(Before anything else, let me just warn you: this will be a great post in length as well. Siem Reap deserves all the spotlight it could get. It’s just so amazing that I’ve no urge to filter my love whatsoever. Haha.)
It was a damp night that greeted us when we landed at the Siem Reap International Airport, an indication perhaps of the storm forecast due to hit the next morning. I was a little nervous about it, to be honest, cause I didn’t want anything ruining my very first trip abroad. But, at the end of the day, I was there and that was what mattered.
From the moment I entered the airport doors, I knew was taken with Siem Reap. Two minutes in and I could see that it’s overflowing with culture and history. Traditional artworks and sculptures adorned the walls, while the airport’s architecture concisely displayed the country’s identity. It was a great appetizer for the epic trip ahead.
Our designated tuk-tuks awaited us at the exit, and drove us through the expansive, hotel-lined highway, into the cool Cambodian night. We were dropped off at Mandalay Inn (check out their website!), our home for the next four days. It was one of the many things that made this trip so worthwhile. For a mere $8 a night/person (roughly Php 300!), you got everything you needed: spacious rooms with A/C, comfortable beds, hot and cold shower in a bathroom so clean it’ll give some of the Michelin-starred hotels here a run for their money, cable TV, wi-fi, and even a refrigerator. Add to that the smiling faces and warm greetings of the staff, and even the owners themselves, and you really couldn’t ask for more. I just couldn’t reiterate enough how worthwhile our inn was. (Seriously! Eight dollars a night! Three hundred pesos! That’s just a cab ride from Marikina to Makati! Crazy!)
We freshened up a bit then it was back on the streets for us. Pub Street, to be exact. It’s basically the center of town. Most of the eating places, whether hawkers or restaurants, were found here. It’s the tourist hub too, with its every nook populated by travelers. We had our very first Cambodian dinner in a sidewalk stall for around $4/person, then we wrapped up the night in Mezze Bar, a quirky little place, that looked pricier than what it charged. I swear, the value of things in Cambodia just made my heart and my pocket flutter in joy! Haha.
The next morning was as bright and storm-less as could be, so we went ahead to our main destination, Tonle Sap Lake, the biggest lake in Asia. Therein also lies the floating village of Kompong Pluk. It cost $17 to rent a boat and pay for ecological fees, but our amazing tuk-tuk driver, Dy, somehow managed to sweet-talk the cashier to give it to us at $10/person. Sweeeet!
It’s dry season though, so navigating through the shallow, dried-up river wasn’t easy for our boatmen. When we arrived at the heart of Kompong Pluk, we found that it was not floating at all this time of year. Instead, the houses soared in countless bamboo stilts holding the structures way above ground.
After exploring the houses, we ventured further into Tonle Sap, and lunched in the middle of the lake, at the Kompong Pluk Restaurant, owned by our tuk-tuk driver’s mother-in-law (Technically, our other tuk-tuk driver’s mother, coz our two drivers are brothers-in-law. Talk about a family business!).
We got back to the center of town around mid-afternoon. This time we explored the market place, Pub Street, and Alley West in daylight. We also discovered what would be our “Central Perk” in Siem Reap, The Blue Pumpkin (they have a site!). It’s a nice loungey place along Hospital Street. It has cozy beds lining one side where you eat on breakfast trays with your feet up, or lying down even. They served pastas, burgers, pastries, and epic cakes (the Chocolate Fondant is a MUST). For around $5-7 you get big servings, sometimes even big enough for two.
Before we knew it, the sun had set on our first full day. It also meant shopping time at the Angkor Night Market. They sold all sorts of things here, all locally made, and all at affordable prices. For $2 you could buy kramas (local scarves); for $4 there are high-quality shirts (think: their material felt like Zara tees), pillow cases, and table runners (the likes of which sell for around Php 800+ in Dimensione or Our Home); for $7 I was able to buy small, decorative, porcelain tea pots (for my mom); and for $10 a friend of mine was able to buy this heavy, brass bell that looked like it could belong in some temple. And that’s just scratching the surface. I wasn’t even able to look at the pants, the bags, the jewellery, etc. yet.
