Why we went
Angkor Wat should be on everyone’s bucket list. Once a Hindu, then Buddhist temple, it’s the largest religious shrine in the world. Angkor is one of many shrines and cities built by the Khmer people in the 9th through 14th centuries in the Cambodian jungle. For unknown reasons the civilization vanished and the Khmer world was left to rot in the jungle for hundreds of years. Many of the buildings are left surprisingly well in tact. Some have been reclaimed by the jungle, making for your best Indian Jones travel like experience.
There are two major airports in Cambodia; Siem Reap where Angkor Wat is and its capital Phnom Pehn. If you’re going straight from the US to Cambodia you’re most likely going to transfer twice and it’s going to take about ~24hrs to get there. Our suggestion, make Angkor Wat a weekend side trip from your South East Asian vacation. Siem Reap, the modern town near Angkor, has an airport which allows you to fly right to Angkor; it’s also full of hotels and restaurants.
When we went
May 2013. This was part of a longer South East Asian Itinerary; Flew to Hong Kong (slept one night), flew to Chang Mai in Thailand (slept 3 nights), flew to Seim Reap Cambodia (slept 3 nights), flew to Bangkok Thailand (slept 3 nights).
What we did
We organized our trip through About Asia Travel. We planned our flights in and out of Cambodia and they did the rest. For our three days we had a private car with a driver and a guide. Our guide was a local, Mardy Sean.
You would expect any guide to know enough about the temples and culture to keep a tourist interested. But Mardy’s knowledge of the people, structures, various symbolism (both Hindu and Buddhist history), and his ability to convey that knowledge in English was above and beyond what anyone should expect. If professor Langdon goes to Angkor in the next Dan Brown novel, I’m pretty sure he’ll be giving Mardy a call.
Our first stop was Ta Prohm. Built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist temple dedicated to his mother, Ta Prohm was left in the same condition it was found, overtaken by the jungle.
This temple, which appeared in the movie Tomb Raider, is very popular given the unique photo op.
Inside the temple, there is an 11th century motif depicting a fish – DINOSAUR – mammal – human. There haven’t been any discoveries of dinosaur bones in South East Asia, ever, yet it seems that the Khmer people knew a little something about evolution…
The city of Angkor Thom was built in the 12th century, also by King Jayavarman VII. This complex, 9 square kilometers, was the last and longest serving capital city of the Khmer empire. The entrance to the city is over a bridge, on either side figures from Buddhist mythology play tug of war with a giant snake, which churned a giant sea of milk and created the world.
Chances are as more people come to Angkor the place might lose some of its mystique. Get here soon, before they start building hotels in the temples!
Inside Angkor Thom you’ll find the Bayon Temple, famous for its giant heads, (researches believe it’s) possibly the face of King Jayavarman VII himself.
Angkor Thom is guarded by a moat so large it’s easy to see from Google Earth. Locals fish the waters today and you can take a sunset boat ride around the the massive complex.
Not all the Khmer sites are close to Siem Reap. The temple of Beng Mealea is about 40 kilometers away. This was built as a Hindu temple and it’s one of the largest Khmer temples. Crowds are lighter here and exploring is a blast. The temple hasn’t been restored so climbing along the piles of ruble, through old corridors and along walls will make you feel like the first person to discover it.
Our final stop was the actual Angkor Wat. Getting there at sunrise or sunset is recommended. Almost any time you go it’s most likely to be crowded. But within an hour of the sunrise the crowds seem to thin out (if you go at sunset, be sure to linger for about an hour as this is the “magic hour” for photography). And the temple is big enough that we never felt like part of a crowd. Even if you do Cambodia on your own we would highly suggest getting a guide for the Angkor Wat temple. The vast number of reliefs come alive with a good knowledgeable explanation.
Driving to far away temples has its advantage. You get get see and even stop in parts of rural Cambodia. At one point, we stopped at road side farm stand. A woman was roasting sticky rice in bamboo fronds. After cooking the rice with black beans in the bamboo pipe over an open flame, she sliced away the husk so that I could peel it away like an banana. It was really delicious!
We spent an afternoon in a small village on the shores of Tonle Sap, South East Asia’s largest lake, whose dimensions change drastically depending on whether it’s monsoon or dry season. We happened to be there at the end of the dry season. Entire villages are built on stilts so that they can survive the monsoon season. We took a very muddy boat ride out to the lake to see the fishing culture.
This country had a rather brutal history in the last half of the 20th century. It’s only been relatively recent that Cambodia was considered a safe place to go. Chances are as more people come to Angkor (particularly from a growing China) the place might lose some of its mystique. Get here soon, before they start building hotels in the temples.
- US Dollars are accepted everywhere in Siem Reap.
- Getting around the city of Siem Reap is a cinch using the local tuk-tuks. Just flag one down, negotiate a price, and jump in.
- Meals, hotels, and souvenirs are very cheap. A good meal with alcohol for two people is less than $20 USD.
- Bring bug spray.
- Bring sunscreen.
Raffles Grand Hotel; Siem Reap. Old French colonial hotel. It was a very quick tuk-tuk ride away from the town’s main old bars and restaurants. It had a grand pool area and restaurant.
Damnak; Siem Reap. A modern and upscale take on Cambodian food. Interesting use of local fruits, vegetables and seafood.
Cafe Indochine; Siem Reap. Great decor but I wouldn’t call the food amazing. If you’re looking for some place different than the Pub Street scene, it’s worth a try. We went here for lunch.
Khmer Kitchen; Siem Reap (on Pub Street). Recommended by our guide, Mardy, this choice was delicious. We had Amuk Chicken and Basil Chili Chicken. Unpretentious place.
Miss Wong; Siem Reap. Great drinks in an opium den looking bar on a side street.
Blue Pumpkin (ice cream); Siem Reap. Good way to cool off on a hot Cambodian night.
Dakshin; Siem Reap. Great Indian food just off Pub Street. It was REALLY good.