(Angkor Wat from the East Gate)
To travel to Siem Reap and see her temples has been on my bucket list for the longest time. C’mon .. ALL my friends (almost) have been there which kind of made me feel – left out. What was I waiting for? In all honesty…err the right time!! And yes I chose the best time – in May 2015 and when it was really hot – 38 degrees Celsius. Hey they say the hottest months (April – September) and rainy season is THE LOW SEASON. During the low season, you do get fairly decent deals with the hotels and tours. Now won’t you agree with me that is the best time to go? Yes yes yes – IF you can withstand the heat! And boy were we in for a hot time!
This is the best part – there are many tours and private drivers (cars with AC or Ramok) that can bring you around to the temples. Don’t break a sweat on how the hell you are going to get to all the temples? Tours with a private guide are aplenty too – I wrote to both Happy Angkor Tours and Pin Vannak a week before our flight and they both reply promptly to my emails and queries. You can read the reviews on Trip Advisor and decide for yourself. Pricing wise they are almost similar.
We decided towards the end, to go without a tour guide in order to move at our own pace and not felt compelled to be “overly guided”. The disadvantage of going on your own will be:
i) you better read up on what you are going to see, otherwise the temples will just be a blur and no recognition of what you are looking at.
ii) there is a lot to read up if you want to have that depth of knowledge to appreciate the temples fully and to ensure you do not miss out any significant points.
Well I did only 25% of i) and felt overwhelmed (and asleep) trying to achieve ii) . I will admit it, I am not a temple or history buff nor do I have this crazy desire to know each god and the kings that built these temples and whether Vishnu looks better than Shiva and the great importance of the Mahabarata ( I actually have a book on it). I just decided what I knew was enough (what a slacker!) and off we went on our trip.
We chose to spend 3 nights and 4 days in Siem Reap, and we flew directly in from Singapore. It is a 2 hour flight. We came in on a Saturday,late afternoon – did no temples that day. Instead after checking into our hotel “Lotus Blanc” on National Highway 6 ( this road will lead you to Phnom Penh by the way) – we headed straight into the Old Market area or “Pub Street” on a Ramok (tuk tuk). The ride costs usd2 each way. It takes about 15 minutes to get to this part of town. This is one area where all tourists will stop by at least twice during their stay in Siem Reap – okay some of you out there might beg to differ! This area is convenient because that is where restaurants and bars and shops are concentrated and packed within a 1km radius. Restaurants here are casual and very much tourist friendly. Meals and street food can be paid in USD (which is so common) or Cambodian KHR Riels.
ADVICE #1: Please make sure your USD notes are clean and have no marks on them, because some businesses will reject dollar notes that look crummy or worn out.
For our first evening, we ate at the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant, easy casual Khmer food.. Portions are big and most dishes range between USD4.00 – 6.00 each. We had fresh spring rolls, chicken banana blossom salad (photo), vegetarian khmer curry and 2 plates of rice . We had 1 Angkor beer and a small bottle of water and all that added up to USD14. Generally Cambodian food uses lots of coconut milk, tumeric, lemon grass, galangal, some fermented fish paste, etc but very little chillies. I love their jasmine rice ..mmm..
Once at the Old Market Area, you can follow the signs to the Night Market across the river if you wish to shop around a bit more for souvenirs but we wandered around Pub Streeet to get ourselves acquainted with the area instead. Soon we headed back to the hotel to ensure we had a good night’s sleep for our Day 1 of the temples, the next day.
Day 1 Grand Circuit – Sunday 17 May 2015
We opted for a driver, in a Camry with a/c through our hotel. The advantage of that is I can bill that to my room and pay through my credit card and I can go after the hotel if anything goes wrong during the tour. They were flexible to mix the Grand Circuit temples with the Small Circuit temples for the 2 days I have booked with them. It all depends on your stamina. It cost usd80 for the 2 days. It is an extra usd10 for the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
We did the Grand Circuit first because the Bakan Tower of Angkor Wat was closed for visits ( it was a holy Buddhist day) on that day. The Grand Circuit consists of the temples of Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som. Neak Prean, Preah Khan and Banteay Srei. But we added on Day 1 , Ta Phrom (which is part of the Small Circuit) too. Do allow yourself 7-8 hours to do these temples in a stretch. Our driver drove us first to the Angkor Wat temple pass office to purchase a 3 day ticket. It costs usd 40 per person. You need to have these passes with you for all the temple and will be checked before you enter the temples.
Angkor Wat pass is run by a company called Sokha (mother company is Sokhimex owned by a Vietnamese Cambodian businessman). When the deal was reached in 1999 with the Cambodian government, only 5 cents for each dollar went to the upkeeping of the temples. There had been issues prior with fake tickets being issued, now with Sokha there is better control. Nevertheless, this deal with the government on a national treasure that cuts out a bad deal for the temples and the locals, is always questionable.
ADVICE #2 : For temple visits please dress modestly. Please wear tops with sleeves and pants or skirts that are down to your knees. If you are wearing shorts, you can bring a sarung / scarf with you and tie it around your waist as a skirt. Do wear comfortable shoes too. You will be climbing and walking a lot.
