In Bangkok Liam and I managed to get a great deal on a bus journey into Siem Reap. Everything ran really smoothly up until the border where we were told by the new driver that we’d have to pay him $47 for our visa. Luckily, we both did our research beforehand and knew the visa at the border was $30. So we ignored their “advice” (despite the rest of our group staying behind) and went through the border without a problem. Avoiding a scam and saving nearly $40 by doing so was a solid start to our time in Cambodia! Once we made it to Siem Reap we had an early nights sleep, feeling ready and jazzed to go out and see one of the most picturesque sunrises out there. That is, until the rain started…
Our journey into Siem Reap was an eventful one!
The plan was for our tuk-tuk driver to come get us at 04:30 so we could get our ticket and see that epic Angkor Wat sunrise. Unfortunately, the weather had its own plans. Liam woke up at 4 and realised it had relentlessly rained all night with no sign of stopping until later in the morning. Being the hero that he is, he rearranged for our driver to come back at 8 when hopefully, the rain retreated a bit. I just slept… Luckily it did. Chang, our fantastic driver, still rode through probably 3” of rain on our journey to the ticket office. $124 dollars and an unflattering picture later and we had our 3-day ID pass in hand, ready to make the most of our time exploring the massive temple complex. It spans around 402 acres so honestly you could spend months out here and not be able to see it all.
Rain ponchos required
There are two well known loops to break up the visit to Angkor Wat: the large loop and the small loop. Or grand and small. big and little. Potato, potato. The big loop is the one we chose for day 1. Feeling the wind sweep our hair we looked out of our tuk tuk and were both immediately blown away by the sheer brilliance and scale of our first ruin site to explore. Pre Roup was built in the 10th century as a Hindu temple by King Rajendravarman II. Our first set of towering, porous steps stood before us beckoning us to climb up and explore the three structures atop while gazing down upon the jungle and ruins below.
What an epic first view onto the grounds!
Back on solid ground and off to a new location. Our eyes were immediately drawn up to four magnificent elephant statues standing guard at each corner of the temple, the protectors of East Mebon. This temple was also built in the 10th century and is often cited as the “Twin Temple” to Prasat Pre Roup. There’s a sense of grandeur that still hangs in the air here, and it must’ve been such a sight to behold during its glory days.
One of the mighty elephants of East Mebon
Piles of mossy rubble scattered in heaps around the grounds led us into Ta Som, a buddhist temple built in the 12th century. This site has been left in a greater state of ruin than the first two we saw, allowing for the imagination to run wild. Just try to reconstruct any of the fallen blocks into a variety of dazzling columns and arches. It’s pretty fun! The mystery of what figures stood here make visiting Ta Som all the more intriguing.
How often do you get the chance to sit on top of fallen ancient ruins? Gotta take that opportunity
A walk along a long boardwalk over the surrounding marshland took us to smallest temple we visited, Neak Pean. As we went across the rain started up again, it was amazing to see the hundreds of droplets hitting the surface of the water around us. Wild and wonderful. Being here during the rainy season also allowed us to see the temple surrounded by water, in the dry season we wouldn’t have seen this dramatic effect.
The peaceful walk to Neak Pean
Our final and most epic stop of the day was Preah Khan. A Buddhist temple built in the 12th century. Translated it means “Holy Sword” and was built to commemorate the victory over the neighbouring kingdom, the Chams. We spent almost an hour wandering amongst the ruins and tucking behind hidden doorways. After climbing down crumbled rocks we even got to see a heard of water buffalo casually grazing outside the ancient temple gates. A perfect visit. The best part about visiting during rainy season is that there are a fraction of the amount of other tourists visiting. For most of the day we were able to traipse about these incredible structures with only a handful of other people. It genuinely felt like a VIP experience! Plus no photobombs. Perfect!
Happily hanging out with just a few other people and countless statues
Eat, sleep, repeat. Our alarm goes off for the second day in a row at 4:00 a.m. only this time when we shut off the ringing there’s silence. No downpour of rain outside our window today! We eagerly ate our breakfast and met Chang for the dark ride out to see the star of the show: Angkor Wat at sunrise. Dashing quickly through the line of flashlights ahead of us we were able to make it to the front of the crowd. The best spot for that perfect picture. Slowly the soft light of dawn coasted onto the horizon behind the three towering pillars, all the while being reflected in a stunning mirror image on the pond below. Truly a marvel to witness.
The one, the only, Angkor Wat at sunrise
After traipsing up and down Angkor Wat we went on to the Angkor Thom Complex where we were able to see six different temples. This sounded pretty overwhelming, but something you quickly learn about Angkor Wat is that every location has its own unique attributes. This way no matter how many stops you make, each one stays memorable. Jumping amongst towering pillars with imposing stone smiling faces were several macaques. Three guesses what our lasting memory of Bayon Temple will be! A meeting of ancient stone and wild monkeys. As they look inquisitively at the carved faces you can’t help but wonder are they recognizing a piece of themselves as they do when they look at us?
