CAMBODIA – temple me now!

It is that exciting time of the year again in Korea, time for summer vacation! A lot of planning went into this trip again, so that we can get the most out of it. So of we went, Cambodia bound…

Due to ridiculous air-fare prices, we tried our best to get  flights that wouldn’t take ages to reach our final destination, but which also wouldn’t break the bank. Thus, it was a balancing act of multiple stops, multiple airlines and how long we would tolerate to fly. In the end we flew from Incheon (South Korea) to Bangkok (Thailand), Bangkok to Phnom Penh (Cambodia). The lay-over in Bangkok wasn’t that long, so all in all not that bad. Luckily on the final day (after lots of temple hopping, surviving a torrential downpour and helping to push our fallen-over-stuck-in-the-mud tuk-tuk out of a pothole in the clay road) we had a direct flight back home from Siem Reap (SR). More on the latter incident later…

Day 1 (10 Aug)

We had a stop-over at Bangkok en route to Phnom Penh (PP), and learned (even after all our other travels) a very important travel-lesson; you should always pass through immigration, even if you’re just on a connecting flight. We honestly didn’t think about it. We just walked through the necessary gates to the lobby where we’ll wait to get on our next connecting flight, no problem, or so we thought…

We got in line to start boarding the last leg to PP, and after handing them our boarding passes and passports, we saw them fiddling and searching for something. We had to stand to the side, and eventually they told us that we don’t have a stamp from immigration in Bangkok. We were baffled, not knowing you even needed to go through immigration, because we’re not ‘visiting’ Thailand, we’re just taking a connecting flight. They almost didn’t let us on the flight, and there were no time to go and get the immigration stamp. They eventually relented, and basically told us that it’s not going to be their fault if they send us back from PP, because we don’t have the immigration stamp… Let me tell you, we were rattled. The last thing we wanted was NOT having vacation due to such a stupid slip-up! Needless to say, we arrived, no problems, our vacation started (needed a drink after that whole fiasco!). Note to self: remember to always get immigration stamp, ALWAYS. (you, dear reader, can stop laughing now;) )

We took a taxi from the airport to Blue Lime, our hotel for our stay in PP. craziness. That’s the best way to describe the traffic scene on roads in Cambodia (PP at least). It’s certainly not uncommon to see a whole family of 4/5 on a single motorbike; and helmets, pff, it’s more a suggestion than a rule. So with the craziness ensuing around us, we’re off to the hotel. The driver is very quiet. I don’t know if it’s concentration, just his demeanor or if it’s him anticipating the next accident on Cambodian roads. After what happened next, I would say it was the latter. We stopped at a pedestrian crossing, and then BOOM, a loud thud from behind. I was busy turning to see what it was when out of the corner of my eye I saw a guy doing a sort of tumble or somersault next to our car. He landed on his feet, it was quite amazing… A little backwards though is the motorcycle and the driver (the somersaulting guy was the passenger on the back) lying on his side, still under the bike (luckily still moving). The driver had a look in the mirror, and then just started pulling away slowly with the rest of the traffic, as if nothing happened! Just another day in PP…

We were still incredulous as to what has happened, but it seemed like a common occurrence for the locals! After this LONG day, we finally arrived at Blue Lime.We checked in, got our room and just relaxed next to the amazing swimming pool with a lovely meal and well deserved beer!

Day 2 (11 Aug)

Time to start with the touristy stuff… Luckily, our hotel is rather centrally located, and it’s easy walking distance from the main attractions.

Royal Palace

We started the morning at the Royal Palace. It’s big and the surrounding gardens lush and well-maintained. We spent the biggest part of the morning here, observing the buildings and the artifacts and relics inside them. The complex of buildings served as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. The kings of Cambodia lived there since it was built in the 1860’s, except for the time during and after the country was in turmoil due to the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

The most interesting sight was the Silver Pagoda. It’s name is derived from the 5,000 inlaid silver tiles that was used during construction. You’ll find national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues there. One of the most famous is the near life-size Buddha which is encrusted with 9,584 diamonds and dressed in royal regalia.

Next stop was the National Museum. It really stands out with its red-maroon color and its impressive architecture. This is the leading historical and archaeological museum in Cambodia. Inside you’ll find out about Cambodia’s history and you can see many statues from Angkor Wat and other temple complexes and also a very extensive collection of Khmer art (over 14,000 items).

