Angkor, Cambodia: Indiana Temple Time

This post is mostly about the Cambodian temples of Angkor. It’s a big post with a lot of pictures. If Indiana Jones-like scenes are of interest then you’re in luck: out of the bazillions of photos we took we judged a solid 150 to be worthy of sharing, and paring that down further still left us with close to 90. So you’re going to see a lot of (what we think are) awesome photos of an amazing place. If you don’t like badass jungle temples then I guess you should skip.

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Banteay Srei
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(part of) the temple of Bayon

But first, as there’s more to life than sightseeing: a bit of context on the Cambodia we’ve seen so far. Over the years while thinking of places I’d like to travel I can’t say it ever popped up as an option. I really knew nothing about this country and had a fractured mental picture based on general attributes (poor, hot jungle, less interesting food) and snippets of history (Vietnam war spillover, land mines, Khmer Rouge). While all of these features are a real part of life here they of course do not tell the whole story.

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So have we fallen in love with a Cambodia we didn’t know existed? No, at least not yet. It’s gritty and grimy, not an endearing country for a newcomer. Whether that’s just because we’re seeing the touristy Siem Reap I can’t say; but welcoming smiles are harder to come by, garbage-strewn streets bring out feisty rats and cockroaches, and the food lacks the inspiring flavor and variety of Thailand. This all said we’ve still gotten plenty of smiles and laughs once we bust out (and mangle) a couple Khmer words, there’s clean beauty outside of the city, and tasty meals have been found with a bit of luck and patience.

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Food market – highlights include live catfish flopping around and onto the floor

Siem Reap is a big town / small city with a definite tourist quarter, outside of which we’ve seen zero travelers wandering around. Which is too bad because as adventurous travelers would expect we’ve found the best and cheapest food and shopping outside of the tourist zone. Our favorite street food here are the banh-mi like sandwiches called num pang that frequently contain grilled chicken along with the typical veggies and pate. Sketchy meat sitting in a street cart? Yum! The one thing the tourist area does have going for it is the preponderance of cheap draft beer which they basically give away at $0.50 a glass and is most welcome during or after a sweltering day.

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Enjoying a num pang

Speaking of cold beer on a hot day, it’s mind-meltingly hot here. More than expected, because just looking at the thermometer is nowhere close to the whole story. Chiang Mai hit 40C while we were there and though it’s been several degrees lower here it’s been much tougher to bear hiking around in piercing sun and all the humidity the gods can muster. On each of the three days we toured Angkor we got up early (~5:30) and finished by 1-2pm, which was wise because being in the sun between 9 and 4 is just killer. We combined to consume at least 7 liters of water a day. Thankfully the park is scattered with vendors selling delicious fruit smoothies ($1), fresh peeled pineapple-on-sticks ($1), and basically anything else you might want ($1).

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Out to dry: laundry and fish.
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These street donuts surprisingly contained durian paste stuff, which was (just as surprisingly) delicious

We quickly got into a rhythm: wake early and adventure. See several temples. Return for a light lunch and siesta by the pool (“What day is today?” “I dunno.”). Cheap beer and food, play with photos and repeat. Elaine splurged on our hotel here at a whopping $25 a night which has us at what would be a 4-star place that’s very clean with attentive staff and a nice pool. We did have to endure an awkward upsell attempt when we arrived but once through that it’s been great.

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Our balcony view

What else to mention about Siem Reap? The tuk-tuks are everywhere and if you’re walking around on foot it’s hard to go ten seconds without being asked if you need a ride. Though when you do, it’s great – $2 gets you where you need to go in town, and puttering across the expansive Angkor complex won’t set you back much either. It seems it would be way more efficient to have a set of hop-on / hop-off buses to get around the sights rather than everyone hiring their own moto/tuk-tuk/car/elephant but efficiency doesn’t seem to be the name of the game and I suppose it would take away a bit of the character.

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It’s charcoal delivery day! Two things of note: the awesome big chunks of nice, real charcoal; and the weird long-handled tractor gizmos that are common here.

Driving here is something else. Bangkok’s roads might as well be in a gated retirement community by comparison. It’s right hand drive, but that only means that when one is not utilizing any space available between road, sidewalk, parking lots, and gas stations, one tends to drift leisurely to the right side. Flow at intersections is something like a pointing a couple hoses at each other, or those epic battle scenes where two charging armies sweep through each other. Not sure if you can pass? Try it! Traffic ahead too slow? Lay on the horn and don’t slow down! Also be sure to honk at each cyclist, chicken, dog, cow, or water buffalo.

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A situation warranting not only the horn, but actually steering around something
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A durian cart traffic jam
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Driving around Cambodia is a dusty business. It didn’t take us long to buy these
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A roadside gas station. These are everywhere and aside from old water jugs the most common containers are Johnnie Red and Gordon’s bottles.

