DAYS 3 – 4 : SIEM REAP (18th – 19th October 2010)
I will break the Siem Reap report up into separate posts, as this was the main part of our trip, and it will be simply too much to take in all in one go!
General maps of the area: -
Siem Reap Town
Main Temple Area
DAY 3 (18th October) – We had said goodbye to Phnom Penh, for now, and were heading towards Siem Reap, in our allocated seats, on the rather plush Mekong Express bus. OK, we knew it was most probably the more expensive bus option at $12 each, but sometimes you just have to spoil yourself, especially as we knew the trip would take 6 hours. The bus crawled through the outskirts of Phnom Penh and after what seemed an hour finally hit open countryside. It was our first full taste of the area skirting the lake and rice fields spread as far as we could see. Small snacks and a bottle of water were passed out and we settled back to enjoy the ride. Three hours later, we pulled into a dusty roadside rest halt in Kampong Thom, where everybody got off for a comfort break and food. It was stiflingly hot and after slapping on some sun cream we headed over to the local shops and market area to explore. Back on the bus and it was only another 3 hours before we entered the Siem Reap bus station at 2:30 pm and descended the steps into tuk tuk driver frenzy. It was like putting fresh meat into a school of circling sharks and they all attacked at once!
However, we had pre-planned and had been in contact with a driver, recommended by another forum member, before we left the UK. We had also decided on staying at the Angkor Pearl hotel, so had contacted them to tell them when we would arrive. Problem was, we now had two drivers amongst the crowd, holding up our names - the driver we had booked and one the hotel had sent for us. We apologised to the hotel driver and took the driver we had booked.
Once at the Angkor Pearl - tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g297390-d171… ,we knew we had made a good choice. It was a superb hotel and whilst we chose one of the cheaper rooms ($20 incl. breakfast) – it was still far superior to those we normally stay in. Our driver had said we should check in and take a shower (was that a hint) and he would come back at 4:00 pm to discuss our plans. So we did as he said and met him in the lobby. We thought he would bring the guide whom we had asked him to sort out for us, but he said he would join us the next day. He said that the following day we should do the small circuit and that sounded OK to us. We knew if we went to the ticket office for 5:00 we could buy our passes and then see the sunset for free that day. So we set off in his tuk tuk. He first of all showed us around the town a bit before heading off to the ticket booths. We more or less had done our homework on what temples we wanted to see during our stay and knew that we would require at least 4 days. There were different queues for different passes, so we joined the 7 day pass one. Seven days works out as the same cost as 4 days, at $60. This is because for 4 days you would have to buy a 3 day pass at $40 and then a single day at $20. Posing for our photo, we soon had our laminated pass (only 7 day ones are laminated) and had been warned about not losing it. When we went to pay, we had our first encounter with how particular they are in Cambodia over the dollar notes. The lady gave us one $20 note back which had a miniscule nick in one corner – we are talking about 2mm. We were stunned, as we had got our dollars out of an ATM machine in the US, years ago (when the rate was $2.10 to the £ - ahhh, the good old days). Luckily we just had enough in spare cash to cover it; otherwise we would have had to return to the hotel to get more money. So check all your notes.
Once we had gone through all the pass check points we headed off into the Angkor complex. The first glimpse we had of the ruins where the main walls, across a large moat, of what turned out to be Angkor Wat itself. Quickly grabbing a few snaps. We jumped back into the tuk tuk and headed off for our first sunset.
Sadly somebody must have informed other people that this was a good spot as there were hundreds of sweaty tourists climbing up the hill to reach the temple. This temple has many tiny steep steps to climb up, but we made it to the top hoping there was a shower block, as we were now a little moist. I must admit I didn't fully get this experience, as there were hoards of people, just taking pictures of the clouds. There wasn't any sunset and we should know as we stayed until it was dark. Of course then getting back down again was a challenge, but no problems for us rugged explorers. My tip is take a torch and if you only have a few days in Siem Reap, then miss this out for sunset, as there are much better vantage points.