National Museum

During this time (August, apparently rainy season) it is very humid and rather hot in Cambodia. We were sweaty and thirsty, so we bought a few local beers and snacks and headed back to the hotel for a dip in the pool and some chill time. We went to The Laughing Fatman restaurant (as mentioned in Lonely Planet) for lunch. I had my first Khmer cuisine, Amok (the wifey decided on salad). It was the first of many on the trip, it really is refreshingly delicious!

After lunch we took a Tuk-Tuk to the S-21 prison (a.k.a. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). This site was previously a high school which was transformed into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime. It was used by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 (when its regime ended). The former school was turned into a prison and interrogation center during this time. Classrooms were converted into small prison – and torture chambers. During the 4 year period, it is estimated that around 17,000 (some say 20,000) people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. Out of this 17,000 only 7 ultimately survived, and only because their captors deemed them to have skills that could be useful.

S-21 Museum

The evil man and mastermind behind this brutal regime was Saloth Sar (a.k.a. Pol Pot). His ultimate goal was to make the whole population work as labourers on farms, thus creating a kind of agrarian society. Any and everyone in opposition were eliminated, especially intellectuals and educated people, as they were deemed a threat to the ‘new agrarian society’ that Pol Pot and his cronies were trying to establish under their communist rule. Civilian deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime, from illnesses, starvation, exhaustion and execution have been estimated to be well over 2 million.

Day 3 (12 Aug)

We did sightseeing at a more sedate pace on day 3… We went to Wat Phnom (a.k.a. Mountain Pagoda), which is a Buddhist temple, where the capital got its name from. To be honest, nothing to spectacular to see here.

We walked from the temple to the post office to take some pictures of the huge French colonial building. Then we headed off to the Central Market for some shopping (my wife obviously very itchy to get there…). What an experience. So many stalls and colours and bags and shoes and shirts and sunglasses and and and… You are overwhelmed the minute you set foot there. A good piece of advice when visiting this place: know what you want to buy (souvenirs or a funny shirt), because you can walk out of there with a lot of crap (which obviously won’t be the best quality) that you don’t actually need. It’s still a fun experience though. We walked out of there with a pair of sunglasses each, a bag, and some souvenirs 🙂

Post Office

We went back to the hotel to rest up a bit after walking all morning. We went for lunch at Friends restaurant. This restaurant employs street youths to train them for the hospitality industry. Not the cheapest, but the food’s good and all is for a good cause.

Feeling a little fatigued we stopped by a place (there are MANY!) that advertises mani-pedis and massages for around $4/5. Yes please… My wife got the mani-pedi treatment and I decided on the massage. I had to move upstairs, where you walk into a big room which is almost completely dark. Eyes adjusting, I could see there are quite a lot of mattresses lying next to each other. I stood at the foot of my assigned one, and was instructed to take of my clothes, placing it in the basket at the foot of the mattress. I felt awkward in that situation at first, but laying there in my undies under a towel, receiving an authentic Khmer massage made me forget about everything for 30 minutes. It was goooood. When in Rome…

Street Food

That night we went for pre drinks at the Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC) with its spectacular rooftop riverfront views. We walked along the riverfront and sought out a nice restaurant to dine at. We ended up at Deja Vu, which is right on the street (next to riverfront) where we were animated (and periodically ‘harassed’ by boys and girls touting their merchandise – usually trinkets, bracelets, dvd’s and Lonely Planet’s) by the crazy traffic scenes ensuing in front of us.

Day 4 (13 Aug)

We wake up and eat our last breakfast at Blue Lime. We get on the bus (which does NOT look like the one in the pictures!) and take the 6 hour ride up to Siem Reap. Eventually arriving there we are picked up by Pen, a Tuk-Tuk driver, who works for Golden Temple Villa where we’ll reside for our final 6 days in Siem Reap.

