4 days in Siem Reap, Cambodia

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We wake up. It’s 4:15am, and we’re preparing to meet our driver who will bring us to a great morning spot to beat the crowds and watch the sun rise over the ancient wats of Cambodia. This is how our short stopover to Cambodia began.

We had no idea what to expect when we booked out trip to see the great Ankor Wat. What we found was beyond what either of us could have imagined.

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Siem Reap is definitely on the edge of our comfort zones. Half of the roads are packed dirt, and as we drove by the thin white cows, stray dogs and roaming chickens, we felt as if we’d stepped into another world.

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Once we arrived at our hotel, we literally left the land of grit and edge and walked into what felt like an oasis. The contrast was strange. The staff waited on us hand and food. We were greeted with fresh tea, snacks and a slew of free gifts. The room looked like the honeymoon sweet, decked out and beautiful. We felt incredibly spoiled – it was awesome.

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The city of Siem Reap is a city built on tourism, a fact that made us a little uncomfortable until we got to see the greater Siem Reap area a few days later. The inner city has a “pub street” which is a small lane filled with all types of bars and restaurants catered towards westerners, but once you ventured out, there is a little more to see. We stayed in the less touristy area for our fish amok diner one night, walked around the “French” quarter another, and stayed in the hotel in the Air Conditioning to beat the 100 degree heat outside.

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During the days we visited the great temples of Ankor.

Our sunrise morning began incredibly early after a sleepless night for both of us. Our bodies were still on Europe time as we prepared for our first day to the temples. Our taxi driver from the airport had offered to be our driver for the day, and we were not disappointed by the blast of AC between our temple viewings. As we walked out to the sunrise spot using the flashlight option on my phone, we listened to the morning calls of the crickets and roosters. Sadly, the skies were mostly smoggy and grayish for our entire trip, which made the sunrise totally anti-climactic, but being the first ones out was pretty special. It allowed us to be some of the first to visit Ta Prohm, the toom-raider wat of Ankor, where the forests have taken over the temple.

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We ended the day with a visit to Ankor Wat itself, a mammoth complex decorated with reliefs of Hindu stories. Ankor Wat is massive and massively filled with tourists. Right to the left or right of all of my photos were hoards and hoards of tourists and tuk-tuk driver, children trying to sell 10 postcards for a dollar and make-shift huts selling tourist shirts, sarongs and bottles of water. Sadly, part of going to Ankor Wat is blending in with the tourists. Nevertheless, we were still awed by the wandering monkeys and beautiful reliefs.

While modern day Cambodia and Thailand are Buddhist, the temples were originally built when the area was still worshipping Hinduism. It was pretty amazing being able to walk through the temple and touch the reliefs – almost like we became a part of the history of the complexes themselves.

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The wats were built around the same time as Notre Dame in Paris, and have seen many changes, from Hinduism to Buddhism, from peace to war to peace again. History and time have taken their toll. What we discovered was that the temples have been knocked down and rebuilt many times throughout history. Oftentimes, on the outskirts of the temples, piles of ruins laid strewn about waiting to be restored to their original places.

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The following day, we decided to try to escape the crowds of Siem Reap and hired a tuk-tuk to drive us one hour through the Cambodian countryside to Banteay Srei, one of the oldest Hindu temples in Siem Reap. The tuk-tuk ride allowed us to see the real Seam Reap. The people outside of town live largely in stilt houses, with the animals, outdoor kitchen and wood all piled underneath. We passed artisans selling weaved baskets, palm sugar and all sorts of goods along the roads. We passed two wedding celebrations with music that spilled into the streets. We passed handmade vehicles composed of tractor engines and twisted metal hauling all sorts of goods. The drive was magical.

Carved from red sandstone, Banteay Srei is one of the most detailed of the temples we saw. The reliefs adorn every entrance way, depicting stories of the Hindu god Shiva. Compared with Ta Prohm and Ankor Wat, Banteay Srei felt tiny, and was quickly crowded when a bus full of Chinese tourists arrived and crowded the complex. This marked our exit and journey to Bayon – the temple of many heads.

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We reached Bayon and Ankor Thom by 11am and decided to wander through all of the surrounding temples until we couldn’t handle the heat any longer – which meant, we had about 3-4 hours. Ankor Thom is a complex of multiple wats clustered in the woods. As we walked from place the place, the cricket sounds were deafening, but in these moments we finally had a little seclusion from the other tourists. We ended our day at Bayon, the temple with many faces. It was truly awesome:

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In the end, we only managed to visit the temples for two days – between the heat, the time difference, and the food, our bodies rebelled and our last day in Siem Reap was spent resting, swimming in the hotel pool and walking through the wet market in town. The wet market was a sensory overload – it smelled of spices, blood and fish as everything was laid out for potential buyers to consider.

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Our late afternoon tuk-tuk ride to the airport was a bittersweet ride. Siem Reap was as off-the-beaten-path and  non-western a place we were going to visit on this trip. So, we waved goodbye to dirt roads, questionable meals and amazing temples, and continued our journey in Thailand.

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One Comment

  1. Aunt Bev wrote:

    This is so well described and photographed, I feel as if I were there. Now I don’t have to make the trip 🙂 LOL!
    What an experience! You guys are the adventurers of the family, for sure. Love you.