Back at the hotel we had a chance to go to the local supermarket (out of the hotel, turn left and it’s on the corner of the main road) to buy some beers and a bottle of rum for our compulsory evening rum and coke. Here we tried to use our damaged $20 note, but we had the same result. We mentioned it, back at reception, and Peter (the manager) said everybody is very careful about what they accept, as if they take a damaged note to the bank, they will only be given possibly $15 for the $20 note. Back in our room, we took notice of what he had said and simply put the damaged note to the back of our cash, so we didn’t pass it on by mistake.
It was then time to hit the streets of Siem Reap and look for food. However, we first had to negotiate the swarm of tuk tuk drivers, who just couldn’t understand that we were quite happy walking. We soon got used to it and simply told them we had our own driver. This was not only true, but it worked. Walking down the main road - Sivutha Boulevard - we found a likely looking local street restaurant on the right hand side and sat down. The food was ok, much nothing much to write home about. Time was getting on and it had been a long day, so we headed back, again being pestered by drivers. One driver came running across the road, smiling and waving, when he spotted us. It was the usual sales pitch and we told him we were already fixed up. However, he managed to catch our attention, when he mentioned he had the use a car. We wanted to hire a car for one day, at some point, to visit the outlying temples. All our enquiries from the UK had resulted in quotes of $70 to $80, so we had left it to be sorted out when were where in Siem Reap. We had been wondering about how we were going to sort it out, so as he was the first person to raise the idea of a car, we asked him how much he wanted to go to Beng Mealea etc. We fully expected a stupid price. But at least we would have somebody who we could negotiate with. When he quoted $40 we were shocked and surprised. This wasn’t even worth negotiating over. But we were also cautious, as we had been caught out in Phnom Penh for extras. We told him exactly where we wanted to go and he insisted it would only be $40 for the day. We weren’t fully sure of when we wanted to do the trip, so said we would let him know. He then told us how much he charged for other trips in his tuk tuk and again they were much lower than we were paying, but we already had our driver. Giving us a scrap of paper, he told us he had a website that an Australian girl had kindly made for him, as a gift, and that we should have a look at it. So, back at the hotel, we did and sure enough his rates were there. He also didn’t charge extra for sunrise, or for returns to the hotel, which everyone we had contacted did.
This was our first meeting with Seila – but it wouldn’t be our last.
DAY 4 (19th October) SMALL TOUR CIRCUIT
After trying to catch an early breakfast in the hotel and failing (there weren’t enough staff to cope), we were late in starting off. Our plan was a 7:00 am start, but this ended up being 7:30. However, with the guide we were hiring ($25 per day), we all set off to do what is known as the small circuit. This takes in all the major temples. We told our guide that we didn’t like crowds and he suggested we do the circuit anticlockwise to avoid the major tour groups. This turned out to be quite good, as we generally didn't have too many people to compete with.
As an aside, I have read lots of debate on “To Guide or Not to Guide”. I can only give you our opinion on this matter and it’s purely subjective based upon our preferences. We, like most people like to save money where we can. In fact probably more than most, (that’s how we afford to go on holiday!). My friends like to describe us as being careful with spending our money, which is really a polite way of saying we are tight! However, one thing we have learned is that sometimes a guide really is worth the extra money. They can enhance your enjoyment of the area and provide you with far more information than you can get from a guide book (which you will have your nose buried in trying to fathom where you are and what you are looking at). In our case we hired the guide for 2 days only to take us around the main temples and after that we went on our own. He was quite happy to go at our pace and pointed out some great places to take photos that we never would have spotted. Saying all that, we did get upset with him on the second day – but more of that latter.
If you do decide just to use a book, then I would suggest taking a compass. As on the days we went on our own, using the books, we found it really difficult to fathom the directions. Most books will say something like - enter via the south gate and on the east wall there is something great. But if you haven’t a clue which way is which, it can be a problem.
