After a ludicrous number of flights on our trip, we decided that a six hour bus ride was more appealing than another flight. We’d not done much travelling on bus except as part of the G Adventures tours and so it seemed like it would be a nice way to see some more of the countryside. There were two choices, the cheap bus or the slightly more expensive bus aimed at tourists and backpackers. We opted for the slightly more expensive bus (Giant Ibis) and were pretty glad of this later on when we saw what had happened to one of the cheaper buses en route!
The bus journey was actually grand and the six hours passed really quickly. We hopped in our Grab car (like Uber but in SE Asia) and headed to our hotel which we’d luckily been able to book for free using some Avios points.
One of the things that can be a bit of a challenge when you’re booking hotels in cities you don’t know is working out what is and what isn’t a good location. Equally, often the reality of a hotel doesn’t live up to the photos online – you can definitely throw star ratings out of the window! These concerns were certainly running through my head as our car headed further away from the touristy areas and eventually down a dark industrial looking street. The car pulled up right at the end of the road and at first I wasn’t quite sure if the taxi driver was lost. Eventually I spotted the sign for the hotel in the darkness and, with a little bit of trepidation, we went through the gate and into the hotel. Thankfully, as we came through the gate it opened out into an nice quiet area with a pool and bar and welcoming staff. We checked in, found the now ‘traditional’ welcome for honeymooners (rose petals and towel swans), grabbed some food before hitting the sack ready for to explore the temples the next day.
Pretty much everyone knows about Angkor Wat but what we hadn’t grasped until getting close was that Angkor Wat is only one of hundreds of temples in the Angkor area. Angkor is the ancient capital of Cambodia (or really the Khymer Empire) and each of the kings ruling Angkor had got into a bit of an arms race building a bigger and bigger temple than their predecessors. Frankly, I think it had probably got a bit out of hand!
The Lonely Planet had told us there were three main options for getting around the temples around Angkor – hire some transport to take you around all day (taxi, tuk tuk or the ubiquitous remorque – a kind of modern day pony and trap where the pony is replaced by a motorbike); cycle around or walk around. Being keen to always be active, we decided that walking sounded a good plan. We were wrong!
Before you can get into the park you need to buy a ticket from the ticket office located on the way to the park. We set off walking and found ourselves through complete luck (/following Google Maps) wandering through some residential areas. It was really interesting to see as it was the first time we’d walked through areas like this on our own. It felt a little uncomfortable walking through initially as we felt so out of place – it was such a poor area and here we were walking through in our nice clothes and a rucksack full of cameras and phones. It’s a weird mix of feeling like you’re intruding and also initially being worried that you might be going through a dodgy area. It’s incredible how disarming a smile can be though and as soon as one of the locals beamed at us wandering through we returned a smile and everything felt fine again.
We arrived at the ticket office fairly hot as we hadn’t quite appreciated how sapping the 30 degree heat was going to be. We decided that it wasn’t worth even attempting to walk into the park so popped out our phone and ordered a Grab up into the Park. The Lonely Planet had recommended leaving Angkor Wat until later in our visit if you can so that the other temples are disappointing after it. We followed that advice and got dropped off at Bayon Temple.
Coming into Bayon Temple really blows your mind and even more when you realise that this isn’t supposed to be the most impressive temple in Angkor. Bayon Temple is set right in the centre of Angkor and you get to it by crossing the moat and through the impressive South Gate with its restored statues. Even though the religion was completely different, it was interesting to notice the similarities between this and the Inca sites we’d seen in Peru. What you don’t realise at first is the intricacy of the temple though – there are a huge number of faces carved into various points around the temple (these are rumoured to represent the number of administrative districts used in the Khymer Empire at the time). Every bit of stone seems to have a carving in. It is truly beautiful.
The Temples of Angkor are split into two classic circuits – the small circuit and big circuit. Bayon is on the small circuit and is one of around 10 sites on this particular loop. We’d planned to walk the whole circuit but at after basically one temple and a few of the smaller surrounding sites, we had to abandon that plan before Sue actually melted! The only problem was that whilst it had been easy to order a Grab from town to Angkor, getting one back was much harder as there’s not many drivers hanging around the temples other than those wanting to charge a fortune! Eventually after a good 20 minute wait we managed to get one and headed back into town.
