We left Banlung in a standard minibus, cramped and speeding down the road, in hopes of meeting our connection in Stung Trang, which should have been waiting on the side of the road for us. Well it wasn’t waiting, but it showed up a few minutes after we pulled over at a deserted intersection. We switched to the empty minibus, expecting the worst, to be put in a packed vehicle for the next 6-8 hours. But we were wrong and the rest of our trip to Siem Reap involved only 5 other people and few stops. Riki was even able to lie down in the back seat and nap. A far cry from our normal bus trips. We even arrived after only 5 hours.
We checked into our guesthouse, a recommendation from an American from Kansas we met at the crater lake in Banlung. A steal at $7 a night, but pretty much deserted as far as we could tell. That night we walked to the central market and tried to get our bearings. We had heard so many different opinions about what to do here and the order to do it in that we were a bit overwhelmed and hoped to meet some people who could offer more insight. We were delighted to find 50 cent draft beers and an American/Swiss couple who had done a quick one day tour of the temples, a bit too speedy for our liking.
The next day, we wandered Siem Reap and bought provisions for the upcoming marathon of temple-viewing. We had heard food near the temples was expensive and it was best to bring your own. Fortunately, we found a bakery and a giant grocery store (not a common sight here). Riki was even able to stock up on Goldfish, and if you know Riki, that is heaven on earth for him.
There are a few options for tickets to see the temples. You can get a one day ($20), three day ($40), or seven day pass (all of which involve getting your picture taken and printed on a paper card). They also all allow you to buy the day before, at 5 pm and enter for free to see the sunset, not counting as one of your days. We hired a tuk-tuk and for an astronomical $7 he agreed to take us to pick up our tickets, watch the sunset at Angkor Wat and bring us back. Angkor Wat is not highly frequented for its sunsets. Most people go there for the sunrise, as you can get a good silhouette as the sun rises behind the temples. So when we arrived at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver was a little confused why we wanted to stay there the whole time and not continue on to the hill where most people watch the sunset. But this turned out to be the first of a long list of good decisions we made this week. There were not very many people and the crowd thinned rapidly as the tour groups were ushered to the sunset hill. We were too late to climb the tower, but we wandered through the massive complex until we were forced to leave because it was closing. Dilly-dallying the whole way, we managed to be some of the last few to leave and Riki was able to snap some shots with little to no people in them (a rare thing we discovered).
The next morning at 5 am, we took our rented bikes ($2 each) and rode about 40 minutes into the park. It was pretty chilly and very dark, though the bikes had lights that were supposed to turn on when you started going fast enough. Riki’s worked and mine worked occassionally if you kicked it hard enough or went over the right kind of bump. Though commonly just called Angkor, the archaeological park is home to many many temples, some huge, most not. The Khmer kings a thousand plus years ago would each build a new capital, but not that far from the old ones. The temple part was the only part built of stone. The surrounding city was built of wood and thus did not stand the test of time. Consequently, the remaining stone temples are a bit spread out, with lots of walls, gates and towers remaining. It is possible to reach some on bikes comfortably, but the rest are a bit far and require a tuk-tuk, private car, or as we discovered, an e-bike.
The first temple we reached was Bayon, about 45 minutes before sunrise. The place was deserted and we clamored with our flashlights into the maze of stone. We had counted on being alone and only saw a quiet couple appear just as the sun was rising over the many giant stone faces of Bayon. The sun slowly changed the faces from purple to orange as it rose higher in the sky.
Like many of the temples we were to encounter, this one had never been fully completed. For almost an hour I followed the guide we had bought and read about the incredible bas-reliefs depicted in every corner of the temple. Incredible chiseled images of war and day-to-day life lined the walls, some twenty feet tall. And then, just as other people started showing up, having already seen the sun rise at Angkor, I was studying a particularly gruesome image of people being eaten by alligators and a tiger engulfing a man and engorging his claws into his stomach, I was startled by a movement to my right. An agile monkey (as if they aren’t all agile) scampered up the wall and sat right above the scene I was studying.