This was our first temple and we went in via the main gate. We knew what to expect, but were still blown away by the way the trees grow over and through the walls. Our guide explained that the trees are both destroyer and controller. The roots grow between the stones and force them apart, whilst others entwine and keep the structure together. In some places the tree roots appear to have dripped over the walls like a lava flow and in other places they are like an intricate cats cradle or latticed honeycomb. In one area the roots have grown across the roof of a structure, but below, all has crumbled and the root is now supported by props. Apart from the trees, this temple has some long straight galleries which disappear far off into the distance. The temple is still undergoing restoration (funded I believe by the Indian Government) and there is a large yellow crane in the middle. But this doesn’t detract from the splendour of the complex. There is a chamber where our guide stood with his back against the wall and thumped his chest making the room resonate, just like drum being sounded. So you know, if you see people doing this, they aren’t masochists!
From here he pointed out a small carving almost entirely covered by tree roots. Keep a look out for the hidden face peeking through.
All of the major photo opportunity spots have been roped off and plinths constructed, so at times you have to wait your turn to stand in front of the larger trees and say cheese. It does provide some amusement however watching the way certain nationalities try to have their photo taken whilst jumping, leaping and playing at Laura Croft. We, being British simply stood rock solid with our best cheesy smile, just to show we were having a great time.
The only problem with getting there in the morning was that the sun came up behind some of the larger trees and didn’t provide the best of photos. But in other areas it was perfect. I suppose there is a reason why most tours end the small circuit there. Even by 09.15 am, the first of the tour groups were starting to flood in and so it was time for us to leave.
We were surprised at how large the temple complex was and we had spent just over an hour wandering around.
Our next temple was in stark contrast to Ta Phrom. This one didn’t have any of the intricate carvings we had marvelled at Ta Phrom, but it made up for it by having extremely narrow and almost vertical steps to the top. It took some nerve and stamina for me to reach the summit, whilst my wife stayed below checking out my life insurance policy!
The stones of the 5 towers were very angular in construction and almost had the look of a Lego set. The full 5 towers can’t really be viewed from ground level and therefore you must climb up top to get the full picture. Our guide explained that the steps had been purposefully built narrow and steep so worshipers could not approach face on. He also showed us a wall with detailed Sanskrit writing engraved into the stone. It amazed us how neat and ornate it looked.
After having spent 30 minutes at this temple and allowing my knees to stop shaking after the descent, we went back to the tuk tuk and moved on.
ANGKOR THOM & BAYON
(Make sure you have good camera batteries and space on your memory card – there’s going to be a lot of photos here)
Angkor Thom was a large city which today contains numerous temples and is entered though some spectacular towered gates, having four faces carved around the top. We went via the Victory Gate on the east wall and at 10:30 and we had arrived, to start our walk around the area
TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING – The carvings here are stunning and rise up in tiers. They are supposed to represent the seven levels of heaven (we were told). We were extremely impressed by the craftsmen who had created such a structure. The splendour continues when you realise it is just not the front wall, or outer wall, that has carvings, but there is an entrance leading into a passageway. Here there is the inner wall, also complete with possibly even more detailed figures. This leads upwards to the top of the terrace where there is a seated statue (concrete copy, the original is in Phnom Penh’s’ National Museum), from which the terrace derived its name.
Also, there are statues of three elephants complete with trunks, which are pulling up lotus flowers.
TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS – This is now the terrace we were walking along and is the main terrace. Looking out across the vast open area in front, we were informed that this was the Royal Square. The Kings would sit in a pavilion on the terrace and entertainers would perform below. The twelve structures ((Suor Prat Towers), our guide said were a bit of a mystery. But mentioned there was some suggestion that ropes had been tied between them and acrobats would then perform their acts. Behind these towers we could just make out North and South Khleang buildings, but we didn’t visit.
Below us lay the main carvings of the Elephant Terrace, which we went down the main staircase to view, and again they were impressive. Also to the right of this main staircase the remains of the moat were still full with water.
