Stepping Back in Time at Angkor Wat

131 days travelling and I think we might be all temple’d out after a rather intense couple of days.

28th January – 2nd February 2019 (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

We have flown in and out of some pretty dire airports on our travels so far, and although Luang Prabang airport wasn’t the worst, it definitely wasn’t the best either. Luckily we didn’t have a very long wait at the airport, as it was only 3km away from the centre of town. This meant it was very easy to catch a taxi a couple of hours before our flight, rather than having to arrive at the airport several hours too early as we have done in other places.

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The flight into Siem Reap was fairly painless and was our first flight with Vietnam Airlines. My wife managed to have a seat with no one sitting next to her yet again (I’m losing count of how many times this has happened now) and we even got a small complimentary snack (full of gluten of course, but it was the thought that counts). We had touched down in Siem Reap by mid afternoon and started the process of getting our visas approved – a process that seemed a bit all over the place, with missing forms and no one really sure on where we should be going. After a couple of false starts, we managed to get the correct documentation in place and got our visas approved without any problems (having two middle names seemed to confuse the immigration officer, as he called me forward using one of them instead of my first name). Once we had made it through the incredibly slow security, we located the driver who had been arranged to collect us by our hotel and started our 30 minute journey to our guest house in the centre of Siem Reap.

Nature left to its own devices
Nature left to its own devices

Driving through the dusty streets, it felt quite similar to when we had arrived in Kathmandu, with dust being kicked up around us as we zipped along the road. We had arrived in Cambodia at supposedly the best time of year to visit, in the middle of the dry season when the temperatures are hot but not completely unbearable and you can pretty much guarantee consistent good weather. A quick glance at our weather app confirmed it was due to be steadily in the mid thirties for the next 5 days, with no hint of rain.

Once we arrived in our guest house, it wasn’t long before we’d made ourselves at home. We’d be staying at this guest house for 6 nights in total (very long in the same place by our usual standards – I took a bit of persuading to be in one place so long) to try and avoid travelling over Chinese New Year and a certain someone’s birthday.

The many stone faces
The many stone faces

Our main reason for coming to Siem Reap (and Cambodia in general) was to see the amazing historical complex of Angkor Wat. With over 300 temples to explore around the city, we decided to get ourselves a 3 day pass to maximise our time there. On our first day exploring the complex, we decided to hire a tuk tuk driver and a guide for the day to get our bearings and also to understand as much about the history of Angkor as possible. We had opted to do the ‘small circuit’ tour on our first day which was still a busy day of temple hopping, including the famous Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm, the many Buddha faces at Bayon and of course the main complex of Angkor Wat itself.

Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm
Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm

The temples were all stunning and unique in their own way, and remarkably well preserved considering they were over 1,000 years old. Our guide was a fountain of knowledge and was able to take us to some more secluded spots around the temples, away from the hoards of tourists to get some great photos. Our favourite temples were the ones we drove past completely by chance on the way to visit more popular temples, as they were usually deserted and meant we could wander around them uninterrupted. Walking around the temples in the heat of the day really took it out of us, and we were completely exhausted by the time we got back to our guest house that evening.

Perfectly aligned with nature
Perfectly aligned with nature

On our second day we decided to hire the same tuk tuk driver to take us out to the temple of Banteay Srei, which is quite different in terms of look and feel from the other temples and is known as the ‘woman’s temple’. The distinctive pink colouring makes it stand out from the other temples, which all used dark coloured stone. The temple was about an hour and a half tuk tuk ride from the centre of town, but we were happy to sit back and enjoy watching the countryside roll by on our journey. The temple itself was really beautiful, all on one level and set in a secluded forest surrounded by a small lake. We were able to spend a bit of time walking around the nature trail there and enjoying being out of the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap.

Entrance way at Banteay Srei
Entrance way at Banteay Srei

After a quick bite to eat and the tuk tuk ride back to town, we continued our day with the ‘grand tour’ selection of temples. The temples we visited today were very different to the ones we had visited the day before, one had a long walk across a lake to reach it (possibly Neak Pean) and another had some of the steepest steps we had seen on any of the temples (possibly Phnom Bakheng) – we are not entirely sure of their exact names, as we saw so many.

Our final day exploring Angkor Wat started very early, with a 5am pick up from our trusty tuk tuk driver. We had decided to go and watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat and spend a little more time exploring the complex in the morning, as we had visited in the afternoon previously. Bleary eyed and yawning, we managed to haul ourselves into the tuk tuk and made our way to Angkor Wat, flanked by dozens of other tuk tuks making the same journey. Our guide from our first day had recommended that we watch sunrise from outside the complex to get the best views. Most people tend to head inside the complex for the classic reflection photo of the Angkor Wat spires in one of the two pools near the entrance.

Angkor Wat at sunrise
Angkor Wat at sunrise

However, when we were there, the pools were in the process of completely drying up due to it being the dry season – they were almost comically small. We couldn’t imagine anything worse than trying to crowd around the tiny pools at 5am with hundreds of other tourists, so decided to take our guides advice. It seemed we were in the minority with our decision as streams of people headed into the complex, and we headed in the opposite direction to sit on the river banks. As the sky got lighter, a few more people started to join us and we had a clear view of Angkor Wat as the sun started to rise. This was interrupted slightly when a huge bus load of tourists descended on where we were sitting just as the sun was coming up and decided to sit in front of us along the river, camera phones up in the air. Still, at least we were high up enough for it not to make much of an impact.

Angkor Wat during the day
Angkor Wat during the day

After seeing the sun rise we decided to head into Angkor Wat one last time and to our delight managed to get a few photos of the reflection pool, as most people had decided to leave by that point. Funnily enough, a majority of people were at the pool on the left hand side of the complex which actually produced a worse photo due to the sunlight. Taking my cue from the seasoned photographers stationed around the pool on the right hand side, I got much better photos as a result. We were also entertained by the hoards of fearless monkeys who had clearly learned that people carrying plastic bags usually equaled an easy food opportunity. We saw at least 10 people have their bags snatched from them, with increasing levels of aggression on the monkeys part. We watched from a safe distance to say the least.

The walkway to (possibly) Neak Pean
The walkway to (possibly) Neak Pean

One of the other things we are really glad we did while we were in Siem Reap was a visit to the Phare Circus. The performers are all from disadvantaged backgrounds and have had the opportunity to train at the school and become professional performers. We were really impressed with how professional the production was and their circus skills were truly amazing. The show told a story of a bar in Phnom Penh and the different customers that visited the bar, with varying consequences. It was incredibly funny and a great way to spend an evening – we even decided to treat ourselves to a bag of popcorn (I begrudgingly shared this time).

Khmer Metal at Phare Circus
Khmer Metal at Phare Circus

Cambodia also gave us an opportunity to see some of the more interesting wares on sale at their local markets. Fried tarantula, snake on a stick and scorpions were all delicacies we came across while strolling through one of the local night markets (needless to say neither of us were feeling particularly peckish as one of the stall vendors chowed down on a particularly large tarantula). Insects seemed to be another common snack, with large tubs of beetles, grubs and cockroaches mixed with various spices and a good helping of chilli served from various street carts. We also spotted several stalls selling snails, left to bake on flat metal trays under the midday sun. Maybe next time we’ll be a bit braver…

Until next time.

P.S. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for when Phare Circus goes on tour when I get back home.

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