Cambodia: Siem Reap

Three days in Siem Reap

On Wednesday morning, I was sweating before we had even left David's apartment!  We'd wolfed down scrambled eggs on toast followed by chocolate muesli and hurried out of the building and towards the BTS at Thong Lo.  I was sure it was warmer than it had ever been in Thailand that morning as I wobbled along with my red pannier over one shoulder and a bag of snacks on the other.  Clutching my phone in my hand with David's instructions on display we bought our tickets, squeezed through the turnstile and then pushed our way onto the train which was fuller than any tin of sardines I had ever eaten.  I had been desperately hoping for the relief the air-conditioning on the BTS usually offers.  Instead, I smiled apologetically at the lady whose nose was mere millimeters from Olly's underarm.  As the train emptied a little, I looked at my watch, did some calculations to work out what time it actually was as my broken Casio still displays New Zealand time, and eventually exclaimed to Olly that I thought we were "cutting it fine".  David had suggested getting a boat, but I had something else in mind: a motorbike.  It was the only way to guarantee getting across Bangkok and to the bus terminal in time for our 8.45 bus to Siem Reap.  Olly sighed, resigned to the fact that this was probably true.  Off the BTS and towards two guys in orange vests and helmets.  We showed them the map and pointed to where we needed to go and then awkwardly climbed onto the backs of their bikes and raced off.  Despite it being completely unsafe, and at one point even writing the newspaper headlines reporting my own death and imagining how scathing journalists would be at my naivety and/or stupidity as a helmet-less farang on the back of a motorbike, I had a great time!  We sped through the city, and several red lights, and quickly reached our destination: a cool office-cum-waiting room.  Olly was horrified and expressed that that was the last time we took motorbikes and we would be getting the boat back on Sunday.  I just smiled.  Olly then spent the entire time it took to check in, wait for the bus to arrive and then walk over to the bus to explain to me just how dead I would be if I had come off the bike.  I still had a really great time.

School children were putting up flag bunting in the Royal Gardens in Siem Reap

We then spent a long, but not inordinate, amount of time on the bus as we headed towards the Cambodian border at Poipet.  The bus company sorted out the visa for us and this cost USD $40 each, $5 more than we had anticipated which made us both a bit anxious and sceptical.  I think our apprehension was compounded by the fact we had just discovered that we had had $200 stolen and so were four days of adventure in debt, in addition to feeling very foolish for ever leaving money in a room unattended.  I think everything was above board though, and thanks to a few remaining episodes of Park & Recreation and a couple of episodes of Adam Buxton's podcast, we were soon switching onto the Cambodian bus and in country number eight.  We were reassured, as we looked out the window on the way, that we hadn't missed out on an epic cycle.  It was a shame not to make it to Cambodia on our bikes, but for us, the bus worked.  Whenever we meet people, cyclists or otherwise, and get talking, they ask where we have been and where we are going.  They then start to list all of the countries we haven't: "Are you not going to India?"  "Nepal?"  "What about Vietnam?"  "Not Australia?"  I now smile politely, shake my head and respond, "next time".  Earlier on in the trip, though, I used to seriously doubt the route we had chosen.  We want to go to all of the places!  But we would also like to be home for Christmas.

Bus selfie

Crop burning as seen from the bus

At the visa checkpoint

We stepped off the bus and into the late afternoon heat.  We shook our heads at countless tuk-tuk drivers as we strode off in the direction of our hostel.  It had been almost impossible to pick a place to stay in Siem Reap because there are so many incredible options.  I had read a couple of articles ahead of the trip concerning responsible and sustainable travel as Cambodia is still very much recovering from the catastrophic events of its recent past.  I had read somewhere to be cautious of hotels, hostels and resorts with a big pool as the water needed and used to fill them was often illegally taken from groundwater that couldn't be spared because much of it is necessary to keep the famous temples of Angkor standing.  We eventually opted for the Naga Angkor Hostel which has been absolutely fine.  We have an ample-sized room with air-conditioning and a private bathroom.  The four nights we have spent here cost just £34, though we had to pay in USD - as we have for everything during our time here.  We can't really complain.  It is a little noisy at nighttime because of our proximity to the centre of town and a few bars and pubs, but we both packed our ear plugs.

