I visited Cambodia back in May 2016 and after recently reminiscing about the trip with a friend it sparked me to write this piece about one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever had.
Cambodia couldn’t be any more different to my home in the UK, between the frantic streets of Phnom Penh, the tranquillity of Ream National Park and the chilled out river town of Kampot, you won’t fail to find a place to fall in love with.
However, the main reason over a million people a year visit the country is to see one of the Wonders of the World, the ruinous Khmer city of Angkor Thom and its most famous temple, Angkor Wat which dates back to the early 12th century.
We booked a full day tour with a taxi driver for 30-40 US Dollars, I think a Tuk Tuk is half that price if you’re trying to budget. The taxi driver will give you the odd piece of information here and there and take you directly to the main spots but he will leave you to your own devices at the temples while he waits in the air-conditioned car. It’s worth paying for a taxi purely because of the air-con as it’s possibly the greatest feeling in the world, stepping back into the car after walking and climbing in 40°C heat.
Everyone will tell you to visit Angkor Wat at dawn to see the temples during sunrise but the previous night’s drinking meant we settled for late morning when the temperatures are at their highest and the crowds are at their peak…
The journey from Siem Reap is a quick one, only held up by a stop off to collect your passes which involves a bit of queuing. Also be warned that taxi drivers are inducted into a prize draw by certain shops if they bring tourists to their store (our driver once won an electric fan…), it was all a bit confusing and walking around a very expensive furniture shop while getting the hard sell is very uncomfortable.
It’s impossible not to get a little excited when driving into Angkor, impressive doesn’t really do it justice and it is no wonder it took around 30 years to build.
Our first stop was my favourite temple, Bayon, although I think it being the first one we visited swayed my opinion slightly. It’s incredible, amazing to think the carvings were made around 900 years ago. There are steep steps to climb so bring suitable footwear and if anyone tries to befriend you and give you a guided tour then you can guarantee it won’t be for free.
At the top of the ancient stone structures when you find yourself a bit of personal space and are away from the guides you can begin to really admire the temple and the 200 or so carved faces. If you’re a photographer then I imagine you could spend hours here as every inch of the place presents a new and different shot.
Each temple is stunning in its own right and I could talk about each but Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat are the most renowned so I will focus on them.
Ta Prohm is well known for its appearance in Tomb Raider and is unique in the way the buildings are tangled up in trees, almost making it look like a living creature. Strangely this was one of the quieter temples (possibly because it was close to lunch time) and because of that, you were able to feel much more like a real explorer – climbing over tree trunks and enjoying some rare shade without your pace being dictated by a slow moving crowd.
On our way towards Angkor Wat, we were greeted by some of the local monkeys, with one even jumping on my leg looking for food. These guys were pretty placid but that’s not always the case, so don’t get too close. Talking to our taxi driver about them, we discovered his dislike of the Vietnamese who supposedly consider Cambodia’s monkey population a tasty snack.
Angkor Wat is the city’s show piece and there are numerous stalls nearby selling ornaments and souvenirs which takes the shine off the place a little, although you can also buy a much needed drink here.
Spending time in Cambodia you will see pictures, drawings and sculptures of Angkor Wat‘s temple-mountains (which look like weird pine cones) time and time again, so I was eager to see it in the flesh. The crowds begin to worsen as you get closer and it feels much more like a tourist trap but that doesn’t take anything away from the grandeur of the place.
The temple is huge and again, is a photographer’s paradise, people I talked to say its much better to visit Angkor Wat on a rainy day when the building has a green hue but personally I think most of images you see online are photo-shopped and have filters applied.
There’s plenty to see within the actual temple complex with brilliantly preserved statues of Gods and strange mythical creatures. Long corridors stretch out to the various wings of the building and steep steps take you to the upper levels where resides the reclining Buddha.
The heat was bordering on unbearable at this point but there’s too much to see to really care about your sweat situation and the place is too cool to be remotely cranky. I do think its the sort of place you need to see solo or with just another one or two people, as you will always get one moaner in a group and you can end up waiting on people. Annoying.
I’d definitely put Angkor Thom on a list of destinations that every traveler should try and see, Siem Reap is a short flight from Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Hanoi and the cost is minimal, so spending time in South East Asia and not paying it a visit is pretty criminal in my opinion.