The wonders of Angkor Wat

Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
Trip End Dec 04, 2008

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

I've just spent five fantastic days exploring the stunning temples at Angkor Wat together with my friends Allan and Nigel. We flew to Siem Reap on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur (about a two hour flight) on Monday (11/8) and we stayed at a beautiful hotel, Bopha Angkor. The hotel is just a short walk from the heart of Siem Reap and is surrounded by lush greenery and beautiful Khmer sculptures and other artworks. The room I had was very spacious and was decorated in traditional Khmer style. Loved it. Siem Reap itself is a charming town with a wide variety of restaurants, bars and cafes. The large expatriate community and a constant stream of tourists give this small town a unique international character - this is reflected in the amazing range of cuisines available, and a plethora of bars, restaurants and hotels that suit all types of budgets. On the afternoon of our first day in town, we explored the Old Market and the surrounding neighbourhood. The market with its maze of narrow alleys was fascinating, albeit stifling hot (it's covered by a rather low zinc roof), with the locals selling everything from vegetables to chickens, frogs, clothing, textiles, gem stones, etc... There was even a section for hairdressers and seamstresses. We also walked along Pub Street and Pub Alley which are chockful of restaurants and bars, and had a delicious Khmer lunch at Le Tigre de Papier - yes, there's a large French influence in Cambodia (some of the waiters/waitresses even speak fluent French in addition to English and Khmer). Later, we got some amazing ice-creams from the Blue Pumpkin cafe (a popular hangout for expatriates and tourists). I can definitely recommend both places for a meal - both also offer free wifi!

Siem Reap's main claim to fame is its proximity to Angkor Wat - the main temple complex is about 7km away from town. Transportation is easily available as there are loads of tuk-tuks and taxis around. On the first day, we hired a tuk-tuk for the late-afternoon/evening and paid USD 5 to bring us around the temples (we wanted to see the famous sunset at Angkor Wat). Unfortunately, when we got there at 6pm, after getting our 3-day Angkor Wat passes (USD 45), large dark clouds rolled in from nowhere and we were soon soaked by a heavy tropical downpour! We didn't give up, since we were already there, and decided to continue to the lookout point. As we climbed out of the tuk-tuk, a group of kids approached us selling mineral water, beer, umbrellas, raincoats, guide books, etc... They were quite persistent and refused to take no for an answer to their constant calls of "Sir, too dollah, I sell yoo rencot" or "I sell yoo water for wan dollah" or "yoo wan beer?" (yeah, the pouring rain?!). My favourite was a little girl who came up to us after we'd managed to negotiate a path through the first group of kids. She had something very unique to sell: "Sir, for too dollah I gib yoo pees an kwa-yuht".... we couldn't stop laughing! We hiked up the hill in the rain and reached the lookout, which was actually atop a magnificent temple, the Phnom Bakeng. As we reached the top, the heavy rain seized for a moment and we got to enjoy the fantastic views over the Angkor Wat complex. At that moment, I didn't care that I was completely drenched and that my shoes were flooded up and covered in thick mud, the view of the misty, jungle-covered hillsides, the broad plains below with their mosaic-like rice fields and the majestic towers of Angkor Wat just breaking through the tree-tops was simply breathtaking.

That evening, we discovered a fantastic restaurant for dinner: Viroth's. Viroth's is owned by a French/Combodian couple and has a wonderful contemporary feel. The decor is simple but enticing, and the Khmer/fusion food is just superb. Don't miss this restaurant if you're in Siem Reap. The prices are very reasonable too; the three of us had four starters, four mains and two desserts, and including drinks (wine and beer), the bill came up to about USD 60!

We spent the next day exploring the Angkor Wat complex. There are so many temples spread out over a large area so a tuk-tuk or taxi is absolutely a must. I saw some tourists on bicycles (must've been Dutch) but I thought that was a rather dodgy thing to do (especially in the rain). We started out at 7am for the magical ancient city of Angkor Thom (adjacent to Angkor Wat) and began with (my absolute favourite) the Bayon temple. This temple, with its 181 faces is just stunning. To get there, we crossed a magnificent bridge over a large moat leading to the South Gate. Both sides of the bridge are lined with amazing statues. We then continued to the Baphuon and the Phimeanakas temples, and walked along the Terrace of the Elephants. We then continued to Ta Keo, probably the tallest of the temples. The climb up its steep face was challenging but the view was quite spectacular. Down the road from Ta Keo lies what is probably the most popular temple: Ta Phrom. This walled temple was left untouched for many centuries and the jungle had completely engulfed the entire complex when it was discovered in the last century. It was amazing to see how the massive trees have grown around and atop the structures, their roots seemingly strangling the temple's towers and other buildings. Parts of the Tomb Raider film were filmed here - and it's not hard to see why, the place is simply enchanting. We ended our trip in the late afternoon at Angkor Wat itself. After seeing all those other temples, Angkor Wat didn't seem so impressive anymore! However, its setting, surrounded by huge moats, and within its walls were large ponds filled to the brim with gorgeous water-lilies, was quite stunning. What I thought was truly impressive were the bas reliefs on its outer walls depicting ancient tales. The carvings were magnificent and its length, at least several hundred meters, was quite mind-boggling.

We decided to spend our third day at the pool which, with hindsight, was a great idea as we were just 'templed-out' (it's a popular term here in Siem Reap!).

On our fourth day, we hired a tuk-tuk to drive us to the north of Siem Reap to visit the temple of Banteay Srei and the mystical ruins of Kbal Spean (a 100km roundtrip). The drive to Banteay Srei was very scenic. We passed mile after mile of gorgeous palm-fringed rice fields (the different hues of green were just breathtaking) and rustic villages. Everywhere we went, the friendly Cambodians waved to us and readily flashed us a warm smile. The people out here in the countryside are very poor but I was really impressed with how clean and organised the villages looked, and how proud the people are. Many NGOs are active out here and there are innumerable projects to provide clean water, irrigation, schools and clean up land mines (a major problem throughout the country) and there were signboards everywhere announcing which NGO or individual (and from which country) was involved with the project or had donated money to the project. After about an hour's drive, we arrived at Banteay Srei. This temple is probably the smallest of the Angkorian temples but what it lacks in size, it definitely makes up for in grandeur. The carvings on the temple's facade are so intricate that it is said that only the nimble fingers of women could've created them. I'm not too sure about that ;-) but the carvings on the temple walls and portals are indeed exquisite. From Banteay Srei, we headed northeastwards to Kbal Spean. Kbal Spean is an ancient place up in the Kulen mountains where religious structures were carved out of the rocky riverbed. It is believed that these structures were sacred and would purify the river water that was later used for drinking and irrigation. From the base of the mountain, it was a pleasant 45 minute hike to the top where we got to see the many structures that are still visible today just below the water's surface (really amazing considering these structures were carved out of the rock about a thousand years ago!).

That evening, we had another wonderful dinner, this time at the Cambodian BBQ restaurant. In addition to the usual meats such as chicken, beef and pork used for a typical BBQ, the restaurant also served python, crocodile, ostrich and kangaroo! We went for the chicken, beef, crocodile (yummy) and python (not too impressed!).

Anyway, I had a fantastic time. The temples were stunning, the food was great and the people were just beautiful. I'm back in Kuala Lumpur now and plotting my next trip. Till later!
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