And there were a lot more, coincidentally arriving just as the tour buses arrived from Angkor Wat. And that was our cue to move on. This was our second good decision. The temple complexes have become even more popular, with so many tourists that it can be overwhelming, especially when visiting a place that was meant to be pretty serene. Our itinerary became based on avoiding the crowds as much as possible, something I highly advise to future visitors.
Our second stop was Baphoun, just north of Bayon. It is a largely restored 11th century pyramid with a 16th century giant reclining Buddha at its west wall. Apparently, the very top tower was dismantled to make this Buddha, as they couldn’t find any of the top pieces when it was being restored. Many of the temples have been restored in the past hundred years or so when a French group re-discovered the area and started putting resources together to reassemble the temples. Some temples have been left largely in their dilapidated conditions, either because of lack of funds or just to show the state they were discovered in.
The tour groups started showing up and we high-tailed it a little further north to the Terrace of the Leper King. This 20 foot tall terrace flanked the entrance to a Royal Palace and had two sets of carved walls, one inner and one outer. I overheard a guide tell his group it was because they wanted to expand the terrace, so they just built another wall further out and filled in the gap. It was later excavated so you can walk between the two walls and see both sets of carvings.
We decided not to hire a guide for any of our three days and bought a book ahead of time to read up and be our own guides (see pic above). This didn’t keep me from following around the English speaking guides I came across though. I love the elephants with the supporting tusks and the five-headed horse. The Terrace of the Elephants, flanking the other side of the entrance, surprisingly had less awesome elephant carvings than that of the Leper King terrace.
Next stop, Preah Pithu Group, oddly named Temples T, U, V, X and Y. These were a bit off the main route, almost deserted and really cool. I don’t think much is known about them, otherwise they would have better names.
We continued east, to guess what, the East Gate, or Victory Gate. Here, we got off our bikes and walked them up the dirt wall to the path at the top, where we rode south to the next gate, the Gate of the Dead. Apparently, if you came back from fighting your enemies and had won, you could come through the Victory Gate. If you had lost, you had to hang your head and come through the Gate of the Dead. Both were pretty incredible and remarkably similar for having such different purposes, in my opinion.
Just outside the gates of Angkor Thom (which houses the aforementioned temples), we stopped briefly at two temples that have undergone extensive reconstruction. Thommanom was redone in the 1960’s and has interesting concrete ceilings.
Ta Keo is being re-done by a Chinese organization. We didn’t even climb up this one. The reconstruction had too much smooth concrete, which made it unappealing to us.
This next one was my favorite temple of the day, though second favorite experience (after the sunrise at Bayon). North of Ta Keo along a sandy overgrown path is Ta Nei. It is not on the main route and is largely in its natural decay. The central area is cluttered with piles of stones and the outside is not much different. We sat and ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and encountered a guy and his guide looking for a lost brown wallet, no luck unfortunately. Probably one of the worst temples to lose something that would just blend right in or get stuck between the rubble.
Ta Prohm is known for being the place that Tombraider was filmed and it is HUGE. We arrived and immediately encountered dozens of tour groups. Having looked forward to this one because of its overgrowth and protruding trees, I gave it my best shot and sped for the far side, hoping it would be less crowded. It wasn’t and I made an executive decision that we would have to come back the next day before the crowds arrived. At this point, I had lost Riki (very easy when he is off photographing things). I headed for our meeting point and sketched until he came to the same realization as I had and returned, overwhelmed by all the people getting in the way of his pictures. Third good decision.
Right down the road is Banteay Kdei. There were far fewer people, lots of lichen and is much smaller. A good one to end on as the view from across the road is nice out over the Srah Srang – a huge royal bath.
We returned almost 12 hours after we had left, exhausted and not sunburned. We took the next day off to do some shopping and catch up on some blogging. We also did some more research on the temples and rented e-bikes ($10/day), which are essentially electronic scooters with pedals that you aren’t supposed to use because it wastes more battery. Seemed backwards to me, but it was cheaper and less hassle than having a tuk-tuk driver hurrying us along all day. Fourth good decision.