Discovering Angkor (with thousands of others)

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, February 3, 2004

We want to know who came up with the list of Seven Wonders of the World and why Angkor isn't on it. After three days of touring the ancient ruins of Angkor, we believe it at least deserves Honorable Mention.

We landed in Siem Reap, which is the closest town to Angkor, on Jan. 27th and started our Angkor tour the next day. Angkor is much more than the well-known Angkor Wat. There are dozens of temples that can be visited and most likely dozens more covered by jungle or "guarded" by landmines. We hired Mr. Pokia to drive us around in his tuk-tuk, a two-person carriage powered by a motorcycle. We did the obligatory must-see sites the first day including Bayon, the South Gate of Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Wat. Angkor ruins were built between 800 A.D. and 1200 A.D. and are magnificent in scope, artistry and architecture. They're also magnificently over-run by tour groups, who seemed to herd us along throughout the day.

The next day, we woke up at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Anyone can be a good photographer at Angkor, but the sun provides the best light (and the least heat) in the early morning. We then rode an hour out to Banteay Srei, one of our favorite temples. The 10th-century temple is intricately decorated. Carvings cover the pink sandstone throughout, in particular on the framed archways and standing figures around every corner. Later in the afternoon, we stopped at Preah Khan. This temple is where Matt Lauer must've been standing when Jill saw him on the Today's Show "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" because this is the image she thought she'd see throughout Angkor -- an ancient ruin set deep in the the jungle whose towering trees have grown over and into the structure. Actually, Preah Khan is one of very few temples that has intentionally been left uncleared of jungle growth.

On the third day, we decided to strike out on our own and biked 12 km to the Roulos Group of temples, the oldest of the bunch. We biked down Highway 6, which connects Siem Reap to the capital city Phnom Penh. Thankfully the morning rush hour of motorcycles, cars, buses, bicycles, and trucks thinned as we left the city. Some of the more unusual and memorable traffic were motorbikes carrying dead pigs, huge sacks of wood and bamboo, blocks of ice, and families of three, four or even five people. There were also large trucks that zoomed by on the two-lane road honking their horns incessantly. Some trucks had the front cab sawed off, which made them look like they were driven in a Mad Max movie. Andy thinks the bike ride was a pleasant diversion. Jill's butt is still sore.

Three days ended up not being enough of Angkor for us. We went back on our last day in Siem Reap for a 10-minute tethered hot-air balloon ride for a bird's-eye view of Angkor Wat and one last sunset. We wonder how much longer these precious ruins can withstand mass tourism but also feel they should be visited by everyone who can make the journey.

We spent a week in Siem Reap, which basically exists to house and feed tourists. One benefit of this was staying at a hotel with cable and thus the ability to watch the Super Bowl at 6 a.m. To Jill's enjoyment, the commentators announced plays for a non-American audience, which meant explaining EVERYTHING in exhausting detail.

We also took a tuk-tuk to Tonle Sap Lake. Venturing even a little out of the city gives you a view of how we suspect most Cambodians live -- dirt poor with neither electricity nor running water. The trip out was down a bumpy, dusty, crappy road. The pier and waterway to the lake was basically a landfill, indicative by its foul stench. The 1.5 hour boat ride was a huge disappointment, and we've inaugurated it into our list of Top 10 Tourist Traps.

We're now in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which we'll call home for the next two weeks. If we survive crossing the chaotic streets of death, we'll be writing you soon with even more adventures!

Our Siem Reap recommendations: At least a 3-day pass to Angkor, eat at Khmer Kitchen (we did -- 3 nights in a row!), visit the Land Mine Museum, and pick up a free copy of Siem Reap Angkor Visitor's Guide by Kenneth Cramer (it's even better than -- dare we say -- Lonely Planet!).
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