Siem Reap Province - Angkor Wat and Tonlé Sap

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.) 

Pre Rup Temple, Angkor Empire

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. 

Monkey with Fangs

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. 

Blessed by a monk at Angkor Wat

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 :-)

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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." 

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Here are a few serious tips and tricks for traveling to Siem Reap - Visiting Angkor Wat

  1. 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
  2. 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.)
  3. 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. 
  4. Hire a guide if you're really interested to learn about the history. I didn't notice any audio guides anywhere. 
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. 
  8. 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. 
  9. Bug spray! Take it. There are so many mosquitos and red fire ants around each temple. 
  10. 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. 
  11. 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. 
  12. 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. 

If you'd like to see the people I encounter and beautiful places I see on a daily basis, follow my Instagram account @throughherwandering_eyes. 

Pura Lempuyang Luhur (Gates of Heaven)

"Anyone want to get up at 3:00 am, look at a temple, climb 1,700 stairs and stare at a volcano??" ... Blank stares... 

The moment I knew Bali was on the agenda I started a bucket list of places/things/activities I MUST do while here. At the very top of this list sits Lempuyang Temple. You'll also hear the first temple referred to as Gates of Heaven. Per the usual, I've read every blog and travel site looking for the best information to plan the trip.

Gates of Heaven at Sunrise, overlooking Mount Agung

Gates of Heaven at Sunrise, overlooking Mount Agung

Pura Lempuyang Luhur is located in east Bali, sitting on Mount Lempuyang 1,175 meters above sea level. There are seven temples that make up Pura Lempuyang, the largest and most grand being at the very top. A total of 1,700 steps to get there. The walk is meant to be very spiritual and I've learned Hindus think "those with a heavy heart" won't make it to the top. Complaining about the steep walk and hundreds of steps is looked at as weak and disrespectful. 

From Canguu, the trip is about 2.5 hours with traffic. I was able to find three other Roamers up for the adventure. Round trip we paid a total of 600,000 RP ($11/each). The driver picked us up, waited for us while we explored and dropped us back off at Bona Kubu. When we arrived to Mount Lempuyang we were greeted by staff and I was surprised to see we were the only tourists around.  My research clearly didn't pay off. Staff was quick to inform us our outfits were not going to suffice. Sarongs are a requirement to enter the temple and shoulders must be covered (this applies to men and women)... So much for wearing a cute outfit. Luckily for us, they're prepared for the unprepared and have sarongs available for rent at 10,000 RP (0.75) a piece. 

NOTE: I'd recommend taking your own sarong and scarf (to cover your shoulders.) It looked like they didn't have a lot so I assume during heavy tourist season they run out quickly. The entrance fee into the temple is a donation. I believe I donated 8,000 RP.

The temple itself is surrounded by mountains full of lush greenery. Tropical flowers are in full bloom and green moss coat each step and temple. The air is clean but still thick from humidity.

We left at 3:30 am so we could see the sunrise. In the afternoons it gets very cloudy and we were wanting a clear sky to view Mount Agung (the active volcano in Bali.) The volcano became active again on Monday so we could see the ash but it wasn't billowing out like it had in December when it erupted for the first time. The sun wasn't up for long before temperatures reached a near 80 degrees. I was really glad I took water with me but there were several stands selling snacks and refreshments. 

The most photographed portion of the temple is the very first stop (pictured above.) Around 30 steps to get to Gates of Heaven (no sweat.)  The view from down below and once we got to the top was incredible. Mother Nature happened to be on our side as it was extremely clear and we had a perfect view of Mount Aguna. For a short period of time as the sun was rising we could see the a pink glow over the volcano. Majestic doesn't begin to describe the scene. 

We all snapped some iconic pictures but I feel the images really don't do the gates and the view justice. Aside from roosters crowing (Do roosters crow? - I should know this) around the temple, I felt so at peace. There is a calamity about being so high in the sky and looking at a volcano that holds so much power but yet isn't at all frightening. I tried to mentally capture this view so I can hold onto it forever. It really is a little slice of heaven. 

We decided since we were already there we would venture to the next temple. Before entering they require each individual to be blessed. We individually go up, open our arms and they sprinkle holy water on us. It was a special moment for me. 

When walking past the Gates of Heaven there were a dozen men on motorbikes offering to give us a ride to the next stop for a small fee. Having no idea what we were getting ourselves into, we kindly declined. WOOF! Talk about a steep mountain climb. <-- I'm NOT complaining, just trying my best to describe the situation. I was out of breath and wishing I would have brought athletic shoes and paid for the motorbike ride. My Birks were not handling the walk well. On the walk up we were greeted by the two cutest and most playful puppies and ....monkeys.

