A trip to Cambodia with Alejandro, a great Spanish friend met in China during my current exchange program.
TL; DR for travelers at the end of the post.
I seem to make rain fall in places I go to visit. In Guilin, Yangshuo and Xingping it rained for 2 days non-stop. In Cambodia, the airplane landed under a pouring rain.
By the time we withdrew 30 US dollars each to make our tourist visa and get it stamped it had stopped. But rain feeds life and awakens nature, giving our tuk-tuk trip from the airport to our hotel a scent of petrichor. In dry weather plants prevent their seeds from uselessly germinating by exuding a volatile oil. Rain washes this oil off which then evaporates and thereby allows the seed to live its life. This is one of the reasons why it smells good after a rain fall.
$4 was the price to pay to reach our hostel named "Tom and Jerry". Yup, US dollars, as the Cambodian currency has lost so much value they rather be paid in dollars, and it's all you can withdraw at ATMs. We took an extra $125 supposed to be enough for the 4 following days of our stay.
We reached our small $5 a night B&B hostel after a 1/2 an hour ride through messy streets cutting corners and riding against the traffic.
Alejandro had friends traveling through South-East Asia he was meeting up with in Cambodia and they were sleeping in a hotel 150 meters away from ours. We met up at their $10 B&B hotel and went out for a $1.50 diner. Cambodian food is delicious, even at that price!
With a few more hours in hand and a strong will to celebrate the reunion of Alejandro and his mates we went out afterwards searching for the famous Pub Street. On our way there, we got attracted by the sounds of hits, loud music and a screaming commentator. The sign said "Real Muay Thai boxing every evening." Once we had given it a look the multiple waiters were swarming around us, full of nice words of persuasion for us to sit at a table, watch the fights and drink something. Apparently I'm handsome. So fuck it, why not, this is Cambodia! We sat at the nearest table from the ring and ordered two pitchers of draft beer. After two minutes of watching I noticed a pattern in the hits. Left-right punch from red shorts, left-right punch from blue shorts, this sequence repeated, then a kick to the head by red shorts followed up by a kick to the head by blue shorts. Then the whole sequence repeated itself again with a variation every now and then. I called one of the waiters to our table and asked if it was real. He dared to tell me "Yes." I rubbed my hands as I prepared to reincarnate Nostradamus. "Okay watch" I said as I started to announce the hits seconds before flawlessly. He made a face. "It's a show, no real no real!" First deception. I then turned to the left where a group of 4 good looking Cambodian girls were sitting and asked him what they were doing here, and if they were prostitutes. I don't pay for sex, but I like to know things. He pointed at the best looking one and said: "She was a lady boy before, now it's a 'She'". No kidding!
We then wandered off towards Pub Street.
The 150 meter long street strewn with -westerner-owned- pubs offered a great choice for the Spanish bar aficionados I was with.
Out of the whole lot, this bar had something more to it.
I sat down, had a beer and enjoyed the good atmosphere of the place as my mates caught up on their stories in Spanish. I lost focus. We then decided our next day would be more productive if we hit the sac. Time to go.
We woke up under a drenching rain fall, once again. The day before my new friends had found a driver and lucky van owner to bring us around from temple to temple and provide us with water for the steep price of $40. After buying our $30 three day passes for unlimited access to the temples we hit the road to Angkor Wat, the most famous but also the closest temple to Siem Reap. We got there after about 10 minutes, under a blazing sun. "Visit this temple for 3 hours and come back, I will wait for you here" he said. None of us liked it. First and foremost, he was telling us what to do and for how long in a rude way. I could feel his envy to control our trip and squeeze every penny out of us. It was oozing out of him. Secondly, he would most likely bring us to a few more spots in the afternoon then bring us home, for the whooping price of $40. No way were we interested anymore. We felt cheated and didn't need a Mercedes van with air-con. We wanted to live the life Cambodian style: tuk-tuks, dollar meals, bargained prices and smiles on our faces. So after much arguing we sent him off with $10 in his back pocket. He did not have a smile on his face and sounded threatening.
