The Angkor is uniquely enigmatic and truly charming. We fall in love with this ancient kingdom. Why didn’t we visit this place earlier when it is just 2 hours away from our doorstep?
September school term break is here. Like so many unplanned adventures before, I booked an impromptu surprise trip for the family to 2015’s newly awarded World’s Best Tourist Site (Read: 2015 Best Tourist Attraction) – the majestic Angkor Wat (吴哥窟). I saw a promotion on Cathay Fanfare website and bought the tickets 3 days before. Felicia and Elkan didn’t know where they were heading until we arrived at the Hong Kong airport. Felicia noticed something was amiss on the highway and remarked that the taxi was heading the wrong way. I lied to them early that morning that we were going for a 2-day hiking trip at nearby Shenzhen. However, I did left a little hint the night before our trip. I played the movie “Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie. Elkan loves the movie as he is a fan of the playstation game (which he completed with Harshad back in June).
Keeping the suspense right until the immigration counter, Felicia thought we were heading to Bali. Elkan had little patience and kept pestering us for the destination. The moment the boarding passes were issued, Elkan snatched them from the counter. Despite having the answer in his hand, he remained clueless where Siem Reap was. The expressions on their faces were priceless! And of course, Felicia finally knew the answer and she connected all the dots!
This was a short 2D3N weekend vacation. Thanks to my lovely colleague Olivia (who was there a few days before us), she recommended a very new and beautiful boutique Cambodian-French hotel to us – The Viroth Hotel. Centrally located 15-minute drive to Angkor Wat and a short 10-minute walk to the popular Pub Street and Old Market, the hotel provides a very clean, spacious, quiet, stylish and comfortable stay. I love the decor of our rooms and its extremely friendly, warm staffs.
Before our trip, I was quite worried about the rainy weather. September is Cambodia’s wettest and most humid season. This is also the country’s lull travel season, that was why the air tickets were on sale.
Thankfully, we were blessed with great sunny blue-sky weather throughout our trip. Best of all, we hired an amazing, friendly, honest and sincere local English-speaking tour guide, Piseth, who brought us to all the “must-see” sites! He is such a brilliant guide who knows where and when to go in order to avoid the bus-loads of noisy Chinese tour groups. I can understand why the peaceful Thai people dislike the Chinese tour groups. In big groups, they can be annoyingly rowdy and disturbing. I encountered a few rowdy Chinese tourists who climbed on restricted structure ignoring warning by the local park rangers. Nevertheless, the local turn a blind as the Chinese do bring in a lot of economical value for the country.
Traveling around Siem Reap is a breeze. There are many tuk-tuks waiting outside hotels and key shopping areas. Traveling from city center to the Angkor Archaeological Park takes less than an hour. A tuk-tuk can be rented as low as USD2/hour and we saw many tourists commuting on them. Shamelessly, we were pampered tourists (with a lot of photographic gears) who need aircon and skipped the more traditional tuk-tuk. We got ourselves a big 4-wheel drive car with lots of leg-room (cost us an average USD40/day). The weather was extremely humid and Piseth prepared umbrella, cold drinks and disposable towels for us at every attraction.
Here are the Top 11 Moments of our 2-day temple run.
Piseth was very helpful to help us plan a well-balanced tour. Enjoy the photos and short stories of our little adventure!
NUMBER 1 – SUNRISE AT THE HEART OF ANGKOR – THE TEMPLE OF ANGKOR WAT (吴哥窟)
We were surprised and humbled by the sheer size of the Angkor Archaeological Park. Spanning over 400km2 , the 700-year old ancient site is amazingly huge! UNESCO World Heritage rated this as one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. It is impossible to visit the entire heritage site in just 1-2 days. Each site took us more than an hour to explore. Misinformed by popular belief, we were under the false impression that there was only one giant heritage structure by the name of Angkor Wat (like the “Forbidden City of Beijing”). On the contrary, Angkor Wat means “capital temple”. There are over 1,000 magnificent structures (temples, shrines, tombs) littered around this massive site. To enjoy all the key sites meaningfully, it takes about 3-7 days! This is the reason why there are 1-day or multiple-day tickets. A day pass cost us USD20 each and children under 12 is free (they are strict and they need to see the passport to verify the age).
It was challenging to wake up at 4am in the morning to catch this magnificent sight. The sun rises early in September and we almost miss the most important moment. By the time we got there, there were hundreds of shutterbugs by the lotus moat waiting for the first ray of sun. Considering this was the lull travel season, I cannot imagine how crowded this space will be during the peak travel season from November to February.
Was it worth waking up that early? Certainly, 100% yes! Afterall, this is the heart of the world’s largest city in the 12th century with thousands of carvings and countless sculptural decorations. And it’s much cooler to visit the temples early in the morning before the blazing sun and crowd.
NUMBER 2 – SMILING BODHISATTVA AT THE BAYON TEMPLE (巴戎寺), ANGKOR THOM
Located just 2km away from the Angkor Wat Temple, the real adventure began right inside the ancient walled city, Angkor Thom (meaning “Great City”). To enter, we crossed a bridge with mystical statues flanked on both sides. The Bayon Temple sits in the center of Angkor Thom. Housing 37 towers and 216 giant walls of smiling Bodhisattva (some historians argued that the faces could be someone else), the Bayon Temple is one of the “must-visit” distinctive sites around Angkor.
NUMBER 3 – THE PINK TEMPLE, BANTEAY SREI (女王宫)
The Pink Temple or the Banteay Srei is a small temple but it housed some of the most well-preserved intricate carvings and sculptured wall murals around the area. Carved using red sandstone, the temple glows vibrantly in pinkish red colour under the sun.
