Angkor What? Where?

Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
Trip End Jul 27, 2011

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Where I stayed
Prohm Roth Guesthouse Siem Reap
Read my review - 4/5 stars

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Angkor Wat is supposedly the world's largest religious building. It is my largest travel dream. So did it live up to my expectations?

Siem Reap is the city you go to if you want to visit the ancient city of Angkor. We were warned that SR is a very artificial town, essentially built around tourism to facilitate visits to Angkor. So I expect a sort of Niagara Falls. It's probably another sign that we'll never be the true, rugged, hard core backpackers we might aspire to be that despite these warnings we loved it so much, we stayed longer. Yes, it is touristy and rather artificial. But it has its own charm and finding good coffee and breakfast menues is sometimes all it takes to make us happy. SR also has a thriving art scene with so many cute handicraft stores and affordable restaurants that we are struggling to avoid (too many) shopping and dining excesses. But we didn't come for that. We came for Angkor and its famous Wat. Little did we know how humongous the area of Angkor is. It stretches many kilometers outside of SR with some temples being as far as 30+km away. Angkor Wat is merely the largest and most famous of them. 

Following recommendations of several globetrotting friends, we rent bicycles for our first ride into it. The rental place briefs us: "This is not Europe, there are no traffic rules, be careful, watch where you are going, stay on the right side of the road." Indeed, the traffic regulations here are limited to the law of the honking horn and right of way by eye contact. Never mind the right hand traffic, vehicles are coming at you from all directions regardless of which side of the street you are on.
Our plan is to visit some smaller and lesser known temples first, then watch sunset at Pre Rup. Then on another day, visit some more impressive temples and finish it off with sunset at Angkor Wat. You know the saying: "Assume makes an ass out of u and me", right? Well, our assumption was that our entry ticket includes a map. I doesn't. Luckily, I had downloaded a PDF on my iPhone. That should suffice. We thought. 

So for the first half of the day, we chase a temple complex we can't find, looking at the tiny reflecting iPhone PDF. Eventually, we see some other, no-less impressive temples we hadn't planned on until the next day. We can be that flexible, no problem. All of a sudden, Manu breaks out laughing tears after taking yet another look at our 'map'. She just realized that we had been chasing a temple complex that is not where it appears to be on this map. Because we mistook the circled, enlarged detail excerpt for an actual part of the map. Duh! Oh well. We are at Ta Prohm. This is my favourite, despite the tourist masses. It's one of those decrepit ruins overgrown by massive trees. You've seen them in travel books and vagabonds' image libraries. Very, very impressive, majestic and beautiful. As the sun starts to decline, relieving us of the heat somewhat, we move on to the next target, Angkor Tom. Though by now, we are no longer sure where we are exactly. Matters none. At one temple, we keep looking at our map, looking up, turning around ourselves, looking at the map again, turning another way, trying to figure out which of the structures of Angkor Thom we are at. Walking through the woods, we no longer care. We've seen some pretty impressive stuff, so we are happy with our Indiana Jones day. And then suddenly, between the trees, a structure appears, more massive and imposing than anything we've seen so far, gleaming in the descending sun, taking my breath away. Did we just hit Angkor Wat by accident? It can't be, it looks different. But it is so large and impressive, it must be?! There is no signage confirming our suspicion and we are too embarrassed to ask. So we wander through the alleyways, up and down the stone steps of this magnificent place, sad that there isn't enough light for proper picture taking, but taken away by the mystery of it. I agree (read: pay) to a monk blessing me in one cavern with a golden Buddha.

When we are done, the sun is nearly gone, making for an adventurous bike ride home. There are no lights on the first part of the road out of Angkor, so we rush to follow the lights of tuktuks and motorcycles that are leaving as well. After a while, there are a few street lamps as we hit mad traffic of bus loads full of people leaving as well. Somehow, we manage to not have an accident with the many potholes and tree roots and make it back in one piece, sweaty, sticky and caked in red dust. We are still confused about what that large temple was, but feeling accomplished.

The next day we are disappointed that moped rentals are prohibited in SR. Our behinds are too sore to rent bikes again, so we end up not doing any sight seeing at all that day. Before we head back into Angkor via tuktuk a few days later, we do a day trip to the surrounding area, visiting the countryside, fishing villages and Tonle Sap Lake with its floating villages. One other morning we take a Khmer cooking class that includes a visit to a local village. On two evenings, we watch a free Apsara dance show. Between those activities, we can't help but grin at the many offers for tuk tuks, fish massages (where you have little fish in a tank nibbling a your dead skin cells - see the video from Bangkok to get a sense for its therapeutic and entertainment value), meals and souvenirs. Even though the vendors cries still ring in my ears, they do it in such a sweet way that it doesn't bother me. Instead I find it hilariously funny. "Ok, fish masssssaaaaaage?" or "Hello lady, tuktuk please? Ok, come back later, yes?"

Eventually it is time for our 2nd trip into Angkor. This time with a proper map and a tuktuk. So surely, we'll know where we are going now. In the meantime, we figured out that what we thought to be Angkor Wat was actually Bayon temple of Angkor Tom. Whoops. So we make Angor Wat our first stop this time. Maybe it is because of the silly mix-up earlier, or because of the hoards of tourists, or the scorching heat, or the construction scaffolding, or the hazy light, but approaching this most famous of all temples, I am not feeling anything. Not impressed, not touched, not in awe. Yes, it is large and beautiful. But that 'wow' I had expected doesn't kick in. Not like the other day at Angkor Tom. Slightly disappointed, we move on to see some more other, smaller temples. And I find myself enjoying them all more than the 'mother of temples'. At dusk, we return for sunset. Which is nice. I enjoy walking the interior as the sun sets and only few tourists are left. 

So was it all the hype I made it up to be? Was it the best, most favourite, amazing and mind-boggling of sights as I expected? Not Angkor Wat, it wasn't. Not for me anyways. But the city of Angkor and some of its smaller temples certainly did justice to my high expectations. Probably, at a different time, with fewer travel weeks under my belt, it would have been more impressive. This might come across as disappointment, but that's not the case really. I loved my time in Cambodia and would have enjoyed staying there fore some time longer. In fact, I could easily imagine to live there. And not to get ahead of myself and this blog yet, but I know that I will return soon ;)

As one last comparative thought: Jordan was my top 2 country, Cambodia was my number 1. In conclusion, they both remain at the top of my favourite places list. I probably had more magical moments in Jordan, partly due to the way we traveled there and having been a little fresher then. But Cambodia is a place I can imagine myself living in.
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