Cambodia: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Making a splash in Cambodia
Every April, Thailand celebrates new year in the Songkran festival. As far as I can tell, this comprises 1) water 2) public holidays and 3) widespread closure of businesses.
Looking to avoid items 1 and 3 above, we plus hopped on a 40 minute flight to Cambodia, heading for Siem Reap and the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and ticking off another of Thailand’s neighbouring countries in the process.
As it transpires, Cambodia doesn’t celebrate Songkran, like Thailand does. What they do celebrate, however, is Songkranta, which I would say bears striking similarities to Songkran. The only differences seem to be that Songkranta involves, if anything, more water, as well as the liberal application of talcum powder. And a distinct lack of choice in whether those substances come into contact with you.
Thus we arrived in Siem Reap to a veritable orgy of water fighting, closed businesses and general tomfoolery.
As we sat in the hotel lobby, a rather stressed American lady strolled in and, unprompted, wished us luck in getting to Angkor Wat as “every car in town is booked”, before stalking away to her room.
Heading to bed with a sense of trepidation, we wondered how the next few days were going to pan out…
Obviously we needn’t have worried. It was great.
True, plenty was closed and true, to venture outside was to invite a massive soaking from all and sundry, but it was both easy to get around and fun to get involved with.
Siem Reap is a bit of a marmite town. You’ll love it or hate it. It’s a strange combination of laid back but also hectic. According to some locals we spoke to, it’s expanded from a town of 20,000 to a sprawl of 200,000 in under 20 years.
There’s a whiff of backpacker haven all over town, nowhere more so than Pub Street (actual name), lined with bars and clubs serving $0.50 USD beers all day. It’s the kind of town where kids would come for a week and still be there 10 years later with no idea how. And no money.
We really liked Siem Reap though. It’s a tiny little town that you can traverse on foot easily. Equally, there are fleets of tuk tuks – in this case horse carriages strapped to mopeds but who’s arguing – waiting to ferry you around town for a couple of dollars. They’ll start you at $4 or $5 but haggle.
Hotels are a steal in Siem Reap. We splashed out on the Diamond D’Angkor – still cheaper than a Travelodge in the UK. It’s a perfectly appointed little hotel on Sok San Road – slightly quieter than the Pub Street area but only a few minutes from the main drag. Staff are wonderfully welcoming and the hotel is very well kept, with a lovely pool and great food for good prices in the restaurant. We spent a lot of time there, cowering from the outside.
In town, head to the old market for a browse, and grab a cold drink at Fifty5 just on the corner of the market. They serve great cold drinks, ice cream and a range of western and Cambodian food. You’ll pay a little more but for around $5 a plate it’s hard to argue.
Local food wise, we found the local dishes tasty, if distinctly spice free compared to Thailand. The pick was Amok, a thick, rich coconut curry with fish wrapped up in a banana leaf.
Be aware that the defacto currency is USD. If you get change that’s less than 1 USD, you’ll be given Cambodian Rial, which are 4000 to 1 USD at time of writing.
Of course, the main attraction of Siem Reap is about 9km away. Hopping in a $15 tuk tuk (for a whole day!) and with a $40 guide), we trundled up the packed road out of Siem Reap towards the Angkor site. Both transport and a guide are necessary to make the most of the park. We booked ours through the hotel.
$36 for a one day entry to the park feels steep, but you understand when you arrive.
We spent a good 8 hours traversing the ‘Little Circuit’, which may be an ironic name. Starting with the quite breathtaking Angkor Wat, you’re treated to jaw dropping spectacles in every direction. Even in the dry season, where the famous ‘mirror pool’ doesn’t quite live up to the hype, it’s difficult to put into words quite how impressive Angkor Wat is. To think it’s over 1000 years old is unbelievable. So instead of trying, here are some incredibly shoddy pictures.
One thing to bear in mind in the temples generally is the steepness of some of the steps. There are now wooden staircases, but be prepared for some fairly scary inclines!
Angkor Wat is really only the beginning. After guzzling enough water to drown a dolphin, we zoomed (crawled through heavy traffic) up to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was the capital of the Khmer empire some 1000 years ago, a walled city of 3km by 3km. Today, the walls and central temple – the Bayon – remain.
According to our guide, Honda (great name), Angkor Thom veered between Hindu and Buddhist worship over centuries. Hence, the Buddha carvings here have third eyes, as they are in fact re-appropriated carvings of the original Hindu god. Possibly the original upcycling project.
The Bayon temple is magnificent. On the upper level are dozens of four-faced, three-eyed Buddha carvings built into towering pillars. Around the lower galleries are carved scenes of ancient battles between the Khmer empire and various invaders, each with their own natty physical characteristic. Chinese = beard. Bad army = helmet. Khmer = long ears. Simple but effective.
Beyond Angkor Thom but within walking distance is a more recently renovated temple, which I only remember as ‘Monkey Temple’. I liked this one because 1) there were monkeys, always fun and 2) people don’t know it so it’s very quiet. After a leg-burning climb to the top level we were treated to almost the whole place to ourselves, with views of the surrounding park and temples. And monkeys. We were also stopped for a photo by a large Cambodian family, who will now have a picture of 3 sweating, red, confused westerners to treasure forever. Lucky them.
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After a welcome break for lunch, a saline drip and an ice bath to combat the 43C heat (avoid April – learn from us), our final stop was Ta Prohm. This is better-known as the Tomb Raider temple, having featured in the film.
This is well worth a trip, as although it’s been renovated, it was also left in ruins for long enough for nature to take a serious foothold. As such, the temple walls are pierced, and in places held up, by towering trees and general jungle. Huge roots snake in and out of the masonry and the effect really is stunning. Also, the spung trees are hollow, and therefore fun to tap for comedy effect (obviously not the ones holding up the temples…). If that’s not enough, wild chickens roam the site, at once terrifying and delicious.
There are some great depictions of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages of renovation. I say renovation like it’s some kind of late 90s TV show where a family goes out for an hour and comes back to strangers rebuilding their kitchen in awful colours, but at Angkor it’s more of an expert game of Jenga.
Starting from – literally – a pile of stones, the walls are rebuilt painstakingly – individual stones marked out to show where they should go. There’s also nothing more than gravity and ingenuity holding them up. The renovation at Ta Prohm is ongoing so you get to see this in some detail. Ta Prohm was possibly our favourite of the temples at Angkor, but they were all worth seeing.
We had a brilliant trip to Cambodia, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Whether we’d choose to go on one of the 2 or 3 day tours is debatable – certainly not in the hot season! A day trip gave us plenty and we were exhausted the next day, but we’re told there is an awful lot more to see in the Angkor park. Overall, it was a very pleasant surprise and well worth the ticket price (high), and costs for guide and tuk tuk (laughably low).
Whether we would choose to go during Songkranta and get as drenched as we did in the town and as hot as we did at Angkor – debatable.
Did we have a great time? Undoubtedly!
Do we need new clothes now? You decide!