We had a great time visiting the temples in Bagan, and had high hopes for Angkor. Perhaps because of this, and because Bagan was seriously spectacular, the bar may have been set a little high…
Angkor Wat, or rather the park that houses it and numerous other Hindu temples, is the main draw for tourists in Siem Reap. We opted for a three day entry ticket to the park ($40), which seemed sensible given the size of the park and that it cost $20 per visit – we definitely wouldn’t be able to cover everything we wanted to see in a day, even with the help of a tuk-tuk driver! Some tourists cycled around, which I must give them kudos for; we like to cycle as it’s a lot cheaper, but the size of the park and the heat really put us off. As we discovered on our first day around the temples, they’re interactive – you climb up and down quite a few steps, and so, combined with the effort of cycling, I don’t think we’d have got as much out of the experience with depleted energy reserves.
In the end, we spent two days in the park, templed out by the end of the second day and satisfied that we’d seen everything we wanted to see. To be honest, you probably only need a day to complete the smaller loop within the park (there are two well-trodden loops, encompassing different temples). Our second day was spent farther afield, but the core temples are quite close together, 6 km from Siem Reap.
I had no idea that Khmer culture was largely derived from India, but the Angkor region is a great example of this – the temples often feature Shiva, Vishnu or Buddha. There are a number of temples in Angkor that are still in relatively good condition, in spite of the thousands of feet that wear down the stone every year. We encountered some particularly stupid tourists climbing on one of the remaining elephants at East Mebon, but luckily the remainder were more respectful. We visited in quiet season and often had smaller temples completely to ourselves, or a handful of others; in busy season I can imagine things getting a bit crazy!
We started in Bayon, which ended up being my favourite place, in no small part due to the amazing, massive heads that were littered throughout the complex.
The layout was a little crazy, apparently because the Angkor kings kept remodelling it rather than building a new temple.
Bayon is a key temple in Angkor Thom, an ancient city that we actually preferred to Angkor Wat. There were a number of temples there, in various states of decay, that were really pretty awesome to look at, for lack of a better word.
From Bayon, we followed the path to Baphuon, Phimeanakas, the Leper King Terrace and back to the Elephant Terrace.
Our tuk-tuk driver picked us up and we visited Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda (where a nun gave me a blessing), Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, and finally, Angkor Wat.
Of these, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat were the busiest; Ta Prohm is known for its role in the Tomb Raider movie (there are even Tomb Raider cocktails sold in Siem Reap bars), although I didn’t recognise it in spite of watching the movie before we visited. Any excuse. It was undergoing extensive repair, so we didn’t actually see that much of it – there were massive stones everywhere, but comparing the before and after pictures was pretty eye-opening! They seemed to be doing a good job of the restoration and it’s no surprise, given Angkor’s UNESCO heritage status.
Finally, Angkor Wat…what can I really say about this one? I don’t want to be too controversial, but I actually found it a little underwhelming after Bayon. Perhaps it was the long path up to the temple, which is smaller than you’d expect, but Bayon was a lot more immediate and in-your-face (literally, the huge heads were often within touching distance). I got more out of our visit there, which could have been because we visited Angkor Wat at the end of a hot and tiring day. Unlike the Taj Mahal, which really did live up to expectations, Angkor Wat fell a bit short.
We headed further afield, to Banteay Srei, which has the finest surviving carvings of any of the temples. It’s quite small, but we enjoyed our visit there, not least because there are two worthwhile stops on the way back – the landmine museum and the butterfly centre.
The landmine museum has an amazing history. If you have the time, I would recommend reading more on their website; in a nutshell it was started by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier named Akira. As a child, he planted landmines, but switched to fight with the Vietnamese. After the war, he took it upon himself to defuse the mines, using sticks. There are some really interesting quotes from him in the museum, about his time as a child soldier, as well as lots of (quite dry) facts about the different landmines used.
The butterfly park was small, but it’s apparently the largest of its kind in South East Asia! A friendly guide took us around and we learned a lot about caterpillars. That probably makes it sound a bit dull, but it was really good!
On our way back towards Siem Reap, we visited East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean and Preah Khan. The last was probably my favourite, followed by the stone elephants of East Mebon (minus the idiot tourists riding them).
Neak Pean was probably the most disappointing – due to a lack of rain, the pond was pretty much non-existent and the main highlight, a horse sculpture, was covered in scaffolding.
If you were to tackle Angkor park by bike, you could probably pick and choose a few of those temples and see them in a day. We didn’t even try to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise, but I have no regrets – the pond in front of which everyone takes the well-known shot at sunrise had shrunk to quite a small size, and apparently there can be a lot of tourists vying for space at a horrendous time of the morning. No thanks. There’s also an elephant ride in the park that takes you up to the top of a hill (Bakheng) – elephant rides are really not good for the elephants so please consider their welfare if you are contemplating it.
Once we’d visited Angkor, there wasn’t much keeping us in Cambodia, as much as we wished there was – we had to get to Northern Thailand! It took the best part of a day and was a little hot, but for $8 we got from Siem Reap to Bangkok in 12 hours. These border crossings will get a post of their very own, because they were a bit of a mixed bag and probably not all that interesting unless you’re doing it yourself!