In Siem Reap there is one main very busy touristy street called Pub Street and this where we headed pretty much anytime we needed to get a meal or go for a drink. The street is always a hive of active bustling with restaurants, bars and people trying to sell you all sorts of things. It really comes to life at night when its full of lights and music.
One of our favourite restaurants of the whole trip, the Khymer Kitchen, was in this area – previously frequented by Mike Jagger amongst others! The food was fantastic, service great and the price very reasonable! Definitely one we would recommend.
We also enjoyed a great night in one of the bars here where somehow I managed to persuade Sue into coming out for a few drinks! We headed to one bar with some live singers who’d invite various members of the audience to join in. There was an incredible moment when an American guy (apologies if he was actually Canadian!) requested Let It Be by The Beatles. He hopped up on the stage and then absolutely nailed it alongside the real singers.
The Big One – Angkor Wat
It had been a little while since we’d had a really early morning after lots and lots in South America so we decided that sunrise at Angkor Wat is definitely something we wanted to experience. We arrived at Angkor Wat in the pitch dark and made our way to a spot next to one of the reflection pools. From this description it might sound like a serene experience, watching the sun gently rise in the sky over the temple in silence. Unfortunately, when you add probably hundreds of tourists all jostling (literally) for position for photos – a little bit of the magic is taken away. Despite all this, the sunrise was beautiful and it was incredible to watch Angkor Wat gradually being revealed by the sunrise.
After we’d had a hunt around Angkor Wat (taking a ludicrous number of photos in the process), we hopped back on our remorque and completed the small circuit of temples. Each of the temples has its own unique charm and character. Each temple is in a different state of repair/disrepair – it’s quite incredible how some trees have grown into the temples buildings and walls as if they were always there.
By the end of the tour we were roasting and literally dripping with sweat! We had intended to go back and see more temples the following day, however, after a lot of temples in the last few weeks we were pretty templed out. Sue came up with a good alternative and booked us a tour to the Floating Village at Tonle Sap.
Tonle Sap Floating Village
We searched around the various tours available for the floating village but for us it was really important to find one which was really responsible in its approach. We were delighted with our choice of Community First which runs a tour to the village of Kompong Khleang. We were really impressed with the information on their website about how they try and make sure the tours have a really positive effect on the community. Community First works with the villages to make sure they are happy with plans for the tours; employ people from the villages to run the tours; train staff about child and community protection (a really important factor in Cambodia) and importantly reinvest 45% of revenues into a school project in the community.
We visited the floating village in the dry season so it’s a bit of a strange sight to see all the houses and buildings raised about three or four metres off the ground on stilts. It’s even more incredible when you realise you realise the river (which becomes part of the lake in wet season) is a good few metres below where the stilts start and yet the water level in rainy season still reaches just below the houses.
During the dry season the villagers take the opportunity to make the most of being able to access dry land. They’ll farm some of the land further down the river and build facilities to smoke fish ready for the months ahead. It was incredible to see the buildings up on the stilts and also amazing to see the complexity of the buildings and facilities built at ground level which have to be be rebuilt every year.
After looking around some of these facilities, we were then taken to see the school project where the funds go to. It was quite sobering to see just how basic the facilities were and the fact that the one classroom had to cover all the children for the village pre-primary age. The children only attend in the morning so the charity had further developed the facilities to develop what they called a ‘sewing cooperative’. This was used to train some of the local women so they had a skill that they could use for a job. The proceeds from the clothes that they produced were then used to help further support the school.
After looking around the village we hopped onto one of the local boats to head out onto the lake to watch the sunset. We quite quickly had to do a on-water switch to another boat after ours broke down (not sure that filled Sue with a huge amount of confidence!). We then journeyed out on the river past the fields that are exposed in the dry season onto the main lake itself. It was a truly special place to watch the sun come down. Once the sun had set we were taken back into the village before returning to Siem Reap, ready for the next leg of our adventure in Laos.