Day 9: Siem Reap, Cambodia

by - May 06, 2011

Sunrise over Angkor Wat
With only one full day at the temples, I had to have another early start this morning to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.  This wasn’t some kind of quirky traveller idea though - the temple is aligned so that the sun rises over its towers and when I arrived at 5am it was already starting to get crowded.  Only the photos can really describe what the sun rise was like, but all I can say is that it was definitely worth getting up for.  What the photos don’t show is the intense heat of the sun here, even at sunrise.  The sun was up at around 6am and having seen it rise, I took the tuk-tuk I had hired for the day to my first stop.

The Bayon
While Angkor Wat is the building that grabs all the photos, it is the nearby Angkor Thom that has the fascinating story behind it.  The site, around 10 sq km in size, was the capital of the Khmer empire.  Only the temples and walls of the city remain however as Khmer belief stated that stone buildings were for gods and wooden buildings were for me.  The city must have been huge - at a time when London had a population of around 50,000 people, Angkor Thom contained around 1 million.  We entered across the moat, through the gates and aimed for the centre, where the stone temples are located.  The first of these is the Bayon, consisting of 54 four sided towers with each side of each tower bearing a carving of the god Avalakiteshvara.  Legend has it that the faces also look a lot like King Jayavaraman VII, who just happened to be the guy who built it.

The Baphuon
The next stop was the Baphuon, a site with a story that confused me somewhat.  Nicknamed “the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle”, it was taken apart by a team of archaeologists, only for the records of ‘what went where’ to go missing under the Khmer Rouge regime.  It is still being put back together, though it looks fairly complete now.  What I don’t understand is why they took it apart in the first place.  The rest of my time in Angkor Thom was spent looking around the various smaller temples around the site.  I wouldn’t have been able to cover them all in a day as the site is so vast, but I got a fair few in.  I met my driver in the Angkor Thom central square, which contains the 'Terrace of the Elephants’ at one end.  This raised terrace was used as a viewing stand for public ceremonies and military drills.

Last time at Angkor Wat
To the east of Angkor Thom is Ta Prohm, which is one of the temples where nature has begun to bite back.  Trees with enormous roots have grown up all over the site to create a unique combination of crumbling towers and giant trees.  The site is so unique looking that parts of the Tomb Raider movie was filmed there.  Despite looking around temples for 5 hours, it was still 11am.  I felt pretty templed out, however I can see why Lonely Planet suggests you spend a full week here.  If I had had more time I would have hired a bicycle and cycled around them all at a more leisurely pace, but with time so tight on this trip I had no choice but to use a tuk-tuk.   I think that I had seen the highlights in my two half days, but before I left I asked to be dropped off at Angkor Wat one last time - my third visit.  This was partly because I hadn’t had my photo taken in front of it yet, but also because I wanted to just wander around it aimlessly for a while without taking a load of photos.  I am glad that this is how I finished off my time at Angkor.  I got my tuk-tuk back to town and then fell asleep at the hostel for a while - walking around in the heat is pretty exhausting.

Cambodian 'amoc’ fish - check out the banana leaf bowls
My late afternoon and evening plan was to go into Siem Reap itself - I had only skirted around it thus far.  It wasn’t the most impressive place I had ever visited, and its commercial success is certainly down to Angkor Wat, but it was nice to wander along the river beside the French colonial buildings.  Having eaten nothing more than pringles all day, I decided to have a fairly early evening meal at Lonely Planet’s best recommended restaurant - the Angkor Palm Restaurant.  This was fairly expensive as the city goes - 7 dollars for a meal and two drinks, but it was really good. I chose the “amoc” - baked fish cooked and served in banana leaves, which came with Chinese spinach and rice.  It was one of those places that you have to go to if you ever find yourself in Siem Reap.  I wandered back to my hostel via an internet cafe for my first skype session to home, before another early night.  I am getting up tomorrow at 5.30am to get the boat to the town of Battambang on what is apparently one of Asia’s best journeys. I hope I don’t sleep through it.

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