The infamous "Pub Street"

It was a relief to make it to the hostel and to have a shower!  Then, we headed out in search of food.  Siem Reap has an incredible array of eateries, from fancy, tourist-filled restaurants to street food stalls frequented by locals.  We have been absolutely spoilt for choice as vegetarians, and there are so many places I would love to have tried, though I'm not sure the Bugs Cafe was one of them! We have combined social enterprising eateries with a more typical and standard Cambodian street restaurant which specialises in vegetarian food: The Palm Café.  It is just around the corner from our hostel and a meal there for two cost USD $5.  We've been back several times because the food is so tasty, so cheap and so vegetarian!

On night number one, we ate at New Leaf Café which donates 30% of its profits to educational projects in Siem Reap and which is also a member of the #refillnotlandfill movement here.  It was a beautiful and elegant space and we were given a delicious welcome drink that I definitely remember contained tumeric, cucumber and mint, it was very good!  We then both ordered tofu amok, a vegetarian take on the most famous Khmer dish, fish amok, which was deliciously coconut-creamy.  For pudding, because it was too hard to resist and because we had had a long day (really we should just get on and order pudding without coming up with excuses...), we ordered a chocolate tart that was incredibly sweet and, upon reflection, probably not needed!  We strolled back to the hostel, stopping only briefly at Pub Street to take a photo of the colourful noise.

Tofu Amok served in banana leaves

We spent the morning of the second day strolling around the city which is home to some 100,000 people.  Siem Reap is definitely a tourist trap of a town, but not a completely unpleasant one.  It has clearly grown very quickly, though, especially considering that it 'remained relatively undeveloped during the first tourist rush of the 1950s and 60s', and then 'much [of it] was destroyed when the town was emptied under the Khmer Rouge'. (1)  I didn't have quite the coup de coeur I had anticipated when reading about Siem Reap ahead of the trip, but I have really enjoyed our time here.

We wandered first to the Royal Gardens and watched as some schoolchildren attached flags to trees all along the park.  We then walked along the Avenue Pokambor and crossed over the stagnant river to visit Wat Bo.  Sweating profusely by this point, we headed to the lovely Footprints Cafe and cooled off with an iced-coffee and a smoothie and read about Cambodia's difficult history.

We criss-crossed over the small bridges in order to visit Wat Preah Prom Rath and the 'Made in Cambodia' market which got my souvenir-shopping senses tingling.  I did very well to only buy a pair of earrings made from negative bullets and can only apologise to all our loved ones who would have benefited enormously had it not been for the limited space in our panniers.

Our next adventure was later on in the afternoon when we jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed to Angkor Wat for sunset.  Buying a one-day ticket in the late afternoon grants you entry to the archaeological park for sunset and then the whole of the next day.  Our tuk-tuk driver was kind and knowledgeable and when we got back to the hostel that evening we were sure to ask if he'd be available to take us on the petit tour the next day.  (He was, he did.)  I enjoyed the bumpy tuk-tuk ride and the speed at which it allowed us to approach the magnificent ruins.  I also enjoyed how a smart schoolboy grabbed onto the tuk-tuk to hitch a ride home.  He was very smiley and shouted "bye-bye" as he turned off, home.

The guidebook borrowed from David states that 'however many times you've seen it on film or in photographs, nothing prepares you for the majesty of Angkor Wat' (2) and I would wholeheartedly agree. As we turned to ride along the mighty moat, the fourth, crumbling enclosure came into view and then behind it the five corncob temples of Angkor Wat were just visible. It was approaching golden hour and we marched with the masses over the plastic pontoon to the temple site. I had been completely awestruck seeing the temple from the tuk-tuk, but close-up the ruins were beautiful in their intricacy. I was fascinated by all of the careful carvings and immediately fond of the dancing apsaras.

Olly strode through the temple grounds in a bid to get to the east of the five corncob towers so that we could have an iconic backdrop for the sunset. I ambled along behind pausing to look at a few monkeys. Unfortunately, we didn't get very far as at 5.30 officials starting shepherding the crowds back towards the entrance. We did have enough time to gaze and wonder, though, and we decided we would definitely come back in the morning to watch the sunrise.