Our first temple for the day was Pre-Rup, close to the big lake Sras Srang. The temple itself was already quite amazing (remember these temples were built 900-1000 yrs ago) and I have not yet seen Angkor Thom or Angkor Wat. There is some climbing you can expect to do in this temple. You have varied styles of temples, from a sprawling Hindu temple with lots of walking to a temple pyramid with lots of climbing. Pre-Rup is your a typical temple pyramid with red coloured bricks,, laterite and sandstone. Pre Rup is a Hindu temple (dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva) built by King Rajendravarman in 961AD. Another temple East Mebon is somewhat similar too. We drove by East Mebon and headed for Ta Som next.
ADVICE #3 : You can expect, for some can be an annoyance, by the temples and Old Market area, touters and beggars around. You will have men, boys, ladies , children all trying to sell you their wares or drinks. They are generally harmless, but some can be overly persistent. Do remember Cambodia is a poor country with corrupted government officials around. The boom Siem Reap experienced with tourism, are not being distributed fairly to all her people. The general poor have adopted this as part of their “business” yes even to beg is a business. At some places you may find people asking for “donations” for simple things like taking care of your shoes for you in a temple to kids begging for money to buy milk powder. It is tough to decide when and who do you give to and if your donation will encourage this vicious cycle to continue, for e.g. kids dropping out of school because it is more lucrative to sell wares to tourists or beg. On a positive note though, some of the kids I spoke to selling their wares at the temples, are interested in improving their English by conversing with you and they DO go to school. There are also burgeoning businesses (run by locals and foreigners) providing vocational training , supporting local edu-scholarships and encouraging responsible farming making eco and social responsible tourism very “trendy” in Siem Reap. This is a form of increasing the awareness of the local people to get themselves educated and own a legit business to support the tourism in Siem Reap.
Ta Som is a temple with Sprung / Ficus tree roots growing over it. It was built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. It is much quieter temple than Ta Phrom.
These temple towers have faces of Avalokiteshvara depicted. I have added the photo inside the temple grounds (below).
After Ta Som, Neak Pean – is in a middle of a pond and there is a long walkway on planks to reach the tiny temple. You can only see it from afar. This temple you can do in like 15 mins. This temple was the least impressive in my opinion.
Then we moved on to Preah Khan – one of our favourites. As you approach the temple, you walk up a stretch of asuras and devas carrying the 5 headed Naga across the moat .
This was also built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century . There is a giant silk cotton tree growing atop one of the temple walls. We noticed an increasing number of decapitated statues of Buddha or Apsaras.
Some of the decapitated figurines were the result of the war (Khmer Rouge) regime that had sold these artefacts in the black market to raise funds for their campaign.
The inside of the temple walls, and the crumbling structures and stones.
After Preah Khan, we left for Banteay Srei (the Pink Lady temple) which is famous for its intricate wall carvings and ornate lintels. It is made of hard red sandstone. It is a 25 minutes drive from Preah Khan. It was built in the 10th century and not by a monarch. but by a courtier named Yajnavaraha who served as a counsellor to king Rajendravarman II . It was a Hindu temple dedicated to the God Shiva.
The famous monkey guardians in the temple grounds. By this time it was nearly 2pm, we got quite hungry . The eating places around this temple are quite expensive – a dish can cost usd7 compare to a similar dish in downtown Siem Reap costing usd4.50. It is a tourist rest stop for the hordes of us getting our refuelling. Just be prepared . With the heat though we were happy enough with some buns or energy bars. We kept ourselves hydrated with water, coke and coconut water and lots of mangoes along the way.
It takes about 30 minutes to explore this relatively small temple.
On your way back to Siem Reap do stop by and buy palm sugar (Gula Melaka). It is about usd1.00 for 4 pieces. I regretted not getting them as I was convinced I could easily find them in town. At the end I didn’t have the time to run by the market on the last day. So grab them when you can! You may just run out of time.
The last temple we did for the day was Ta Prohm made famous by the movie “Tomb Raider”. It was a Buddhist monastery and a university. You can easily take 1 hour to explore this vast temple grounds and ruin.
It was built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII , in the 13th century. You will get to see giant silk cotton trees growing on the roofs of the temples too. Pretty amazing! Please take your time with this temple. It is pretty vast and like a maze.
We ended our day around 4pm , tired back to the hotel to rest and refresh. I was hungry by the time we reached the hotel and I had the nice assistance from the bell boy Adam (with a cheeky spark in his eyes) to negotiate the purchase of a comb of sweet little bananas from the fruit seller lady across the road. There is a small minimart across the hotel too where you can stock up on your water.
We left for dinner at 5.45pm for Chanrey Tree based on a recommendation from our hotel concierge Christina – a really sweet and well spoken girl. It was a lovely dinner, well prepared and delicious in a nice modern setting. We had the Beef lao lak (sweet creamy peppery stir fried beef – almost like an Asian stroganoff), fish amok curry (yellow turmeric coconut creaminess with river fish and amok leaves), pomelo salad, fresh summer spring rolls and rice. We did a dessert – a yam filled glutinous rice ball deep fried , served with coconut ice cream. It came up to usd45 including a beer and a mango smoothie. I can certainly recommend this place.