After a wonderful stay in Malaysia, I flew from Kuching to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A funny little town; it serves primarily as a stop-off point for people visiting the Angkor compound. At the start of the 20th century the temples were re-discovered and the village of Siem Reap gradually grew as the temples attracted increasing numbers of visitors
I’d been warned that Siem Reap was extremely touristy (Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. More on that next time) with little to offer in and of itself other than being a convenient jumping off point for Angkor. Actually, I found it to be a very nice place to stay. It helped that the hostel was amazing (Big up to Luxury Concept Hostel; neither luxurious nor conceptual, you are, however, certainly a hostel!) In the day there are some wonderful restaurants, relaxing bars and the pub street transitions into a small but vibrant night area later on. You need a good place to relax after making your way around Angkor all day.
I made the foolhardy decision of taking my first day in the Angkor complex by mountain bike. I’d been told it was a big place but I severely underestimated the size of the area. And my ability to ride a mountain bike in 35 degree heat. My logic was that it’d give me more freedom to explore some of the more undisturbed temples without worrying about my driver waiting. Turns out, if you do go to more temples in this manner, by the time you get there you find yourself exhausted, stumbling around the ancient ruins like some cretinous, sweaty Khmer ghost. I managed it, sans camera due to further idiocy, but it was more of a whistle stop tour.
The best way to do it is, without a doubt, get yourself a tuk-tuk. Preferably a driver too. It seems a little less…intrepid. It’s also true that you’re a little less flexible. But it’s totally worth the trade off, assuming you’re visiting when it’s hot.
Which is all the time.
It costs you like $8 more than just hiring the bike and you can split the cost between more people if you have a group. The guy will wait for you at the entrance/exit of each place you want to go and gives you plenty of time to look around.
The compound itself is really quite something. Strangely, the most famous temple (Angkor Wat) was actually the least impressive, in my opinion.
The vista as you approach the water-enclosed compound is iconic, of course, and the towers look great through the wilderness. But the inner parts of the area are less interesting and, overall, it serves mostly as a nice introduction to the later Angkor Thom (Yorke?) and Ta Prohm.
The Bayon temple was my favourite. Intricately designed, you find yourself getting lost incredibly easily. The architecture is almost fractal and you quickly lose your sense of place and direction. The large faces on the upper towers are still very clear and visible, while the lower areas are coated in smaller carvings. At one stage every inch of every building in Angkor would have had similar carvings. An insane amount of labour. In fact, I learned that the amount of stone used to build the compound was far in excess of that required to build the pyramids and was transported a huge distance to the compound. The place would be a massive project even now, I imagine, so it’s incredible to think of the time and energy spent on creating this place at the height of the Khmer Empire so long ago.
The temples don’t feel too ruined either. I mean, they are literally ruins. But after spending so long in China I find myself constantly assuming places are going to completely lack authenticity; reconstructions surrounded by food carts and public toilets. But the site has only the most minor of compromises allowing for tourists. A few wooden steps for the steeper temples and the occasional scaffold to hold up dangerous rooftops. But nothing to ruin the atmosphere too much. Also, as mentioned, the place is huge so it doesn’t take much to get away from the crowds if you so wish. You can easily find a temple for yourself to peruse if you’re so inclined. Just watch out for spiders.
Next stop was Phnom Penh (Pronounced…pphhhffff). More on that later.