Siem Reap is a lovely city in Cambodia and home to 200+ temples, bringing in 50% of Cambodia's tourists every year. A group of us took a bus to Siem Reap for a weekend and explored the city on bikes, truck beds, and jeeps. I left with a lot of memories but very little knowledge as to why the temples were built, the history behind them and what they represent. I'll tell you what the few things I do know and some tips and tricks for visiting if you ever add Angkor to your bucket list.
"Angkor" means capital city and "Khmer" means the dominant group. Today, the famous site is known as Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer Empire. At the Empire's prime, the vast city was made up of grand temples, waterways and over a million people. This was during the 9th-12th century. The Empire controlled all of modern Cambodia, and a good chunk of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
During the 12th century, some of the cities grandest temples were built including Angkor Wat, Thommanon, Banteay Samre and Beng Melea. Some of which I was able to explore. The holy grail, Angkor Wat was built for funeral purposes. What happened to the Empire after the 12th century is still unclear. From what I gather they went to the war with Champa and unfortunately lost (who they are, beats me.)
Once we arrived in Siem Reap we hit the first temple, Pre Rup for sunset. It was a bit crowded due to Chinese New Year. Tip number 1: Don't go to Angkor over Chinese New Year. Seriously! Don't. All of China is on holiday and touring Angkor with selfie sticks. ALL THE PEOPLE.
The name, Pre Rup means "turn the body" which means it was used for funerals back in 961. This was before Angkor Wat was built. This temple was dedicated to the Hindu God, Shiva. <--- No clue. I decided after the first visit, I was going to take in the greatness of each temple and not worry about the historical details. Too much to retain when it's 97 degrees out.
That same night a small group of us went to the Cambodian Circus. It was a bit of a slow start but really picked up. Imagine a smaller, less theatrical version of Circ. The crew is uber talented and had me chuckling most of the hour. It was a really small space but I imagined it was similar to the circus back in the states when it first opened. I highly recommend attending this while in Seam Reap. Tickets are $17 a person but get there early as the best seats go fast.
Our longest day of tourism started off with bikes. It was incredibly hot so I ended up parking the bike and hit the flatbed an hour into the day. Although I missed some of the more adventurous parts of the tour I was still able to explore each temple, several of which I was in complete awe of. The amount of detail that went into the carvings of each temple blew me away. Each one having a unique design and meaning.
Our last temple of the day was Angkor Wat. It's directly in the center of the city and faces west. It really is grand and majestic just as everyone says. I can only imagine the amount of people who spent years working on this with lack of heavy machinery, cranes and fancy tools to assist with the work.
On our way into Angkor Wat we were greeted by a monkey, eating some bread. We quickly realized he was blind in one eye, had tumors on his belly and had a giant hole in his nose. We were all snapping pictures when the thing hissed at us. I nearly thought he was going to kill Maria and I. He has fangs!!! Proof to the right! I'm praying to the good Lord above there aren't monkeys roaming the streets of Australia. Although, I'd rather have monkeys than snakes and spiders.
We spent about an hour at Angkor Wat, taking in the architecture and beauty. In the center of Angkor, there are several Buddhist monks who will bless you for a donation. I happened to partake in this as I thought it would be super meaningful. It would have been a tad more enjoyable had 100 other tourists not been gawking at me, waiting for their turn... such is life. He started by tying an orange bracelet around my wrist and sprinkling holy water on me while he chanted. A week later, I'm still wearing the bracelet. Apparently, you must wait for it to fall off and not cut it on your own or you'll remove the good fortune and blessing.
“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” – Buddha
A small group of us broke off and decided to rent two old school US Army Jeeps for a tour the following day. We had a blast!!! We loaded up the jeep at 5 am and went back to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. We had to wait an hour or so before the sun actually sat above the highest tower. The small pond in front of the main temple had a perfect reflection. Hundreds of people lined the pond, some with professional cameras and others with their iPhone waiting for the perfect shot. My perfect shot below :-)
500 photos later we were back in the jeep and headed towards our next stop. It was so fun to be in the open Cambodian air, hair flying, dirt roads, and amazing scenery. We passed a lot of children playing in the ditch next to the highway, scooters with dead pigs on the back and markets selling fresh fruit and meat. One market, in particular, had an entire dead cow laying on a table, half butchered. #culture
We arrived at Beng Melea, the furthest temple a part of the Khmer Empire. It's the same blueprint of Angkor Wat but much smaller. It has been completely destroyed by the jungle, trees tearing down walls, vines breaking stone and the middle tower has completely collapsed leaving rubble everywhere. For a short second I thought we were in an Indiana Jones movie, until I saw the herd of tourists.