Then we got caught in a torrential downpour as we enjoyed shaved ice in Puka-Puka. It was one of the most finely shaved shaved ice I’ve ever had. It’s drizzled with milk, and a syrup flavouring of your choice. My personal favorite was the Strawberry, though the Green Tea was really good too.
We woke up the next morning to grayer skies, but it was all good as long as it didn’t pour. It also marked the first of our many temples, and finally seeing the soul of Siem Reap. But first we had to buy our 3-day temple pass for $40. Not bad considering the compound we’d be exploring was bigger than Paris (and more, since some temples were already in the outskirts).
First up, Banteay Srei. It’s probably the smallest one, but one of the most intricately carved since it’s dedicated to women. It was restored a while back and is now in really great condition. I have to give props to the Cambodian government for really taking care of their heritage. You could see they didn’t just fix it up for the sake of fixing it, but they really paid attention to its original form, to the architecture, down to the minutest details in the carvings. Of course, it’s still sometimes obvious which stones were new and which were originals, but that’s something that only centuries could fix.
Our next stop was Kbal Spean, about an hour farther from Banteay Srei (around 100+km from Angkor). This was basically where it all began. The stones used to build Angkor Wat were quarried from the surrounding mountains before they were transported through the river for purification. It’s a 1500m hike from the gate to the actual river up in the mountain, but the paths weren’t that steep or difficult. It’s a moderate hike, maybe even easy, if you took it at a good pace.
The river itself and the waterfalls weren’t that grand in terms of size. What made them awesome were the fact that the riverbeds themselves were carved and lined with lingas, and that several centuries ago hundreds of men walked there moving giant mountain boulders through those waters.
It was straight to late lunch after the hike down. Then it was on to our third stop for the day, Banteay Samre. I would say it’s one of my favorite temples, but I had about five out of nine favorites so it might not be saying a lot. Haha.
I had my very first moment of pure awe in this temple though as I looked up that ceiling. It struck me fully at that moment that these were essentially nothing but piled rocks, with nothing keeping them together. The fact that they’re still standing, and still in tact, after all this time was just amazing! It was a true testament to ancient Khmer engineering. Crazy!
For our final stop of the day, we went to Pre Rup. It was a pyramid temple, and the biggest we saw that day. It was definitely grand. Looking at it from below and seeing the narrow steps going up was also quite daunting. The view at the top though was worth it.
Another torrential downpour met us on our way back to town. This didn’t stop us though from having the best dinner of our entire stay at the Cambodian BBQ, with giant (and I mean GIANT) beef and chicken kebabs at about $6 each. No photos though, coz in fear of getting drenched, I had to leave my camera back at the inn.
We beat the sun the next morning for the customary Angkor Wat Sunrise. Too bad though the skies were still gray and heavy, so we missed the drama of the temple silhouette against the rising sun. Still, seeing the grandeur of Angkor Wat for the first time was something else. The sheer scale of it alone was pretty majestic.
What followed was a day of quintessential temple running. We visited six of the twenty-plus temples nestled inside the Angkor Thom compound. You’d think these temples would all be the same, but each actually had its own thing going. I guess, as shells they’d be very similar with each other, but through the centuries, the earth and the trees have eaten them up and shaken them in their own unique ways resulting in temples that were essentially “same, same, but different” (a favorite local saying. haha).
So, in chronological order, I present to you:
Preah Kean was another favorite. I would even say it’s in the top 3. I can’t explain why because aesthetically it wasn’t much different from the rest. It was my experience there though that made it memorable. One of the guards guided us through the side corridors, small avenues where the unwary could very easily get lost. No other tourists were there, and considering the amount of rubble we had to climb through (at one point some of my friends were on the roof of the temple already! haha), I doubt many ventured there at all. But seeing its falling halls and forgotten corridors made me feel like I knew some of its secrets, like I knew it intimately. That’s what I really loved about it, I guess.
