Day 4: Bangkok – Siem Reap (Saturday September 17th)
After a short flight from Bangkok we land in Siem Reap/Cambodia, and walk down the Tarmac to the actual airport building. Two thoughts immediately pop into my mind – wow this tarmac is really pretty, lined with pretty flowers and OMG I can’t breathe, I think someone just threw a hot wet towel over my head and I am about to pass out! The combination of heat and humidity is literally jumping into your face.
Once again immigration is pretty easy, thankfully we applied for a Visa a long time in advance. Our new tour guide (names will purposely be left out or randomly made up for the reason that we don’t want any of our great guides to get in trouble because of what they might or might not have told us and the people with the “long faces” as the government officials are referred to by the locals, might be reading my blog. Its very unlikely but you never know and communism is still well and alive in Cambodia and Vietnam…) greets us with a big smile at the airport and a car with driver is waiting for us to drive us to our hotel, the Shinta Mani in downtown Siem Reap. The drive to Siem Reap reminds me very much of the landscape we saw in El Salvador, lots of unpaved roads, cattle’s and dogs freely running around and the houses along the streets are mainly made up off tarp and plywood plus a long line of makeshift on the go markets, offering trinkets and fresh fruits.
One thing is for sure, to get around in this country you need a scouter, there are hundreds and hundreds of mopeds passing us, the entire family, sometimes up to 5 people squished onto a 1970 tiny motor bike. Coming into downtown we see big posters of the Cambodian Queen who looks more like Queen Elisabeth than being Cambodian origin, we learn she has French roots same as the King, who actually got appointed by Vietnamese and is also French
The hotel welcomes us with Jasmine soaked fresh cold towels, a bouquet of beautiful Lotus flowers and champagne. The kindness of the Cambodians is unbelievable, everybody is always smiling, hovering around us and attending to all our needs.
We moved on to the hotel bar and sampled Cambodian beer and a passion fruit cocktail, then hopped into a tuk tuk which in Cambodia is called a Remork and checked out the city. Siem Reap is much bigger than anticipated, hundreds and hundreds of tiny mopeds are driving around and a night market is going on. We are having dinner at the “chanrey tree” http://chanreytree.com/menu.php. The restaurant is pretty contemporary, it’s a newer restaurant offering “modernized” Khmer cuisine, combining a stylish setting with expressive presentation, while retaining the essentials of traditional Cambodian cooking (from Lonely Planet). Mike orders Beef Lok Lak and I chose the Green Seafood curry. I am learning over time that Cambodian food combines elements from Vietnam and Thailand in their dishes: the liberal use of wildflowers and herbs, galangal and ginger, lemongrass and mint, tropical fruits and palm sugar, nuts, coconut cream, noodles, chiles, fresh green pepper, and lime. It’s less spicy than Thai and subtly more herbal as Vietnamese—and there is a trace of the departed French in its pastries and breads. (I got that from Saveur).
Although this was a lazy travel day we are tired and skip the night market for a good night sleep, especially since our tour guide John will pick us up at 7:00 a.m. so that we can escape the heat and the crowds for a bit.
Day 5: Sunday: September 18th
John picks us up at 7:00 a.m. and we learn that Chinese tourists are also not welcomed travelers in Cambodia, hence we are visiting the temples early to avoid selfie sticks, umbrellas and yelling/pushing Chinese. Even at 7:00 am. it’s already super humid and hot and 30 minutes later our faces and clothes are dripping with sweat.
We start the day with visiting our first Cambodian temple Ta Prohm, which was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara and is located one kilometer east of Angkor Thom and on the southern edge of the East Baray, it was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors. UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992 (Wikipedia).
You might have even seen this temple if you have watched Tombraider with Angelina Jolie. A couple of her action scenes were taken here. She is the only celebrity who was allowed to film here, courtesy to her $5m donation to help with the restoration of the Cambodian temples.
