Siem Reap is located in South West Cambodia, between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. We travelled from Bangkok via bus to reach the home of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest religious monument on earth.
After travelling the entire day from Bangkok, we didn’t arrive at our hotel, Bamboo Angkor Boutique, until after ten o’clock at night so any sightseeing was pretty unrealistic for day one. Instead we enjoyed sleep in a proper bed once again and planned to catch breakfast early doors and go see the temples straight after.
We only had two nights and little under two days to spend in Siem Reap, so the recommended three days dedicated to temple trawling just wasn’t in our time frame. Instead, we opted to take what the drivers described as a ‘big’ tour, which would last us all day instead of only a couple of hours. Hiring a tuk tuk for the whole day cost us only $12 (although Cambodia have their own currency, American dollars are most commonly used across the country) after some serious haggling down from seventeen.
We weaved through the traffic for around fifteen minutes until we reached the outskirts of the town and began to approach the territory of the temples. Coaches and cars and tuk tuks lined the streets leading up to the entrance, cyclists heading towards the monuments and people walking, too. The prelude to the site suggested that it was worth seeing, worth arduous journeys across borders to get to, worth being out in forty degree heat despite being horrifically sunburned already. I can’t even begin to explain how excited seeing all of these people heading towards the same sightseeing spot made me. Once we arrived at the entrance, our tuk tuk driver dropped us at an official worker for the site who guided us to a queue to buy our passes. We opted for the one day pass, costing us $20 each (3 day and 7 day passes are also available for $40 and $60 respectively). We had to bring photographic ID with our nationality stated and had our photographs taken which were then uploaded to the plastic day card, which we in turn used as ID to enter the site.
Once all the bureaucratic parts of our day had been completed, we jumped back on our tuk tuk and headed towards the first temple. The first on our list was, of course, Angkor Wat. Although having read up on the building rather extensively before visiting, no amount of reading could ever have prepared me for the scale size or intricacy of this glorious building. Surrounded by a moat of gargantuan scale, the temple is built on landscaped grounds featuring smaller buildings. A great stone bridge carries thousands upon thousands of feet over the moat and continues up towards the foot of the great temple. The 12th century monument is in incredible condition considering the length of time it has been on this earth and its immensely detailed wall carvings are still clear as day throughout the entire building. Although densely packed with tourists around the facade, I found the vast, weaving stone walls allowed me to escape the hustle and immerse myself into the world of the temple. The thick stone eliminated all extraneous noise and I was able to imaginarily enjoy the temple to myself. On the walk back I avoided the bridge across the grounds and instead chose to take the more scenic route. The soaring palms lining the grounds surrounding the main building allowed me to find refuge in the shade, escaping the seemingly omnipresent sunshine. The chance to relax my eyes combined with the quiet of this more out of the way view of the temple truly allowed me to realise the sheer scale of the building which seemed to go on forever in both its facade and side. The palms I stood under were mirrored in the temple; growing out of cracks in the stone. The dynamic between nature, the use of natural elements and man made objects was fascinating. The existence of foliage within the building made it seem like part of the landscape, and the bright green of the trees and surrounding grass offset the stern grey of the stone exquisitely; both complimenting each other wonderfully. There, in the relative quiet of the shade, monks could be seen sitting quietly and couples picnicking. To see such a wildly popular tourist destination in such peace and quiet was unique, unusual and highly interesting, and I revelled in the quiet before heading back out into the masses.
Back on our tuk tuk we visited countless more temples big and small, well known ones such as Angkor Thom and less popular ones. Each one was equally as impressive as the next and last, the colour of the stone differing from building to building, the condition of the remaining building greatly alternating and decoration unique to each. We took the advice of our driver of which temples were most interesting, rich in history or most aesthetically pleasing to decide our route, and his advice resulted in a wonderfully eclectic mix of buildings, some of which we were lucky enough to enjoy to ourselves.
What I found most incredible about the site was to see nature taking over these magnificent buildings. Although the attrition between the natural and man made worlds was evident at Angkor Wat, the smaller and likely less preserved temples truly lay at the mercy of nature. Trees erupted through walls and ceilings, leaving pools of rocks piled up below where they once stood. Ivy crept through gaps in the stone, grass along the floors of buildings and shrubs sat like furniture inside their rooms.
The architectural and decorative detail in the carvings is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My largely Eurocentric experience with art and history had not prepared me for the art in South East Asia, not least the architecture of Angkor Wat. Dense detail covered so many of the walls, repetitive and complex patterns that would have required hours of skilled craftsmanship. Many of the temples featured towers reaching out of their roofs on which larger than life sized faces were carved into the dark grey stone – the temples in better condition allowed guests to climb to the roofs to see these sculptures up close.
Dogs and chickens scurried around the temples, and we were lucky enough to have a snake drop from the ceiling of one of the smaller temples (may I add that Paul pushed me out of the way and ran before I even realised what had happened). Cattle can be seen grazing the fields of the site, belonging to the locals who call it home. Small villages are dotted around, as are restaurants and picnic areas. Outside each of the larger temple drink and snack stalls are set up. More interestingly, however, are the craft and souvenir stalls selling everything from paintings to sculptures and scarves – we bought two small hand carved Buddhist sculptures for family from a young man making others outside one of temples.
We visited the town’s Night Market and Pub Street – both of which are immaculate and much more pleasant to wander around than any others of their kind we had visited so far. The market also has much more of a variety than others – instead of the typical counterfeit goods it actually offered market goods; everything from jewellery and artwork to clothes and food. On Pub Street we agreed on a sushi restaurant with 50 cent Anchor – a local Cambodian beer – pints, so we were both happy. Afterwards we shopped around travel shops. We booked our bus to Phnom Penh for $6 whereas earlier in the day the hotel asked for $17, so shopping around is definitely worth it.
Although an incredibly short lived visit, I was thoroughly impressed with Siem Reap. I found the local people so friendly and warm, from locals on the street to staff in bars and restaurants. The Angkor Wat was an exceptional sight to see, as were the surrounding temples, and to be able to have enjoyed such a beautiful and historically rich place was truly unforgettable.