!!!WARNING - A LOT OF TEMPLES AND A LOT OF PHOTOS!!!
We had been told that our mini-bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap should take about 6 hours but our driver seemed determined to do it half that! It was a very bumpy and jerky trip with lots of harsh braking making both of us feel very travel sick! Hence we were very surprised we arrived an hour late, but as arranged there was a tuk-tuk driver waiting with Nick's name on a board and it was only about a 5 minute drive to the Angkor Pearl Hotel http://www.angkorpearl.com/hotel/. Nick was not 100% sure at first but it was a nice comfortable room and the staff were really friendly.
By now it was about 17:00 and as we had not eaten all day we went looking for an early dinner. About 10 minutes walk from our hotel was the centre of Siem Reap and Pub Street which as it's name suggests is nothing but bars and restaurants. Lonely Planet in hand we went to one of their recommendations, the Khmer Kitchen where they give opportunities to local people teaching them English and waiting skills. The service was good but sadly the food was revolting with neither of us finishing our meals. After a quick walk round we stopped for a drink (Angkor Beer!) and headed back to the hotel for an early night...
...however, even though we had a map, the name and address of the hotel and directions (as learnt from lesson number 5) we somehow managed to get lost. In Cambodia only the main streets have names, everything else either has a number or nothing at all. After 10 minutes we asked a passing tuk-tuk driver for help and were willing to get him to take us back but he had no idea where our hotel was (I suspect because everything we had was in English). After some back-tracking and crossed words getting very hot and sweaty we finally found our hotel!
Next morning and after a good breakfast we went out to our tuk-tuk driver Mr. Theoun from the previous day, to start exploring the temples of Angkor (tuk-tuk $27 for the day) - the main draw for travellers to Siem Reap (and Cambodia it seems!). Mr. Theoun was brilliant! We had a rough idea what we wanted to see and knew we wanted to leave the "Big Three" (Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and of course Angkor Wat) until our final day, so he suggested a route including some of the smaller and more remote temples.
After only about 10 minutes we reached the entrance to Angkor and pulled over to purchase our tickets. You can buy 1, 3 or 5 day passes. We opted for a 3 day pass at US$40 each (which you have a month to use) knowing it would be worth the money. Tickets in hand (with our horrible digital pictures on them) we set off towards our first and farthest away temple. But after only 10 minutes there was a popping sound and we realised we had a puncture! Mr. Theoun was more concerned about us than the tuk-tuk, but once he was happy we were ok he suggested starting at Banteay Kdei only 1km up the road, telling us to go and explore and he would have it all fixed by the time we got back.
Banteay Kdei was incredible and still our favourite temple. It was much larger than we expected expanding backwards into the jungle as you walked through it. It was like being in a film set with crumbling ruins covered in moss and vines with the smell of incense burning at the still used shrines. Throughout the temple (and all of the Angkor complex) there people (normally young children) trying to sell you things from guidebooks to bracelets. They ask where you are from always responding to our answer of England with "Ah London, lovely jubbly!". One girl even started quoting facts and figures about population sizes! At the end of the day though they want your money and will whine and moan with everything being "one dollar, one dollar, you buy from me for one dollar". You just have to keep your patience and stay friendly remembering it is their parents who are making them do this.
Anyway temple thoroughly explored we went back to entrance gate to discover Mr. Theoun had a nice new tyre and was ready to go back to our original plan. The 30 minute drive weaved through jungle roads, rice fields and Khmer villages with traditional stilt houses dodging the occasional dog or even cow from time to time.
Banteay Srei is know as the Women's Temple, not because of any religious of cultural reason but because the carvings adorning every surface are so ornate and intricate the locals believe only a women could have carved them. The temple is beautiful, albeit much smaller and more ruined than our first stop. It is also noticeably a different style being much older and made of different stone. Again after exploring it was back to our trusty tuk-tuk to head to our next stop.
As we reached Banteay Samre the heavens opened so we took shelter in the conveniently located restaurant next to the entrance until it slowed. This temple was the smallest so far, but by no means less impressive.
From here we visited two more temples; East Mebon and Pre Rup both beautiful, but again different in style. Both also involved steep climbs up to the top levels where we were rewarded with stunning views over the jungle.
Calling it a day after 5 temples we returned to the hotel. Sadly the rain had continued to drizzle throughout the afternoon making Nick grumpy! However his phone suddenly sprung into life. Corrina and Teresa (our friends we met on our Ha Long Bay tour) were in Siem Reap! We arranged to meet for dinner later that night at Temple Club on Pub Street (another Lonely Planet suggestion). This time the food was delicious. After 21:00 though and still eating the lights dimmed, the strobe started and bass kicked in, apparently Temple turns into a nightclub in the evening. It was very strange as there were lots of other people eating and no body rushing to the dance floor. We decided to move on and head to The Blue Pumpkin, a coffee shop/ice cream parlour, again with ethical links to the community and again a Lonely Planet top tip! Yummy! As usual we were last people lreft and had to be asked to leave as they were closing! It had been bucketing it down on and off all evening so it was no surprise that we had a walk back in torrential rain (in flip flops and flooded roads but with an umbrella). It was actually quite good fun!
