So eventually I got out of Burma, the place nearly reduced me to tears but, once I’d departed, my flights and connections all went very smoothly. Granted, on arrival at Siem Reap airport, there was no tuk-tuk waiting for me but one turned up after a very kind tour guide rang the hotel and said I was waiting at the airport and they should send someone quickly! I was very grateful and touched that he should help out in this way and thanked him profusely. This was to be my first experience of Siem Reap willingness and efficiency. A tuk-tuk driver called Mr Hong took me to the Angkor Pearl Hotel where the staff were very sorry and embarrassed that I’d been made to wait. I checked in, went straight to my room, relaxed and went to bed pretty much straight away.
In fact, I liked it so much in Siem Reap and at The Angkor Pearl, I decided to forego my one-day stop in Singapore and stay in Siem Reap an extra night in order to fit everything in. I felt like a little girl in a sweet shop there was so much to do, buy, smell, see! And how different Siem Reap is from Bagan. Here, I was rushing around trying to fit things in visiting temples, spice gardens and night markets along with taking in the atmosphere of a very lively town centre and all it has to offer.
On Sunday morning, I woke late, had a late breakfast and got my bearings. Armed with a well-researched list of places to visit by lunchtime, I was bouncing with anticipation and energy and ready to bag temples. I went downstairs to reception, ordered my tuk-tuk and headed off to Banteay Srei a temple a good hours ride away.
On the way we stopped at the Angkor World Heritage office where I bought a temple pass for $60. I sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery and (bumpy) ride. At that point I think I fell in love with Siem Reap. Along the roadside were homes built of sticks, leaves, reed and timber all raised by about a metre from the ground on stilts. The people lived with their small farms, their businesses, animals and extended families. Oxen and water buffalo were very much in evidence more so than I saw in Burma. The oxen and goats were often herded together but chickens and ducks were free range, scratching around very close to passing traffic. Dogs live around humans but were not pets. They are often in pairs and live on the outskirts of the homestead. They seemed well fed, fatter than the Burmese dogs.
There were masses of night markets open until about 10pm which I loved mooching around in; the vendors were always happy to engage in a spot of conversation. There was a street full of bars and restaurants, called ‘Pub Street’, and dozens of massage parlours where you could get a 30-minute foot/back/shoulder massage for $2/3.
I had a good wander round making mental notes on where to buy some souvenirs. It was late by the time I made my way back to the hotel but Siem Reap was still open for business in the main centre part of town. My hotel was just a short distance away from the main centre and just off the main road, about a 15 minute walk. I needed a torch to see my way in certain places. If I headed back to the hotel around 10.30pm businesses still had their lights on but after that time it started to get pretty dark as they closed up for the night. It wasn’t at all safe to walk on, what might be called the ‘pavement’, which had badly dislodged and missing sewer covers; as in Yangon and Mandalay, the road is where you walked.
On Tuesday, I met Mr Hong outside the hotel at 9am and I visited Angkor Wat, which is about a 20 min tuk-tuk ride from the hotel. Being the main attraction amongst the Angkor temples, it was totally heaving with coaches, mini buses and tuk-tuks. And it was blimmin’ hot even at 9.20am. The Koreans/Chinese appear to holiday in organised groups of about 30 so when they get to an attraction they split into two smaller groups and subsequently are shown around by a tour guide who speaks VERY loudly. In between lectures they are allowed to roam free to take photographs of themselves standing in doorways of ancient structures which bemused me. I did my best to steer clear of their calamity and found some peace and solitude around this huge temple.
I looked at as much as my eyes and mind could take in; it was all a bit much really-I was a bit overwhelmed with the size of Angkor Wat, the crowds, and the noise but as it was the main attraction of Siem Reap it had to be done. The next temple I visited was defo one of my favourites; Ta Prohm. This is the temple where the Sacred Fig trees grow through the temple structure. Lots of renovation work going on here so it was a bit noisy but totally fascinating. I spent a good couple of hours exploring the temple but also just sitting quietly and taking in the atmosphere. It was dark when Mr Hong returned me to my hotel.