It costs $5 to enter Beng Melea and takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Angkor Wat. I would go back during offseason when there aren't a million people with selfie sticks. :-/
Our final stop for the day was a trip to Tonlé Sap, a giant lake which connects to the Tonlé Sap river .. also connecting to the Mekong River (in Phnom Penh.) For $10 each we bought tickets to hop on a boat and explore the floating villages. This was without a doubt the highlight of my weekend. Millions of people live around the lake, 90% of them make a living from fishing. I've learned 30% of all fish in Cambodia come from this area. Children stop their education at a young age to help their parents. You'll see children in the streets, as young as 5 years old counting little silver fish. Not sure what kind they are but there are thousands lining the streets as you approach the floating village.
While the Khmer Rouge was in power, they either killed or exported all ethnic Vietnamese. Once they were able to come back into Cambodia, they were unable to prove their Cambodian citizenship so the government wouldn't allow them to buy property. More than 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese live on the Tonlé Sap fishing village, the only place the government would allow them to live (The law states only Cambodian citizens can buy land and water was the exception.) For more information on the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide, please refer to my last blog post.
We hopped on the boat and slowly drove through the river. Three story homes on top of wood stilts lined the waterways. It was hard to take it all in as I was in complete sensory overload. Once we were further down we saw hundreds of houseboats. Floating schools, restaurants, shops all a part of the community. Some of the homes were well decorated with fresh flowers and others looked a bit more like a shack. Every direction I looked there were kids playing in the water.
The jeeps took us back to the city where we embarked on another great adventure. One I can't say I fully participated in but others did. The eating of bugs. Laura, a fabulous chick on our trip had been told by a client the greatness of the Bug Cafe and insisted we pay it a visit. I thought I'd try the leg of a tarantula and call it a day but it was oh so much more than that. Our group ordered a platter of bugs. PLATTER! Can you believe it? Laura was bound and determined to give almost everything a try. She along with the rest were pure champs. I'm weak so I stuck to the simple bugs: ants, crickets, and silkworms. The others tried tarantula, SCORPIONS, and a water beetle which just about put me over the edge looking at it. Before arriving at the Bug Cafe I was starving and quickly lost my appetite after checking out the menu.
We finished our Siem Reap adventure by shopping at the night market and eating some ice cream while getting an hour massage for $5. That my dear readers is what we call "winning."
Here are a few serious tips and tricks for traveling to Siem Reap - Visiting Angkor Wat
- Tickets are $37 for one day and $61 for 3. I'd recommend getting the 3-day pass and take your sweet time. The days are long, hot and exhausting. Especially if you want to see sunrise and sunset. Your 3-day ticket will be valid for 10 days. They punch your ticket when you enter the first temple of the day. You can buy your tickets here: Street 60, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
- There are 200+ temples, choose a small selection. It's impossible to see it all. Some of the more famous temples include Angkor Wat, Thommanon, Banteay Samre and Beng Melea (an hour away from Siem Reap.)
- Visit Angkor Wat around noon. It seems to be really crowded in the morning and evenings. Everyone wants a picture of the sunrise and sunset.
- Hire a guide if you're really interested to learn about the history. I didn't notice any audio guides anywhere.
- If you're into the Bike Tour, our guide was SO good! He speaks perfect English and has a fabulous accent (he learned English watching BBC every day) His details are here.
- Wear closed toe shoes. There's a lot of climbing up and down uneven, broken up pieces of temples. Some of them look like they could crumble down at any minute. It's also very dirty. I wore flip flops and my feet were filthy after a day of temple hopping.
- THIS IS SO IMPORTANT: Make sure your knees and shoulders are covered. Sometimes a scarf is not enough and they will make you buy a t-shirt. This is to get into any and every temple.
- If you want to be blessed by a monk, give a donation of $1-2. You can find monks in the center of most temples.
- Bug spray! Take it. There are so many mosquitos and red fire ants around each temple.
- I highly recommend the jeep tour. For $55 a person we rented two jeeps, including beer, water, and soda. We had the jeeps and drivers for the full day.
- Our tour guide brought an entire box of electrolyte powder with him and I'm so glad he did. I was pretty dehydrated after the day even after drinking 5 bottles of water and using the powder. If you don't have an awesome tour guide who is this detailed, make sure to bring some Gaterade or Powerade packets from home.
- The night market is amazing. You'll find a lot of great bargains. It's also walking distance to Pub Street where you'll find a ton of restaurants and bars. Pub Street reminded me a lot of New Orleans but a lot cleaner.
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