Monkeys....  I don't like em. They're not cute and to be honest, they're jerks. You're not allowed to look them in the eye or they'll bite you, they get in your bags and steal your stuff and they're just....I have no words but know I'm scrunching my face in disgust. I held on to my backpack for dear life and power walked right past them. In my next blog post I'll share all about my experience at the Monkey Sanctuary in Ubud. The anxiety was so real! 

We ended up walking right by the next temple without even knowing it and started a massive stair climb. By this time my legs were on fire, I was out of breath and soaked from sweat. Such a pretty picture. We ended up spotting some locals to get a sense of where we were and how much longer it would take to get to the top. We only had our driver for 8 hours total so we were on a schedule. I'm pretty sure they laughed at us when they walked away.. like "These tourists have no idea what they're getting themselves into and they're already dead." I believe we had an extra 1KM and it was all stairs. OMG. We had a major pow wow as a group and I'm thrilled with our decision to turn around and go back. I've heard the views up top are epic but it was starting to get cloudy... The clouds are the only way I can justify why we didn't go.. it had nothing to do with the fact we were scared of 1K stairs and already smelly. Eye roll. We failed and it was probably due to the fact that I was complaining in my head the whole way to the second temple. 

I've read it takes 2 hours to hike up to the top and it may require one to be somewhat fit.. I'd like to think I'm fit but clearly not because the sad truth is, I woke up with sore calves (stop judging me.) I can't even imagine what my personal trainer back home would say! Sorry, Duke. The short climb we did was a rude awakening and I'm pretty sure a gym membership should be next on my to-do list. 

By the time we got back to the van we were all starving. At that point we didn't have breakfast and it was 9:00 am. I bought a sleeve of Oreos and a bag of white rice from a local. So random, but I was desperate. The Oreos were like heaven in my mouth. It didn't take long for me to put the whole sleeve down. 

On our way back to Canguu, we were only the road for a few minutes before I saw this amazing rice field. I remembered quickly a coworker showing an article while I was still at home. Apparently, a lot of people were seeking this field out to get an iconic picture of the volcano. As soon as I recognized the field both Kahlah (<-- she is one of our amazing program leads who happened to go with us. She's responsible for finding a driver and being a rock star photographer) and I asked the driver to stop the car. We quickly got out and started trekking through this rice field looking for the best view. The field was acres upon acres of rice all at different levels. We saw some locals waiving a red flag at us and at first, we thought they were upset with our trespassing but quickly realized they were happy and probably thought we were a little crazy. It was a bit muddy but the view was well worth muddy Birks. 

Mount Agung

I remember getting back into the van and thinking "I feel pretty good for getting up at 3 am." It wasn't 10 minutes later we had all passed out for the majority of the ride home. 

The scenery and temple were totally worth the 3 am wake up call and 5 hours on the road. I would do it again in a heartbeat. 

NOTE: for anyone considering a trip to Pura Lempuyang Luhur here is some advice to consider. 

  • You shouldn't have to pay a driver per person but a total fee and for a certain number of hours. We paid 600,000 RP for one van that fit 5 people. This gave us 8 hours of round-trip transportation and time at the site. 
  • If you get car sick, make sure to take some motion sickness. The ride up the mountain is really curvy and a few times I felt really sick. 
  • Go early in the morning, you'll have better views and beat the heat. Sunrise in January is around 6:00 am. However, if it's a clear day and you can get there for sunset I think it would be unbelievable. 
  • Take a backpack with an extra pair of shoes for the hike. Maybe throw a bottle of water or two in there as well but if you don't want to carry it take some $$ so you can buy snacks and drinks along the way. 
  • Pack a sarong or two. One for your rear and one to cover your shoulders. Make sure you have enough money to rent if you don't have one. 10,000 RP/person
  • While at Gates of Heaven there will be other people around. You need to be aggressive (without being rude of course) to get a picture or people will keep jumping in front of you. 
  • Go with an open mind and prepare to hike!! 
  • The rice field is on your way to the mountain. You can't miss it. Make sure you ask a local if you can enter. There were several people attending to the field and they'll welcome you with open arms. 
  • Don't be afraid of the volcano. If the locals are there, you should be too. 
Day Trip to Pura Lempuyang Luhur