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Siem Reap

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What a wonderful weekend!  Mike, Scott, Corbett and I left for Siem Reap by plane on Friday night.  Despite the hour delay on the flight, everything went smoothly.  And surprise, surprise, there’s a Dairy Queen at the airport here, so I had a pre-flight Blizzard to prepare for the weekend!  Unfortunately because of the delay in our flight, we took off and landed in the dark, so we weren’t able to view the Angkor Wat area from the sky, but our driver from the hotel was waiting for us and took us to our new “home”.  The guesthouse was okay, not great, but we didn’t need to spend much time there anyway.  It was clean and safe with A/C, television and hot water, what more do you need? 


After dropping our bags at the hotel we ventured out into town to a restaurant called the Dead Fish for dinner.  Had a light snack and some beers, listened to a live band.  It was a cute restaurant with several different levels and lots of tables where you could sit on cushions around the table on the floor.  Because we were so close to Thailand they had a lot of Thai food in town, plus they work in three different currencies, dollars (of course), Cambodian Riel, and Thai Baht.  Gets a little confusing when they are trying to make change. 


We were charmed by the town.  It was small, the air was cleaner, and everything was basically walking distance, so we headed to the main bar strip and had a few more beers.  Home by 11, early start in the morning.


We had arranged for a tour guide and car before we arrived, grabbed our free breakfast at about 7 AM and our van arrived promptly at 7:30 AM and we were off.  First stop, Angkor Thom.  This is basically the walls and gate surrounding several of the temples, and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire.  The building here started around 1181 AD.
Before we go any further, maybe I'd better explain a little bit about the area of Siem Reap.  Siem Reap is a small province with a population of 800,000 people.  Within the province there are 52 MAIN temples and many other smaller and "less discovered" ones from the ancient Angkorian civilization.  This was the old capital of the Angkors, which covered most of Thailand, Burma, Laos, part of southern India, and parts of Vietnam.  It was basically the richest and most advanced part of south Asia.  The age of the Angkor ran from approximately 800 AD to 1200 AD, so most of the temples are between 1200 and 800 years old.  Originally, the Angkor people were Hindu, but as late as 1150 AD they changed over to Buddhism, with a small Hindu resurgence in 1200 AD which resulted in the removal of most of the Buddhist monuments in the temple, a huge investment of destructive effort.  They also crudely altered some Budda's into Hindu images.  The empire fell mostly due to heavy invasion from the Thai's, and the capital was moved to Phnom Penh in 1492.  The word Wat means temple.

Guardians along the bridge into Angkor Thom

Close up of large head, about 3 feet tall

Top of gate entering Angkor Thom

After entering through the gate, we went directly to the Bayon Temple, famous for its smiling faces and bas-reliefs.   This temple had 37 different towers, most of them sporting four faces facing north, south east, and west.  The reliefs tell the story of the war against the Cham, and the Khmer victory.  Also depicted were scenes from daily life, showing the rich Cambodians being served by the lowly Chinese.  Boy, how times change.  This was a cool temple.


There are two main different types of temples here, Buddhist and Hindu, as they were alternating religions of the varying Kings that reined throughout the Angkor period.  The main difference is that Buddhist temples are built directly on the ground, while Hindu temples are built in three tiers to represent the mythical Hindu mountain ot Mt. Meru, considered to be built in the center of the universe.  However, all the Hindu temples are now considered and used as Buddhist temples today.

First look at major towers of Bayon Temple

Next, we ventured through other parts of Angkor Thom, including the Elephant Terrace, the Leper King Terrace and the ancient King’s residence, including the pool for the King and the pool for his concubines.

