ease in a tuk-tuk and the intermittent showers bothered us less. To top it, our driver was a really nice guy, a rarity in itself! I had initially feared that a tuk-tuk would rob us of the freedom to stop and explore as we please but it was much more convenient and saved us a lot of time as well.
Siem Reap Tip #2
If you are a group of two or more, it is much more economical and wise to take a tuk-tuk to explore the Angkor temple ruins.
We saw more temples that day and it would be pointless to get into the details of them. They were, simply put, temples in ruins and various stages of restoration. When you actually see the ruins that these restorations are being attempted from, it seems like an impossible task altogether!
Baphuon & Around
Baphuon is located inside Angkor Thom and we managed to reach here before the tourist invasion. In fact, we had to wait a few minutes before the gates of the temple were opened by the guard! The restoration here is being supported by the French government. There is a nice walking route that starts at Baphuon and goes around through some more ruins before ending back along the main road at the Elephant Terrace.
It said "Do Not Climb"
So of course we climbed!
Elephants on the terrace
Preah Khan was the temple that made the damage to the Angkor temples the most obvious. There was rubble lying all around waiting to be put back into their appointed place. We made our way through the temple and ended on the other side with an impressive view of the Jayatataka baray.
Warding off evil
Ta Som & East Mebon
We quickly did two more temples at Ta Som and East Mebon. These were smaller temples and the tourists had started swarming by then. We did enjoy some sceneries though but the temples were getting repetitive by now.
Delicious grilled rice cakes outside Ta Som
I ended the second day of temple tours with a trip to the tattoo studio. I had finalized a Khmer kirtimukha (Kala) design the previous evening and Bear, my Thai tattoo artist, etched the new tattoo with great expertise on my right arm. It cost me a bomb but on hindsight, it was completely worth it!
We spent the rest of the evening on the Pub Street as usual. Siem Reap is pretty convenient in this matter. The area around the Pub Street is all that you would need for your touristy needs. You can shop for souvenirs, have the local cuisines, drink cheap beer and cocktails and have a blast; all in a radius of a couple of hundred meters!
Siem Reap Tip #3
Do yourself a favour and lay off the scorpion, snake and tarantula. They taste horrible and are really not worth the effort! There are better local dishes to try.
Of snakes, spiders and scorpions
Cocktails on a cart
Even More Temples
We were wiser by day three and started the day at a more amicable hour. We were running out of stamina for all the temple watching and decided to keep the day short.
Our first temple of the day, after a rather long ride beyond the Angkor Thom, was Banteay Srei. This temple, in terms of decoration, was much more beautiful than the ones that we had seen till now. The restoration work was much more comprehensive and the temple made for a pleasant walk around.
Loads of tourists
My love for frames
Next, we were taken to Kbal Spean, which is famous as a waterfall. It is much more than just a waterfall though. The entire riverbed is decorated with motifs and carvings in the stones. However, we did not know this and ended up doing an aimless 3 km hike. Deva and I were loudly discussing software architecture to the apparent displeasure of anyone who happened to cross our way. 😾
Siem Reap Tip #4
Do your homework on the places that you are going to visit. If you can, take a trip to the national museum before heading out to see the temples.
We ended the temple tour with Banteay Samre, a relatively empty temple to the east of Angkor Thom.
Siem Reap Tip #5
We had taken a three day pass for the Angkor temples. However, a continuous marathon of the temples is a tad bit tiring. I would suggest, if you have the time, pocket and patience for it, to spread out the temple visits more evenly.
We returned to the town towards the evening and spent a while lazing. We hit the Pub Street with vengeance that night since we did not have to get up early the next morning. Siem Reap is awesome place to spend a short vacation. You have enough to keep you busy throughout the day and the night.
Choum reap lear, Cambodia
We reserved the last day for walking through the markets and buying a few things that we wanted to take back with us. Arjun used his awesome bargaining skills to buy paintings for himself and Deva, while I contended myself with knick-knacks that befitted my mode of travelling. We took the day to wind down from all the running about of the last few days. We even joined the pub crawl once again but it was not as good as the one I had been to. The crowd really does make a lot of difference!
Siem Reap Airport
Finally, it was time to head out. Arjun was on his way back to Bangalore to continue his daily grind at work. Deva and I were catching a flight to Bangkok and thence to our next destination where our vacation would continue for another week.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Siem Reap leg of the trip.