Oh wat a place… Siem Reap & Angkor Wat – Cambodia

I’ve been putting off writing this post for two reasons: 1. I knew it was going to be a long one and 2. I didn’t know where to begin to explain how incredible Angkor is.

Siem Reap is a city in north western Cambodia, famous for its lively ‘Pub Street’ and, more importantly, as the gateway to the Angkor region of ancient temples.

We arrived in Siem Reap to pouring rain. Everyone piled off the coach and into tuk-tuks, but, refusing to spend £2-3 on one, we waited around for 5mins and luckily the rain slowed and we were able to walk to our hostel. In the words of Tesco, every little helps!

Tom had booked us a double room at the Mekong Hostel which boasted a nice swimming pool and bar area, as well as a pool table and darts board. Our room was lovely and big with a balcony overlooking the pool, all for £15 a night – well done Tom!

We wandered into town for an explore and quickly stumbled upon the neon lights of Pub Street. The area was home to a vast array of bars and restaurants catering to western tastes and all advertising their beer prices. We dipped into one bar for a 40p beer each and then had a look round a nearby night market. Tom was feeling tired and hangry so in order to calm his hunger beast we had an early dinner at one of the Pub Street restaurants, indulging in a rather expensive meal of pizza and a blue cheese burger. The street was now very busy and French tourists started piling into the bars, positioning themselves in front of big screens in time for the start of the France vs Uruguay World Cup match. We watched the start of the game then made our way back to our hostel, walking past street vendors selling roasted scorpions, crickets and grubs to try (or you could just pay to pose with one for a photo).

The next morning we browsed the range of Angkor tours available at our hostel but the prices were ridiculous and, although it’s fun to be in a big group of people and is a great way to meet other travellers, we wanted to be able to go at our own pace and definitely didn’t want to pay the inflated price tag for the luxury of an organised tour. So we went for breakfast at a nearby café then bought a freshly baked baguette from a tiny bakery across the road before approaching a tuk-tuk driver relaxing in his vehicle at the side of the road. Confident we could explore the Angkor complex on foot, we turned down his offers to take us round for the day and negotiated for him to take us to the ticket office which was 4km out of town, and then drop us off at Angkor Wat for £6. At the ticket office we were in two minds whether to get a single day pass for $37 (£29) or a three day pass for $62 (£49) but, having spoken to Tom’s sister who said she wished she’d spent more time there, we swallowed the cost, had our photos snapped, and opted for the three day pass.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr Sokhy, once more tried to up-sell us to a day tour, showing us the route and dropping his price from $30 to $15, he explained that as it’s the low season he hadn’t had any customers for a while and needed the work. Feeling bad for him (or were we just gullible?) and with a return journey to Siem Reap likely to cost us another $6, we obliged and he was delighted. So, off we sped on our padded bench in a carriage attached to the back of his motorbike.

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Reaching the edge of the Angkor complex, the city quickly turned from busy roads and shop-lined streets to leafy forest trails, free from large vehicles. We pulled over to have our passes checked at a few security points and then got our first glimpse of Angkor Wat in the distance. Mr Sokhy dropped us at a large parking area at the entrance and we agreed to meet him by a big tree once we were done.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and even features on the Cambodian flag. Surrounded by a huge moat, the temple is one of the best preserved in Angkor. We crossed a floating walkway and approached one of the huge archways leading to the temple. It was now midday and there were thousands of people bustling around the place. You can enter Angkor Wat from 5am to watch sunrise and we were beginning to understand why people came early to avoid the crowds. But, not being early birds, we joined the hordes of people and slowly made our way towards the internal temple with its five recognisable towers.

Every inch of the complex was covered in decorative carvings of women and mythical creatures and there were several Buddhist shrines dotted around the place with orange-clad monks giving out blessings.

