Siem Reap was our destination in Cambodia. It exists almost solely because of the temples of the Angkor region, and nearly everyone there earns a living from tourism. The most famous temple, Angkor Wat, is even featured on the Cambodian flag.
The vibe in Siem Reap is a mix of young backpackers, senior tour groups and everyone in between. When we weren’t templing, we very much enjoyed the night market, Pub Street, affordable massages and cheap food.
The only issue with Siem Reap is that getting there is inconvenient – you have to connect unless you’re coming from Vietnam or Thailand.
We have arrived! Walking into the Borei Angkor Resort was like walking into a different world (thank you for the rec, G & R!). They greet you with cold towels, rice cakes and green tea. The service is impeccable and the staff are very attentive. John booked us a nice room with a view of the pool area. On the last night they upgraded us to a super fancy suite!
We couldn’t wait to take a tuk tuk ride, so we hopped into one and rode from the hotel to a local restaurant, Lilypop, for dinner. Our driver from the airport recommended we try amok, his favorite Cambodian dish consisting of curried fish, chicken, pork or beef, with lots of coconut milk and galangal (similar to ginger). Of course I had to order it and it did not disappoint! John had a similar curry dish and we enjoyed a bottle of (non-Cambodian) wine and dessert – all for about $15. Then we dropped off a few loads of laundry at a place that washed, dried and folded it all for $5. We could get used to this place!
Our first adventure in Cambodia was to Phnom Kulen Mountain (or “mountain of lychees”), about 25 miles northeast of Siem Reap and considered by the Khmer people to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia.
We visited the Kbal Spean archeological site, where we saw the River of 1,000 Lingas, 11th century Hindu sandstone carvings in the riverbed of a Siem Reap River tributary. The sculptures show Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in various poses. Because the water flows over these religious carvings, its considered holy and believed to bring good luck and health. Afterward we hiked to the top of the mountain to see the huge reclining Buddha made of sandstone, one of the largest of its kind. There were quite a few people visiting the Buddha to make offerings and say prayers.
The next stop was the “paradise waterfalls,” where we took a dip, but only for a second because the water was COLD.
We had an interesting lunch – more amok for me, of course! – and then headed to our last stop, the Landmine Museum. This was very interesting to us, because we hadn’t known the extent of the landmines that were planted all over Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong, Americans and many others. The numbers are so overwhelming that they can’t diffuse them all and some are still live. The museum exhibit detailed efforts to find and diffuse all the landmines, led by a former child soldier who helped plant them. It was very interesting.
That night we picked up our laundry, enjoyed more amok and curry at a local eatery, got a very cheap massage, and turned in early in preparation for our wake up call the next day.
4:30 a.m. came much too quickly, but sunrise at Angkor Wat (or “city of temples”) is why we traveled to Cambodia, so we got ready and picked up our boxed breakfasts at the front desk before meeting our tour guide and driver.
We stopped at the Angkor ticket booth, which reminded us of an exceptionally long line at Disney World. We bought our passes (which just went up to $37 per person for a day pass) and headed to Angkor Wat to get our spot in the throng of tourists waiting to see the sunrise with their selfie sticks and tripods.
Around 6:30 a.m. the sun began to peak over the spires of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally a Hindu temple but, like many other Khmer temples, was changed to a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century.
The temple was designed in traditional Khmer architecture to represent Mount Meri, the home of the gods. While it is very well preserved for the most part, UNESCO and several other countries (including the U.S.) have invested in several much needed restoration projects. It is hard to describe the intricacies of the carvings on almost every surface of the massive temple. Our guide told us that there were hundreds of sculptors who first sketched an outline then carved the stories of creation, war, heaven and hell… our favorite was the scene of the “Churning of the Sea of Milk,” depicting 92 asuras and 88 devas using the serpent Vasuki as the rope in a game of tug of war.
I also learned that the poses of Apsara, a local cultural dance, are modeled after the nymph carvings on the temples. I thought that was cool! We absolutely would recommend sunrise as opposed to going later in the day, because the crowds definitely got bigger as the hours went on.
After Angkor Wat we visited the north gate of Angkor Thom, which we really liked. The gates are massive enough for elephants to pass through and full of intricate carvings with religious symbolism.
We also got to see the Bayon temple and the Tanei temple – not gonna lie, after a while they all start to look the same. BUT we really enjoyed learning about the history and symbolism of each site.
Finally we stopped to see the coolest temple of all – the Ta Prohm temple that was featured in Tomb Raider. There’s a reason the film producers wanted to shoot scenes here. There are trees growing out of the ruins, the roots resembling serpents and octopi, and the whole thing is surrounded by thick Cambodian jungle. It’s almost as if the jungle is trying to claim the temple, but the temple is resisting.
Did I mention we stopped on the side of the road to play with some monkeys!? They came right up to us and gladly accepted the food we offered them. A highlight of the day!
We returned to the hotel around 3 p.m. for a much needed power nap before moving into our new fancy suite (upgrade!) then heading out for dinner. We were amoked and curried out, so we opted for a hamburger. Ain’t no shame in that game – it was delicious!
We really enjoyed our time in Cambodia and we would return in the future if presented with the opportunity. We’d love to show our future kids the magic and artistry of these centuries-old places of worship.
Off to Thailand!