Three elephants guarding the elephant terrace, where they trained the elephants for war

Looking back at Bayon from Elephant Terrace

Onward we went to Ta Prohm, better known as the Jungle Temple (this is where they filmed parts of Laura Croft Tomb Raider).  This temple has been partially destroyed by the massive Spong trees and their root systems that have grown over and around most of the temple complex.  This is a large temple area.  Like all the Buddhist temple’s here, it is surrounded by three separate walls, the outer wall being surrounded by a moat.
Of all the different types of temples (besides Angkor Wat), we all liked the ones that were still over run by the jungle the best.  Their ability to show us who runs this world is amazing.  These trees are about 200 years old.  Imagine what this will look like in another 100 years or so.  UNESCO has protected some of the trees, as well as the temples.

Trees growing on the ruins

Mike and I in the roots!

Then we went to a Baray (floating temple that is not there anymore, now just a huge reservoir) and a small temple called Banteay Kdei that is largely unrestored.  After all this extensive explorations and massive picture taking, we were in need of lunch.  We took our tour guide, Lin and our driver Sol to a restaurant near Angkor Wat for lunch.  I couldn’t believe all we had seen before lunch!  Next stop, Angkor Wat!!!

Lions standing guard outside the temple

Unbelievable.  The first impression as you walk through the gates is of looking at a one-dimensional postcard.  The only thing I’ve seen that compares is that first look of Machu Pichu from above.  The walls surrounding the temple are nearly one mile by of a mile and the actual temple is a half mile square.  The moat around the exterior wall is also huge, about twice the size of the one at the Imperial Palace in Japan, although not nearly as fortressed.  This temple is massive!  Famous for it’s five beehive-like towers rising about 200 feet above the ground and huge corridors of bas-reliefs depicting ancient wars and Hindu mythology. 

View of Angkor Wat in the reflecting pool

All along the four walls of the base of the temple, outside of the courtyard where the stairs up to the towers are, bas-reliefs depict Hindu mythology and Angkorian wars all along the expansive hallways.

I actually climbed up some of the steepest and tallest steps I’ve ever climbed (and even more incredibly, I climbed down them without having an anxiety attack, although it was close) up into the inner most towers.  Because you are standing in the middle of the temple the view is not that awesome, but you sure are high!

Close up of one of the five main towers

We spent the rest of the afternoon here, leaving around 5:30 to get back to the hotel.  We were hot, sweaty, tired and spent, but had seen an incredible amount.  The weather had started out pretty overcast, which saved us from the punishing sun.  A few moments of sunshine during the day, and then a thunderstorm moved in just as we were leaving Angkor Wat.  Got some cool shots of some formidable weather behind Angkor Wat. 

When we got home we showered and Mike took a nap, but I couldn’t sleep, I just kept thinking of Angkor Wat.  Went to dinner at the Soup Dragon restaurant, but it wasn’t very good food.  Headed out to do the town, but not much action.  Went to a bar that had 60 cent drafts though!  Right on Pub Street is a cool bar called Angkor What? that we really liked, and we finished the night a Molly Malone’s Irish Pub.  We aren’t leaving until 8 AM tomorrow morning, and will have an easier day.

Up and around for breakfast again, out the door running at 8 AM for the Roluos Group, about 8 miles outside of Siem Reap.  This was the original Angkor capital and the oldest ruins we will see.  The construction is much different, instead of being carved from sandstone it has a brick construction.  Most of these three temples (Lolei, Preah Ko, and Bakong) were not in that good of shape except for Bakong, which has undergone much reconstruction.  Lolei still has an active Wat and Monastery, although it is one of the poorest in Siem Reap. 

Entrance to Bakong, first temple mountain construction

Now off to Pre Rup, which is an impressive Hindu temple.  It used to be a floating temple but the reservoir has been turned into rice fields and roads.  Quick run-through and off to Banteay Srey (the Women’s Temple, called because it is tiny and delicate – just like me. . .heehee).  Driving from the Rolous Group to Banteay Srey we pass through a village of “the minority people” (Lin’s definition, they have darker skin than most Cambodian’s) who live in stilted reed houses though out the area.  Saw a lot of water buffalo, cows, (hopefully) uninfected chickens and lots and lots of naked kids. 

