As we left Myanmar behind we touched down in Bangkok for a 4 hour layover before flying on to Siem Reap. It was a bit of a penny dropping moment in regards to Coronavirus as hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese people were in the departure lounge. Most of them were flying to China for New Year and were wearing the surgical masks, we hoped they would be effective as we started to wonder where we could get some from! The flight on to Siem Reap took under an hour and then we were on our way to the hotel for the next 4 nights (we know, 4 nights! That's practically an age compared to 2 nights everywhere in Myanmar!), Hari Residence & Spa. After settling in to the room, we headed upstairs for an early dinner, on the rooftop bar, before heading to bed for our early start the next morning.
The alarm at 06:30 felt very early and after breakfast at the hotel we met our driver, Mr Mak and got into the remork (chariot pulled by motorbike), our transport for the next 2 days. Sadly it wasn't a seamless process as, when we arrived at reception the receptionist introduced us to our tour guide (we hadn't booked one - we didn't fancy spending an extra $80). When we tried to tell reception that they had it wrong, she showed us that it had been written down in her book (and hell mend you if you challenge the book) that we had asked for one. Fortunately, Katy was able to show them the email confirmation where it clearly stated we only wanted a remork. We felt bad for the guide but annoyed we had been put in that position and there was no manager around to resolve the issue either.
Nonetheless we headed on and after buying our 3-day temple pass (why would they do a 2 day pass!?) we sped off to our first temple on the itinerary we had put together (and were hoping the hotel had read and, more importantly, told the driver!) We arrived at the 10th century Hindu temple Pre Rup (on itinerary) (translates as 'turn the body') and were able to explore the temple, that was in excellent condition, in relative peace. The former crematorium was great fun to explore and with no restrictions on where we could go or look into, we definitely poked our noses into every crevice, unlocking our inner Lara Croft and Indiana Jones!
Next was Banteay Samre (not on itinerary) (Citadel of the Samre) a 12th century Hindu temple however, due to the hot, humid conditions over the centuries, the stone had weathered and turned a more sinister black. The temple itself has yet to be renovated so some parts were inaccessible due to fallen stone but we loved exploring what we could. The walls however were high and seemed to block all the air coming in so we left when the heat and humidity became a bit much!
Banteay Srei (on itinerary) (Citadel of Beauty) was an hour from Siem Reap so we had some time to sit and watch the Cambodian country side go by. The 10th century temple (pre-dating Angkor Wat) is known for it's intricate carvings and pink stone, meaning it has been called the 'Jewel of Khymer Art'. It's other name is the citadel of women, as only a woman would be able to carve something so intricate. It was less fun to explore with areas now roped off and directed (told) where to go. The carvings were amazing but the temple was busy with tour groups as well which took some of the fun away that we had been having earlier in the day. We also encountered our first child sellers. Parents send the kids out with souvenirs to sell to tourists to help them make money instead of going to school, it was truly heartbreaking.
The 10th century East Mebon (not on itinerary) was originally sat on an artificial island in the middle of an artificial reservoir however nature has retaken the land and we were driven to the front door. We circled the outer wall to see the 2m high elephants at each of the 4 corners before ascending to the main sanctuary. It was good being allowed to go back to unrestricted viewing however some of it was being propped up by scaffolding.
At East Mebon we were starting to tire but pressed on to Ta Som (on itinerary), a 12th century Buddhist temple built in the Bayon style. We loved returning to the explorer feeling from earlier in the day as we admired the Khymer sculptures and we also came upon our first smiling Buddha face that was prolific in Bayon style. The real draw was admiring how nature has retaken this temple and the most striking example was the eastern gatehouse that has now been entombed within a strangler fig tree.
Mr Mak then took us for some lunch at Neak Pean Restaurant #7 (snappy name, right!?), located next to our next stop, Neak Pean (on itinerary). The food was overpriced and the driver probably got a cut but we were happy to have a break and our first experience of Khymer food was good. The 12th century Buddhist temple is built on an artificial island (see hotel, East Mebon wasn't necessary, we had already covered the temple on an artificial island thing, we even got one that still had water surrounding it) that requires walking a wooden causeway to enter and exit (traditionally, it was sailed to). It was less impressive than the other temples as the main area consisted of smaller shrines that surrounded 4 stagnant pools of water. We also couldn't walk all the way around due to ongoing reconstruction. We didn't spend long here, mostly as we were both full from lunch.
