Siem Reap is the base camp to explore the nearby Temples of Angkor. This was a massive captial city for the Khmer Empire around 1000 years ago and the area is dotted with temples that were built in a stretch of about 500 years. Siem Reap is a 30 minute ride from the temples and is pretty cool town to chill out in. It has some awesome night markets and bars to cater to the tourists at night, while they explore temples by day. We spent three days hanging around the town and visiting the amazing temple ruins in Angkor.
Near the night market and old market is Pub Street. It had tons of restaurants and bars. We enjoyed having Happy Hour along the street because every bar seemed to have some type of drink special that pretty much went on all day. The food is a little pricier than other areas of Siem Reap, but it's a mix of western and Khmer foods offered at the restaurants so you can find almost any food you want. The blocks surrounding Pub Street have some little quieter bars but they offer some great deals too. We went to one called Picasso made a mean Sangria and Jamaica Me Crazy cocktail! Since it was a little more laid back than the dance clubs in Pub Street, we met and could actually talk with a couple from England for a few hours.
Night markets surround Pub Street and you can buy any type of clothes, accessories, art, or souvenirs. It's different than the markets in Vietnam because the vendors aren't quite as pushy. You can look around in peace without people screaming, "You buy something!", every time you step within 10 feet of their space. They are still willing to negotiate though so you can get some pretty great stuff for super cheap. The outside of the night market is lined with stalls for fish massages, super cheap foot massages, manicures, and pedicures. The fish massage stalls typically have a tank with small fish and one with larger fish. You can split your time between the two tanks. We tried it one night and it tickled so much!! The foot massages are $2 for 30 mins and awesome after spending all day walking around the temples!
We found a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap and negotiated to hire him for two days to see the temples. Most drivers and tour companies offer various prearranged itineraries, but we wanted to see some of the smaller temples not included in those so it worked out better to hire a tuk tuk separately. We paid about $35 to have our driver chauffeur us for around 10 hours total. We bought our pass at 4:45 pm the day before we wanted to tour the temples. By doing so, you are allowed to enter the complex for sunset. That night we went to the temple Prae Roup. The sky was very overcast so we didn't get a great sunset, but we walked around the different terraces exploring the ruins. The first temple you see will blow you away and definitely get you excited for the full day of visiting.
The next day we did seven temples, starting with sunrise at Angkor Wat. Luckily the cloud coverage from the day before had moved out during the night so we had an awesome sunrise. We got there early (about 5:15am) and had a front row seat on the reflection pond. Once the sun was up we could see that hundreds of other people had joined us. Way different than our solitary sunrise at Torres Del Paine! We walked around the temple looking at all the elaborate carvings before waiting in line to walk up to the tower in the center of the complex. The tower offered great views of the temple as well as beautiful courtyards with various statues. The main complex is huge, but it's then surrounded ponds, fields, forests, a wall, and a moat. A modern city could fit inside its walls. We couldn't imagine the manpower that went into building these structures.
After Angkor Wat our tuk tuk driver drove us to Angkor Thom. In the center of Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple. It has thousands of smiling faces carved into it. Most have stones missing so part of the face is gone. The outside walls are covered in detailed carvings and there are even monkeys crawling on top of some of the outer walls. It was very surreal and ended up being one of our favorite temples.
We went to Ta Prohm, the temple used in the film Tomb Raider, next. It has been taken over by the jungle. Trees are growing up through it and walls have been knocked over. Most of the stones are also covered in moss or grass. Some of the trees growing through the temple had roots so big that the stone had crumpled under the weight. Metal bars were installed to hold the weight of the tree to take the pressure off the stone. We were there early enough that not of lot of groups had not arrived so we could explore parts of the temple completely by ourselves.
We planned to hit Ta Som next, but were doing so well on time we added in a quick stop at East Mebon. It's a simpler temple with a couple terraces but not many rooms or passageways. Beautiful elephant states sit on the corner of each terrace and detailed carvings cover all the walls. Ta Som was another temple that has been slowly taken over by the jungle. It's famous for a tree that grew over the doorway with its roots coming down the sides. It's ironic how beautiful it is to see nature destroying what man created.
It was still only morning when we got done with Ta Som so we added in two more temples: Neak Pean and Preah Khan. Neak Pean is different than the other temples we saw throughout the day. It's on an island and the temple is in the center of a giant pond so you can't actually walk around it like the other temples. Preah Khan is a huge temple. It has a bridge with a line of carved Buddhas pulling a rope. The temple is in fairly good shape but has some trees growing over the side walls and some piles fallen stones inside. But you can still walk through passage ways and see the detailed carvings throughout.
We finished the temples by noon. If you have a guide showing you the temples and explaining the history, then it would definitely take longer. We opted to google the history once we got back to our hostel and had Internet. Some people will stay from sunrise to sunset doing the temples, but we don't know how they do it. We were exhausted with a half day! We didn't see everything, but seven hours was more than enough time for us to explore the temples we wanted to see. While they are stunning, after a while they start blurring together.
Seeing these temples is like stepping into another world. The tourism industry is booming here, but it seems a little slower to reach Americans. Hopefully more will put Cambodia into their travel plans. Between the complex history and the beautiful beaches, Cambodia should be higher on everyone lists.
Chris & Taylor
Read our travel blog as we visit three continents in 2017.