After a week of the high-life in Bangkok with Mary and Eric, we spent a final night in the incredible Silom Art Hostel (where we were seemingly the only guests) and after a street food dinner tour in Chinatown said goodbye to Thailand, for now.
We took the early train to Aranyaprathet and thankfully the train gods were back on our side - a smooth ride right to border town. At Aranyaprathet we got a tuk-tuk and directed the driver to take us STRAIGHT TO THE BORDER. Although our driver nodded in confirmation, he still attempted to stop at the “visa office”. As soon as we felt the tuk-tuk slowing down in front of a random building, behind a swarm of other tuk-tuks, we repeated “Take us straight to the border “ and thankfully without a fuss he continued past the phony office. At the border dragging our bags, we followed the herds into the Thailand immigration office and then on to the Cambodia Visa office. 20 minutes later with new visas in our passports, we were waiting in line at Cambodia immigration before officially entering the country! We took the free bus to the tourist center, where we booked a van to Siem Reap. The whole process was hassle free (though everyone was being charged an additional and unexplained $5 “processing fee” for the visas by the nice Cambodian officials that jumped on James for trying to take a picture) and our only stumble was exchanging our Thai baht for Cambodian riel at the tourist center at a terrible rate.
The center of Siem Reap is a mix of dusty roads, hundreds of tuk-tuks, large markets, massage shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Our first meal in Siem Reap was a revelation – the food was delicious, cheap (50 cent beers) and filling! We settled into our guesthouse, HI Seam Reap (just a short walk across the river from Pub Street), and signed up for 3 days of touring Angkor Wat with one of their tuk-tuk drivers, Davy Chann.
Visiting Angkor Wat is both an amazing and tiring experience. Most people refer to the whole area as ‘Angkor Wat’ but that’s only one particular temple complex in the center of many. The Khmer temples were built from the 8th century through the 13th, by various kings. Angkor Wat was just as impressive as I’d heard and read. I was completely awestruck as we walked the long road over the moat to the temple entrance. Angkor Wat is indeed the most impressive temple for its size, grandeur and architectural sophistication but also for the incredible state of preservation. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II during the Khmer Empire, it was originally a Hindu temple to honor Vishnu and was later converted to a Buddhist temple in the 13th century. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built from 5 million tons of sandstone from Mount Kulen (25 miles away) and took only 40 years to complete. Crazy when you imagine all of that work being carried out in the 12th century.
Walking through the corridors, I tried to picture what Angkor Wat looked like when it was an active city, home to hundreds of thousands and the capital city of 1 million people – one of the only modern cities in the world at that time. The decorative stone carvings in the walls are incredible and give you a slight idea of what things might have been like (at least through an artistic lens).
There are thousands of visitors to Angkor Wat every day but it’s such an enormous space that I didn’t feel bothered by the masses. There is very little security and I felt completely free to wander or sit where I wanted. The only drawback is if it looks like a great photo op to you, everyone else has the same idea. It was difficult trying to snap around the people posing for pictures and frankly I’m not really that sympathetic to folks hell bent on getting THEIR personal photo ops. After months of travel, people whose visit to a landmark seems to revolve exclusively around a picture of themselves really bore me. Of particular annoyance are the jumpers (may also include karate/matrix style moves), the yoga posers, the faux meditators (usually at the top of a temple, hilltop or mountain), the selfie couple, the peace signers and (the worst) sexy beach posers. So when we are at a place like Angkor Wat I try my best to tune all of that out and look completely unavailable to take pictures for others.
On our first day of touring, James and I visited the Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm temple complexes. These are the most well known and for good reason, they are mind-blowing and each in their own distinct way. Bayon is a Buddhist temple complex famous for Angkor Thom where stone faces were built into the towers. From any angle they look back at you with a zen-like expression. While we were in Siem Reap we actually met an archeologist who works at this site, a real life Indiana Jones! Monks, both male and female, perform blessings and say prayers at the various shrines to Buddha at the most visited temples. Bayon is where James got his good luck blessing.
The most touristic stop of the day was the Ta Prohm complex, made famous by Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider film back in the 90’s. Trees have grown right through the structure and all but overtaken the temple in places. Massive roots surround door frames and sprout up through the walls, it’s not clear if the roots are keeping the temple up at this point or taking it down. There are long lines to pose in front most well known spots at Ta Prohm but you can avoid crowds by going early when most people are still at Angkor Wat from watching the sunrise.
The most difficult part of the experience is coping with the insane heat, especially when wearing clothes appropriate for the temples (for women shoulders and legs covered). I would either wear a t-shirt or a tank top and carry a scarf to throw over my shoulders when entering a temple. There isn't much protection from the sun at the temples, so most guides encourage you to start the visit early enough for a mid day break or finish touring early but there is so much to see that it’s hard to justify leaving. I found myself very thankful for the coconut stands strategically placed just outside of temple exits!