Final stop of the day was Preah Khan (on itinerary) a massive temple complex that once housed a Buddhist university, dancers, and shrines to deities from Buddhism and Hinduism (talk about not putting all your eggs in one basket!) The draw of this massive complex is the lack of renovation, the vegetation has predominantly been left in charge and as the archeologists can't guess well enough at its original structure, the remnants are maintained, not restored. The walkway took us over a bridge where we were flanked by statues of men pulling a chain on both side. Each chamber gave us an opportunity to explore, clamber over rock and stone and wonder at what this once looked like. It was very impressive and an amazing juxtaposition of huge man made constructions being consumed by nature.
Our favourite temple of the day had been Pre Rup as it had been such a welcome change from the Buddhist temples of Thailand and Myanmar and so much more impressive due to it's age. It's also because we had lots of fun climbing on and over rock and stone. On return to the hotel we requested Mr Mak again for day 2 of Angkor Wat and made sure there was no tour guide booked although the manager definitely made it feel like our fault one had been booked in the first place. After a much needed wash and some down time we headed out to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner (and a pin badge of course) and to kick off Katy's birthday weekend. The pace was clearly too much for us as we were back in bed by 21:00 and both were asleep by half past!
The 04:00 alarm came around far too quickly. We got organised and down to reception where we collected our breakfast boxes (bread, croissant, fruit, boiled egg and cold sausages) and headed out with Mr Mak. It was very surreal to be speeding through the pitch black as we passed people returning from their nights out and joining the increasing, poorly lit traffic as we headed to Angkor Wat, all while eating breakfast out of a plastic container. After being dropped off we fumbled our way along the road by following the crowd, then crossing the very disconcerting floating bridge and through the main gate. The reflection pool was a sea of people and the northern pool was closed for renovation. We made the decision to move onto the main walkway and watched as the colour behind Angkor Wat transformed from purple, through the rainbow, to orange.
The sun was 10 minutes away from rising when we headed into the temple complex proper. It was amazing to be there while it was so quiet. The sculptures and wall art were a wonder to see with the detail increasing the more you looked. We wandered the inner grounds before walking around the temple itself and starting to head back.
As we were walking back to the remork we also caught this fantastic view of the sun now risen above the temple.
After confirming with Mr Mak our plan for the day, we went the wrong direction and entered the South Gate of Angkor Thom (the great city) and dropped off at Bayon (on itinerary) temple. The 12th century Buddhist temple has 37 towers that almost look like ant hills towering into the sky. There are also over 200 smiling Buddha faces that look down from the towers. The inner temple is a maze of corridors, some dark enough to house bats that were screeching at each other in the early morning as we explored. We also got to watch a family of gibbons as they climbed the walls on the hunt for some breakfast.
From Bayon we walked to the 11th century Hindu temple, Buphuon (not on itinerary) which was at the end of a 200m causeway. The temple rose high above us with stairs steep and narrow Katy decided to stay on the first level so Craig was left to climb to the very top. The views were fairly unremarkable and the temple itself not really a highlight.
Next we walked on to the Terrace of Elephants (on itinerary), a 12th century platform that has mostly disappeared over the ages due to being built with organic material. The only surviving piece is the wall that supported it on 3 sides that has elephants carved into the sides. The king would use it to watch his soldier's return victorious from war after they had marched in from Victory Gate in the East. The walk continued to the Terrace of the Leper King so named as we both got leprosy when we touched it. Joke! It was named after a statue that was discovered in the 15th century, of a man that was covered in moss giving the appearance of leprosy. The site was believed to be a cremation site for the royal family.
We rejoined Mr Mak who drove us through the Victory Gate and then dropped us off just outside at Thomanon (not on itinerary) and Chao Say Tevoda (not on itinerary). They are both 12th century Hindu temples built to commemorate Shiva and Vishnu and in all honesty, they were a bit boring. They were really similar, both relatively well restored, we hadn't wanted to do them (because we knew we would find them boring) and, relatively small.
Back on track and we were dropped at the mountain temple of Ta Keo (on itinerary). Built in the 11th century, the Hindu temple was the first to be entirely made from sandstone by the Khymer. It had been described as very (to create a new adjective) 'stairy' and it didn't disappoint. The climb over the 3 flights were near vertical as the steep stone stairs took a physical toll. Katy didn't climb the final set as the stairs became more jumps than steps although she is assured the view and shrine at the top weren't worth it. The views were better than at Baphuon however and, once we had gotten our breath back, we descended.