NUMBER 4 – THE TOMB RAIDER TEMPLE, TA PROHM (塔普伦)
Made popular by Hollywood’s action movie, Tomb Raider – the The Ta Prohm Temple is an ancient ruined site with very distinctive character. Slowly consumed by the jungle, the temple has been intentionally left in the same condition when it was originally found. Its founder decided Ta Prohm to be left alone, as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.” Simply eerily enchanting, this is indeed an explorer and photographer’s haven!
NUMBER 5 – SUNSET AT THE LARGEST LAKE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA -TONIE SAP LAKE (洞里萨湖)
After temple-running exhaustively for over 6 hours, we went onboard a relaxing 90-minute “Sunset Boat” (USD20/person, we had a boat to ourselves) and sailed out into the vast lake. At first, we thought this was the sea but our guide corrected us. Commonly known as the “Great Lake”, the Tonie Sap Lake has been an important source of livelihood for both the ancient and present city of Siem Reap. Covering an area from 2,500 km2 during the dry season to over 16,000 km2 during the wet season, this is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. There, we saw many floating houses and shops where you can buy local souvenirs and food. What a great place to end the long tiring day! (Note: Go only during a clear day. The boat ride can be rocky and this may not be suitable for those who has motion-sickness)
NUMBER 6 – CROSSING “THE RIVER OF A THOUSAND LINGAS” – KBAL SPEAN
Only discovered in 1969 on the valley of Phnom Kulen National Park, the river consists of strange ancient stone carvings (Lingas -a very complex symbol of Hinduism representing energy and strength) in sandstone formations carved deep into the river bed and banks. Built by the kings in the early 11th century, it is believed that these scared Lingas will bless the water flowing into Angkor. It is amazing that the water erosion didn’t fade off these ancient markings. The Phnom Kulen National Park is located about 50km from Siem Reap and it is considered as a scared mountain by the local people. The National Park charges USD20/adult for entry.
NUMBER 7- SLEEPING ROCK BUDDHA AT WAT PREAH ANG THOM
Visitors must remove their shoes before they climb up the shrine to see the reclining “Sleeping Rock Buddha”. On the way up to the shrine, we saw a lot of shops selling “Cambodian notes”. At first, I thought those stacks of money were paper-money that we burn to offer the dead. I was told that those real notes are for visitors to offer to the young, weak and old. For less than 3USD, we got a stack of notes which we distributed to the local people sitting by the sides of the stairs. A very strange ritual indeed.
NUMBER 8 – DIPPING AT PHNOM KULEN WATERFALLS
This is certainly one of the key highlights of our trip – 2 waterfalls at Phnom Kulen! Definitely a first for us – our first swim under the waterfall (15m tall)! It was extremely refreshing to relax and cool our warm bodies after 2 long days of walking! There are makeshift changing rooms and lockers for visitors to lock up their valuables while they are in the pool. Water is about 1-2m deep and visibility is so so. Just be careful of the uneven rocks below, it can be slippery and sharp. Remember to bring a waterproof camera along!
NUMBER 9 – THE RUINS OF BENG MEALEA TEMPLE (崩密列)
Located 70km away from Siem Reap, the Beng Mealea Temple is another “must-visit” temple. Entry ticket is charged at USD5/pax. Built to the same floorplan as Angkor Wat, this is a very photogenic site with lots of dense vegetations covering the structures. Similar to Ta Prohm Temple, it is heavily consumed by large trees, vines and moss. We felt so small under its rubbles. I had some of my very best shots here. On the way out of the ruins, we have to walk through a dark narrow chamber. Yes, in true Tomb Raider style!
NUMBER 10 – STREET GOODIES
On our way to the temples, we drove past many street stalls. Piseth made a couple of stops and offered us these yummy local street goodies (palm sweets, red bananas, lotus seeds and bamboo rice).
NUMBER 11 – SHOPPING AT OLD MARKET, SIEM REAP
For tourists who want to bring home a souvenir from Cambodia, this is the place to go. There are a lot of souvenir shops and restaurants here. Many close at around midnight. I was not really impressed with the old market and pub street. Many of the items here are overpriced and the variety is so so. Shopping here can be tiring as you never know the true price. You can easily bargain off up to 70% off the initial price. Comparing with Vietnam and Thailand, Siem Reap isn’t a shopping haven for bargain-hunters like us. Many shops do not take in old torn US dollar too.
Overall, the Angkor is truly an amazing ancient city for travellers! Although many of its attractions are in ruins and buried, the city has so much more treasures and stories for us to discover. Every site is different and it takes time for one to fully absorb its rich history. It truly deserves its Number One spot as 2015 Lonely Planet Attraction!
With our very experienced tour guide, Piseth, we managed to visit many key sites during our 2-day stay. It was an eye-opening and meaningful trip for all of us. There is so much history, soul and character in this place that make it special. There are so much for us to learn from. Even for my son, he learnt the meaning of poverty and empathised with the child-labourers/hawkers working on the streets. It was a humbling experience for all of us. For certain, the city is growing and changing by the day. I encourage all of you to come by before commercialisation ruins its authenticity and dilute its culture.
For those who want to tour around Siem Reap, you may contact our young and friendly English-speaking local guide, Piseth directly (photo above) at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at +855 96-5454-999. One of the great things we like about Piseth is there is no hidden cost and he will share any cost with us before we arrive at the destination. Also, he was so helpful in guiding us what to see and spot during our tours. Thanks to his guidance, I managed to get many great shots! As the Angkor area is so big, it is good if you chat with Piseth on your plans before you make the trip. Travel safe and enjoy Cambodia!