Taking a break from our daily beach-pool-market and Chang beer consuming rotation, we took a short flight from Krabi, Thailand over to the culture rich city of Siem Reap, Cambodia to wet our exploration appetites in the historic temples of Angkor.
As we arrived to the crisp airport of Siem Reap, processed our visas upon arrival at immigration, we were met by the friendly smiles of the locals and the hearty fragrance of burning sandalwood, sending a familiarity to that of Nepal’s flavor straight to our olfactory system. With backpacks strapped on, we departed the airport along side our tuk tuk driver, introduced to us as Mr. Friendly; a name most certainly fitting given his kind eyes and bright white grin that stretched from ear to ear. Aboard the tuk tuk, we zoomed down the dusty streets of Siem Reap en-route to our guesthouse, Boutique Cambo, which we would spend the next week calling “home”.
The guesthouse was well placed within the city limits: only a 5 minute tuk tuk drive into the heart of the city, Pub Street, where one can find anything from $6 massages, pedicures given by fish, $1 coconut smoothies and even home to $0.50 cent beers all day, every day. After unpacking our bags and situating ourselves at Boutique Cambo, we hopped again on the tuk tuk with Mr. Friendly and headed towards Pub Street to meet up with our German friend’s father, whom we had met in Krabi. Herbert, Romy’s father, is currently in the process of his return trip as he had just completed a motorcycle ride from Germany to Japan – cutting through the steep mountains of Pakistan, Russia and India. Not only did we assume we would enjoy Romy’s Father’s company, the friendship deemed fitting with Dam and myself also being motorcycle enthusiasts.
Over dinner, we swapped stories of our travels as we sipped our budget friendly beer. We were fascinated by his journey, completed solo, and took mental notes for perhaps future endeavors.
As the monsoon rains increased and the drunken cries from those enjoying the clubs on Pub Street we bid our adieus and headed back to our guesthouse for a night of sleep before our day of temple exploration the next day.
A bright an early morning started for us, as we prepped our cameras, water bottles and sunscreen for our day of adventure. We met again with Mr. Friendly, our driver, who would be accompanying us as we gallivanted around the city. Waving goodbye to the hotel with all grins, we couldn’t wait to see the historic temples that waited for us.
Nestled in the lush and viney jungles in the outskirts of Siem Reap, lives an anything but forgotten city, Angkor. The city of Angkor stretches out for miles and is home to over 30 temples, all dating back between the 9th and 12th during the Khmer reign. Having always been a sacred place of worship for the Khmer, over time, the abandoned temples began to decay until the Europeans have said to “rediscover” in the mid 1800’s and began its restoration process. A group of French researchers assumed responsibility for the conservation in 1899 and began excavating the soil, beginning with Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple. The restoration process still continues to this day as mounds of rediscovered sandstone boulders lay alongside the erected structures. It is interesting to note that during the civil war in 1967-1975 between the Khmer, damage to the temples was comparatively few as each faction respected the sacred Angkor monuments.
As Mr. Friendly pulled up to the entrance of the temple, we noticed a multitude of varying cultures flock to see the ancient structures, now dusted with a velvety green moss covering the edges top to bottom. In 1992, UNESCO recognized this city as a world heritage site and it became the eighth wonder of the world. Thousands of people make pilgrimage to this sacred city each year as the temples attribute enormity and sheer beauty to the gods of both Buddhism and Hinduism.
Passing over the moat that separated the now muddy parking lot, we were transported back in time to an ancient world, filled with limestone carvings and intricate pictographs dictating a world of which we had only read about in textbooks or see in Tomb Raider… (which was actually filmed at Ta Prohm temple, neighboring that of Angkor Wat).
We wandered around the city, admiring the sturdy structures, wondering how human beings were ever strong enough to construct. We were surrounded by pyramids (symbolizing the center of the Hindu universe) and concentric galleries. Though we weren’t certain all the meanings behind each carving, some were easier to depict, guessing that it symbolized the female goddesses and fertility.
Our feelings of being great explorers continued to grow as we trekked further into the small circuit of temples, visiting the famous Ta Prohm temple, overgrown by trees and finger-like vines that outstretched their hands to welcome you into the stone carved entrances. As the humidity increased and the sun strongly peaked overhead, we found comfort in the coolness provided by the dark, ominous hallways within the tombs of the temples.
We continued on for the day to the Bayon Temple, Banteay Kdei and some of the minor, yet still intriguing, temples such as Baphuon, The Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants before our sweat drenched clothing told us it was time to break for the day.
After a few cold $0.50 cent beers again on Pub Street and some local cuisine consisting of chicken and vegetable curries and lok lak beef, a Cambodian staple of mildly spiced beef, rice and a side of cucumbers, we rested our heads and dreamt of the temples yet to come.
The monsoon rains greeted us in the early morning, deciding for us to stay local for the day, as we preferred to see the sun sparkling through the cracks of the temples instead of trying to decipher if we were soaked from the ginormous raindrops or our own sweat permeating through our clothing. Instead, we celebrated our previous Angkor exploration day with more Angkor beers and storytelling with our hotel friends.
By day three, the weather had cleared and we were set to embark on yet another day of exploration. We took full advantage of our multi-day Angkor pass (only $40 USD), and set out again with Mr. Friendly for a big circuit tour – stretching past the borders of Angkor Wat.
We found the temples to be much more intriguing and vastly different from those seen on the small circuit tour. Some temples were surrounded by a lake and only accessible by a long, railless footbridge stretching over a sea of lotus flowers and skeleton trees. Others were deep in the jungle, surrounded by monkeys and the boisterous sounds of chirping cicadas. Our favorite temple of the day though was Banteay Srei, marked by its picture framed door ways, brilliant carvings and orange coloring of the stone, with stairs that invite you up for a breathtaking view.
Again, our day was called complete by the sweat on our brows and the intense head reigning down upon us. Mr. Friendly chauffeured us home, the warm breeze clinging to our sweat-filled shirts and cooling our bodies down.
The remainder of our days in Cambodia were filled with more monsoon rains and more trips to Pub Street in search of cheap refreshments and an assortment of cuisines ranging from guacamole and chips at a local Mexican restaurant, more Cambodian staples such as barbecue and curries, sweet nutella and banana filled crepes and even a delicacy that not even the locals want to enjoy: barbecued scorpion. Only the bravest of the brave took on this tasty treat – Dam included, myself withholding.
After sauntering the street and forests of Cambodia for a week, and once our thirst for adventure had been adequately quenched, we packed our bags, said goodbye to Mr. Friendly, and continued on our journey to one of the skyscraper capitals of the world: Hong Kong.
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Tips & Tricks:
Where to Stay: Boutique Cambo Hotel
What to Do: Angkor Wat, 3 Day Tour ($40 USD), Pub Street for $0.50 beers, Lady Temple and Landmine Museum