I spent 3 full days in Siem Reap during which I went to Angkor each day. And even then, I still didn’t see every temple and site in the park. Angkor Wat was impressive enough that I went there twice, the first and third days, while I also visited Angkor Thom twice.
On the first day, I met up with my 3 Chinese friends and we rented bikes ($2 for a day) near our hotels to go to Angkor Wat. I don’t ride bikes much so I’d been a little worried as Angkor was half an hour’s ride from Siem Reap but once we rode past the town traffic and got to the outer roads, it was easy.
First we bought our park passes at the ticket center, which is actually outside of Angkor. I bought a 3-day pass which is cheaper and more convenient than buying a day pass 3 times. Your photo gets taken and put onto your pass, which you show whenever asked by guards around Angkor. The system is kind of casual since there are no fixed entrance posts but there are guards at every site. Cambodians get to go in completely free, which is a nice way for them to enjoy their heritage. Of course, many Cambodians go in to earn money, such as tuktuk drivers, vendors and hustlers.
Angkor Wat was our first stop and it was magnificent crowned by its distinctive three rounded towers from afar, and surrounded by a large moat that seemed like a river. We parked our bikes near a side gate of Angkor Wat, then got briefly waylaid by some grey monkeys on the path, who lazed around on the ground and posed, probably used to the many tourists who came this way.
Like me, these monkeys also found the view really nice.
Angkor Wat is impressive, which is still an understatement. The ancient temple is massive and while its outer façade is a bit worn (900-plus years would have that effect), its structures and walls are mainly intact, with a lot of empty space inside. Along the outer walls are intricate murals of battle and religious scenes, mostly inspired by Hinduism, with some Buddhist elements (different kings followed different faiths). Almost all of it is covered by reliefs of religious and mythical figures, sculpted on countless stone walls, gates and columns. It would be similar at other sites. Inside the walls, Angkor Wat comprises a main raised temple surrounded by an outer complex. You go up a 3-story high steel stair to reach the highest point.
Splendid battle scene showing giants fighting monkeys, with an elephants and even dogs involved along the outer wall.
The highest part of Angkor Wat.
I have to clarify something which also confused me before I went there.
When I say Angkor above, I don’t mean it as a shortening of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the most famous ancient structure in the area, being the world’s largest temple. But it is still just one part of Angkor Archeological Park, which includes Angkor Thom, the capital city of the Khmer Dynasty in its heyday. Angkor Thom features several ancient structures including palaces and courts while Angkor Wat was a temple. It is somewhat sobering to see the contrast between the greatness of Angkor and the country’s current state. In reality, Cambodia has been on a steady decline since the Khmer Dynasty ended in the 14th century and Angkor was abandoned soon after.
In addition, there are various large ruins and structures including the well-known Ta Prohm where trees grow out from among its ruins, as well as small lakes that were reservoirs. There’s a small and a big circuit, which cover various sites (small one covers less) along a rectangular path that can be traversed by wheeled vehicles, not foot. Forest covers a lot of the park and it basically borders wilderness. Also, not every Angkor structure is inside the park as some are further out. In fact, not every Angkor structure is in Cambodia, with a few in neighboring Thailand.
After Angkor Wat, we headed out along the small circuit to other temples including the aforementioned Ta Prohm. As it was past noon, it was starting to get hot which made it seem like riding was not such a good idea. My bike also started to seem sluggish, and coincidentally several times Cambodians pointed to me and said something. Unfortunately it was later on that I realized that my rear wheel had gone soft and that those folks had been trying to warn me. I soldiered on, stopping to buy and drink bottles of water frequently. One of my friends even bought a small watermelon (those vendors sure know what to sell).
Of all the other temples outside of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm was my favorite. It’s a long, rectangular, one-story structure that is mostly ruins and has large trees growing from atop the ruins with thick twisted roots covering up entire facades. The site is so impressive it was used as a location for one of the Tomb Raider movies.
You can almost imagine that it hasn’t changed much from 100 years ago.
Ta Prohm was interesting even without the big trees.
It’s actually one of the few temples that have been left in its natural state, hence the ruins. There were piles of large rocks strewn about and parts of the structure were already slanting, though the authorities do carry out renovations as could be seen at other places. And Ta Prohm is so well-known that it was where we encountered our first Chinese tour group, actually we saw several while we were there. It’s amusing that Chinese tourists share the same characteristics all over – you have girls dressed up nicely as if they were going to a lawn party rather than visiting thousand-year-old ruins while you got men and women yelling out to each other. Within some of the structures are small shrines, sometimes with monks sitting before it who might ask you to make a financial offering.
Another thing I hadn’t known about Angkor is that people live inside it (the park, not the ancient structures). There are several villages and many of these people sell souvenirs and goods in shacks along the road and near the sites. You’ll also encounter hawkers in and outside the structures who can be persistent. Some of these hawkers are children who often sell postcards and it’s hard to have to ignore or blank kids but that’s what I did since I didn’t want to buy anything other than water. There was one particular little girl who I found charming and cute, notably because she spoke Mandarin and had a roundish face. She went up to me and started with English, then switched to Mandarin. And she didn’t just say one or two words, she kept saying different phrases and counting them out in Mandarin – ni kan yixia (take a look), shi hen pianyi (it’s very cheap), wo haiyou zhege (I also have these), ni kan – yi, er, san .. (look – one, two, three) and so on.
It seemed like an idyllic day, biking around Angkor with my three buddies visiting all these amazing historic sites. But actually as the afternoon went on, I got exhausted both due to my bike’s wheel problem and the searing sun. I continued to ride, lagging my friends by a lot though they were also tiring too. At one point, we had a welcome break at a primary school when one of the guys wanted to use the bathroom. We walked into the compound and I asked a staff who agreed without any reservation, which I found very kind (you probably can’t just walk into a school in the West just like that and get to use the bathroom).
I stopped at a stall with bike service and asked a guy to pump my bike wheel but it didn’t help much. Finally I called a tuktuk and loaded my bike onto it for the trip back to Siem Reap along with one of the three Chinese.
Afterwards back in the city, we had dinner at this outdoor Chinese food place by the street market near where we stayed, and I had $1 fried rice. Then we went to the hostel where they stayed and there were a ton of other mainland Chinese. The 3 guys had befriended these guys and girls from all over China and it was an impressive “crew.” Truth is, they were a good bunch -a mix of hardcore travelers and young professionals, and even a med student from Xian studying in Singapore. By coincidence there were several people from Hubei including 2 of the 3 guys, and interestingly not a single Chinese I would meet during those 3 days there were from Beijing or Shanghai. I ended by hanging out with some of them on the hostel’s rooftop bar before going back to my place.
The unreliable bike that powered me, then had me struggling mightily during my first trip into Angkor. I only noticed those girls after I uploaded this photo onto my computer – they were probably thinking I was taking a photo of them or wondering why I was taking a photo of a bike.
In the distance, there is an air-balloon that people can ride in but only straight up and then down. Hint- it’s yellow and round.