Water Buffalo!!! I got attacked by kids selling stuff when I got out of the car here!

Started to really downpour as we arrived at Banteay Srey, but saw some beautiful lotus flowers on the way to the bathroom.

Water Lily/Locus, whatever. . .

Got inside this very small temple and it quit raining.  Quite a delicate little temple in comparison to what we’ve seen.  I was worried we were going to get “templed-out”, but it seems almost everyone has something new to marvel at.  Grabbed a quick lunch outside the temple and continued on to Bat Chum.  This was pretty much a twin to Pre Rup, but nice because it’s just pretty much surrounded by greenery, rice paddies and bamboo. 

Little temple of Banteay Srey

84 year old blind monk at the top of Bat Chom

By now I think we were thinking we’d pretty much seen it all and were just humoring our guide to continue on (and maybe you feel the same way!), but the next stop was hugely different than anything we had seen.  The temple of Neak Pean was a very low temple set way back in the woods with four reflecting pools.  This temple was used as a doctor for the people.  You went and saw the Hindu priest and depending on what your birth year was and what ailed you, you were directed to one of the four pools to bathe and cure your ailment.  The four pools represent the four elements.  It was very peaceful there, and not on everyone’s list, so we spent a little time just hanging our, skipping stones, relaxing.

Our final temple (of a total of 16 for the weekend!) was Preah Khan, which is another jungle temple.  This is very similar to Ta Prohm, but very cool (in both meanings of the word!).  We all loved this one.

Roman temples! The Angkorians had a trading port with Greece and Rome as early as 1100 AD

Massive Spong tree wrestling with the temple at Preah Khan

I have to say the vendors wore us out (and got some of our money, too).  You had to haggle over everything, including the price of cold drinks.  And, most of them have no change so instead of trying to get you some (bad business), they try to sell you something additional that you don’t want and definitely don’t need (good business).  The worst part is they are outside every single temple selling the exact same things.  I did not see one original item for sale all day.  The good news is that up till two years ago these vendors were actually allowed INSIDE all the temples.  I can’t imagine how tiring and annoying that would have been.  The kids are just so darn cute and quick with a comeback you can’t help but make some sympathy buys. 

We did a final stop by Angkor Wat to get a couple pictures with the sun setting and a blue sky.  Beside the quick shower we had at lunch this has been a very hot, sunny day.  Thank god for sunscreen, the ugly hat I bought on Saturday, and water!  We were pretty cooked.

Angkor Wat in the sunshine on Sunday

Same ritual of shower and a nap before heading out to the Kama Sutra Indian restaurant for about 17 pounds of delicious Indian food.  Then the normal circle of bars and home in bed by 11.  Boat leaves at 7 AM, and we have to leave the hotel by 6!  YIKES!

Somehow on Friday night, we missed the Crocodile feeding pit at the Dead Fish (probably hence the name!), but discovered it thanks to Corbett on Sunday night.  We spent $2 feeding them, but I think we were more entertained than they were sated!

The boat ride was a nightmare, but fortunately I slept about 4 of the 6 hours.  The boat itself is like a long cigar tube about 8 feet wide with two sides of two seats.  Like everything else, they purposely over book it, and those who don’t get there early to get seats inside “get” to ride on the top in the relentless sun.  The “lucky” ones who sit below get to breath gasoline fumes for six hours and swelter in the shade (none of the windows open, the seats are about level with the river level).  Not a lot to see from the boat, up top or down below.  No food, no drinks, nasty bathroom, just a long, hot, tiring 6 hours back to Phnom Penh.  Mike and Corbett spent most of their time on the top, Scott alternated, and I just basically slept. 


Arrived back in Phnom Penh hot, tired, and HUNGRY at about 1 PM.  Went for breakfast (yummy banana pancakes for me) and home for showers and naps.