Next stop, Neak Poan, the king’s baths. Sadly though they were in the middle of restoration so the main structures were inaccessible. What I got instead were shots of the path leading to the pools.
Our third temple for the day was Ta Som. It was one of the more straightforward temples, meaning there weren’t many halls to get lost in. What it’s most known for though was this lone tree that had completely eaten one of its passageways.
Next we hopped right on to East Mebon. It kinda looked like Pre Rup, same pyramid-style and all. But this seemed better preserved by time. And instead of the chimaeras guarding the temples, East Mebon had elephants.
By noon we were halfway done and on our way to our fifth temple. Being hardcore, we decided to forego lunch til we finished seeing everything. Thus, it was to Banteay Kdei we went.
I think I would’ve been able to enjoy this temple better if we didn’t explore it right smack in the middle of the day. It was a little excruciating, to be honest, walking its roofless galleries under the noontime Cambodian sun. I realized looking back at the photos that I liked it a lot, and would’ve explored it more, if it weren’t for the discomfort of the intense heat.
After Banteay Kdei came the temple I was most excited about, Ta Phrom. It’s most known for its appearance in Tomb Raider and perhaps, after the Angkor Wat, was the most popular temple in Siem Reap.
It fascinated me to no extent because of how the jungle had eaten it up. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how those trees grew on top of the stones, how their roots managed to snake through concrete until eventually their trunks did as well, and how the stones themselves somehow managed to carry their weight without collapsing into themselves. It was just.. GAH. Amazing!
Lunch finally came after Ta Phrom and boy was it filling! Haha. We were supposed to see another temple, but after several considerations (the heat, our camera’s battery levels, memory space), we decided to just take the afternoon off to recharge.
On the way back we stopped at the East Gate of Angkor Thom, and had our last photo op of the day there instead.
It was another laid-back walk along Pub Street then, and early dinner (Dinner 1) at The Blue Pumpkin, followed by a return to the Angkor Night Market, then a night-cap (Dinner 2) in Le Tigre de Papier. We had ice cold beers with tasty Indian food. It might not sound appetizing, but trust me, it was! Haha.
The following morning only came too soon. It was our last day in Siem Reap since we had the 10pm flight back to Manila that night. Of course we couldn’t leave without first seeing the crowning jewel of the entire Khmer Empire. We were scheduled to see the two biggest temples of Angkor that day. Finally!
Bayon was grand, to say the least! Every inch of it I think was covered in bas relief, while every tower carried the king’s face from each side. Of all the temples, this was probably my favorite, maybe even more so than Angkor Wat. It branched out and wound into tens of passageways, all waiting to explored. It was so big that I literally got lost. I got separated from my group and found myself wandering endless dark and narrow galleries leading to more dark and narrow galleries. At some point, after my nth turn to nowhere, I considered retracing my steps, but realized that it was pointless since every corner of the place looked the same. At another point I was wandering with another lost tourist, in search of the elusive stairs to the next level. We finally found it after about 4-5 turns. Yay! Haha.
After Bayon, we climbed up Phnom Bakheng for a bird’s eye view of Angkor Wat. You could also opt to ride an elephant up for $15. Not worth the money, personally, since it’s such a short and easy climb. Though the noontime sun was scorching, the view was no less breathtaking.
For our grand finale, the crowning glory of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat. We arrived at noon, and though the sun was nasty, a lot of times it felt like we had the temple to ourselves. We were able to take in the soaring galleries, the endless reliefs, and the general grandeur without being harassed by noisy crowds. We were also almost chased down by a wild monkey. Thankfully he set his sights on some other guy’s bag of food. It was scary and exciting and entertaining at the same time.
But seriously. Angkor Wat was everything they said it would be. Just… WOW. Wow.
Afterwards it was back to town for us. We had lunch and our last Blue Pumpkin dessert before packing up and saying our final goodbyes. Our awesome tuk-tuk drivers over the last four days invited us to dinner at their house before dropping us off at the airport. Finally, it was time to go. It was too soon honestly. I wasn’t able to get any proper shopping done! But as I always say, all the more reason to go back.
Already I can’t wait. <3