Yes, You Do In Fact Need Multiple Days In Angkor

We awoke refreshed at a delightful 9 a.m. and got to work doing some more research for our trip. Some major items were accomplished. We purchased some flights from Mendoza, Argentina to Cusco, Peru in preparation for our Machu Picchu hike we’ll be doing with some good friends from Austin. We are happy to announce that we are saving $300 by sleeping in Lima’s airport – we’ll see how that goes. We also got Doug’s parents successfully set up with Google Hangouts and spent a good time catching them up on our adventures. While we are excited to see them in 6 weeks in New Zealand, we were sad to have the realization that in only 6 short weeks we’d be halfway through our adventure. Lame. We also booked a bike tour of some of the sites of the Angkor Archaeological Park for the following day.

It was now 11 a.m. and time to get on with our day. The first item to tackle would be finding lunch. Luckily there are many options by our hostel and we found a promising restaurant with 5 other patrons. Doug ordered pork stew with ginger and tomatoes complimented by a watermelon juice. Lynn asked for a recommended 9meal which turned out to be a curry with tomatoes, pineapple, onion, and chicken which she paired with a mango-banana shake. Midway through the meal a table of French tourists was serenaded by a Cambodian man brought in from the street by the shop owner.  Maybe had we spoke French we would have enjoyed it (or if he was a better singer), but both of us ended up a bit annoyed by the whole thing. This, we determined, makes us perfect for each other.

Then it was on for the next task of the day – get our 3 day pass to the Angkor Archaeological Park and see some of the sites! To do this, we commandeered a tuk-tuk (our first!) with the help of our hostel to take us on the “Grand Tour,” as defined by the hotel’s pamphlet. Our driver, Raya, introduced himself and pointed us to a map he had handy to show us where we would be heading for the afternoon which included 5 of the sites in Angkor. We chose to visit these sites today since we’d be visiting the bigger ones with our bike tour tomorrow.

Raya, our tuk-tuk driver
Raya, our tuk-tuk driver

I’m going to briefly pause here and say that Angkor Archaeological Park not only contains the infamous Angkor Wat but also dozens of other Hindu, Buddhist, Hindu/Buddhist temples. We had done our research ahead of time and were told that 3 days is a good amount of time to spend in Angkor. However, we’ve been seeing temples for almost 2 months now and how different could these temples in this complex really be? The answer after day 1: quite different.

We hopped in the tuk-tuk and were pleasantly surprised by the experience. It cooled us down quite nicely even though our driver was really only going 15 mph. Plus, now no other tuk-tuk drivers were waving us down and yelling “Sir! Tuk-tuk?” while gesturing as though he is steering said tuk-tuk. It was a quick 15 minute drive through the city and into the start of a jungle before we stopped at the Visitor Center to retrieve our 3 day passes. The price is pretty hefty at $40 each so we are determined to get our 3 days worth starting with today.

Back in the tuk-tuk Raya informed us that we would be driving by Angkor Wat and through Angkor Thom to reach our first temple: Preah Khan. As we drove along we were both pleasantly surprised by the scenery. We had expected the complex to be surrounded by rice fields and quite open, but rather it is the opposite. There are very tall trees everywhere offering shade which continued to make our tuk-tuk ride a pleasant one. As we approached Angkor Wat, our mouths dropped in shock. This place is a lot bigger than they make it look in pictures. Not only is the entirety of Angkor Wat surrounded by a moat, it took about 3 minutes to drive halfway down one side. Driving by we could not help but get pulled in by the natural beauty of the many trees, reflecting moat, and imposing wall of Angkor Wat. We were getting excited. We continued our drive past Angkor Wat and on and through Angkor Thom’s South Gate which provided us with another glimpse of the beauty to come.

First glimpse of Angkor Wat
First glimpse of Angkor Wat
Driving through Angkor Thom
Driving through Angkor Thom

As we continued, Doug pulled out Wikipedia to educate us. Our first temple, Preah Khan, was built in the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII to honor his father. In its heyday it was staffed by 100,000 officials and servants, now it is largely unrestored, with most restorations focused on the safety of the many tourists they receive daily. We entered and were immediately taken by the blending of nature and man-made structures. Green moss and small plants grew on many surfaces that had water or light. Sun shone in through the many missing ceilings and down the corridors of intricate carvings. We enjoyed that we were easily alone at many points and could take it all in. At one point we were asked by a policeman if he could introduce us to some details of the temple. He led us around pointing out what were Hindu influences and what were Buddhist. He took us through alleyways we would never have found and around “Do Not Enter” signs to see shrines to the former queen and a very large tree growing up and over the temple’s walls. Then he requested payment, as expected, but we agreed the 10 minutes he spent with us was quite worth the money since we never would have found what he showed us. It seems that off duty police officers come hereto do just this since tourists have a hard time saying no to people in uniform. But, again, it was well worth the $2 we gave him.