Besides this crook, one thing I quickly noticed is the smiles on the faces of local people, not only the ones holding a shop or restaurant I was walking into to spend my bucks, but also random strangers. What a difference from China where people don't seem as happy; how pleasant to see people enjoying everyday life.
Back to Angkor Wat, "Largest Religious structure in the World" (Guinness book of World Records).
Angkor Wat was beautiful, impressive, majestic. There is a special feeling to being at a very old place, where so much has taken place and which was formerly so important.
But too much hype increases expectations dramatically, and I walked out a bit disappointed. For one thing, it was extremely crowded which felt wrong in such a place. Combined with the noise, it retrieved the peaceful feeling you want to have in such places. In a church people whisper even if they are the only ones inside. Because if they spoke louder the acoustics would allow anyone else to hear them, and because it's a form of respect towards the holy place you're in. At Angkor Wat respect was not to be found, nor by most tourists, nor by the authorities who don't seem to be worried about maintaining the temples in a good state as everything was accessible. You could climb anywhere you wished, stomp on rocks shaped over 800 years ago and touch carvings of the same age. I would have sometimes preferred to be forbidden to enter and just walk around the sites than see people like this.
But what I missed most was actually seeing what had taken place here centuries ago. Besides using my imagination, it was difficult to comprehend the purpose of all these temples and I hadn't researched it before hand. I was counting on the eventual guide we'd have but he was so bad we got rid of him as soon as we could and decided to continue on our own. I've now read the Wikipedia page on the temple and it is still not clear what the purpose was, besides stating a "Hindu center of worship". A contributor on Quora indicated: "Angkor Wat was the spiritual and political center of the Khmer Empire that ruled over much of Southeast Asia during the period from approx. 1100 AD thru 1450 AD." Here's an other difference with churches; no matter how old they are, masses are still given in them, adding on to something already sacred. I did not have the same feeling in Angkor Wat.
But what makes Siem Reap worth a visit is not Angkor Wat, or any other individual temple, no. It's the complex, the giant complex of temples north of the city: Angkor Wat but also Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Baphuon and so on. There are 50 to 70 (depending on the sources) significant ones to see; you most likely won't be able to see them all with the typical 3 day pass. Here is a map of it to give you an idea:
After Angkor Wat we stumbled upon some monkeys just before reaching a second tiny temple.
We then grabbed some lunch and walked to Banteat Kdey:
A gate between Banteat Kdey and Ta Prohm.
Ta Prohm was the second and last visit of the afternoon. It most likely does not ring a bell, but you have surely already seen this picture.
Well maybe not exactly this photo but something very similar and taken from a better angle, post card style. My battery died before I could take an other one. 10 centimeters to the right of the frame was a wooden barrier and 2 girls taking 365 selfies + a dozen more people lined up to do the same.
Please don't roll your eyes, we lined up to do the same we were tourists too for Christ sake!
After this awesome temple we walked back to the main street and discovered most people had gone home already and the tuk-tuks left were ALL reserved. We had walked about 15 kilometers away from town which were to be added to the 10 we had done with the grumpy van driver. The few guys with rides were asking crazy prices to bring the 6 fools who had not planned their trip back to town. Because they could: we had no choice. Out of luck a pick-up truck passed by with a "white" man in the back. His driver agreed to drop us in town for 5 bucks. He saved the day.
We got back to Siem Reap, had a dollar diner, two beers in the Pub Street and called it a night.
Overall we walked way too much spending half of our time between sites. Although a temple marathon may not be what you want to aim for, if you're only buying a 3 day pass you won't make it through walking. It did allow us to come by a few hidden sites off the beaten roads such as this gem and save some bucks, but besides that it was a first class mistake.
Thanks to these two photos I'll spare you from climbing up there.
