One extremely long border crossing later (a border with a scam a minute if you aren’t careful. hint… they do have ATMs in Cambodia) and I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, aka Tourist Central (and the gateway to Angkor Wat).
Welcome to Cambodia!
The town itself is quite nice if a little tourist-trappy, a bit overpriced for Cambodia (which is dirt cheap anywhere else- a private hostel room was still only $6), and full of all manner of shilling. You’re a bit of a walking wallet to the majority of Cambodians in tourist-frequented areas. The flip side of that is that English levels are stunningly high here, with one 8 year old girl selling paintings absolutely wiping the floor with every one of my Korean students, their afterschool academies and English camps notwithstanding. It goes to show you that you can’t beat knowledge into somebody’s head, but if there’s a real will to learn you can do it regardless of circumstances.
Outside of drinking and eating approximations of Western food, though, there’s not much to do in town. After taking advantage of the former at my hostel’s rooftop bar (with a sand floor as an interesting touch) and drinking a local, pretty decent Angkor beer, I headed to bed for a sunrise start at Angkor Wat.
I caught that sunrise right at Angkor Wat itself (the main temple), the famous building featured on Cambodia’s flag as a reminder of past grandeur and grace. While the sunrise itself was fairly underwhelming (I usually go for the more dramatic colors of sunset), it did serve to beat the heat and the tourist hordes. Angkor Wat itself has a scale that must be seen in person to properly appreciate- it’s huge, and incredibly intricate, with a host of tours, courtyards, and carvings (some with vestiges of color- imagine the place brightly painted as it once was… mind-blowing) making up the iconic whole. It was supposed to represent Heaven on Earth, an concept that always makes for pretty ruins. The pools around it are the celestial sea, and the towers are holy mountains.
It was also interesting to see the multiple libraries on site, which included both the expected exclusively royal ones and public ones open to all- a uniquely enlightened view towards learning many of its concurrent brother civilizations didn’t share.
I had hired a tuktuk (motorcycle cart) driver for the day for only $15, which made navigating the massive park much easier. The next stop was Angkor Thom (Angkor City), a monastic city with only walls and temples remaining (most residential structures, including royal ones, were made of wood).
Bayan is even larger and more dramatic, full of statues and small towers.
The neighboring Baphuon is small, but picturesque set against the surrounding forest with an air of dilapidation the others I’d seen so far lacked.
Phimeanakas, and it’s strangely Greek-like name (many Hindu myths have an intriguingly Greek drama and pageantry to them as well… of course, many of them predate Greece, too) is a very steep, ziggurat-like temple near the Terraces of the Elephants and the Leper King, with their intricate, long-spanning carvings of Cambodian myths and histories.
The other sights you may associate with Angkor are likely from Ta Prohm- the Jungle Temple, reclaimed by massive trees with roots encircling and pushing around its stone foundations and edifices. This is the temple from Tomb Raider, which you may remember as the only good part of that film. I met a Filipino college kid upon entering and we ended up giving one of the local “guides” that come out of the woodwork a try. Sometimes you get railroaded into a hurried “tour” not even worth the few dollars you pay for it. And sometimes they know where the cool stuff is at. Thankfully, we got the latter kind of guide. The view we got after following him up a pile of broken stones was the best in the entire park in my opinion.
My last stop was Banteay Kdei and Srah Srang. They face each other, the first being a more recent temple built of sandstone, which is falling apart at a much quicker rate than the superior older structures. This also was used in the movie, though, and you can see the attraction as the dilapidation had its own allure.
The latter is nothing, really, just two stone lions overlooking the former royal bathing lake, marred by a canopy shielding some restoration work.
That night was off to Pnomh Penh by bus, complete with shamelessly hilarious heart-tugging karaoke videos of sappy Cambodian music that had an almost Indian/Middle Eastern vibe to it. Interesting, but once was enough.