Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 14, 2015 – April 17, 2015
After Phnom Penh we boarded a bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the home of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is one the most recognizable archeological sites in the world, and we would be there for the Cambodian New Years Celebration. Cambodian New Year is a three day celebration, taking place mid April, and seems to be the biggest celebration of the year. Siem Reap, and Angkor Wat are a popular travel destination during the celebration, and we decided to fight the crowds in order to join in the party.
Krista, Bre and I boarded a bus for the six hour trip to Siem Reap. Traveling the roads of Cambodia are an experience of their own, over-packed vehicles, crazy loads precariously balanced, motorcycles with four or five people on them, roof passenger seating a common sight. I expected to see some crazy sights on the road on this trip, but Cambodia by far had the most. We also witnessed multiple motorbike accidents, thankfully all involved seemed to be okay.
Siem Reap, Cambodia is popular destination in Cambodia, and not just for Angkor Wat, it has a nice downtown area full of gourmet restaurants, bars and clubs. You could easily spend days shopping and cafe hopping, getting massages and fish pedicures and partying the nights away. Pub Street has the most popular nightlife, and during the Cambodian New Years celebration road blocks and a stage were set up on Pub Street and it became a nightly concert with streets packed with revelers. There are also loads of nice, budget friendly, hotels and guest houses within walking distance of downtown.
Krista and Bre getting a fish pedicure. The fish eat the dead skin on your feet. They are laughing because it tickles at first until you get used to it.
Angkor Wat for New Years
Spending some time on Pub Street was fun, but we didn’t come to Siem Reap to party, we came to see Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is perhaps one of the most famous and pictured temples in the world. But it is actually a massive complex of dozens of temples, of which Angkor Wat is just one. The area was for hundreds of years a massive religious capital where each king tried to outdo his predecessor by building more and bigger temples. Angkor Wat, the most famous, is the largest of them.
Since the complex is so huge, the park sells a range of tickets valid from one day to seven days. If you are going to be in the area, plan on at least two days to explore the temples. You would need a week to see them all, but two days and a fast tuk-tuk driver will allow you to see the highlights.
We spent our entire first day exploring the temples just at Angkor Wat. Visiting during the New Years celebration in April is not just crowded but it is also the hottest, most humid month of the year with temperatures up to 100 degrees being common. Factoring in the humidity, it made climbing over the ruins and waiting in lines with crowds of people in the sun a bit unpleasant. From what we hear, the rest of the year, when locals are not flocking to the site for celebrations, the temples are far less crowded and easier to explore, although you will see mainly foreigners. Still the ruins were quite impressive and it was amazing to see just how many people can fit inside them.
Temple Exploration – Day Two
Since we spent an entire sweaty day fighting the crowds exploring just Angkor Wat, we woke up early at 5am to beat both the heat and the crowds at some of the other nearby temples. Our first destination, just a half kilometer down the road from Angkor Wat, we found Bayon Temple. Arriving early in the morning we found the area to be much less crowded and the temperature down to a manageable mid 80’s. Bayon is known for its many large faces carved into the stone, and its tall jungle trees surrounding it. It made for some great pictures, and a great place to watch the sunrise. Bayon turned out to be my favorite temple and is definitely worth visiting.
After Bayon we drove by several other temples, but did not explore them all. As I mentioned before it would take a week to properly see them all, and after the sun came up it started to get hot quickly. So we just had our tuk-tuk drive past most of them on our way to Ta Phrom.
Ta Phrom – Tomb Raider Temple
Ta Phrom, unlike most of the temples in the area, was left mostly in the state in which is was discovered, overgrown and nearly reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. After the entire complex of temples was abandoned hundreds of years ago, the jungle began its inevitable slow march of reclaiming the land. Many of the temples, including the famous Angkor Wat, have been cleaned of overgrowth and restored to something closer to their former glory. However after seeing Ta Phrom with its stones covered in a mass of roots and huge trees growing out of the middle of temple, it leaves something to be said about the merits of not restoring everything and leaving nature to take its course. Ta Phrom, also known as the Tomb Raider Temple was famously shot in the movie Tomb Raider, as a lost undiscovered and very much overgrown temple full of treasure. While we were unsuccessful in finding any treasure, we did find the overgrown temple to be an amazing sight.
Angkor Wat and its plethora of temples are an outstanding archeological sight. Compared to other stone ruins we have seen on our trip, the ruins at Angkor Wat have the most impressive intricate carvings still intact.
Triple A Adventures – Bicycle Tour, Towns on Stilts and Floating Villages.
If you have more than a couple days in Siem Reap, and can pull yourself away from Pub Street and Angkor Wat long enough, there is a lot to see in the surrounding countryside. We signed up for a great three part tour which included touring several villages on bicycles, exploring a town entirely built on stilts high above a flood plain, and one village which has foregone the stilts altogether and just floats on the water. We went with Triple A Adventures, they arranged a great small group tour for a good price, packing a lot into a single day trip and our guide spoke great English. We definitely recommend them to anyone wanting to do any tours in the area.
After our bicycle tour we jumped back in the van and continued on to a town which is built entirely on stilts, rising up to six meters above the ground. They aren’t competing for a view, but in fact preparing for the wet season when the low laying plain we had entered floods and turns into the largest lake in all of Southeast Asia.
After some lunch in a local home and checking out the town on stilts, which stretched for miles in every direction, we boarded a boat for a ride down the shallow river to another interesting type of village, one which floated. While some villages, most in fact, have dealt with the raising water during the flood season by building above the ground, some have abandoned the ground entirely and just float in the lake all year round, rising and falling with the water without taking much notice. Okay, they do take some notice and anchor their homes in different locations depending on the depth of the water.
The tour was great fun, and in many ways more interesting than the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Around Siem Reap we were not only able to see how people lived hundreds of years ago with their massive stone temples, but how they are living today in different types of villages. Some stilt villages outside Siem Reap have reputations for being a huge rip off for tourists, but the village we visited, Kompong Khleang, has not been spoiled by tourism yet. In all we found Siem Reap to be a great place to visit, and perhaps our favorite in all of Cambodia. If you are in the area only for a day or two, you should of course check out Angkor Wat, but if you have time be sure to check out the lesser visited temples and get out of town altogether and visit the surrounding villages. It was an experience we will never forget.