Sad thing is, at the end of the day we high-fived each other thinking we had managed it effectively, so on day 3...
"Beep beep beep". 7:30 am. Time to go temple riding!
With a full day ahead of us we decided to go to Angkor Thom.
Some of these temples inspired Tomb Rider and Indiana Jones. I wouldn't know which ones but it's worth the anecdote.
After much negotiating we found two tuk-tuks willing to bring us to Angkor Thom and come get us at 5:30 pm, giving us the leisure to wander where ever we wished in between. We imprisoned ourselves on our quest for freedom. We were not realizing our mistake made on the previous day, and once again walked for ever. But Angkor Thom is even bigger, making it even harder. Funny thing is about the drivers, they really wanted to spend the day with us for barely more money instead of bringing us there and back and having the whole day to taxi other people around. I can't find the logic. Perhaps they rather sit around and wait till people are done visiting each site than hustle for rides, or perhaps it's Cambodian kindness.
The sky was finally as blue as it can get, the trees went on till eye can't see with here and there a temple sticking its nose out of the wilderness. Gorgeous. The highlight of the site was obviously Bayon temple which you can discover in the following slideshow.
That blue sky, vegetation and pure air felt so good. I hadn't bred air with an AQI (Air Quality Index) under 80 in 2 months.
My lungs thanked me on every breath.
Angkor Thom was only built after Angkor Wat. The latter was sacked by the Chams, the traditional enemies of the Khmer. When the new king Jayavarman VII restored the empire, he established a new capital and state temple a few kilometers to the north, respectively Angkor Thom and Bayon. Bayon temple is therefore the major temple to see in the complex and recommended in every guide, but it was not my personal favorite.
Angkor Thom was also crowded but it was not as annoying as at Angkor Wat. After an hour on the site under a scorching sun we headed off by foot to the next temple, Baphuon. This is NOT one you want to miss. See it hiding in the backround?
Here is a photo gallery of the place.
This path is astonishing. What took place here? It must have been one hell of a party. So I decided to search it, but it's not quite known. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, one of the trinity Deities of Hinduism. That's all I could find folks!
On our way to grab lunch there was this other small temple named Phimeanakas, but for once it was forbidden to go on top. 150 meters further down the path was this sort of retention basin.
The Khmer people came to power through a combination of technological advances in water management and agriculture. They obviously knew how to collect scarce resources.
Sometimes the different temples felt more like walking through a pile of despairing rocks. They were almost all just a hump of stones until foreign countries started restoring them. Although built the first, Angkor Wat was in the best state of conservation when the complex was discovered. And yes, you read that right, foreign countries finance the restorations. I saw signs with China, France, Germany and even India. Don't ask me what Cambodia did with the $30 I handed them to enter.
It's the degradation of the Khmer's infrastructure throughout the centuries as well as the pressure from less advanced, yet aggressive neighbors that led to the empire collapse.
We had lunch near the Terrace of the Elephant containing walls covered of sculptures.
We then walked to Preah Khan. Along Baphuon, it's a temple to go to! They were my two favorite, ahead of Bayon and Angkor Wat.
The signs says 1 km but if you walk a few hundred meters you'll notice a path of the right hand side of the road. Take it until you reach a swamp then turn left. It's a much nicer way of reaching the temple than the main road. This is the swamp you'll reach and want to turn left at. The other photo is a cool looking tree trunk that Ikea will steal from me to make a 1.5 meter x 1 meter living room canvas poster if they see it.
So now for the temple. Preah Khan was built by the same king who built Angkor Thom, to honor his father. No joking around here! It's a very long and narrow temple. The first photo shows how the temple will reveal itself to you if you get off the beaten paths as we did whereas the second one shows the way most people reach it.
In either case you'll have to get on the bridge offering this view.
As you stand on the bridge you'll face the gate, supposedly formerly guarded entrance as the now swamp but previously artificial basin dug on each side didn't allow any other access except from the other side.