On Wednesday I went to Angkor Thom which is sometimes known as the Bayon temple. This temple had elephants; actually working domestic elephants but still elephants none the less, the first I’ve seen in Asia ever. I can confirm Elephants have big feet. The Bayon Temple was heaving with large groups of tourists so after having a quick look round I walked along the forest path to the Bapoun Temple and Royal Palace area, which were much quieter. The Bapoun Temple had at least three steep sets of wooden steps to climb to access the three terraces. I managed them all despite being rather unnerved by the gaps. They reminded me of the steps in Borneo where I broke my leg; one day I’ll write a blog about this accident. Even though I was a bit nervous I never felt any sense of vertigo or panic. I spent quite a long time up on the top terrace; the view was excellent, it was quiet and peaceful and I had good views into the trees with my binoculars.
That evening I went to a local restaurant to see traditional Cambodian/Kymer dance and music. The ticket price ($12) included a buffet supper which was a bit of a bun fight to be honest. Anyway I had plenty to eat even though the food wasn’t particularly good quality; lots of deep fried things and dubious Chinese dishes. I didn’t try any of the deserts which looked to be rice, bean curd or semolina based. Oh, there was deep fried banana which also didn’t appeal. I very much liked the Japanese soup that was served; a clear soup with egg noodle and lots of fresh toppings and ingredients. After the show Mr Hong transported me downtown. Whilst I was at the Kymer show he was at his weekly English class. I expect Mr Hong will become a tour guide once his English has improved as he certainly knew his stuff as far as Siem Reap was concerned. I did some shopping that evening, bought some Cambodian silk scarves, and had a foot massage. Lovely day; I love Siem Reap.
Thursday saw me with some time to visit some of the lesser known temples. I’d checked them out before hand to make sure they were worth stopping at. In Mr Hong’s tuk-tuk, I set off at 9am prompt and the first stop was at Preah Khan, by Angkor standards a small 12thc temple quite intimate with a Sacred Fig growing through part of the ruins. Laid out in a cross type grid, it gave me the impression of being a bit like a church. I could’ve done with a bit more time here and maybe just slightly earlier for photographs because the light was good but would have been even better 30 minutes earlier. The next stop wasn’t worth the trouble partly because a very noisy tour guide was escorting a herd of orients and quite spoiled the vibe. Neak Khan is a 12th century temple again set out in a cross fashion and surrounded by ponds. I thought I heard one guide/herder say this temple was built to be a hospital which would explain why it was deep into the jungle quite separate from other temples. The highlight of this temple was actually the boardwalk; it cut through quite a length of jungle and was raised just about a metre above the water. An earlier visit would’ve procured some interesting birdlife I’m sure. Ta Som was a tiny temple again quite intimate and could’ve been more so had there not been a plethora of shouting sellers adjacent to the entrance.
The highlight of today’s tour was East Mebon. This is one of the oldest temples on the Angkor site and I really liked it. Set in an open sandy space the walk to the 10th century temple edge was blisteringly hot. I climbed a dozen or so steep laterite steps flagged by two large carved mythical dog statues. On the first terrace there were carved Elephants on each corner; my photographs didn’t turn out too badly considering the light was glaring. The temple had very few visitors which could’ve been because its neighbour Pre Rup is one of the sunset temples. I reckon East Mebon, like Pre Rup got most of its visitors late afternoon so I chose my time to visit well unknowingly.
On January 18th, I checked out of the Angkor Pearl Hotel ($25 per room per night) and made my way to the airport via the silk farm in Mr Hong’s tuk-tuk. The silk farm was very well set up for tourists; on arrival, I was greeted by a guide and promptly shown around the farm and factory. I finished the tour in the shop where I bought two stunning hand-made matching Cambodian Silk handbags. I also bought a really evocative decorative plaque depicting two water buffalo etched in black and gold. Water buffalo are synonymous with SEA; the locals have a very intricate relationship with these creatures. I wish I’d allowed more time to see the silk farm; I could have gained a better insight into the production process, as it was it was all rather rushed.
I’m so pleased I made the decision to leave Burma for Cambodia. On reflection, Siem Reap has been the highlight of my travels and I will definitely return and gladly do it all over again. I made my way reluctantly to SR airport for a flight to Kuala Lumpar, followed by a flight to Singapore. At Singapore I missed my connection to Melbourne. Follow what happened next in my next instalment…