We started our SE Asian adventure in Bangkok nearly five months ago, and originally we had intended to go to Siem Reap, Cambodia, as our next stop. However, we ended up getting drawn south instead, through Malaysia, Singapore and the vast mega-country that is Indonesia. Last week we finally left Sabah and flew into Siem Reap, excited to be in a new country and ready to go see Angkor Wat, arguably one the wonders of the world.
Angkor is located just 12km from Siem Reap, and while there are actually a few homestays within the vast grounds of the complex toward Banteay Srei, most visitors will stay in Siem Reap itself. The accomodation in Siem Reap is geat, you can get a $2 hostel or treat yourself to a spa-like hotel for less than $20/night. The food in Siem Reap is also magnificent, and there are plenty of bars to keep you occupied on the aptly named Pub Street.
Angkor Wat is over 1000 years old and is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built by the Khmer kings (who modestly thought of themselves as the “god kings” or “devaraja”). The buildings went through both Hindu and Buddhist phases over the years, and before the industrial revolution it was easily the biggest city in the world. Eventually after the fall of the god kings the jungle reclaimed Angkor, until in the mid-19th century when French explorer Henri Mouhot visited and brought tales of the temple back to the west:
"One of these temples -a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo - might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome"
From Siem Reap, there are a couple of ways to visit the Angkor park complex. The simplest is to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day (tuk-tuks here are a bit like four-seater Becaks, except with a motorbike instead of pushbike, which means you can feel a bit less guilty about the poor guy having to pedal you around). Your hotel will normally be able to arrange this for around $15/day for the little circuit. The little circuit (red on map) is 17km long and goes past Angkor Wat, the royal city of Angkor Thom with the Bayon temple inside, Ta Keo and Ta Prohm. Don't expect your driver to speak English, let alone for them to be your guide.
For the little circuit, we opted instead to hire bicycles. These are just $2/day, and it seemed a nice way to take in the grounds of the temples whilst making our way through them at a leisurely pace. The romance ceased when Louise's bike got a puncture, and despite our best efforts to continue, we eventually had to admit defeat and hire a tuk-tuk to drive us and the bikes back to the hotel. Neverthless, I guess we just got unlucky, and I'd still recommend the bikes to most people. Angkor is about 12km out of Siem Reap, it's very easy to find (mostly just following a straight and flat road), and you will go past the ticket booth on your right as you near the complex.
For the big circuit, needless to say, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day. It takes a long time to get out to Banteay Srei (or the “lady temple” as it's known on account of the many devatas). We incorporated the Landmine museum into this trip whilst we were out that way ($5 entrance, and quite small, maybe 20-30mins, but very interesting and moving), and we finished up at Phnom Bakheng for the sunset.
The day pass is $20, three days is $40 and seven days is $60. A tuk-tuk driver for the little circuit will be around $15/day, and a tuk-tuk driver for the big circuit will be around $25-28/day. A bicycle for the day goes for $2. Drinks from the vendors inside the complex run at $1 for a can of coke or a small water. We didn't hire a guide, but our hotel quoted around $35/day for an English speaking guide.
Angkor Wat: We first visited here at around 1pm, and it was absolutely great, hardly any people around, which was a total surprise to us. The temple is surrounded by a big moat, and you enter from the west, walking down the bridge to the gate before entering the inner part of the temple. Tip: there is a good photo spot for the classic photo to the left, before the small lake. It really is amazing how big and intact this temple is. It's definitely a good idea to swat up on the Ramanyana and Mahabharata before you go so you can have some appreciation of the stories told on the bas-reliefs.
Ta prohm: Also known as the Tomb Raider Temple on account of Angelina Jolie being here to film a few years ago. Ta Prohm is still partly swallowed by jungle; trees and roots strangle walls of buildings, and it's hard not to feel like you're the discover of a long lost temple yourself.
Angkor thom:The faces on the towers of bayon stare down at you as you walk around this temple. It feels like two temples forced into the space for just one, and almost looks like a natural (rather than man-made) structure from some angles. We were there at around 8am, and it was by far the busiest temple we visited.
Bateay Srei: Known as the lady temple because of the high number of devatas (female mini gods) engraved into the temple walls. The stone is a porous and pinkish sandstone, and the temple is really small. It's a very pretty temple with highly decorative engravings, even compared to other temples in Angkor.
Phnom Bakheng: We went here to watch the sunrise. Louise was not allowed up the hill as she didn't have long pants to wear with her (she had a long sleeved shirt, and her attire had caused no problems elsewhere, but they seemed unusually strict here, turning lots of girls away). The walk up the hill is not at all challenging, it is as flat as possible whilst still being a hill, and takes maybe 15mins. There is also a viewing platform halfway up looking out over the western berey water. When I got to the temple at around 5pm there was already a very large queue waiting to ascend the temple steps for the sunset. It took around an hour to actually get up there. It was a nice way to finish the tour of the temples anyway.