After we closely inspected Ta Prohm, John had arranged breakfast for us at the next temple Ta Nei. A local Tuk Tuk driver showed up with fresh brewed coffee, French pastries, fruit and juices. After this short and welcomed break we walked around Ta Nei and learn that this temple is quite hidden and not much of a popular tourist destination, which makes it a rewarding experience for us.
Ta Nei was built late in the 12th century. King Jayavarman VII was responsible for the design and construction of the temple. He dedicated the stone monument to the principles of Buddhism and John tells us that this temple was built for the advisor/teacher of the king and during the Khmer Rouge time served as a prison.
Archeologists have left Ta Nei as it originally was, for the most part. Tree roots split open the temple stone, and jungle flora sprawls out across the temple grounds. Ta Nei has been the object of minimal reconstruction and clearing efforts. As a result, Ta Nei is a truly “ruined” ruin.
By now its approximately 10:00 a.m. and we are already soaked and exhausted but a third temple – Takeo is on the agenda for this morning. By now it becomes pretty clear to us that we must have scored one of the most knowledgeable guides there are, John knows every little thing about every temple, its history and the story of all the decorations and carvings in the temples.
Takeo is a pyramid of five levels reaching a total height of 40m – and was the first temple which was built with the biggest blocks of sandstone in Angkor time. This temple was dedicated to Shiva (and with that to the Hindu religion). This temple construction has never been finished and it has very few carvings as the king was murdered by Suryavarman I who was his uncle. As you an see we are trying to stay cool with iced towels and plenty of water.
Mike and I climb up some incredible high and steep steps, which supposingly weren’t made for humans but for gods to climb. Even though we are not gods, we made it to top which if I remember correctly is called Paradise and of course we want to make it to paradise 1x in our life ;-).
We are grateful for our lunch in the air-conditioned hotel restaurant and indulge in massages and a facial for me. 2 hours later Mike walks out with the biggest smile on his face, the Cambodian massage was a hit. Then we continue with our Temple tour and visit temples in the Angkor Thom area. First one on the program: Ba Phoun.
The Baphuon was the state temple of King Udayadityavarman II. It is located in the old Khmer capital city Angkor Thom, between the Royal Palace and the Prasat Bayon. The sandstone monument that was dedicated to Shiva is in the shape of a stepped pyramid.
When the temple was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 15th century, part of the Baphuon was demolished and the stones used to build a Buddha image on the West end of the temple. The very large reclining Buddha image, which shape is difficult to make out, was never completed. (Wikipedia)
John, Mike and I enjoy walking around the temple and seeing a group of monkeys climbing the different terraces of the temple.
The last temple we are visiting is also one of the most impressive ones: Bayon.
The Bayon is a well-known and richly decorated Khmer temple at Angkor in Cambodia. Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the center of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom.[Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences.
John actually showed us carvings that would show a sitting”hairless” Bhudda with a round belly andthen some steps further a skinny Hindu priest with a long beard carved into the wall.
The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and smiling stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.
John had planned to show us another 5 temples but we had to give in to our exhaustion after 2 temple visits in the afternoon and relaxed with a cold beer and Gin Tonic being paddled around the outer Ankor Thom moat. We even got to see a family of Water buffaloes cross the moat, with papa Water buffalo not happy seeing us in his turf.
After some freshening up we decided to grab a tuk tuk and have an early dinner at Malis and extremely fancy restaurant with traditional Khmer food. Again the service was impeccable, nothing but smiles and super prompt service. Now it has become our routine to retire to the sleeping quarters around 9:00 p.m. and to start the day early around 6:00 or 7:00 a.m.
What a day it has been; we saw 5 temples in a one day, learned all about the history of the kings who built these temples to reign over their people, protect them and provide water management. All of the temples were somewhat similar but still different and it’s pretty much a shame to “run” through these temples, you could spend weeks or months on one temple and still would only get a glimpse of the history behind the temple.
Its time to hit the pillow because we have to get up at 4:00 am. to be ready for the Angkor Wat Sunrise at 5:45 a.m.
To be continued….