Day two of Tomb Raiding (Nick told me to put that!) and back with Mr. Theoun and his tuk-tuk (only $15 today as a shorter distance). Again we followed his suggestions on a route which would make sure we completed the Grand Circuit as well as a few others.
We started at Preah Knan, another crumbling, jungle covered temple which sprawled in lots of directions and had a curious structure which would not look out of place at The Forum in Rome. It is classed a “fusion temple” as it blends both Buddhist and Hindu iconography.
We then visited Neak Pean a tiny floating water temple you can not walk around, but which was accessed by a long wooden walkway across a moat and mangrove swamp and was quite eerie.
Then to Ta Keo, a pyramid structure, symbolising the mythical Mount Meru. This typically was covered in scaffolding, (as it is being renovated by the French) so we couldn’t go up it.
Next was Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, two very small temples which sit opposite each other and are very beautiful.
Then, finally ending at the old bridge and South Gate where Mr. Theoun turned into our photographer! Haha.
We were back at the hotel by 13.00 but on the drive back the weather was starting to improve with the cloud cover lifting - should we risk trying for an Angkor sunset or would we be wasting our time? Mr. Theoun didn't seem convinced we would see anything but agreed to wait for us while we went for a coffee to make up our minds. An hour later and the weather was much the same, still more cloud than sun but we decided to go for it. On way to Phnom Bakheng temple we passed the entrance gate of Angkor Wat giving us tantalizing views. Nick couldn't resist a sneaky peek, so Mr. Theoun pulled over for 5 minutes so we could have a closer look - amazing! You however have to wait until tomorrow! We continued to the temple where we had a 20 minute steep climb up to the top (you can pay $20 to ride up on elephant!)
We had read in LP that it could turn into a bit of a circus up here and they were not wrong, it was obviously where all of the Chinese tour groups ended so was packed. We planted ourselves in a good position and refused to move. We were confused though as they way the guidebook had read made it sound like you would have sunset views over Angkor Wat - you don't as it's in the opposite direction and although you can see it, it's too far away to get a decent photo. Anyway, the sun started to set and although it was not the postcard image we had hoped, it was still pretty cool.
Back down and regretting why we had not bought a really good camera for this trip as our sunset photos were pretty crap compared to other peoples we had seen. We asked Mr. Theoun to drop us at Pub Street rather than the hotel as we were both starving. After two days of him being our personal tuk-tuk driver, It was time to say goodbye. We ate at Le Tigre de Papier, yet another LP recommendation and a famous restaurant in Siem Reap where we had delicious food.
Day three (and our last day of exploring the temples) and we had organsised a private tour guide to take us and Corina and Teresa around the largest of the temples. Our guide Mr. Vy Keng was a little slow to warm up, but once he did was fantastic! We started at the South Gate and entrance to Angkor Thom which literally translates as “Great City” and was the Capital of Angkor and home to the royal family. It takes monumental to a whole new level and is a series of temples and buildings set over 10 sq km all still surrounded by it’s original 8m high wall and 30m wide moat (which was dug by hand!!).
Our first stop inside was at the Bayon Temple, famed for it’s 54 gothic looking towers with 216 heads. The temple is huge and it would have been very easy to get lost in it without our guide who gave us loads of information about the history of Angkor and the different icons within the temple, explaining how they were changed from Buddhist images to Hindu ones by simple adding a third eye to the forehead.
From here we continued to explore the rest of Angkor Thom, visiting Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of the Elephants before taking a much needed break and a spot of lunch.
Feeling refreshed, our next stop was Ta Prohm or “The Angela Jolie Temple” or “The one from Tomb Raider” as it is known! This temple has truly been reclaimed by the jungle with some stunning trees and roots intertwined with the stonework, and in many cases even being what is holding the temple up!
Our final stop was the symbol of Cambodia and world famous Angkor Wat (and what Nick had been so excited to see!). Surrounded by a moat of 190m wide which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5km by 1.3km (so that’s huge then!) stretching around the outside of the central temple with it’s tower measuring a whopping 31m (Dad that is just over 100ft!) To Nick’s delight the weather was incredible meaning he got that famous photo of the temple reflecting in the lily covered pools. Angkor Wat is stunning and so so impressive. We definitely made the right decision in leaving it to last, and we can’t believe that some people only see this one temple - madness!
It has been the most amazing day and one of the highlights of our trip so far.
That night we went for dinner with Corina and Teresa for one last time to say goodbye before they travelled back to Vietnam to catch their flights home. It was a lovely evening and it was so great to have met these two wonderful characters!
Our last day was spent relaxing and sorting out our onward transport to Laos for the following day.