Some years ago, my parents were given a coffee table book called "Sacred Places of Asia". Ever since I got my first glimpse of Angkor Wat in the pages of that book, I've promised myself I would see it someday.
The temples of Angkor are adjacent to a town called Siem Reap, which is where everyone hangs out in the evenings between temple visits. It's an absolutely huge tourist destination (many people fly in and out of Siem Reap's airport and never see the rest of Cambodia) and the sheer number of fancy hotels around town gives you an idea of how much money's pouring in. Obviously being a tourist must-see tends to compromise the authenticity of a place, and Siem Reap itself doesn't offer much beyond restaurants, pubs, and lots and lots of souvenir shops. But you pretty much have to stay there in order to enjoy the temples, which, if you're really serious about them, take several days to fully explore.
The scam at Angkor is that you can either buy a one-day pass for $20 or a three-day pass for $40, both of which are ridiculously expensive but the latter at least offers some sort of price deal on multiple days. The temple ruins encompass an area of land that's really quite enormous - you can't expect to just walk it. Most tourists arrange to hire a tuk-tuk driver for three days through their hotel, which is what we did too.
Our first morning we set off around 8 a.m. for Angkor Wat, the most famous of all the Angkor temples. I was actually a little disappointed that there were so many other people around at that hour, but I guess it's like of like Disneyland that way- you'll never really have it all to yourself. And except for the wide shots, they never really got in the way of good pics. And speaking of pics, the temple itself is just jaw-dropping. Unreal. Not only is it massive in scale, but covered in intricate stone carvings that blow your mind. The fact that it wasn't torn to pieces during the anti-religion years of the Khmer Rouge warms my heart, because nobody's ever going to build anything like it again. Some of the climbing involved is extremely dangerous though, and tourists have actually died here after clumsy falls. You sort of wonder why they continue to let people scramble up some of those steps, but I was thankful for the views from the top.
After Angkor Wat, our driver took us to Angkor Thom, another pretty spectacular temple featuring a ton of big stone faces. We climbed around a lot. Up next was Ta Phrom, a temple most known for going back to nature dramatically. We took way too many photos . After that... um, I don't remember. Some other lovely temples. There are honestly so many that they start to blend together after a while. It was a fun day, but it was a long day.
The next morning we were up early again to tackle the next cluster of temples, but our enthusiasm was running out much faster than on day one, and the problem was obvious: we'd seen the best temple right off the bat, and nothing else could compare to Angkor Wat, size or detail-wise. That's not to say we weren't impressed overall- every temple is really an awesome display of architecture and decoration in its own way - but I would have preferred doing our route backwards and saving Angkor Wat for the very end of our tour. That way, we'd have gone out with a bang. Instead, we were exhausted and templed-out at the end of day two and had no intention of setting our alarm for day three.
Some travelers insist Angkor Wat is overrated and can be done in one day, and then there are those who swear you could spend a week temple-trekking without ever getting bored. It just depends on your stamina and interest level. For us, one day wouldn't have been enough, two full days were plenty, and my cousin with an archeology degree would probably need seven. I do think it's hands-down one of the coolest places I've ever visited and am so glad I can now say I've actually been there.
Anyway, at the end of day two, B and I met up with our fellow Cambodian travelers Simon and Meg (who we'd bumped into earlier in the day at a temple, naturally) for dinner and drinks on Pub Street in Siem Reap. For some inexplicable reason I decided to start ordering vodka red bulls, and for some even more inexplicable reason the four of us stayed up drinking them until around 3 a.m. B and I had already decided not to exercise our third day temple pass, but our friends were still planning on using theirs. I can only imagine how crappy that next morning was. Vodka red bulls should be globally illegal. Guys, hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip! It was great fun touring with you!
Siem Reap marked the end of our time in Cambodia, and although our next official destination was Bali, Indonesia, our plane tickets called for a 24-hour layover in Bangkok first. In the interest of time, we'd reluctantly decided to cut Thailand out of our itinerary during our travel planning, so even though the layover was somewhat inconvenient, we felt like at least this way we were getting our "one night in Bangkok" after all. As a side note, my dad used to love that song so much he owned the 45. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you're making me feel old. Go buy yourself a Shirley Temple.
The Murray Head fascination continues in my next blog entry... coming soon!