One interesting thing about this city is its population of huge bats. We discovered these bats on a walk back after dinner through a nice garden area, where they have apparently taken residence with some degree of protection (otherwise they’d be on the nearby grills). These are really massive bats – by my eye wingspans around 1m and unlike their smaller bat brethren which zip effortlessly about these guys heave themselves through the air with difficulty until they plop upside-down on a tree. A little googling revealed that these are fruit bats aka flying foxes and are indeed the largest suborder of bats (called Megabats!) that can have wingspans larger than 1.5m. Cool!

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I don’t have a picture of the bats, but I do have one of this cute street pup on the sidewalk.

Okay, enough of all that, let’s show you our take on “the 8th Wonder of the World”!

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Elaine and the temple of Bayon

With dreams of renting bikes with manual pedals, baskets and comfy, wide seats, breathing deeply under the foliage as we passed other smoothie-wielding, carefree individuals also on their quest for archeological enlightenment, we arrived in Siem Reap. Fast-forward to the two of us stuffed into the back of “Mr. Phe Rhong #48” tuk-tuk murmuring to each other how cocktails should be mandatory while cruising down a one lane road competing for real estate with buses, motorbikes, other tuk-tuks with wide-eyed Europeans in their cargo and school children on bikes, we embarked on the Disneyland that is Angkor. And by Disneyland I mean a really weird dream where you’re in this ancient stone labyrinth with very important information that you can’t understand because it’s literally in Sanskrit combined with a dollar store where instead of there being shelves where everything’s a dollar, it’s all walking beside you trying to get you to put it in your cart. Lady, lady, you buy pineapple one dollar! Lady, cold water one dollar! Sir-Lady you hungry? I called you first, cold water!

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More of Bayon temple

Ok, ok, I’m done. In all seriousness, it is way magical and awe-inspiring and not to be missed experience. I actually enjoyed the tuk-tuk rides and the peddlers are not overbearingly persistent, especially as they are not allowed in the actual temples, so you’re safe there. Also, if you have a problem for paying $1 for a mango-papaya smoothie in 100 degree heat there is something wrong with you.

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In our 3 day visit we saw 16 different temples. It would be excessive to describe them all – we’ll name a few. I can say that despite being relatively proximate in geography and time (all 10th-12th century) there is a lot of variation in these ruins and they don’t get old quickly. Each one has something different about it, be it layout and style, building methodology, carvings, or degree of completeness / ruination. Some (Angkor Wat, most notably) are quite intact while others are closer to jungle-swamped rubble. Some (Angkor Wat again) are mobbed with tourists while others really do feel like you’re Indiana Jones exploring a hidden temple. The contrast between locations is part of what is really special here: like a wine tasting, the differences help you appreciate what makes each one unique.

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the giant faces of Bayon

Bayon was one of our favorites. Possibly because this was the first place we visited (before it got busy) but who knows. The huge serene stone faces on this one are amazing and climbing around the steep stone steps added to the exploratory effect (and sweatiness).

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sea battle scene at Bayon
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For a sense of scale – one of Bayon’s outer towers

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A lot of these temples have been pieced back together by restoration groups – you see piles of blocks and rubble around areas they haven’t gotten to yet

Ta Phrom is appropriately famous as the “Tomb Raider” temple – this one has been engulfed by huge kapok and sacred fig trees to create spectactular scenes. This one was busier than most but was still totally worth it as you can see.

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Ta Phrom’s entry gate also has giant faces

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It’s like the temple and the tree are made for each other
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Inside Ta Phrom

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Banteay Srei was another winner. It took a bit over an hour to get to this place and is definitely small in comparison but well worth it. It was on our must-see list because it has the most intricate stone carvings in the park. I won’t bore you with the stuff you can read on Wikipedia, but what they don’t tell you is that if you are early enough and no one is around you can pay a “Policeman” $5 to let you hop over the ropes and get up close to the otherwise off-limits ancient carvings. He will even try to explain them to you in broken English, bonus! It was really amazing to be able to see these carvings up close, especially between the structures as you have a very hard time seeing them from the distant roped-off area. The “Policeman” will then shuffle you over the rope again behind the temple when others arrive. He will later try to sell you a “Policeman” iron-on badge for $3, which I can only imagine if we had bought beforehand we could have charged other tourists $5 to hop the ropes AND gotten two smoothies…

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Sunrise at Banteay Srei
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Carvings like this above every doorway – glad we got a close look!

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Multiheaded “naga” serpents adorn the corners
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Monkeys guard Banteay Srei
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Vishnu slayin some ogres
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Intricate carving everywhere
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The rope barriers we were able to circumvent for a “fee”

Plenty of other lesser-known temples were great too. Banteay Kdei is labyrinthine and quiet; Preah Khan is massive; and Neak Pean unique as a pool-flanked monument. Just to name a few more.

