I ended up staying a lot longer in Siem Reap than I had initially anticipated. The first couple of days I spent relaxing by pools and napping in air-conditioned dorm rooms while my body slowly became accustomed to the heat of Cambodia. I did manage to venture far enough out of my hostel to explore the many markets, both night and day, the ‘city’ had to offer. I also had some time to explore ‘Pub Street’ – famous for its 50c beers all day long. It’s not hard to see why it gets the reputation for a street in which you ‘dive in and crawl out’ – in fact there are bar crawls every evening.
My first night in Siem Reap I headed out to Pub Street with some boys from my dorm with the intention of having one or two beers. One or two beers turned into some cocktails, clubbing in ‘The Temple Club’, outdoor beer pong and me eating a spider much to the horror of the girls I was with!
The streets surrounding Pub Street are filled with food and drink vendors who disappear for 10 minutes every night as the police arrive and who return as soon as the police have moved on. The street food is incredible (much tastier than the spider I ate) and extremely cheap. I even had some mango and passion fruit ice cream made for me right before my eyes. The streets are also lined with many of the fish food massages. Shirley, Raina and I had a go. At first we struggled to keep out feet in the water for more than 10 seconds at a time before the fish nibbling at our feet proved too ticklish. After we started competing with each other to see who could keep their feet in the longest time we ended up there for 40 minutes!
Of course the main reason that anyone visits Siem Reap is to go and see Angkor Wat and the rest of the UNESCO world heritage site. With so many different temples to explore I bought a 3-day pass but ended up only visiting on 2 days. The first day I got up at 4am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to actually see the sun rise but being up this early meant that we had the morning to explore the temples before the heat became too unbearable.
Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century.
Angkor Archaeological Park Day 1 – The Small Ciruit
The first temple I saw was probably the most famous – Angkor Wat. The largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat is a temple unlike any I have ever seen before. Spreading over 3 levels, at the top of which you get incredible views of the surrounding area. It was built in the early 12th century under the reign of King Suryavarman II as a capital city which was surrounded by a 2oom wide moat.
Our next stop was Bayon. The Bayon is decorated with 1.2km of bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures. It was built as the state temple of King Jayavarman VII.
Preah Ngok is one of the smallest temples I have seen. It is more a stone gazebo than a temple as it has no walls. It houses a 5m tall Buddha. I was blessed by a monk here and some old ladies also blessed me and gave me some bracelets to wear.
Baphuon was built under the reign of King Udayadityavarman II in the 11th century. This temple is still being restored after it was taken apart by archaeologists. The archaeologists had meticulously recorded every stone but unfortunately their records were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
The Terrace of Elephants was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. It is 300m long and 3m high. This was one of my favourite sites – purely due to my love of elephants! There were also so many butterflies flying round making the whole place even more magical.
Ta Nei is a rarely visited temple built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. The main structure is partly intact and is broken down in some parts. Much like Ta Prohm the temple is surrounded by jungle which is slowly encroaching on the stone making you feel like Indiana Jones as you weaving your way through dangling branches and huge tree roots.
Ta Prohm is almost instantaneously recognisable from the Lara Croft film – Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm is a Buddhist monastery built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII in honour of his mother. This complex has been partially restored but huge strangler fig and silk cotton trees have been left behind.
We returned to our hostel absolutely exhausted and ready for a dip in the pool and a well deserved nap.
Angkor Archaeological Park Day 2 – The Large Ciruit
Our second was a lot longer but we started much later. We visited 6 temples in total. We started at Preah Khan which is a huge Buddhist monastery complex which once housed 1000 monks. It was built in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII in honour of his father. It served as the temporary residence of the King whilst his royal palace was under construction at Angkor Thom.
Our next stop was Neak Pean which was built in the late 12th Century by Jayavarman VII. This is one of the most unique Buddhist temples in Angkor. It was originally located on an island in the middle of a great man-made baray (lake). The baray dried up a long time ago and is now just forest.
East Mebon was a temple mountain built in the late 10th Century by King Rajendravarman II, and dedicated to Shiva in honor of the king’s parents. Originally East Mebon sat on an island in the middle of the vast East Baray. The East Baray was an artificial lake/reservoir that measured 7km by 2km. In ancient times you would have used a boat to get out to the temple but now the Baray has dried up and is accessible by tuk tuk.
Ta Som is a relatively small monastic complex, a little like Ta Prohm. It has a simple design of three concentric enclosures, with the outer enclosure wall measuring 240 meters by 200 meters. Ta Som was built in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII. Its original name when built was Gaurasrigajaratna, meaning “Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant”.
We actually visited Pre Rup twice in one day. We had a good look around the temple at about 1pm. We then headed to the furthest temple, had something to eat and came back to Pre Rup at 5.30pm for sun set. This massive temple-mountain was built in the late 10th Century by King Rajendravarman II to be his State temple. Although similar in style to East Mebon, Pre Rup is architecturally and artistically superior.
The last temple of the afternoon was Banteay Srei, the “Lady Temple” which was not commissioned by a king but by a Brahman in the late 10th century. Banteay Srei means ‘Citadel of the Women’ and is thought to have been built only by women as the carvings are thought to be too delicate to have been done by a man!
We then headed back to Pre Rup for sunset which was absolutely spectacular despite the vast numbers of people on the top level of the temple who had come to see it. This was actually my favourite moment of the day as as the sun set the stones of the temple lit up orange and looked absolutely incredible.
I have absolutely loved Siem Reap and exploring Angkor Wat. It has been a fantastic place to start exploring Cambodia. I am now headed to Sihanoukville – a city by the sea – on a night bus. Once there I’ll be picking an island to visit.
I’ll be in touch soon.