Here is a gallery with my shots of the whole site.
If you walk all the way through and up the path leading to the temple you'll find a beautiful lake, or perhaps swamp; suit yourself. Beautiful nevertheless.
Saturday night is party night, so after getting home, we were more than up to celebrating and experiencing Cambodia's nightlife. Trying to keep the budget low, we got some beers and played a few games in the spacious room of Alejandro's friends.
My liver cursed me on every sip.
We then went out to, well... Pub Street where else?!
Party time is private time.
Impossible to get out of bed. As far as hangovers go this one was the worst of my life until now. Don't make the same mistake, don't drink bad "Angkor" beer...
In the evening we went for a "full body" massage. When you meet me face to face some time ask me for details, it's not something I can put here! Nothing sexual went on though so don't get too excited!
We then went souvenir shopping at the night market. Souvenirs are in my head, not on the shelves of the house I don't own, so I bought a fridge magnet for my flat share in Guangzhou and went back to the hostel.
We got up angry at ourselves, with a feeling of guilt for have wasted the previous day. It gave us a huge incentive to catch up on the time we wasted. We hopped on a tuk-tuk and rode straight to sites we hadn't yet seen. It was the minor ones but they are all worth going to; the atmosphere of each site is worth experiencing.
Our first top was a temple situated in the middle of the swamp we had seen last on day 3, only accessible thanks to a narrow pontoon.
Yup, there was just a weird Totem in the middle of a muddy pond. It was sometimes surprising to see the infrastructure they put up for so little. This must have been an important spot. A simple sign with some basic information about each temple would have been so helpful. Unfortunately we often walked away without knowing more than when we arrived.
So we jumped back on our tuk-tuks and rode to the next one, and it went on for the whole day until 3:45 pm, as our flight was at half passed 6. Oh and we pigged out for lunch of course.
Very briefly, this gallery summarizes our last day in Angkor.
That's it for Cambodia! Beneath I've wrote a few thoughts and a "Too Long; Didn't Read" section for travelers seeking useful information. If you've read until here, that section is probably not for you! Next post in the traveling section of my website in February, summarizing my not yet confirmed Asian tour starting in Manilla on the 26th of December and ending the second week of February. Stay tuned ;)
The chances that you read my words and think "Jeez, this guy is full of it!" are quite high, and that's normal. I even felt like I had exaggerated when I read the post myself, and thought of editing it. But then no, why would I. This post is the transcript of my feelings as I walked through the temples. If you don't buy it hop on a plane tomorrow and let yourself amazed, because I've never seen anything like it, and this was, well, my 60th country visited.
If you enjoyed the read half as much as I enjoyed my stay I'm quite sure you had a great time.
Thanks for reading!
Things you must do:
- Get a tuk-tuk to carry you around all day, it's the funnest and cheapest way around and will avoid you from trying to find one at each spot. Above all they know better than you what should be the next stop.
- Visit the most temples you can. They all look the same, but are all different in some way. Go for a minimum of 2 to 3 days or don't bother going if it's just to take a selfie in-front of Angkor Wat.
Things we did and you should not:
- Not planning our tuk-tuk for the whole day.
- Drinking too much Angkor or Cambodia beer. Nasty hangover guaranteed!
- Not reading in depth about the site to actually have an idea of what was going on and therefore being able to picture it in ones mind.
Things we missed and you should do:
- Waking up very early and going to the temples to watch the sunrise.
- Going to the floating village ($20 a person) although our friends went and said it wasn't anything special. Apparently they only do it not to pay taxes as their are not on the land, nothing cultural there. Still something everyone seems to do so I feel like I missed out on something. "Béhéhé" goes the sheep.
- Renting mountain bikes and riding between the sites. It'll require some cardio, but it is worth the scenery. It beats walking all day until you get a flat tire.
- Check out the temples further out as well as the water fall (50 km).