We spent 2 hours exploring symmetrical walkways and galleries before queuing to climb a horrifically steep set of wooden stairs (it was more like a ladder) to reach the top layer of the temple surrounding the largest central tower. Incredible panoramic views of the site spanned as far as the eye could see and, leaving the welcome breeze at the top, we made our way back down, gripping onto the hand rails tightly.

Finding Mr Sokhy in the shade, we bought some water and set off for the next area, eating our baguette on the way. Angkor Thom covers an area of 9km2 and was the last capital of the Khmer Empire, built by King Jayavarman VII towards the end of the 12th century. The site contains a number of temples surrounding the central state temple called Bayon. The Bayon temple is extremely distinctive with a series of huge smiling stone faces decorating its towers and the same faces also adorn gigantic gateways on the roads leading into the area.

We battled against bus loads of extremely rude Chinese tourists who literally shoulder barged you out of the way without an apology or care in sight. Reaching the end of our tethers after being pushed around so much, we walked over to the other temples nearby which were thankfully not on the bus tour itinerary.

Each of the nearby temples were in varying levels of preservation and the close proximity meant we walked around for a few hours stumbling across different structures, climbing those that looked most stable. Yet more steep staircases took us to the top of the huge square Baphuon temple where we took in more views, enjoying the slight breeze, then we wandered to the Terrace of the Elephants which – shock – is decorated with carvings of elephants.

Now melting and drained from the heat, we grabbed water on the way to Ta Prohm temple. Made famous as one of the locations featured in the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie, the temple is one of the most popular in Angkor and Mr Sokhy told us it should be quieter now that it was quite late in the day. Passing a couple of coaches in the parking area, we practically jogged down the path to Ta Prohm to get ahead of more Chinese tourists.

The site has been left much as it was found and features huge trees growing out of the ruins, wrapping their roots around doorways and through fallen rubble. There’s an eerie, magical quality to the place and it was definitely one of my favourites.

Squeezing in one more smaller temple before closing time, we were now well and truly exhausted from all the walking/climbing on such a hot day. Mr Sokhy dropped us back at our hostel and, now aware of the vast scale of the area, we requested to use him again to explore the temples located further out on the Angkor site in a few days.

That evening we went for food at Mama Moch where we tried a delicious Khmer curry – so delicious in fact that I had it two more times during our stay! After our food, we headed to Pub Street to watch the England vs Sweden match, choosing a sports bar rammed full of already drunk rowdy Brits. This was my worst nightmare but Tom was keen for it. With each goal we scored more beer was thrown into the air and, when one guy who looked about 14 purposefully knocked a pint into the air which subsequently went over Tom and then tried to make out it was an accident, I think Tom understood why I hate football. After our win we went for a few more drinks and watched on as young drunk Brits spilled into the streets, some on pub crawls wearing matching t-shirts and drawing on each other with Sharpies. Thinking back to our uni days when we did exactly the same pub crawls and behaved just as embarrassingly, we laughed at how old we now felt and wondered how many would be going home with suspect tattoos at the end of the night.

Waking with pretty gross hangovers, we took it easy and went for a late brunch in town followed by a day lazing around the pool and writing our travel journals. Annoyed that his iPhone camera wasn’t taking good enough photos and jealous of my digital SLR, Tom decided he wanted to take the leap and buy an SLR, so at around 5pm he dragged me to a shop he’d found online. The shop was a camera shop, come photocopying shop, come internet café – not screaming legitimacy to me, but we spent over an hour trying out different models and comparing prices with those available back home in the UK. I was very hesitant and worried that Tom was making an impulsive purchase so convinced him to go for a drink to consider his options. I checked out all of the serial numbers and, after some final comparisons, Tom decided to indulge so we went back and he plumped for a Nikon D3400, a carry case and an SD card.

Happy with his purchase, we had another yummy meal at Mama Moch and then Tom spent all evening playing with his new toy whilst I Face Timed by parents.