ROYAL ENCLOSURE & PHIMEANAKAS - Turning our backs on the Royal Square we headed through the entrance into the Royal Enclosure. Look up at the entrance for more fine carvings on the lintel. Nothing remains of the wooden Royal Palace apart from the temple and swimming pools. Our guide explained that the women’s pool was a lot larger than the men’s, as the palace had a lot of women/ concubines (if you know what I mean).
Right in the middle of the enclosure is Phimeanakas or Temple Mountain, up which the King would climb each evening to pray. Again this temple has some old crumbling steps, but on one side a wooden flight of steps allows you safer access to the top, where there is a small shrine.
There are some interesting statues around the temple, mainly lions guarding the steps and remnants of elephants on the corners.
BAPHOUN – Our next visit was the walk to the large Baphoun Temple. This, when we visited, was closed to the public and we simply walked around it. However, you could make out the enormous effort the French were undertaking in its renovation. There is a giant stone reclining Buddha which is very difficult to make out amongst all the stones, but if you look hard you will spot it.
Leaving here we walked along an ornate elevated causeway and back towards the Terrace of the Elephants and the highlight of this complex.
BAYON – We arrived at 12:00 and it seemed a good time to visit as there weren’t many tourists at this time of day .Words cannot begin to convey the spectacle that awaits you at this temple (so I won’t try). Suffice it to say this is one of the highlights (if not THE highlight) of the visit to Angkor. Its face towers are stunning, as are the carvings of Dancing Asparas. We walked around with our mouths open in amazement. Just as you think it can’t get any better, you discover the bas-reliefs covering the walls of the galleries. The detail is superb.
One interesting item, our guide told us was about the large statue of the Buddha which used to be housed in the central shrine at the top. It was destroyed during the iconoclastic (religious icon destruction) period, but all the fragments were discovered at the bottom of a well. In the 1930’s they were pieced back together and they wanted to reinstate it, but it was too big to go through the door. Proving the Buddha must have been built first and the walls constructed around it. The statue you now see in the shrine is a lot smaller.
Having spent almost 1.5 hours walking around this temple, our cameras were almost melting by the time we left. Where had the time gone?
Leaving the Bayon behind, we made our way back to the tuk tuk and a welcome drink.
One thing I should mention, at this point, is that when you arrive or leave any of the temples, you get set upon by a hungry pack of hawkers ready to sell you almost anything you could not want to buy. In fact, if you are ever wandering around a temple and suddenly get a urge to buy a table cloth, then worry not, you will have a vast choice waiting for you on your return!!
We headed towards or lunch stop, but as we passed through the South Gate of Angkor Thom, we just had to stop and take some photos. This is one of the more impressive gates and the carvings are in a better restored condition. Lining the bridge approach over the moat are lines of gods on one side and demons on the other. They are holding a Narga serpent in their hands like a tug of war.
LUNCH – Our driver and guide dropped us off at a tourist restaurant in the car park area opposite Angkor Wat. This was despite us insisting we only wanted to eat local food. We went inside and they disappeared around the back. Whether they got a free lunch as commission, we don’t know. However we took one look at the menu and the prices and walked out. It wasn’t us and there must be better options. We had a look around and spotted some mobile stalls with some chairs, so that’s where we ended up having lunch. There weren’t any other tourists eating here, but the food, whilst being simple, was cheap and tasty. When our guide and driver came out and spotted us, they seemed shocked. When we explained that this is more the sort of place like to eat, they thought it was good that we would do so. However they said that they really have an obligation to take us to the tourist restaurant, as they know it is clean and safe. If they took tourists to the stalls and they got ill, then they would complain. Fair enough - they have to be cautious.
Again, this temple city doesn’t require any introduction or description, it’s more than likely the reason you are in Siem Reap. There are some patches of restoration still ongoing, which are shrouded in green netting. But this only slightly detracts from the magnificence of the temple.
Near the entrance look out for the shrine to Vishnu where you can still see the bullet holes in the columns from the war with the Khmer Rouge. Also, further along, look out for the smiling Aspara who is the only one of the thousands here showing her teeth.
