A four month stay in south east Asia would be incomplete without a trip to see some of Cambodia’s ancient, as well as relatively recent, history.
From Bangkok we decided to fly to Siem Reap, a fast growing city in the north west of Cambodia and the gateway to an ancient world. I’m told that at the turn of the millennium Siem Reap was little more than a provincial town with few facilities, minor surfaced roads and very little in the way of nightlife. The tourism industry catered largely to hardy backpackers, with only a couple of large hotels and a handful of budget guesthouses. Unbelievably (as there now seems to be thousands of them!) tuk-tuks were non-existent. Only 17 years later and the Siem Reap of today is apparently unrecognisable from the Siem Reap of the year 2000. The proximity of the Angkorian ruins and the vast number of tourists wanting to explore them have turned Siem Reap into a bustling, enticing city. Huge, expensive hotels as well as budget guesthouses and hostels are springing up everywhere.
We checked in to Golden Butterfly Villa which was our base for exploring the surrounding sites. It is a lovely hotel, centrally located and only 5 minutes walk from Pub Street and dozens of restaurants, as well as the Central and Night markets. The hotel staff were extremely friendly and helpful, always wishing us a good day when leaving the hotel and welcoming us back with big smiles and much needed cold towels on our return. They are able to advise you on which day trips to go on and which temples are included in which trips. They will also arrange a tuk-tuk driver for you who will wait at each temple whilst you take as long as you like to explore and take photos.
To access all the temples of the Ankor region you need to purchase a pass (your tuk-tuk driver will take you there on the way to your first stop). You have the choice of a 1 day pass for $37, 3 days for $62 or 7 days for $72. We decided that one day wouldn’t be enough time to cram in everything that we wanted to see so opted for the 3 day pass. This pass is valid for ten days from time of purchase so you have the option of spreading out your temple visits and having a rest day or two.
For our first day we decided to choose the small circuit, which includes the famous temples of Ankor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider Temple).
After listening to various people and reading blogs on the area we decided not to bother with trying to get a sunrise photo of Ankor Wat as we’d A – have to get up ridiculously early and B – have to jostle with hundreds or thousands of other people trying to get the same photo!
We set off from the hotel at 8am and our first stop was Ankor Wat. This is Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction and rightly so. Built in the early 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman II, Ankor Wat occupies a rectangular area of about 500 acres and is the largest religious monument in the world. It is surrounded by a 200 metre wide moat that stretches for 5.5km around the complex. Maybe due to the time of year of our visit (July) we were pleasantly surprised to find that although there were a lot of other people there it wasn’t to crowded and we were able to explore at our own pace and get some pretty good photos. The temple is huge and it’s state of preservation is incredible. It really is an awe inspiring place to visit.
Our second stop was Bayon Temple. 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 centre of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom. The 216 massive stone faces, thought to be either a portrait of king Jayavarman VII himself or a combination of him and Buddha, are an instantly recognisable image of Angkor.
Our final stop for the day (and definitely my favourite) was Ta Prohm Temple, also built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII in honour of his family. Ta Prohm is probably the most atmospheric and photogenic of all the Ankor temples due to the combination of trees growing out of the ruins and its jungle surroundings. It was famously used as a location for the 2001 film Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie.
We saw a few smaller and less well known temples and ruins along the way which were much less crowded but to be honest they weren’t as spectacular as the three that I’ve mentioned above.
For the second day of our temple tour we decided to go on the grand circuit via Banteay Srei, a 10th century Hindu temple, about 40km from Siem Reap. It’s built out of rose-pink sandstone and is covered in elaborate and decorative stone carvings. It’s much smaller than the temples we saw on the first day but is no less popular and considered the “jewel of Khmer art”. We enjoyed the 2 hour round trip on the tuk-tuk and considered it part of the tour as we saw some of the Cambodian countryside and got to see how the locals go about their every day lives.
