As the sun slowly rose, under a blanket of blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, casting deep shadows across the many stone faces of Bayon, surrounded by near silence, I felt a sense of pure childlike awe at the beauty, the artistry, the magnificence of such a place.
After spending a few months in Southeast Asia, I've seen more than my fair share of temples. And going all the way back to the start of my adventure in Peru, quite a few ruins as well. Angkor Wat is always thrown out there as a bucket list item, but I wasn't quite sure how it would compare after seeing so many other seemingly similar destinations.
I arrived at Siem Reap in the midst of constant rain after a long bus journey from Phnom Pehn, checked into the appropriately named Siem Reap Hostel, found some coffee and dinner, and went to bed reasonably early.
I set my alarm for 4:45 am and practically stumbled outside to meet Kate and Lydia just after 5. We set off to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, buying our passes on the way in - I opted for the three-day pass ($40, versus $20 for a single day), which can be used on non-consecutive days for travelers with a bit more time on their hands. As soon as we arrived, we followed the masses and found spots across the pool of water from the temple - the classic sunrise silhouette. We actually were quite lucky to have even seen the sun rising, given the massive amount of rain that had been coming down the previous week and forecasted for the week to come. We didn't see a ton of color, but there was a beautiful glow to the sky.
Rather than immediately getting breakfast, we explored the temple itself in the relative quiet. There were long walls with detailed carvings of a monkey king, battle scenes and the like. Inside the walls, the quiet of the temple, with its dark stone and moss-speckled walls was magical. The central tower wasn't yet open for us to climb up, and our stomachs were audibly growling, so we finally decided to grab some breakfast. Lydia actually had a stomach bug and was feeling quite terrible, so as Kate and I devoured plates of eggs, bacon, toast, and orange juice, our tuk tuk driver dropped Lydia back at the hostel to rest.
Our driver returned to pick us up at 9, and we continued along the Small Circuit, our chosen path for the day's explorations. We first entered the Angkor Thom complex through the South Gate, which was lined on either side by stone soldiers, each on one knee and with uniquely intimidating faces, creating a long barrier. We first stopped at Bayon, an incredible temple known for its vast number of towers with massive faces carved on to each of four sides. Winding our way through the lower sections, we had glimpses of moss-covered ruins amidst the dark, quiet spaces as we worked our way around and eventually climbed the stairs to the primary level. While I was impressed and even awe struck by the incredible building and the well-preserved, unique stone faces all around me, it was a bit difficult to enjoy surrounded by the throngs of people pressed into the space. These were mostly enormous tour groups, mostly taking selfies or conducting their own personal photo shoots, using the temple as a mere a backdrop to their poses.
We explored Bayon as much as we could tolerate, then walked to a few other smaller temples in the same complex. First we visited Baphuon, which had a long walkway leading to the temple itself, as well as a sign prohibiting kids under 12 or pregnant women from entering! Admittedly, the steps up to the top of the temple were very steep and very small, so I'm sure it was a safety issue. Two sets of staircases led us up to two higher levels where we could walk around the perimeter and enjoy the view below.
Next, we walked over to Phimeanakas, a smaller temple still partially overtaken by nature, covered in orange and green lichens. By this time we were hungry, tired, and drenched in sweat, so we returned to our tuk tuk and begged for lunch, opting to skip a visit to Ta Keo. We were served a sub-par curry with a broth-like consistency, but we at least filled our stomachs!
Our final stop of the day was Ta Prohm, the partially crumbled ruins made famous by the Tomb Raider movie. We wound through a maze of small moss-covered rooms and hallways, escaping the crowds for a few blissful moments at a time as we explored the temple grounds. Unfortunately, the reconstruction efforts have led to the creation of platforms and railings to support photo ops next to some of the iconic trees, which sort of ruins the feel of those spots as being these wild natural areas, but it was still amazing to explore. The sun also finally came out while we were there, after having been completely overcast under a blanket of grey ever since the initial sunrise.
As we collapsed into the tuk tuk for a ride back into town, I strongly considered swinging back by Bayon to hopefully catch it with the sun out (and avoid all those morning crowds), but our driver actually wanted to charge us extra for deviating from the route! I let the thought go, hoping I would be able to return sometime in the next two days.
I got up slightly later the next day, setting out to find a moto driver to take me to two of the further away stops - Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea - around 7 am. It was harder than I expected to find a driver, and through a series of negotiations, I wound up with a tuk tuk and paying far more than I would have preferred, one of the occasional downsides of traveling alone (as Kate and Lydia had just left for Bangkok). Despite paying a bit more, I wound up being very happy both with my driver, Vuhty, and with the fact that I had wound up in a tuk tuk rather than on a moto - it really was quite a long drive!
We finally left around 8 am, and it took just over an hour to reach Banteay Srei, also known as the "women's temple", because the carvings are so intricate, they must have been carved by a women's hands. Unfortunately, we arrived at the same time as a handful of massive tour buses, and I again found myself fighting through the masses to get a glimpse of the beautifully delicate, intricate carvings. It was a very small temple, and remarkably well-preserved and restored. As much as I wanted to get a closer look in many places, I was happy for the railings that kept the hoards of tourists back.
After grabbing a quick cup of coffee, I found and woke my driver - most of the drivers set up hammocks or take naps in their tuk tuks while their passengers explore - and we headed off to our next destination. It again took over an hour to reach Beng Mealea, driving past endless fields of potatoes and gorgeous scenery.
