When I was a kid, I often entertained myself by reading almanacs and thumbing through encyclopedias, usually with a flashlight after I was supposed to be asleep (real cool, I know). Something I saw in one of those books that always amazed me was the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve seen it. It is a buddhist temple (actually the whole area has more than 100 temples, we all just know the most famous one) that is the world’s largest religious complex.
It isn’t hard to see why this was the stop on our trip I was most anticipating. I had waited a lifetime to see it and finally, nearly 25 years later, I got to. And it was even more amazing in person than I could have imagined.
We arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia a couple of Fridays ago. Luckily, our travel plans overlapped with some other Peace Corps friends, so we spent a couple of days with those guys before they left for Vietnam (our next stop as well).
The next day, we left the hostel (Siem Reap Hostel – awesome place that is doing great things for its staff and community) and rented bicycles. Mike and Sam had biked all over East Java and Bali, and Amy and I had biked all over our tiny corner of East Java, so we thought it would be fitting to see the sights from bikes first. We knew that it would be impossible to see everything the first day, so we decided to hit the “minor” temples first and see the highlights by ourselves the next day as Mike and Sam had visited them the day prior.
We ended up biking about 25 miles that day in the sweltering heat. The temperature made our village in Indonesia seem downright cold. We visited and explored six temples, had lunch and took numerous breaks for water in what became a nearly eight hour adventure. It was pretty rough, but the sights were priceless.
The next morning, Amy and I were on our own again and we arranged to be picked up at 4:30am to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Being the morning person that I am, 4:30am wasn’t too bad, but I could hardly get Amy out of bed. After we were finally up and out, we rode in Cambodia’s version of a tuk-tuk, which is a two wheeled cart pulled by a motorcycle – quite a regal way to see the sights, and much more comfortable than the bike seat we had spent way-too-many hours on the day before.
Back in January we were visited by Jessica and Paul and went to see the sunrise over the volcano, Mt. Bromo. On that trip it was so overcast that the only thing we saw was a grey fog becoming lighter. Unfortunately, at Angkor Wat we also missed the sunrise due to overcast skies, but we still got some great pictures.
We weren’t quite sure where to go once our driver let us out to walk to the temple, so as we stumbled around in the dark, a man directed to the best spot for the best view of the temple. I was waiting for him to ask for a tip, but instead he told us to make sure to come to his food stall for breakfast. So, following the non-sunrise, we did and we ate the best (and first) omelette on a baguette I’ve ever had.
After breakfast, the driver took us to the “major” temples. The first was Bayon, a strange temple that has 216 faces gazing out of the temple’s external structures.
Next we visited Ta Prohm, a temple that lost its battle with nature and now is known for the trees growing in and around the walls of the site.
Lastly, we returned to Angkor Wat, entering from the backside, to tour the massive complex.
While the Angkor Wat complex alone was a life highlight, the town of Siem Reap is a jewel in itself. It is small and is situated around a river that flows through the town. Siem Reap hosts the one million tourists that visit Angkor Wat every year, so it has its fill of bars, restaurants and markets, yet still manages to have a small-town feel to it. Based on the town alone, I think I could have spent a month there.
Granted, Siem Reap isn’t quite like the rest of the country. Cambodia is a struggling country that is still feeling the effects of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge reign in the late 70’s. We saw a number of landmine victims begging on the streets, as well as performing traditional music throughout the town. Cambodia has partnered with several other countries to ensure the preservation and viability of Angkor Wat as a tourist destination and hopefully that can continue to lift the town of Siem Reap and beyond, as well as through the many NGOs and organizations based there.
I don’t know what the next month will hold as we visit Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and Malaysia; but, for now, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat have set a pretty high bar for the rest of our trip.