Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Siem Reap, Cambodia (2008)

We had an early morning flight to Siem Reap, so we were down to breakfast by 7am. Everything went smoothly except we were a bit surprised by the departure tax; luckily it was only $6 per person. Despite it only being a 35 minute flight, Siem Reap Airways served us a cucumber and egg sandwich, fruits, and juice. I had a little scare onboard when I discovered my hands were shaking and thought I was getting sick, but then D pointed out it was likely the four cups of delicious coffee that I had had with breakfast. Oops.

We were checked into our hotel, La Maison D'Angkor, well before noon. The hotel staff was happy to arrange a tuk-tuk driver for us for the rest of the day (12-6pm) for $15. For lunch we had the driver take us to Shadow of Angkor, where the food was okay but the fresh watermelon juice were delicious.

Afterwards we started on the temples. First we went to the gigantic Angkor Thom, where we saw the famous Bayon with the giant faces:

Afterwards we proceeded to the Baphuon, the Terrace of Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King. I was most impressed with the Bayon; the Baphuon seemed like it was in worse shape, and it took us awhile to find the elephants, as they were not well marked:

From there we went to Ta Prohm and Phnom Bapkeng. Ta Prohm was my favorite; it's known as the jungle temple because there are giant trees growing all over it. I think it was also used to film part of the first Lara Croft movie.

Phnom Bapkeng was primarily popular with tourists because it offers a nice view of Angkor Wat at sunset. I was not that impressed with the view there, but I could have been biased because of the huge crowds.

We started again the next day at 4:30am in order to try to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We got there at 5:45am which was in plenty of time, but we still had to jostle for position among all of the tour groups and other early risers.

After sunrise, we stuck around and explored Angkor Wat for several hours, before driving out to Banteay Srei (we'd hired a car for the day for 55 USD), which is loosely translated as "citadel of women". I liked it very much; it was small but full of beautiful intricate carvings.

We also visited Kbal Spean, which is a site consisting of lots of stone lingas (phallic symbols) around a river. It required some hiking (35-40 minutes) to get to the carvings, and I wasn't too impressed by the carvings, but apparently they are notable because there are so many of them.

The driver that we'd hired turned out to speak English pretty well, which was an unexpected bonus. He gave a running commentary during the long drives, from which we actually learned a lot. For instance, it sounded like there was a lot of foreign investment in Cambodia (mostly Vietnamese and Korean) which meant that the locals weren't profiting that much from all the tourism. A daily wage of 1-2 USD was considered "good". He also had some comments about local politics which were over my head, and took us off the main roads to show us some traditional houses and villages (more like clusters of houses).

When we got back to the Siem Reap area, we went to Preah Khan and Neak Pean. The first was great; there were endless rectangular doors and tons of carvings. I remarked to D that it felt like it could have been computer-generated (which he thought was super geeky of me). Neak Pean consists of four "healing ponds" with an island in the center. It was nice to look at (and nearly deserted!) but I hear that it is much cooler when the ponds are full.

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