Our initial plan had been to spend a few days at the beaches of Sihanoukville, but the monsoon weather laughed at our idea of a few idyllic beach days. Instead we decided to just head to Siem Reap and spend more time there. We left Phnom Penh by way of a six hour bus ride through the Cambodian countryside, reaching Siem Reap in the evening and settling into our hotel for the night. Searching for a hotel in Siem Reap is not for the faint of heart, as there are over 200 hotel options as well as guesthouses and air bnbs. We got so sick of poring over seemingly identical options that we just picked one and booked two days there as a start. Turned out, the rooms were dark and dingy and it was a hotel that seemed to cater exclusively to Chinese tourists. This is not in an of itself a bad thing, but I felt like a secondary tourist attraction at breakfast time when the Chinese would openly stare at me. I guess this is what the statues at Angkor Wat feel like. Huh.
We spent the next day wandering around Siem Reap, orienting ourselves, and finding a new place to stay. Having read travelogues that talk about a pleasant stroll through town and happening upon the perfect little guesthouse, this was what I imagined. Instead, we found ourselves sweating in the tropical heat to check out “air bnb”s that were just hotels, and not very appealing ones at that. I finally looked at a hotel on the side of the river, which was lovely, with wooden ceilings and a quaint, airy feel. I actually bargained a bit for the price (!) and we had a new place to stay.
Siem Reap is far more pleasant than Phnom Penh. While there are still every manner of vehicle going every which way on the streets, there are far fewer of them and you can actually breathe the air. I was surprised by how touristy Siem Reap is. The main drag is actually called “Pub street” and is decorated with lanterns. I’m sure in the wee hours of the night this becomes a rowdy alleyway! There’s still plenty of actual town life, as seen in the market pics below.Yesterday we went to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, and saw “the big three,” Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Our tour guide gave us the option to leave at 5 am for sunrise or 9 am if we wanted to leave later. Eric gave me a look when I chirped, “Oooh, the sunrise tour at 5!” However, I made the executive decision that we’d do it. I mean, when will we ever be here again? We all sleepily made our way out of the room with all our luggage as we were checking out of that place and met our guide, San Pork, who was funny, energetic and a delight to spend the day with. Once at the ticket booth, they asked to see the kids’ passports to verify they qualified for the under 12 free ticket. Everyone looked at me as I am the official holder of the passports. I looked at everyone with a “Oh, sure!” smile on my face and took one step back to go to the car to get them. At this point, I froze and the blood drained out of my face as I realized I had left the passports in the hotel room safe, which was about a twenty minute drive away. As I am dark skinned, the draining of the blood did not change my outward appearance, but I assure you it happened. Eric just looked at me like I was a rank idiot.
Our guide smooth talked the ticket sellers into letting us visit, we called the hotel (who didn’t understand me at all and just thought I wanted to book another night), and then we took off for Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is a 900 year old temple in the middle of a vast set of temple complexes and ruins and is known as the largest religious site in the world. Each wall surrounding the temple is nearly a kilometer long, and it’s oriented in cardinal directions. I wonder how ancient peoples did this – did they have some type of compass or did they just watch for the movement of the sun?
Sunrise, unfortunately, was not happening due to the thick cloud cover, but this did make the morning cooler. We sat at a little outdoor overpriced tourist restaurant and the kids and I ordered bread and butter, expecting a few pieces of toast. Instead, we each had a full sized baguette plopped in front of us, balancing precariously on a tiny plate, while the chickens clucked around us hopefully. We looked at each other and just started laughing. We ate what we could and bagged up the rest as San said we could give it to some kids along the way.
Angkor Wat is, of course, beautiful. Every superlative you’ve heard is accurate. Sandstone walls covered in green lichen surround courtyards. The external walls are carved in stunning bas relief sculpture depicting Hindu epics and myths. Angkor Wat has had significant restoration efforts over the years, hampered by the civil war and looting, and there is still a long way to go.
We left Angkor Wat, retrieved our passports, and then drove to Prom Preah, noted for the trees that have seemingly eaten up the temple there and also for Angelina Jolie cavorting about them half dressed as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. When Angkor Wat was initially found prior to restoration, it looked much like this. The trees burrow themselves into the foundations of the stone, and split it apart. Eventually, our guide told us, the government will have to cut the trees down to preserve the site. It almost seems a shame in a way, to reckon with the forces of nature to reclaim itself from the stones.
Last was Angkor Thom, a later temple on the site which was erected during the time of buddhism. Large peaceful faces gaze out upon you from four sides of each tower – the king did this to preserve the peace between Hindus and Buddhists as the country was in a state of religious transition. Hindu? No problem! These are the four faces of Brahma! Buddhist? All good! These are all depictions of Buddha looking out upon you.
We went back to Siem Reap and checked into our new hotel. We’d been awake and going for eight hours and it was JUST barely 1 PM. Oof. Eric gathered the clothes to drop off at a local laundry and the kids took showers, and after a bit of down time we decided to head into the city. I’ll replay the ensuing conversation for you:
Me: “Hey kids, get dressed so we can get out of here!
Both kids, wearing only a shirt “Umm…we have no pants.”
Me: “Angkor WHAT?!?!”
So, when Eric had been gathering clothes for laundry, the kids were playing a game on the iPad and didn’t want to stop. Instead of actually checking to see what was clean or not, they just chucked ALL of their clothes into the laundry. Which would not be ready until tomorrow. As you might imagine, Eric and I were not pleased with this situation. The boy had to dry his swim shorts off with a hair dryer and we put the girl in a nightdress with a pair of the boy’s boxers underneath and made for the market where we got her a pair of baggy pants for $2.50. Honestly.