West entrance to Preah Khan
West entrance to Preah Khan

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We enjoyed the glow of the moss
We enjoyed the glow of the moss

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Some of the crumbling ruins
Some of the crumbling ruinsIMGP7683 IMGP7715
That tree is very old and those people are very small
That tree is very old and those people are very small

We exited, met our driver, and headed off for Neak Pean, an artificial island built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII. It was originally designed as a bathing complex meant to heal various ailments. Today, the water looks a bit gross and we wouldn’t recommend touching it, never mind getting in. Still standing is the remains of a horse sculpture on the east along with some pavilions.

Walkway to Neak Pean
Walkway to Neak Pean
Neak Pean - the remains of the horse can be seen in the center of the two structures.
Neak Pean – the remains of the horse can be seen in the center of the two structures.

Next was Ta Som, a temple built for King Jayavarman VII to once again honor his father. Similar to Preah Khan, this temple is largely unrestored except for some safety additions. Different from the latter, however, is the addition of 5 ft tall faces to the gopuram which make for an eerie setting. And again, nature has had its way with the structure. Moss grows everywhere and a fig tree has done some significant damage to the easternmost gopura. The exterior walls are also crumbling and being overtaken by the elements. It is here we ask ourselves if the the temples in their time were surrounded by flat rice fields because judging by the very large trees we see growing out of the structures the jungle around us could be younger than we thought.

Gopura at Ta Som
Gopura at Ta Som
Man cannot tame nature.
Man cannot tame nature.
The fig tree enveloping the gopura at Ta Som
The fig tree enveloping the gopura at Ta Som
Crumbling walls
Crumbling walls

Now moving south we were brought to East Mebon. This temple was built in the 10th century by King Rajendravarman and stands on the remains of an artificial island at the center of East Baray reservoir. The reservoir has since dried up for the most part, but the structure, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, was meant to honor the king’s parents. It was again, quite different from our previous visits and featured elephant statues and half collapsed domes which allowed us to peak into its construction. We also enjoyed only being two of the 7 people within its walls during our time there.

Ornate carving
Ornate carving
East Mebon
East Mebon

Our final stop was a bit of an adventure since we were able to witness the taping of some Spanish-speaking reality show. The stop itself was Pre Rup, built by King Rajendravarman, and used for funeral ceremonies. Despite the film crew, we were able to enjoy the beauty of the ruins as they were tinged with gold while the sun started to set. Raya then took us back to our hostel where we agreed to meet again at 5 a.m. the next morning to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Film Crew. Points to the person who can figure out the name of the show.
Film Crew. Points to the person who can figure out the name of the show.
Pre Rup as the sun begins to set
Pre Rup as the sun begins to set

We got back to our hostel and decided it would be nice to enjoy the remainder of the sun at a rooftop bar. Our first choice, called Rooftop Bar, was not, in fact, a rooftop bar. Our second choice, well, was… let’s see… an escort hotel? Is that the way to put it nicely? Either way, we hopped in the lobby to take the elevator to the top deck which we had seen from our hostel, but while there noticed a number of scantily clad women sitting along the bench in front of us. So, we noped out of that one and instead decided it was time to find some dinner.

Doug suggested an Austrian restaurant he had read about on TripAdvisor and we followed the directions using the app down a road away from the tourist strip. Things didn’t look too bad until we realized we had past 4 or 5 piles of burning trash and were being directed down a very dark unpaved road. Pretty sure that this was not the correct way, we double-checked with Google and confirmed that it was actually where we had come from. Note to selves – do not use TripAdvisor for navigation. So back we went to enjoy some high priced shnitzel and spaetzel by Cambodian standards followed by chocolate mousse (Wolfgang Puck’s recipe, according to the owner).

Back on the streets, we purchased some water for our ride tomorrow and a new fruit for us: Snake fruit, or salak. It was more sour than initially expected but the taste grew on us. Maybe there will be more snake fruit in our future. Then it was time to hit the sack for our 4:45 a.m. alarm.

Snake Fruit
Snake Fruit

Daily Walking Mileage: 8.8

Days Without Head Wounds: 2

Fun Facts:

  • Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire and at its height was the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
  • The Angkor complex is the largest temple complex in the world.
  • A gopura is a monumental, ornate tower at the entrance of a temple.

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