When we returned to Mr Mak, he stated we would be going to Ta Prohm (on itinerary) and then Banteay Kdei (not on itinerary) to finish the day however we had to put our foot down as we were about to miss Ta Nei (on itinerary), a temple we were both looking forward to seeing. We negotiated and switched Banteay Kdei for Ta Nei and then headed down a dirt track. Craig did have to get out and push twice through soft sand but we got there and, it was our favourite temple of the day. The 12th century Buddhist temple has been unrestored and taken over by the forest leaving behind a largely unexplored area. We entered and felt we were the first to step foot in the place in 100's of years as we scrambled over rocks and trees alike to explore. We had to duck through old corridors and step carefully as we were the only 2 in the temple. That was until Mr Mak came to explore as well (turns out he had never been here either) and then we returned to the remork. Craig only had to push once on the way back out!
A famous 12th century Buddhist temple, Ta Prohm is similarly being taken over by the forest however its claim to fame is through Hollywood. This is where some of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, was shot in 2001. Our route would have brought us here first as we knew it would be busy anytime we came but it would still be before the tour buses, alas, by the time we arrived, it was rammed. It was our least enjoyable temple of the 2 days. Guide books recommend taking 1-2 hours to explore, we took 45 minutes as we were bashed and shunted along with the tour groups to get around, take the photos and get out in some sort of twisted race. The only real highlight was the carving of the stegosaurus which you have to be on the look out for to find it. It is believed to be a rhino surrounded by leaves but it is amusing OR proof of dinosaurs in Cambodia only a 1,000 years ago! **Twilight Zone opening theme plays**
An Ode to Mr Mak:
Mr Mak, you were a good driver, and the perfect driver for 2 days.
Why oh why did you have to ruin it all!?
There was no need to give us the hard sell when we came back from Ta Phrom.
We had already said we didn't want to go to Banteay Kdei.
We didn't want you to take us a tour of the city.
We didn't want you to take us to a good massage parlour.
We weren't ready for lunch.
We tipped you generously on both days.
Why couldn't you let us go back to the hotel?
We will remember you.
For the wrong reasons.
We got back to the hotel, had another shower as it had been very hot and humid before having a lazy afternoon with only lunch in the hotel to move us for an hour or so.
As you may have noted we did a lot of temples we hadn't requested. We believe the hotel cocked up and we were on someone else's tour, who had asked for a guide. As we had put the research in we felt we had a route that would avoid the crowds and keep it interesting for us. We actually followed what is known as the 'Grand Tour' (+Banteay Srei) day 1 and 'Small Tour' day 2. Fortunately we saw every temple we wanted to but also feel we could have skipped the one's that we didn't have on our itinerary, especially day 2 when we were tired.
That night we continued the birthday celebrations by visiting the famous 'Pub Street'. Crossing the road was an experience in itself before we finally arrived into the neon lit, pedestrianised street. The tables and chairs from bars and restaurants spilled onto the road and the venues were in competition with each other to see who had the loudest sound system. For dinner, we went to the Red Piano for some Khymer food and a couple of drinks. As we were leaving Craig, was propositioned by an elderly gentleman to see if he wanted to have some fun with a lady tonight. After explaining he was waiting on his wife, the man high-fived him and walked off. After some rolled ice cream for dessert (and much hilarity from Katy as she misunderstood the retelling of the story from Craig and thought the elderly gentleman had propositioned Craig for himself!) we returned to the hotel to crash out.
Sunday was Katy's birthday so courtesy of Keith and Heather she had a morning of a pampering facial and a haircut before we headed out to lunch. The restaurant was close to the hairdresser and had received really good reviews and the owners also took in stray dogs which Craig thought would be the perfect combination for Katy. We also think it may have been a social project as when it came to the bill, Craig had to write down what we had and work out the balance. The staff then went to the restaurant across to road to get change. It was all a bit confusing!
After a quiet afternoon, as per the wishes of the birthday girl, we went for dinner to the Steak House, Siem Reap. The food was fantastic, the staff were incredible and we also got a free cocktail each and, a birthday cake for Katy (plus a staff rendition of happy birthday).
We returned to the hotel after dinner for an early night and tomorrow we head south, and leave the lovely hotel behind, to Battambang.