We are so impressed by Pen’s English and friendliness, we impulsively book him for the evening to take us to Phnom Bakheng (famous for its sunsets). That evening we stop at the ticket booths, where people are eagerly waiting for them to open up. We’ve decided to buy the 3 day temple pass for $40. This means we can go to the temples any 3 days during a 7 day period (according to the dates on your ticket). The one day pass is $20…

Excited and eager as we are, we climb the smallish mountain to the top to view the sunset from Bakheng. Be warned though, you will NOT be the only people there. Upon arrival we see (which at that moment seemed like the whole of SE Asia) a long queue of people, all awaiting their chance to go up. Wait in the queue, go up, fight for a spot, view the sunset, walk down. Except for the hundreds of people it was still nice, and I got a nice time-lapse of the sun setting. We book Pen for the next day’s travels among the temples.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Day 5 (14 Aug)

4:30 am we wake up. Pen picks us up outside of Golden Temple Villa at 5 am and we are off to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

This is one of the most spectacular things we’ve ever experienced! It is absolutely breathtaking watching the sun rise slowly behind Angkor Wat and seeing the skies change colour.

We knew we would come back to do a proper tour of Angkor Wat, so we took a leisurely stroll trough the site in the fresh morning air and went for breakfast at a restaurant just outside the complex. Then we continued with our plan for the day: the “small circuit”. We moved to the Angkor Thom temple complex where we walked around and saw the Bayon (37 standing towers with stone faces, representing Jayavarman VII), climbed up for the view from Baphuon, walked the jungle route to Phimeanakas and ended at the

Bayon

Terrace of the Lepper King and also the Terrace of the Elephants (where the king sat and watched the “games”).

Angkor Thom Victory Gate

We rode through the beautiful Victory Gate,

and stopped at Spean Thma and Thommanon. We walked around the unfinished Ta Keo which has an interesting history. Construction stopped after lightning struck the temple, and it was perceived as being a bad omen… We moved along to the famous Ta Prohm, which got its fame after scenes from Tomb Raider were shot there. It’s spectacular to see how the trees seem to be trying to ‘take back’ their jungle by growing in and over the ruins. It was amazing seeing this in person as we’ve always seen the pictures. We finished the ‘small circuit’ at Banteay Kdei, which was also beautiful.

Ta Prohm

Banteay Kdei

After a busy day of exploring, we arrived back at our hotel and received our complimentary 30min Khmer massage (which was very nice after the long day). We walked around in the night markets and even stopped for a Dr. Fish foot massage for $2 (this price includes a beer each!). We later had dinner at Golden Temple Club where they have an Apsara dance show every night which was nice to see.

Day 6 (15 Aug)

We’ve decided that today we will do the “Grand Tour Circuit”. This include the temples of Pre Rup (funeral temple), Banteay Samre, East Mebon, Ta Som (awesome; also with roots growing through the walls), Neak Pean and Preah Khan. We go through all of the temples on our own pace, and (according to Pen) finish quite early. He says that it usually takes people the whole day. So with the extra time we ask Pen to drop us off at Angkor Wat, where we can experience it at a nice leisurely pace. We sought out a nice tree with a lot of shade and a nice view of Angkor Wat in front of us, and just took it in. We had a little picnic and it was nice to ‘slow down’ for a while. We later moved in and explored the complex at a sedate pace. Absolutely amazing. The magnitude and the complexity of the building with its detailed carvings is difficult to put into words. This is a memory we’ll cherish forever! Bucket list, check.

Ta Som

Day 7 (16 Aug)

We felt we needed a day of just doing nothing. We got some rickety old bikes (free of charge from our hotel, go figure) and explored a bit of Siem Reap on them – although it was damn hot! We went for another massage that afternoon for a whole hour, so goooood! That night for dinner we didn’t want to head in to the busy center, so we ate close by. We had dinner at a small place, Green Curry, where we ate a cheap (I think $2) but delicious dinner. We even met some people from Germany and shared some travel stories…

Day 8 (17 Aug)

We wanted to feel like students again, so we booked a cooking class 🙂 The cooking class was at the Golden Temple Club. We started the ‘class’ with a very interesting guided tour of the morning market where many of the hotels and restaurants go to buy their fresh products. We saw fish, meat, sausages,

Cooking Class

chicken legs, vegies, fruits, live tortoise, eels, crabs, you name it, it’s most probably there. Back at the restaurant, we start with our menu: I decided to make fried spring rolls, amok and pumpkin desert, whereas Marené made a mango salad, Khmer curry and banana dessert. Let me tell you this, it tasted beautifully! We were so full after this we had to go and lie down at the hotel for a while. It was nice to see firsthand what spices and ingredients they use to get that amazing taste and special character in the foods.

That night we go for some happy hour beers. I can just imagine the chaos that will ensue if we had some of our mates there with us; I mean, $1 for TWO draft beers! Yes sir, you read that right. Later we walked through the night market, and I scored the bargain of my life: a nice hammock for $3, I kid you not.

