After sunset at Angkor Wat, we began our following day at sunrise. The big thing is to get to Angkor Wat and sit around the pools facing the main temple. People scramble all over the banks. Vendors come by and will sell you full breakfasts, served at your spot, with instant coffee. We opted to forego picnic breakfast and get a sit down breakfast at one of the few restaurants later on. Instead, in the grass, by the water, with the early morning hum we waited for the sun. As it rises in the sky it casts the reflection of the temples into the pools.
Many say it's equally, if not more, remarkable to go to other nearby temples at this time that are less crowded. I'd believe it, but I have to say, there's no experience that's not worthwhile. Plus, the crowds are sort of fun. You almost feel like you're waiting for a pre-dawn Bowie show.
When the sky was light we headed to Blue Pumpkin, one of the few nearby restaurants. Blue Pumpkin feels like a park restaurant. The prices are way high for Cambodia but not so high in general. We were able to get much better coffee and good meals as we fueled up for the day ahead.
|On the road to Angkor Thom. This bridge is surrounded by statues pulling the naga serpents.|
Some opt to see the temples in group tours. This can be a great way to get history and context. There are many options here but some involve riding in an air conditioned bus between the temples. Some of the temples are pretty far from one another so this isn't a bad idea!
Smaller tours can be arranged chauffeured in cars. What we opted for, and many do, is a chauffeured tour in a tuk tuk. This meant that our tuk tuk took us on a route that managed the crowds so we weren't always going to the most popular temples at once but we also didn't miss out. When we finished at one temple site we got back in our tuk tuk and moved on. The tuk tuks are open air so it's a lovely way to feel the breeze and take in the sites. The drivers also keep cool water for you. On long days they take you to a restaurant somewhere on the grounds. In exchange for bringing you to the restaurant, they receive a free meal from the restaurant. Weirdly, some tourists feel scammed by this. Sure, you could ask your tuk tuk driver to take you to some further afield restaurant that won't give them a meal but do you want to be that person? Think long and hard about poverty rates in Cambodia before getting high and mighty. Your tuk tuk driver knows what's up. Let it happen! These guys work hard. Tip them!
The last option for visiting the temples is to ride a bike. The land is very flat but the roads are not so well labelled. Also, you're weaving in and out of aggressive tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars, and vans. I would like to ride a bike with more time but I can see it intimidating some!
For small stretches, you'll see elephants off to the side with the invitation to tourists to ride them. DO NOT DO IT. These elephants are treated very badly. This is a bad deal for all involved. Don't support this industry by engaging. There are some great elephant sanctuaries where animals are given the space and freedom to live their lives. Support those instead!
Angkor Thom leads to Bayoun, one of the most striking temples. Huge faces peer in every direction. Surrounding the temple proper there are several other worship areas with Buddhist monks. You'll find this throughout the temples of Angkor Wat. If you make an offering to the fire the monk will give you blessings. Be sure to watch locals to understand appropriate behavior. Usually, it's expected that you shed your shoes when approaching an icon.
All of the temples also have a bit of a carnival feeling as they are surrounded by a few shop stalls set up under tarps. Families sell tee-shirts and coconuts while the kids run around under foot. Every now and then there's a park bathroom. If you ask your guide or driver, they'll direct you appropriately.
The Royal Palace includes this pool where kings used to swim and now local kids sometimes do. This is also where we did our "we're in a very public place" test. Kevin put some coins in his pockets that he wouldn't mind losing. Sure enough, he'd been cleaned out. It's a good test to remind you that in crowds folks know what they're doing. We kept passports locked up in the safe at the hotel and only a little bit of money stashed pretty well on us! No major losses.
Chao Say Tevoda is devoted to Shiva. It was beautiful to move between spaces intended for Hindu and Buddhist devotion. Same same.
Takeo had many images of Nandi, Shiva's bull. This also gave some perspective on how high up you can climb in these temples.
Again, we shot for perspective. The weathered steps are very narrow and can be slippery as they're so smooth. Keen sandals were great as they provide ventilation, some shelter from the sun, and good traction. Going up the steps wasn't as bad-- climbing up never is, right? Coming down felt fairly treacherous. We took it nice and slow.
Some are truly ambitious and want to see as many temples as possible. We were interested in moving a bit more slowly so we called it a day and returned to the temples the following morning. Hence, the week long pass! At Pre Rup temples were devoted to both Shiva and Vishnu.
Shiva's lion, Narasimha.
As we loaded back in the tuk tuk, our driver warned us that heading to Banteay Srei was a long drive. We settled in and wound through the Cambodian country-side for about 45 minutes. We passed houses on stilts, long, low fields, museums to land mines, orphanages for survivors, local projects in arts and folk history, town centers, and open space. When we arrived to Banteay Srei proper we saw that the temples have been set up as their own individual park with organic land management on the periphery of the property. These pigs were chowing down in the green rice paddies.
The dusty red temples at Banteay Srei were some of my favorite. So beautiful and under such hot sun.
Another formidable tuk tuk ride took us to East Mebon, where we encountered these friendly guys watching out from every corner of the temple site.
Neak Pean is one of the more unique temple sites. While many temples have moats, there is a huge body of water surrounding Neak Pean. The water is filled with lilies, lotuses, and darting fish. You walk down a long pier as land mine survivors play beautiful Cambodian folk music.
The temple proper is an island within more water. The site is dedicated to Lokesvara, the Buddha of compassion.
Ta prohm is sort of a crowd favorite. These are the temples shown in Lara Croft. The Angkor Wat temples have always been known by local worshippers, but like most good things, Europeans "discovered" them after the fact. When French explorers encountered the temples most looked like this-- half absorbed back into the landscape. Most temples have been carefully extricated and staff work to preserve them. Ta prohm has been purposefully left in the found state so visitors get a sense of the interaction between the temples and land. It's dramatic and beautiful.
The savannah surrounding the temples reminded me of Zambia-- arid, shrubby, and beautiful. The land and the temples feel magical. A friend asked me if my photos had a special filter or if it was "magic Cambodian light." Some photos are filtered to better show the details but honestly, the filters try to capture what was honestly there-- magic Cambodia.