Quiet moment of macaque introspection
A quick walk across the road and we were greeted by the Baphuon temple. A structure built in the 9th century with stairs that have degraded so far that a wooden set has been propped up above the original. The site lacks the natural features or grandeur of many other temples but does serve as an excellent example of what restoration work looks like. If either of us were archaeologists I’d imagine the technical aspects of this place would blow us away! Since we aren’t, we just settled for the jungle and ruins views.
Oh hey there blue skies! Thanks for being there for this great picture
Several arrows guided us towards the correct entrance to Phimenekas. Unfortunately the temple has been deemed unsafe to climb and no additional structures have been built upon the original steps so this is one we took a moment to admire from a distance. You can still see small examples of restoration on the temple, my favorite was this animal, which I assume was an elephant, propped up on wooden stilts giving it a sheep like appearance. Make do and mend!
The elephant – sheep hybrid in all its glory
Wandering down a forested path a clearing emerges where we were greeted by a entrance half covered by three glorious trees overtaking the structure below, the Prasat Preah Palilay temple. One of the most breathtaking things about the Angkor Wat experience is witnessing the moments of interplay between man-made structures and nature. Nature will always find a way to reclaim what’s rightfully hers. The conservation efforts here have done a fabulous job of allowing us to still see pieces of that. Some temples are left to crumble and honestly the place wouldn’t feel half as adventurous were that not the case.
Feeling strong and fearless next to these legends
Once back on the beaten path we came across an impressive wall filled with reliefs hidden under various stages of moss coverage. A quick peak around the corner and you find yourself wandering the halls of a zigging and zagging path; the Terrace of the Leper King. We assumed lepers were maybe kept here, but maybe they just wanted to build a fun maze! Because further research (a quick google) informed us that there used to be a statue on site that was so covered in moss it appeared to have leprosy. Either way this was a wonderful place to wander around. Part of the fun is letting your imagination get away from you. It’s your choice if you want google to tell you you’re completely wrong at the end!
Moss, a common symptom of statue leprosy
Once we found the exit to the unexpected maze we saw the final structure of Angkor Thom, the Elephant Terrace. You can still make out the rough shapes of the majestic elephant carvings that once stood here. It does live up to it’s name. But it doesn’t really live up to the rest of Angkor Thom.
BFF’s since the 10th century
A full day exploring the temples is not for the faint of heart. At this point we had already climbed up countless stairs at the previous temples, and if there’s one thing that stands out about Ta Keo it’s the sheer volume of stairs to add to that tally. We made it to the top after the most cautious climb up steps that were anywhere from a quarter to half the size of normal ones. As if their shrunken size wasn’t enough of a challenge they also had massive chunks missing. We’re basically ancient step experts at this point, and we rewarded ourselves with a splash of water and a view of the greenery below before our cautious, and even slower, descent.
Navigating these steps like a total pro
Lara Croft’s 2001 visit to Ta Prohm captured the mind of millions across the globe. So much so that visits to Angkor skyrocketed after the films release. That’s the power of a Hollywood movie I suppose! Still, it’s mad to think how much one movie can transform a city’s entire tourism economy. The temple itself is truly remarkable and clearly better than any film set could ever be. We sneaked around the rubble and hid behind trees erupting through the ruins pretending to track down the illuminati. It was the perfect Tomb Raider location experience and I’m so grateful we were able to visit during low season because it would’ve been absolutely impossible to move during high season. Often times guests have to queue to even get in. Gutted!
No safe place to hide when Bond and Tomb Raider cross paths
Our final stop was Banteay Kdei. Angkor has an unchallengeable place in the cultural history the world. But it has so much more resonance to the people of Cambodia and nowhere did we feel this was more evident. What has been a place of worship for both Hindu and Buddhist people for over a thousand years is still an active site of prayer and reflection today. Truly moving and a memory Liam and I will share forever. Long may it continue.
We couldn’t ask for a better final picture
Two days in the park was the perfect amount of time for us, allowing us to see everything we wanted without being rushed round at pace just to squeeze more in. So, tired and completely satisfied with our unforgettable visit to Angkor Wat we decided to spend our final day in Siem Reap avoiding the rain and enjoying some more delicious Cambodian food and drinks. Seriously, the food has blown us away here. We had zero expectations and 100% satisfaction. Just try the Fish Amok! And Beer Cambodia, while nothing particularly special, comes in at just 50 cents a pint… We managed to spend $7. So not a bad way to spend our last day in the city at all!
I’ve been Emily Colorado and you can check me out on Instagram
Cheers Siem Reap, we have had such a fantastic experience here!