Having walked along the causeway and taking the compulsory reflection photos in the pool on the left, you enter the temple itself. It is the largest of all the temples and you will need some time here. As you walk around, if you look up, you will see some stucco with its original painting still intact. It will not be difficult to spot the Aspara’s with the shiny bosoms. It is apparently good luck to give them a rub. I tried, but purely to see if it worked, of course!
Upon reaching the uppermost level, you are faced with a roped off queue in order to climb up some very steep wooden steps. There is a handrail to cling onto, which makes it easier. Once at the top there are superb views across the Angkor city complex and off into the distance. Up here there are also four Buddhist shrines you can see whilst walking around the one way system.
Once down again, if you have the time, there are long stretches of bas-reliefs to study along the vast galleries. They are extremely detailed, if not slightly overpowering. After all there is only so much your poor brain can soak up in one day.
We finally left after having spent over 2.5 hours exploring. The sun was slowly starting to sink at 4:45 pm and the light was quite moody. There were some really dark clouds forming and the guide said there wouldn’t be any sunset that evening, so we should head back into town. He said October/ November weren’t very good for sunsets and January/February were much better (but very hot). We had enjoyed the day so far and hoped we would have ended up at a temple to see the sun go down. But both the driver and guide seemed keen to get back, so off we went. Back at the hotel we paid our driver the $13 fee for the small circuit, our guide $25, and made arrangements for a sunrise early start the next day.
Inside, we relaxed and then got ready to go out. But first we had to check our email and contact folks back home. The free wifi internet connection was rubbish in our room so we went down to the lobby and spent about an hour sorting stuff out.
Back in the room we started to sort out our money for the next day, and it was then that we realised, with a shock, that we had been robbed. Not all of our money had been taken, but a sizeable chunk. We normally don’t travel with much cash and just withdraw from ATM’s as we need it. However, this holiday we had a large amount of US$ which we had stockpiled when the £ rate was good. Also we had with us 20,000 Philippines pesos for later on in the trip, as where we were heading, it was impossible to withdraw cash. Stupidly we had ignored the sign which clearly stated all valuables were to be left at reception and the management wouldn’t be responsible for any losses from the room. We have travelled enough to know this and usually we do it. We had been lulled into ignorance by the upmarket nature of the hotel and had simply locked our travel wallet in our luggage during the day and left it under a pillow whilst we used the lobby wifi. We started questioning ourselves – had we locked our luggage, had we left the door unlocked whilst downstairs. It didn’t really matter, as the money had gone. Whoever took it thought maybe we wouldn’t notice, as they didn’t take it all, just $400 and 5,000 pesos. But it was obvious to us, as we knew exactly how much we had and even the ripped $20 note had gone. The manager (Peter) had to be summoned from his house. He was very shocked and apologetic and said he would investigate. But we knew that was the end of it. It could have been a lot worse, as the money was with our passports and if they had been taken, then we really would have been in trouble. We asked if we should inform the police and he said we could, but they really wouldn’t be interested or do anything. He offered to sack the cleaning maid. But as we couldn’t be sure when it had gone, or even if we had left the room open and possibly a guest had stolen it, we said no.
The upshot of posting this isn’t to warn people off the hotel, far from it, we loved the hotel and would fully recommend it. It is just to remind fellow travellers not to be complacent and always lock your valuables away, no matter what country you are in.
Anyhow time was getting on and we decided to try and put it behind us and not let it spoil the remainder of the holiday. We walked back down the Sivutha Boulevard and tried the restaurant next to the one we had eaten in last night. Whilst we were sitting there waiting for our food, we decided we should cancel the sunrise start the next day, as it would be too early. We felt drained and thought a good nights sleep may help. So we rang our driver and put the start back, explaining why.
Walking back, we were again spotted by Seila, who asked if we still wanted the car. We now had to try and cut some costs, so quizzed him on the rate and exactly what places we wanted to visit. He again said definitely $40 for the full day. How could we refuse – we would ring and let him know when.
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