Once we arrived, I insisted on prolonging my own lunch, opting to visit when other potential tourists would be eating. Whether as a result of that decision or the pure remoteness of the place, I found exactly what I was looking for. The first impression of Beng Mealea was a massive pile of rubble - a crumbled gate covered in greenery. A walkway had been built that mostly runs outside (and occasionally through) the ruins, but as soon as I started off down the path, one of the guides hanging out at the entrance started directing me towards a route through the rubble into the ruins. I knew I would have to pay for his guidance later (a $5 tip), but it was well worth it as he led me through the quiet maze of crumbling rooms, cool and peaceful and haunting. Tangles of roots created webs on stone walls, sometimes growing right into the spaces in the wall, latching on. "Spider trees!" said my guide, enthusiastically. "Why do you call them spider trees?" I asked. "Stick to wall like Spider Man!"
As we made our way through the interior, out the other side to a moat area, we passed a couple of thick vines he referred to as swings, where he had me pose for a photo or two that would make my circus friends proud. We circled around, past a building that was once a library, and a broken image of Vishnu, covered in thick moss. We then picked up the walkway to pass over another large space with another library inside, as well as a smaller building, eventually leading back around to where we had started.
I enjoyed a quick lunch of stir fry and a chilled coconut, still smiling from the magical experience exploring the temple, now one of my favorites of my entire visit to Siem Reap. As we made the long journey back to town, we passed through more beautiful countryside, stopping briefly so my driver could pick up some pumpkins and fresh steamed corn from a roadside vendor, which he shared with me. We also spotted more overloaded motorbikes, including two loaded up with three large pigs apiece!
Back in town, I decided to find a place that Kate had recommended called the Hungry Bear, which I knew was at the night market. I quickly discovered that there are seemingly dozens of markets spread out around the center of town, and I slowly wandered through them, eventually finding the correct one (the "Original Angkor Night Market") and sitting down in a lovely outdoor space (referred to as a food court) situated around a large thatched gazebo serving as a bar, with a beautiful light hanging from the center. I ordered a tasty pumpkin pasta and promised to return the following night for pork belly, the other main dish served by Hungry Bear!
The earliest of all my mornings, I met Vuhty at 4:45 am to catch another sunrise at Angkor Wat, arriving early enough to view the predawn color in the sky and get a good viewing spot. It was again gorgeous, if not all that colorful, with a bright blue sky once the sun had risen.
I rushed back out to the tuk tuk after sunrise, heading straight to Bayon. This time, I was nearly alone in the space, with blue skies and puffy clouds and early morning light and shadow and it was just… breathtaking. An incredible, magical place, where I could finally just stand and gaze at the individual stone faces and take photos in the near silence. I was so thrilled to have had the opportunity to return and just soak it in, and I spent a full hour just slowly walking around the space a number of times.
I finally tore myself away from the majestic beauty and met my driver to go get breakfast, the meal highlighted by an adorable toddler who kept giggling and smiling at everyone, and a massive grey pig that kept wandering through the breakfast area. I learned later that the pig didn't belong to anyone - he had been set free because he was bad luck, so no one would even so much as touch him!
After breakfast, my driver wanted to take me around the big circuit. Although I insisted I only wanted to see the major sites (out of exhaustion), he still took me to nearly all of them. I started at Preah Khan, a massive square complex with two primary walkways forming a cross. I walked through the long, narrow corridor, which connected dozens of small rooms, making my way to a central room housing a separate stupa inside, which was also where the perpendicular walkways intersected. I eventually emerged on the other side, where a moat had likely been, catching sight of a massive tree growing atop one of the inner walls. On the way back, I explored some of the sides and in between spaces, full of carvings and small, separate roofed rooms.
Back outside, my driver showed me an artist's tent that actually interested me - large pieces of leather that had been stamped out to form large, intricate designs. These are actually then used in theatrical performances - people hold up the shapes against a lighted background, creating a sort of large scale puppet show in silhouette. I really liked an intricate monkey design, but instead I purchased a more simple Buddha tree, though I quickly realized I was going to have to find a way to ship it back home!
Our next stop was Neak Pean, which was really just a small monument in the middle of a small lake. The monument itself wasn't too spectacular, but the long walk over a wooden platform across swampland to reach the monument was beautiful, as the water reflected the bright blue sky dotted with clouds.
Ta Som was next, very similar to Preah Khan but on a much smaller scale, so I sort of breezed through it quickly, picking up a couple of small freshly made soft waffles from a little old lady vendor on the way out as a quick snack.
The last two stops - East Mebon and Pre Rup - were very similar to each other, but quite different from anything else I had seen up to that point. Each had a large square foundation in the middle, with a small central temple in the very center and smaller but similar buildings on each of the four corners. Pre Rup was quite a bit taller, with large stone lions at the top of the stairs, while East Mebon was wider, with stone elephants on each of four corners of a wide lower platform. Atop Pre Rup, there was a nice breeze and a lovely view of the surrounding area, and I took an extra moment to soak it in, knowing it would be the final temple I would be visiting at this incredible destination.
Beyond exhausted from my three straight days of early mornings and explorations, I collapsed into a long nap as soon as I returned, eventually making it back out that evening for dinner at Hungry Bear and a 30 minute foot massage at the adjacent shop (quickly regretting not getting the full hour). I picked up a few things at the market, as a young local girl followed me through the aisles, giggling and dancing, twirling a head full of curls. I eventually found her mom, who gave me a great deal on a pair of pants :).
The next day would be a very long travel day, with multiple buses and a border crossing into Thailand, but I left quite happy with my time in Siem Reap. Despite some large crowds, I had managed to find some beautifully haunting spaces, evoking awe and wonder at what it must have been like to see them at the height of their existence, and what it must have been like to rediscover them, so many years later. It's a "must-see" destination for a reason, and I highly recommend anyone to pay it a visit… but perhaps avoid the tour groups, and see it on your own.