On the return journey we stopped at Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean, Preah Rup and Ta Som. Whilst all these smaller and less famous temples are all pretty amazing in their own right we were a little bit templed out by then and were looking forward to a nice glass or two of (surprisingly good value!) wine.
The following day we decided to have a break from the temples, have a lie in and generally just chill out. The temples are amazing and I can’t recommend a visit here highly enough but after two days of being driven around a dozen or so of them we felt we needed a change of scenery. We spent some time walking around the centre of Siem Reap, checking out the local markets and then the watering holes in the Psar Chaa area, whose focal point, the Alley, is full of chilled out restaurants and bars and has a definite French vibe going on. After the expensive prices for a decent glass of wine in Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore we were ecstatic to find most bars selling a glass of very drinkable house wine for $3 (£2.40). And it wasn’t just the wine. G&T’s for $1.50 (£1.20) and cocktails for $2 (£1.60). Cheers! The food was also very good value. We tried some local dishes such as amok and Khmer curries, loc lac and cha kroeung. All were very tasty and very well priced at around $3-4 per dish.
For the third and final day of our temple exploring we headed further afield to Beng Mealea. It’s about 70km northeast of Siem Reap and takes about 2 hours by tuk-tuk. It costs an extra $5 per person to enter, payable at the entrance. It’s one of the most mysterious temples of the Ankor region as the jungle has tried to claim back the land and is definitely an Indiana Jones type of experience! The temple used to be totally consumed by jungle, but some of the dense foliage has been cut back and cleared in recent years. As you enter from the south, you make your way over piles of sandstone blocks, through long, dark chambers and between hanging vines.
It was definitely worth the long trip. On the way back the heavens opened and luckily for us the our tuk-tuk driver was able to stop in time to put the waterproof sides down to keep us dry. We did feel very sorry for him though and lent him a waterproof jacket as he insisted on carrying on rather than climbing in the back with us for shelter!
We took a 6 hour bus ride from Siem Reap to the capital Phnom Penh and stayed at the One Up Banana Hotel in the centre of the city. Whilst we were here we wanted to learn about the more recent history of Cambodia and the dreadful things that happened under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. We knew in advance that this was likely to be a traumatic and sobering day but felt it was necessary to understand the atrocities that took place here. There are no photos to accompany this section of the blog as we just didn’t feel it was appropriate to get the camera out.
We arranged a tuk-tuk driver, for $18 for the day, through our hotel and our first of two stops was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, or Killing Fields. It costs $6 per person and includes an excellent audio tour.
Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 innocent men, women and children, many of whom were detained and tortured at S-21, were transported here and murdered. The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are dotted around the exhumed pits, many rising to the surface over time and during heavy rainfall. Over 8000 skulls are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memoral Stupa, which was erected in 1988. We left in a very sombre and quiet mood and headed to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In 1975 the Tuol Svay Pray High School was seized by Pol Pot’s Khmer forces and renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21). It was the secret centre of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured, interrogated and executed. Of the 14,000 people known to have been detained here only 7 survived. A visit to S-21 is a completely depressing experience.
I would highly recommend this two part day trip to every visitor to Phnom Penh. Not because you’ll have fun and a good day out but because we should all know about the horrors that took place only 40 years ago.
Phnom Penh, the country’s capital city, sits at the junction of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. I’ve watched TV programs over the years featuring the importance of the river to the local populations and it was good to see its brown, muddy waters in person.
However I felt the rest of the city was a bit of a let down. It was a fairly dirty city even by Southeast Asian standards, with litter strewn everywhere, sometimes with big piles of rubbish on the side of the road next to food stalls. For me it certainly didn’t have the charm, character and relative cleanliness of Siem Reap. My opinion didn’t get any better when some local lad on a motorbike tried to snatch Bel’s backpack (with our passports, cameras and laptop in) off her lap, whilst we were in a tuk-tuk on the way to the airport. Luckily the tuck-tuks all have netting or bars on the sides to help stop this common occurrence and on this occasion all the would be thief got was a few shouts of abuse from Bel and I!