Monday, January 26, 2015

Visiting Angkor Wat

The day started with breakfast at the TeaHouse in Phnom Penh. I was then picked up by the bus company shuttle to the departure point for the bus to Siem Reap. It was supposed to be a ride of a bit over 2 1/2 hours. Unfortunately, after about 30 minutes the paved highway disappeared and became a wide dirt road, and it continued in that manner for the next couple hundred kilometers. Our driver was adventurous in the mud and pushed it hard, coating any cars, motorbikes or cyclists that we passed with a bow wave of muck. We made one stop along the way, to repair a predictably flat tire and catch our breath, then we carried along. The ride was about 5 hours and somewhat exhausting.

I later heard that the reason why there is an incredibly long dirt road where there once was a paved highway is because a contractor was hired to rebuild the road. They laid down an entire new road, then discovered that something was wrong with it. They then tore up the entire highway to repair it, rather than just tearing up one section at a time. Once they'd removed the whole road, they went bankrupt, leaving a 200 plus km dirt track between the two biggest cities in the country. Love it!

Nice view beside first stop.
"Does anyone know how to fix this thing?"
Beware passing vehicles.
"You wish your girlfriend was this dirty."
In Siem Reap I was staying at the Goyavier Boutique Hotel. This place was fantastic. Incredibly welcoming staff. Beautiful rooms with gorgeous bathrooms, comfortable beds and lovely patios. And a pool that was perfect for relaxing in and by after a long hot day. Good breakfasts. All for a very reasonable price. I'd highly recommend this place, even though it wasn't terribly centrally located.
Great rooms. Hard to capture in a photo or two.
Really nice pool area.
Being a budget traveller I hadn't usually taken a guide when I visit places. But on my first full day in Siem Reap I decided to get one to show me around Angkor Wat. I knew that this was one of the premiere "must see" destinations, and I wanted to get a good grasp of it and really understand what I was looking at. I was glad I did, because my guide was very helpful in getting me to understand the history of the area, the background behind each of the temples, and a bit about the current day climate in Cambodia. Plus, we got a tuk tuk to drive us around between each of our destinations, and with Angkor Wat being spread across such a huge area this was a big plus.

I won't go into depth about the history and background of Angkor Wat here because there's so much available online through far better resources than my memory. As usual, just Wikipedia it.

Everyone says to get up early to see the temples at sunrise. This probably makes sense, but it wasn't an option to me. While I've been travelling I've also been looking around for my next job, and on both mornings while in Siem Reap I had calls to take. I do understand that it gets a little crazy first thing in the morning, but that it's beautiful. I also spoke with some people whose guide had taken them around the back of some temples in the morning, so that they could get the view without the crowds, and they said it was terrific. If I were to go again I'd likely try to do that, but I don't really expect to go again. It was fantastic, but not something that requires repeating.

On my first day I did what's referred to as the small circuit. I didn't really want to do something that's referred to as "small", since I wanted to take it all in, but the guide recommended it and it turned out to be more than enough. The small tour included visiting Angkor Thom, Bayon, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. (Angkor Wat is just one temple in the entire complex, albeit a very large and impressive one.) I could say what I thought of each one, but if you're going to go you're going to visit all of them anyways. Suffice to say that I share the opinion of many in that I felt that Bayon was the most beautiful. And Ta Prohm is probably the coolest, because it has been reclaimed by nature and still has trees winding through it. It's better known as the Tomb Raider temple.

Across the water from Angkor Wat.
My guide.

Original 12th c stones on left. With 2 holes in each stone where the bamboo went for transport by elephant.

It was a long day of templing. One great thing about having a guide was that he know all the best places to take photos. We'd be walking along and he'd tell me to climb a wall or stand in a corner for the best shot. I just wish I had a camera that would do a better job of shots with both sky and temple wall in them, because any effort to get both in meant that the shot would be washed out or black.

Look out for the crocodile.

Getting artsy.

Me & the tree from Tomb Raider. 

We had a lunch break at one point, where my guide introduced me to a restaurant with A/C and Wifi, while he went around back to eat with the other guides. I had invited him to join me for lunch, but I think he was happy to hang out with his friends. It was very hot out, and at the end of the day I was exhausted and very happy to head back to my hotel. After a while the temples all start to blend together, so it was so nice to return, take a dip in the pool, and get refreshed.

That evening I went to a place called Haven Training Restaurant, which is a place that gives opportunities to disadvantaged Cambodian youth and gives them valuable hospitality experience. The place fills up, but being a solo traveller does have advantages sometimes, and they gave me a seat on a couch. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was welcoming. I'd highly recommend it.
Tuk tuk into town.

I had decided to do a bit of a self-guided tour the following day. I wasn't going to get much more information out of a guide on the second day, and I thought it would be cool to explore a bit on my own. I wanted to visit the temples that were to the east and north of the main complex that I had visited the day before, so I rented a bike from my hotel and headed off.

The bike had seemed like a nice idea, and overall it was, but I hadn't really taken the heat into account. I had to do a morning call again, so I didn't get going until a little later in the day, and by that time it had warmed up nicely. My hotel was a bit of a ride from the temple complex, and once there it was still a fair ride to the places I wanted to see. By the time I reached my first temple, over an hour after I had left my hotel, I was absolutely drenched with sweat. I had dressed for a nice casual bike ride, not a spinning class. I bought lots of water to keep myself quenched, but it was a bit of a slog all day with soaking clothes.

Progressively smaller doors as you move into the temple.

Cycling from temple to temple on my own time was quite nice though. It's very peaceful, and I only had to see what I wanted to see. I'm sure I missed many things that a guide could have pointed out to me, but the bike journey complemented the prior day's information filled venture nicely. Once during the day it rained heavily for about 1/2 an hour, but I hid in a 12th century temple to stay dry. Over the course of the day I had the chance to visit Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean and Preah Khan. Neak Pean was the first I visited after the rain and was very cool. It was a temple built on an island, with a simple footbridge across the water. The temple was pretty much gone, but the bridge right after the rain was incredibly peaceful.

Waiting out the rain.
After the storm.
Playing tricks with the light. Photo by security guard seeking tip money.
A menacing entrance.
One final look on the way out.

At the end of the day, hot and sweaty, I headed back for my hotel for a dip in the pool and to refresh. It had been a great visit, but I was templed out. People that visit the temples for a full week either absolutely love this stuff or didn't know what they were getting themselves into.

That evening I had a somewhat forgettable dinner along Pub Street, the chaotic very touristy part of town. What I didn't do, and in hindsight I regret not doing, was go to Phare, the Cambodian circus. I had considered it, but decided I was a bit tired. People whom I spoke with after had a great time, and I wish I'd gone.

I had no plans for the following day, and I made the best of it by doing as little as possible. I spent the day enjoying the nice hotel and its pool. I made another venture to Pub Street, to see if it had improved. It hadn't. I made it a nice quiet evening and prepped to head out the next day. I was moving along, this time to Bangkok, where I was going in order to get a visa for Myanmar.

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