Mr Sokhy collected us at 7am the next morning and we made our way around the ‘longer’ route of the complex. We visited Banteay Srei, a beautiful red hued temple and one of the oldest in Angkor, built in the 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. I bought some postcards from a cute little girl and then Mr Sokhy suggested we visit a butterfly garden on the way to our next temple.

The butterfly sanctuary cost £5 each to enter and when Mr Sokhy said he’d never been in, we offered to pay for him but he declined. There were so many stunning butterflies and we were given a private guided tour where we learnt all about their life cycle. Our guide showed us eggs and caterpillars and let us hold pupa in their cocoons which wriggled around when we stroked them – so weird! We also saw the biggest stick insects imaginable which were so bizarre. It was the perfect place for Tom to test out his camera and he was really pleased with the photos he’d captured. Thank god!

We visited another 6 or 7 temples, now losing track of their names, and after another exhausting day I nodded off in the tuk-tuk on the way back to our hostel. We paid Mr Sokhy, adding on a tip as he’d been so great and he thanked us for our custom, saying his wife would be very pleased. It’s worth noting here that we didn’t bring food with us this day so when Mr Sokhy asked if we wanted to stop for lunch we naturally said yes. There are loads of food stands and pop-up restaurants nearby each temple with women who run towards you, waving menus and shouting for your custom. Mr Sokhy directed us towards a restaurant and the screaming lady said he’d already promised we’d eat there, so trusting his recommendation, we went in. He told us it would be a bit expensive as each vendor has to pay to have a site within the complex. Nevertheless, we asked if he’d join us but he shyly shook his head and walked behind the restaurant. He wasn’t wrong about the price – it was nearly £10 per dish! We ordered food (I had fried beef with ginger) and realised that if the driver brings you to the restaurant, they also provide them with a meal, albeit round the back. Although the cost was ridiculously expensive, screwing our budget with £20 on lunch, the food was tasty and at least Mr Sokhy got a meal too. But just be aware of this if you’re visiting Angkor!

The next day, after reviewing our finances and not enjoying the figures, we bought baguettes, cheese and tomatoes from a nearby shop and made a packed lunch for the day. Instead of using Mr Sokhy, we hired bicycles for £2 and braved the roads, making our way back to Angkor for the final time. Once inside the complex the roads were nice and quiet and we enjoyed cycling around. We revisited Angkor Wat which was now much quieter and I had a blessing from a young monk who splashed water at me whilst chanting loudly and tied a bracelet to my wrist. Flinching with each splash of water, I struggled to keep a straight face whilst Tom giggled in the background.

We climbed an ‘elephant path’ to the top of a hill (we didn’t come across any elephants but did find evidence of them in the form of huge piles of dung) where we sat by a temple and ate our packed lunch looking out at the view of Angkor Wat below.

We cycled to a couple more temples and then finally saw our first elephants in Asia! Two elephants were ‘parked up’ by a tree with riders straddling their necks. We gingerly approached, keeping our distance in case they moved suddenly or swung their trunks. The elephants are used to carry visitors to the top of the hill we’d had our lunch on for a fee of $20. Though the elephants looked to be in good shape and didn’t have any obvious injuries, it was still sad to see them being ridden and with ropes around them.

Finally deciding that we’d seen all we wanted to in Angkor, with tired legs we cycled back to Siem Reap, handed back our bikes, had a swim in the pool and went for one last Khmer curry at Mama Moch’s.

I cannot stress how incredible Angkor is – it’s been a definite highlight of my trip so far and I’d urge anyone to go and visit. If I could do it all again I would probably opt for the single day pass as I think you can fit in all of the main sites relatively easily (and without such a strain on the finances), but I did enjoy having the freedom to roam at a leisurely(ish) pace, safe in the knowledge we’d not missed anything out. Cambodia is a lovely country with so much going for it – gorgeous islands, fascinating history and, well… Angkor! The people were also super friendly and the mildly spiced Khmer curries were to die for.

Next stop… Bangkok!

See ya later, Sophie x

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