With that decision made, we turned in early as the alarm was set for 4.30 and our tuk-tuk booked for 5. We were a bit bleary eyed when the beeps sounded, but I really enjoy getting up early in South-East Asia because you get to witness the world coming alive: street vendors prepare breakfast and children cycle to school; deals are brokered at market stalls and an air of anticipation is keenly felt. In Siem Reap, an early get up is also synonymous with a stream of tuk-tuks heading to Angkor Wat. We excitedly joined the masses and marvelled at the madness, for that is definitely what it was.

We'd have done well to pack a head torch to help us across the pontoon and through the complex grounds. Despite attracting thousands of visitors every day, and despite the ticket price doubling almost overnight in 2017, lights, bins and toilets were quite hard to come by. Perhaps it is hoped that one day the temples will once again be left in peace: the complex has just celebrated its 25th anniversary as a UNESCO site. When I consider that this is younger than I am, it doesn't quite seem to equate with the hordes of tourists and the position of Angkor Wat at, or near the top of many people's buckets lists.

We got as close to the pool as we could, which wasn't that close really. By the time we arrived at Angkor Wat at 5.15, it was packed! Olly trotted around and ducked in where he could to try and get the much sought after photo of the sunrise and reflection. I stood still a little way from the crowds around the lake partly resigned to the fact that I was no going to get "the photo", partly in quiet rebellion of "the photo" and partly because I was super sweaty and couldn't bear to move. At about 5.30, the sky lightened and turned pinky/purple. At 6.00, I had to convince Olly to wait just a little longer. At 6.20 the sun appeared behind the towers which represent the mythological Hindu cosmos and it was very beautiful.

Having read plenty about 'the best time to visit' the temples, and being fully aware of how hot it gets by late morning, we didn't linger at Angkor Wat, instead we retraced our steps and went in search of our tuk-tuk driver and the next temple.

Vishnu, to whom the temple is dedicated

Tuk-tuk drivers catching a few zs before their tourists return

One last look back

I must admit that I had been most looking forward to visiting The Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. Having paused to admire the the naga balustrade depicting 'The Churning of the Ocean Milk', a Hindu, creation myth, we arrived at the Bayon not long after 7 and so the early morning light cast a warming glow upon what initially looked like a heap of crumbling rocks. A lady initially turned us away and advised we could come back at 7.30 as was clearly stated on the sign. However, we could see a couple of people meandering through the towers and so we walked around to another entrance where a laid-back official waved us smilingly in. The enchanting face of Lokesvara completely captivated us both as we wandered around, mouths open in awe, with just a few others. Although it is said there are more than two hundred faces, I couldn't look at them enough.

Whose face is being represented is actually still open to debate. The Bayon was the state-temple of the great Buddhist monarch, Jayavarman VII (r. 1181 - 1218 and arguably the most significant Khmer king under whom the Angkor Empire reached its pinnacle of power (3)) and some claim the faces in the towers resemble his own, perhaps as he sought god-like status. Others suggest the face symbolises that of the Hindu god, Brahma. The most popular explanation is that the face belongs to Lokesvara, a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who helps others on their path to enlightenment. A final fact, although a consecrated Buddhist temple, the Bayon 'was intended to embrace all the religions of the kingdom' (4). I like that. When Hinduism became the state religion, however, the Buddah at Bayon was thrown down a well. Seems less inclusive.

Drawing ourselves away from the Bayon as the crowd numbers and temperature rose, our kind driver paused at The Elephant Terrace which I found really fun though look closely and you'll see hunting and fighting scenes). I was grateful not to see any elephants during our petit circuit.

From there we went to Chau Say Tevoda which was very quiet and so nice to wander around. The sun on the sandstone was very pretty and it was interesting to see restoration work which, at this temple, was largely funded by China. (A lot of restoration work at Angkor Wat was supported by Japanese funds, and at Ta Prohm by donations from India.)

Then, as it really started to get hot, we visited Ta Keo. Ta Keo felt very different to the previous temples as it is mostly steps and there was little decoration. One reason for this could be that the temple is unfinished: it was struck by lightning which was considered a bad omen. The temple resembles a pyramid and we climbed up the steep steps, and me the even steeper steps, to the top. It was watching a guide photograph his client that I here learnt that you can also use 'panorama mode' to take vertical photos as well as horizontal ones. I had great fun at Ta Prohm as a result.