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One of the bridge dudes over the Angkor Thom moat
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We waded past the spots that cater to tourists to find a locals-only soup breakfast. Delicious!

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The bananas here (along with all the other fruit) are wicked good

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The pools of Neak Pean

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One of the many elephant carvings on the Terrace of the Elephants

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Low doorways, really steep stone stairs (like Aztec temples if you’ve seen those), and ambition that outpaced ability (leading to stuff falling down, or looking like it’s going to) are common elements in Angkor construction. Hitting my head on one of these doorways was a daily occurrence. I suppose I could be grateful that most of the construction was done with ‘softer’ stone like sandstone and laterite, though I’m not sure my head would know the difference.

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Indy would not hit his head here

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Lifesize elephants guard the corners of this temple

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We left Angkor Wat for the end to cap off our visit. This vast, tall temple is by a large margin the most intact and impressively large, with a huge moat, solid stone ceilings much higher than other temples, and the iconic central towers. The wholeness is both a blessing and a curse in my view: it’s a grand testament to (in this case) solid construction and restoration efforts, but the visual effect is less striking than at other sites where the jungle is taking over. Rather than contrasting colors and shadows, you see fairly monotonous weathered gray stone reminiscent of a parking lot.

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Approaching Angkor Wat, we ran into what appeared to be a ceremony for Buddhist nuns. Not sure what but it certainly involved some Buddhist monks and a lot of young women in novitiate clothing.

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The ceilings of Angkor Wat are pretty awesome

Still it’s absolutely an impressive sight, with no doubt our less-than-exultant reaction partly due to fatigue and desensitization (this was day 3). Our favorite part was the extensive and intricate 2m-tall relief illustrations that wrap all the way around the perimeter of the central temple. These carvings are really skillfully made and well preserved, easily outdoing similar panels at the other temples (Banteay Srei – king of carvings – is a different technique). Also adorning Angkor Wat are hundreds of female worshipers in all kinds of ultra-fashionable hairdos and dresses.

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Some unlucky damned fellows being torn apart by underworld demons

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Hundreds of female devatas are carved in Angkor Wat sporting great hairdos

So there you have it! 3 days was the right amount of time for us, though more might suit other folks. I bet if I knew more of the gritty details about the history and background of the area I’d get drawn in for longer. You’d be dumb, however, to come all the way here for only one day – only seeing Angkor Wat and maybe a couple other temples as part of a tourist herd would be such a lost opportunity.

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Angkor Wat’s back (eastern) facade

Cheap advice on Angkor:

#1- Figure out which temples you really want to see and go there first thing, early in the day. If you do not care because you cannot be bothered enough to look them up beforehand, Bayon, Banteay Srei and Ta Prohm (aka Tomb Raider temple, but no one there is even close to as good-looking as Angelina Jolie) were among our favorites. If you get there early, you avoid the crowds.

#2- Get there early. We did not do the sunrise at Angkor Wat thing, but we did get to a few temples right when they opened which was key – you get the place to yourself. #2A- They say all places open at 7:30 (except Angkor Wat which opens at 5:30 for sunrisers), but we got to places around 7AM and they were letting people in no problem.

#3- We got this tip from some cool travelers we met in Thailand: buy your ticket the night before you want to go. The ticket office is out of the way so if you only have 3 days to see things, not waiting in line in the morning would make a big difference. If you buy between 5-5:30pm they date your ticket for the next day so it doesn’t count against your visit. You can then proceed to Angkor Wat and see the sunset if it suits you. Ticket run+sunset was $10 tuk-tuk ride. You could probably do it for $8 if you are fierce.

#4- The bathrooms are actually pretty good – mostly. You’d be wise to carry some tissues with you and don’t be surprised if your only option turns out to be a squatty. Thanks hand sanitizer!

#5- Some kind of book that describes the unique aspects of each temple as well as some of the history is really helpful. (Or just hire a guide, but for better or worse we usually don’t do that sort of thing). It really drives home the magnitude of some of these places when you hear about collapses during construction, the weird stone artifacts that scholars don’t understand, and facts like the walls of Angkor Thom housed a million residents!

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Specifics: we stayed at Memoire Siem Reap (there are 2 Memoire hotels, this one is on the main “highway”) for $25/night without breakfast. For the relative fanciness this was worth paying, just keep in mind that most food/drink you will want is closer into town centered around the “Pub Street” area. Walking around at night isn’t fun – dodging rats, cockroaches, and scooters – so just fork out the $2 it costs for a tuk-tuk ride back and forth. They’ll ask you to pay more but $2 is enough to get somewhere in town. We had a nice dinner at Marum and Long’s Bar is a quiet place with AC to have a drink. 

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