Selling art on the streets

Day 9 (18 Aug)

We pack our bags, get ready to check out and indulge ourselves in the last big breakfast at Golden Temple Villa. Our flight is only at 11:23 pm, so we’ve still got a whole day ahead of us, and we still have a day left on our ‘3 day pass’. So we planned to take a trip out to the famous waterfall Kbal Spean and en route back stop at Banteay Srei and a last look at Ta Prohm.

On our way to Kbal Spean (where the waterfall is with stone carvings in the riverbed rocks) we encounter a huge rainstorm. The weather seemed perfect whilst still in Siem Reap, but an hour and a half later it was a totally different story… Cherry on top of the cake; we settled for a new tuk-tuk driver (after much bargaining about the price), and only after pulling away we could hear the sound of the motorbike that needs to take us on this rather lengthy trip for the day… Let’s just say it sounded like children playing drums on old ‘koffie blikke’ mixed with the sound of an old Massey Ferguson on its last legs. At least the driver trusted his steed to make it the distance, or did he just hope for the best!?

Kbal Spean

Anyway, on we went, gearing down two gears for every suggestion of a hill. A few km’s before we arrive at Kbal Spean we encounter the rainstorm. We stop and roll down the sidings…pfff… what a joke. I think we would’ve been drier just leaving them up; we both had to sit and hold on to the tarp so that it doesn’t blow away and to keep SOME of the rain out. Finally arriving there, the dirt road is already partially flooded, and need I mention there were quite a few potholes, some rather big and filling up. On we go; the driver revving the bike in the red and the engine screaming. We skid along the (now clayish) road, because slowing down will mean getting bogged down in the clay. We can actually see the parking area around the next bend, and then it happens… We can feel the tuk-tuk skidding and suddenly we are being thrown on our sides. We just got a grip and held on to our stuff. Luckily we weren’t going too fast and there weren’t to much damage, except for a few dents.

Well, no use just sitting there, I had to get out and help. It was like standing under a waterfall; I was drenched in like 5 seconds. I took in the scene and saw the driver tried to avoid a particularly muddy patch, but his momentum and angle wasn’t good enough, causing the tuk-tuk to fall over. I helped him push the tuk-tuk upright and eventually out of the mud (after a lot of pushing and revving again!). Luckily we could continue and the trip didn’t have to end prematurely. Phew, all this drama on the last day!

The hike to the waterfall and the engravings was about 1.5 km. It was so worth it. The engravings in the rocks are in the flow of the river and it kind of looks out-of-place. I mean, it’s IN the river! The hike through the forest was also nice. It has a very remote and wild atmosphere about it walking through it in the rain and all. The rain also accentuated the colours, smells and sounds of the jungle.

Banteay Srei

On our way back we visited the beautiful temple Banteay Srei. This temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is built largely from sandstone, which made the detailed and intricate carvings you can still see today, possible. The buildings here are miniature in scale (which is unusual when compared to other Angkorian endeavors) and therefore very popular among tourists; many people say it’s the ‘jewel of Khmer art’. The title I would say is most fitting, because the carvings and scenes depicted are spectacular and the red colour of the sandstone adds to its unique beauty. I’m glad we made time to see this.

Last stop on our 3rd day of temple hopping was Ta Prohm again. We felt we might have missed something the previous time, so we took another stroll around. We rounded this one corner and saw this huge tree growing in or over this one wall, totally enveloping it. And we missed this one the first time, but this time round I could get some awesome pictures of  it.

Banteay Srei

We made it back, without breaking down! I seriously doubt that motorbike have many more trips to the temples left in it… We already checked out, but they were kind enough to let us use a shower after that sweaty, muddy and wet day. We cleaned up and strolled around Siem Reap to pass the time. We had our last dinner and happy hour draft beers, and slowly said good bye to the place.

Cambodia absolutely, by far exceeded our expectations. Cambodia wasn’t exactly the first option for summer vacation (various reasons), but we are so happy that it turned out that way. Not my words here or even the videos and hundreds of pictures we took can fully explain our experience as a whole. The sites themselves and the history that comes with them left us in awe. You walk among the ruins and you feel like you’re taking a leap back in time. Cambodia comes highly recommended. It’s an amazing adventure and ‘gripping story’ for anyone seeking something different.

Preah Khan

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