After a month of traveling Vietnam, I left the border town of Chau Doc by boat and went down the Mekong to enter Cambodia. It would be my second time since my rather spontaneous departure more than three months before. After my memorable jungle adventure in Mondulkiri and the Mekong Discovery Trail, there wasn’t much left on my list but the all time Cambodia highlight Angkor Wat and a short stay in Battambang. The border crossing was quick and I was on my way to Phnom Penh, a city which I associated great memories with. In preparation of my Philippines journey, I had spent a good week in Phnom Penh before and this time I just felt like returning and spending a couple of days in the city to regroup and revive and then head for the ancient temples of Angkor.
Comin back to Phnom Penh
It is strange how familiar a place can become just after a short time. It’s a nice feeling when you return to a place and you already know how things work, how to get around, where things are and kind of know what to expect. Checking into my preferred hostel, having a beer in my favorite riverfront bar, working out in the local gym and just walking around town somehow felt like being home again. A feeling you start to appreciate after having been on the road for such a long time already. Phnom Penh was and still is one of my favorite cities in all of South East Asia.
Siem Reap – a strange place
After two relaxing days it was time to leave for Sieam Reap where I was supposed to meet up with fellow traveler Kyong from the US whom I had met before while waiting at the border. Siem Reap is a strange place. Imagine a fairly big city which whole purpose is to serve tourists and which probably would not even exist if it wasn’t for the temples of Angkor, the world famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city offers literally everything a tourist could wish for and it caters for all budgets. It features a modern airport, resorts, restaurants, bars, fish spas and massage parlors, several night markets, the so called pub street and much more. Dead during day time with all the tourists being out exploring the temples, Siem Reap springs to live as soon as the sun sets. For my taste it was too touristy but at that point it was actually nice for a change and Kyong and I took the opportunity to once again indulge in some western food. Yet another thing that you tend to appreciate after having been on the road for some time.
Angkor – some general thoughts
If you want to visit the Temples of Angkor, you have to decide how many days you want to spend and which ticket to buy accordingly. There is the one day pass for 20 USD, the three day pass for 40 USD (three days within one week) USD and the seven days pass for 60 USD (7 days within one month). We decided to go for the three days and this would also be my recommendation for anyone planning to visit Angkor as well. It gives you just the right amount of time to check things out but not become too templed out (which by the way will happen). Two days might also be enough for some but if you have the three days pass, why not also make full use of it?
Before publishing this article I was wondering how to write it and what to include since there are already so many reviews out there and even more photos. And at that time I didn’t even have a camera anymore. So my approach is to give a short overview of the top three temples I visited with a bit of info on each one of them. Most of the pictures displayed have been taken with my mate Kyong’s smartphone so don’t wonder about the rather poor quality. Some of the pictures I also once again took from the Flickr creative commons section (all indicated).
Angkor is actually a region in Cambodia that served as seat of the legendary Khmer Empire, which flourished from the 9th to 15th centuries. The ruins of this era number over one thousand ranging from unrecognizable piles of rubble to the magnificent Angkor Wat which has now become the synonym of the whole complex. Angkor Wat itself is said to be the largest single religious monument of the world and together with the many other temples it is protected as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Angkor is on the itinerary of literally every Cambodia tourist and gets about 2 million visitors annually and the numbers rising every year.
With Angkor Wat being the biggest and most representative of all temples (its silhouette is even featured on the Cambodias national flag), it by far sees the most tourists. I was hesitant about this at first but despite the masses, it is still one impressive sight that one needs to see. I don’t want to go into detail here, since there is already enough info and great pictures out there.
Favorite no. 1: Bayon
Probably the second most popular temple in Angkor, Bayon is centered in the middle of the Angkor Thom complex which used to be the capital of the Khmer empire. Bayon’s most distinctive feature which made it world famous are the many serene and massive stone faces which seem to guard and watch over the surrounding area. Besides those impressive carvings, the temple has two intricate galleries which feature bas reliefs depicting scenes from the empire’s everyday life, historical events but also mythological events. This combination of these massive faces and the intricate carvings make Bayon one of the most interesting temples to explore around Angkor.
As it is situated right in the center of Angkor Thom, with the main road leading right to it, you can easily find it if you ride a bicycle into the park.
Favorite no. 2: Ta Phrom
Also one of the tourists’ favorites, Ta Phrom is a little bit different than most other temples of Angkor as the archaeologists left the temple in much the same condition in which it was found. The temple is surrounded by lush jungle and features large trees growing out of and over the ruins, seeming to take back what is theirs. This is also the most distinctive feature of Ta Phrom, the trees which seem to mercilessly strangle the walls and ruins with their thick roots, sometimes appearing more than big reptiles than plants. Ta Phrom is among the most visited temples of Angkor also because it was used as location in the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. Some even refer to it as the “Tomb Raider Temple”.
Ta Phrom is located east of Bayon and Angkor Thom, it’s also very easy to find and makes for an interesting second stop after having seen Bayon.
Favorite no. 3: Beng Mealea
Whereas the other two temple are among the most popular and most visited, Beng Melea is still more of a hidden gem. Located about 70km outside of Siem Reap, approximately 1,5 hours by Tuk Tuk, the temple conveys the true Indiana Jones feeling. Thick brushes and trees are thriving amidst its towers and courtyards and big piles of rubble can be found everywhere. A few board walks have been built to make the temple accessible but it’s bet to really venture into the ruins, climb the walls and take in the enchanted atmosphere of Beng Melea.
It takes some time to get there but it was definitely worth it. Smaller tours stop there during the day, but if you time to arrive there earlier or a bit later, you will have that temple almost all for yourself, a thing seldomly found around Angkor these days. The Tuk Tuk ride will cost around 15 USD round trip… and for us it even allowed for another extraordinary experience …
Bursting into an important Buddhist celebration
On the way back from Beng Melea we suddenly passed a big and lively procession. Hundreds of people were flocking down the road accompanied by trailers heavily loaded with speaker boxes. A mix of electronic and traditional music was played with people ecstatically dancing and cheering to it. According to our driver, it was the annual anniversary of an important temple in the area and that was also where everyone was heading for. We decided to stop and join the crowds for a while. Everyone was very welcoming and told us to come along to the temple. It seemed more like a big party than a religious procession; the people just had so much fun and were happy. At the temple, the worshipers were circling the temple three times for good luck and good karma. Afterwards everyone was gathering either inside the temple or outside in the courtyard and enjoying themselves. Food and drinks were served, people were having fun and I am sure that the celebrations lasted for quite some time that day. It was one of these unexpected experiences, without other tourists around, that really make a journey so worthwhile.
People have warned me before coming to Siem Reap and Angkor – too touristy, to busy and not really worth to spend too much time. I still enjoyed my time there I have to say and those three days were the perfect amount of time. The temples are just so impressive which helps to phase out the crowds around. I expected worse anyways and I think that being there during the end of the rainy season also made a positive difference in terms of crowds.
Exploring the temples by bicycle is the way to go in my opinion. Not very expensive and it gives you a lot of flexibility. We rented for two days and had a Tuk Tuk for the third day to go to Beng Melea and some other sites at the end of that last day. It’s a true bummer though to go visit a place like that without a camera. I probably was the only person during those three days who wasn’t walking around with a camera. That being said, it sometimes even felt liberating being able just to focus on the place and fully appreciate being there. Next time I will bring a camera though 😉