The wonders of Siem Reap

Coming face-to-face with the horrors of Cambodia’s genocide at S21 was a straitening experience. Nonetheless, we left Phnom Penh in an optimistic mood; it’s an interesting city and we want to spend more time there. Our visit to Cambodia was an afterthought to our Vietnam plans — “while we’re so close…” — but the country deserves a month or more on its own as our visit to Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, would demonstrate.

We again used 12Go to book our online tickets for the eight hour bus ride to Siem Reap. This time we used Giant Ibis Transport, on a newer bus with slightly smaller seats. The fare was US$15, we left on time and the trip was perfect. Once again, we were not met on arrival as promised but a phone call sorted things out and we were soon in a tuk-tuk rattling along to our hotel.

I was wiped out when we arrived and the warm welcome at the In Miles Boutique Hotel was much appreciated. A cool towel, a cold drink and a spacious, clean, quiet room in a low-rise building full of antiques and character. Plus a very friendly, helpful staff & a good breakfast. In Miles is just outside Siem Reap’s busy tourist area but only a short US$1 tuk-tuk ride to all the action. We recommend it. (C$33)

We had met a Filipina woman on the bus who works as a teacher in Saigon and gave us the name of a local tuk-tuk driver. We gave him a call to book our 4am pickup for the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Sure enough, dark and early with a packed hotel breakfast, we headed off in the cool morning air to purchase tickets for the Angkor Archaeological Park, US$62 for three days access to all the sites. The ticket centre is a huge modern building reminiscent of an airport terminal. We somehow avoided any lineups and were soon on our way.

It was a short drive to the Angkor Wat parking lot and we joined the silent throngs stumbling along in the dark toward the sunrise viewing area. It was an odd procession and after standing around for almost an hour at the edge of a small lake the sky brightened and the show was quickly over. There was a bit of haze so we never saw the sun but can confidently state that it did rise.

We spent much of the day exploring Angkor Wat but that was just the beginning. Siem Reap (it means Defeat of Siam in reference to a 16th century war) is home to many large temples and temple complexes of which Angkor Wat — said to be the largest religious building in the world — is just one. It’s a remarkable place.

Next up was Bayon, famous for the huge enigmatic heads atop its towers and the main temple of the 9-sq-km Angkor Thom. As we were leaving, a long religious procession passed by — lots of colour and noise and we have no idea what it was about.

You may remember the vine and root encrusted temple from the Tomb Raider movies. That was Ta Prohm and it is every bit as dramatic as you might imagine. Lots of foot traffic has beaten back the jungle and turned the paths into dusty trails but the magnificent roots remain. It was our next stop.

The day was young. Our driver suggested a visit to a floating village so off we went for a 55km tuk-tuk ride somewhere in rural Cambodia. Gasoline, we discovered when we stopped for a fill, is sold by the one liter glass bottle at roadside stands. It costs about the same as in Canada. We had no idea where we were going or why we were going there and were financially unprepared — a visit to the money changers was on our list — but managed to come up with the US$22 each for the entry ticket. It was well worth it. Our tuk-tuk dropped us off and we clambered down a muddy bank to start down a long river in a fast, bright orange boat piloted by a young lad of about 12. He eventually pulled over and we transferred into small boats paddled by elderly women for a tour of the village and its houses high up on stilts. It was getting dark and we rejoined the mother ship for a visit to a crocodile farm and then a quick trip into Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. We headed back in the dark placing much faith in our young pilot. It was a long, dark tuk-tuk ride back to Siem Reap’s Old  Market, for a date with a money changer and dinner at Viva Mexican Restaurant which claims “The best Mexican food in Asia.” Lots of variety including Italian and Cambodian. We recommend it.

Day 2 started with a visit to Elephant Terrace, also part of Angkor Thom. We were eager to see it and not disappointed. The terrace wall is two-and-a-half metres high, 300 metres long and adorned with carved elephants and mythical flying guardians called garudas. The platform was used to review victorious armies. From there we entered the temple complex for more exploration.

Then came a quick stop at Neak Pean aka the Water Temple on a man-made island in the middle of the Preah Khan Baray. Then it was off to Ta Som. As you may have concluded, Siem Reap has a staggering array of archaeological treasure.

Day two’s temple tour was capped off with a steep sunset climb to the top of Pre Rup temple. Then an evening tuk-tuk ride back to town, dinner at the excellent Khmer Kitchen, and a bit of souvenir shopping in Siem Reap’s Old Market. More excitement awaited…

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