Ta Prohm was cool! I liked having to walk to it along a sandy path through the jungle. The jungle doesn't stop at the temple though as trees have encroached on the stones in an incredible way. Nature very much asserting her dominance here at a former Buddhist monastery that housed 12,000 people! I can't imagine it! The roots and the trees are now a blessing and a curse: they both help to maintain the structure and destroy it by prising apart the stones.

The complex was labyrinthine and busy, and at one point I genuinely thought we'd got lost! It was hard to navigate through the ruins and the people, and hard to tell if we'd "been here before". Crowds clustered around the "Tomb Raider tree" and it did feel like we were on the set on the set of a film.

After one more stop to Banteay Kdei, the Citadel of Cells, a quieter, calmer and more structurally sound version of Ta Prohm that extended back from the road quite a long way, it was back to Siem Reap for a quick lunch and a siesta. It was only just midday.

Before dinner that evening we walked towards the river to the Siem Reap Brewpub, the only micro-brewery in town. Olly sampled four beers whilst I opted for the Honey Weiss, a wheat beer. We discussed "the future" for a while before falling quiet and enjoying the moment instead.

It was nice to disable the alarm and wake up naturally the next day: our adapted circadian rhythms faring well and waking us just before seven. We ambled around parts of town we hadn't before in search of breakfast, settling on the wonderful Sister Srey Cafe which faces the river. The cafe filled up quickly and I enjoyed sitting and reading and being enveloped by the sleepy hubbub. I also enjoyed Olly agreeing to "second breakfast" which was two slices of banana and coconut cake with local honey.

Side streets of Siem Reap

Sister Srey Café

We took the long way back to the hostel and took advantage of our cool room to do some trip-min and relaxing. Later on, we ventured out and towards the river along the upmarket Hap Guan Street whose shops, fortunately for our budget, were mostly closed for the day. We crossed the river to visit Wat Damnak and I was charmed by the large temple complex and the Buddhist teachings painted on wooden signs that hung from the trees. The sun was setting as we entered the temple and the ethereal sound of chanting monks filled the air. An older monk waved us towards the prayer room and we followed his as far as the door, removing our shoes and smiling as he hung his umbrella from a cable overhead. The rhythmic chanting was entrancing and I smiled as a couple of young monks messed around a little at the back of the room and leaning against the wall, reminding me of former pupils.

As the chanting stopped and the monks emerged from the temple we food enveloped in a sea of orange. A monk of seven years who spoke brilliant English stopped to talk to us for a short time. We left in search of food feeling quite moved by the whole experience.

En route to The Palm Cafe, our go-to food stop, we strolled along Pub Street which was just waking up and preparing for another night of debauchery. We stopped to buy a pre-dinner dessert of 'fried ice-cream rolls', opting for mango and passion fruit on the recommendation of the vendor.

After a final tofu amok we headed to bed. I am really pleased to have been able to spend a few days discovering Siem Reap, but when Olly asked if I would return to Cambodia I sensed it was because he wouldn't any time soon. There are other places to visit before I do return, but I would gladly gaze on the faces at the Bayon again and there were so many restaurants and cafes still to try in Siem Reap that we didn't indulge in this time for the sake of the budget and the long journey home still to make.  Of course, there are other villages, towns and cities to be discovered too.

Cambodia was noticeably poorer than Thailand, the border crossings alone were quite different: one was cool with escalators and an orderly queue, the other a warm shack of a building managed by a man in jeans. Then, there were not 7-Eleven on every street corner like in Thailand. I think the dual currency of Cambodia also reflects its current instability, or its emergence as a nation of the C21 too. We refused souvenirs sold by children and felt desperately sad at the number of beggers maimed by landmines. Plastic waste and litter abounds in Cambodia as in Thailand, but social enterprises, charities and NGOs are helping to educate the Khmer people and change their attitudes towards this rubbish problem.

We've been sat on the bus back to Bangkok for almost seven hours now and I'm looking forward to arriving back in 'the big mango' and then getting back on the bikes and heading north.

(1) p138, The Rough Guide to Cambodia, Sixth Edition 2017
(2) p164, The Rough Guide to Cambodia, Sixth Edition 2017
(3) p294, The Rough Guide to Cambodia, Sixth Edition 2017
(4) p172, The Rough Guide to Cambodia, Sixth Edition 2017