As I mentioned before, we had agreed with our bus guide/tuk tuk driver that he will drive us around the Angkor Wat temples for two days. So as agreed he was waiting for us at 9 a.m.and we headed to the most famous of the temples – the Angkor Wat itself. The temple area is so large that it is impossible to navigate it by foot and most tourists were either on an arranged tour or rented a tuk tuk with a driver. Of course you can rent a bike or a motorbike and drive yourself, but it is not that expensive to rent a tuk tuk and the driver waits for you and sometimes even can act a bit as a guide.
There are official guides near the entrance to the Angkor Wat temple and in a lot of tourist places and you could hire them for something like $10 per hour if you want to learn more, but while we were touring Cambodia we kept hearing bits and pieces of what the guides were telling different people and I am left with the impression that the level of the guides varies a lot in terms of what and how they were telling about the locations but also in terms of their English skills. Some seemed to take into account that the listeners are Western tourists with little knowledge of Cambodian history and religion, but most seemed to be more enthusiastic than knowledgeable. But this is just my impression without actually having hired a guide myself. They are all wearing the same uniform and are probably official guides, so if you want to hire one, do a bit of interviewing before committing.
The experience at Angkor Wat was drastically different from the day before when we had the opportunity to enjoy the serenity of the remote temples. Here the tourist masses were abundant and we mustn’t forget the bloggers/instagrammers. 😀 In every doorway, on every stairway there was always someone posing to have a picture taken of themselves without extra people in the background and everybody else had to patiently wait until that person was done in order to continue their viewing. Did I mention that there were a lot of people at Angkor Wat? So the waiting in hot sun got annoying pretty fast. 🙂
The Angkor Wat temple itself was really special. It was much bigger than I thought and it is in fact the world’s largest religious building. It had three different levels. Ground level where you enter, then you could climb some steep stairs and reach level two, but the third level was accessible only by a timed ticketing system and was in fact closed on the day of our visit because of the March equinox, so if you definitely want to see the third level as well, plan your visit more carefully than we did. 🙂
Angkor Wat is apparently famous for its heavenly nymphs (apsaras in Cambodian). According to the Lonely Planet guidebook there are more than 3 000 apsaras carved into the walls and each of them is unique and have 37 different hairstyles. A lot of them are damaged, but there are restoration works going on in every temple.
As Angkor Wat is a temple, nobody ever lived inside its walls. Everybody lived in wooden houses located outside on temple’s walls, but of course nothing remains of the wooden houses.
Our visit took about two hours, but if you want to see everything and examine the bas-reliefs and maybe hear an explanation of all the symbolism from a tour guide, you will need much more time. I think we could’ve stayed longer, but we were unsure how much time the rest of the temples would take. In addition to this, it was an unbelievably hot day and there wasn’t much in terms of shade in the temple.
The interesting thing about Angkor Wat is that it is facing west, which is exceptional among the temples because symbolically west is the direction of death. However Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, is also associated with the west, so now it is commonly accepted that Angkor Wat served both as a temple, but also as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II, who ruled the Khmer empire from 1113 AD to 1145-1150 AD and who commissioned building of the Angkor Wat.
After Angkor Wat, we found our tuk tuk diver napping with his earphones on in a hammock stretched inside the tuk tuk. 🙂 After we startled him by rocking the hammock a little bit (he couldn’t hear us calling him nor see us waving), we continued to the fortified city of Angkor Thom, which is stretched to over 10 sq km. It is estimated that it supported a population of one million people in the surrounding region.
There was a bridge leading to the Angkor Thom. On the right side there were 54 demons and on the left side there 54 gods engaged in eternal tug of war. According to our driver the statues were used as target practice during the Khmer Rouge regime and damaged even further, but some of them have received replacement heads.
There is an unbelievable amount of temples and sites to see in Angkor Thom, but if you’re short on time, Bayon was simply amazing and I recommend stopping there in any case.
Bayon has 54 towers and every tower has 216 large faces of Avalokiteshvara, which is a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, smiling in every direction. It is thought that the Khmer empire was divided into 54 provinces and that is why Bayon has 54 towers – one for every province.
Bayon was built by Jayavarman II in the 12th century and symbolizes a change from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. As you walk around the faces are everywhere and you usually can see several of them at the same time.
Bayon also stands exactly in the center of Angkor Thom. It also looks a bit messy from the outside, but when you enter the temple, you see the towers and the smiling faces very clearly.
Bayon has even more extensive bas-reliefs than Angkor Wat as there are 1.2 km of carvings with more than 11 000 figures.
Our final stop of the day was at Ta Prohm. On our way we stopped briefly to admire Ta Keo, which is the unfinished temple. The legend goes that while the temple was being built, it was hit by a lightning, which was considered to be a bad omen, so the construction was abandoned. A likely cause for ceasing the construction may have been also the death of Jayavarman V. The temple itself is much less decorative probably because it was built from sandstone, which is very difficult to carve.
Ta Prohm is of course known as “the Angelina Jolie temple” because parts of the Tomb Raider movie were filmed at this temple. We ended up here closer to 3 p.m., which is quite late because the temples usually close around 5 or 5:30 p.m. There were just a few people around and the temple was very atmospheric as the nature took over the temple ruins and it doesn’t look very restored, but has a strong Indiana Jones vibe to it. 🙂
Of course this is not exactly true as only the largest trees remain and a lot of restoration work has been put into this temple as well, but no other temple seemed to be as much a part of nature as this one.
Ta Prohm construction started in 1186 and was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. When much of Angkor Wat temples history is educated guesses, Ta Prohm has detailed inscriptions where it states the information about this temple and its inhabitants. According to the inscription almost 80 000 people were required or maintained the temple.
Lonely Planet guidebook recommends to visit this temple early in the day, but our visit in the afternoon was quite magical, so it’s hard to imagine the temple being any more fascinating than it already was.
We wanted to be back at the hotel at 4 p.m. at the latest because we had booked a street food tour and we were scheduled to be picked up from our hotel at 5 p.m. and of course we wanted to take a shower first.
We booked the tour with Siem Reap Food Tours and paid in advance, so this evening we didn’t need to worry about anything. I think that the price of $75 per person is quite steep considering the local price level, but I would’ve never dared to taste these dishes in any of the restaurants we visited, so I didn’t regret paying the money.
We were picked up at 5 p.m. and we headed out to try some Cambodian street food with our guide and four other people. The group size is kept quite small, max. 12 people if I remember correctly. We were driven around in two tuk tuks and had stopped in a few locations tasting different dishes. Our guide was a chef, so he could explain what the ingredients were and how everything was made. It was super interesting!
In the end we went to a night market where in addition to some grilled meat (including a frog stuffed with sausage) our guide bought some fruit, which most of us have never tasted before and taught us how to eat them. 🙂 We ended the tour in a place, which served most wonderful dessert of sticky rice and condensed milk, but also something called 18-day eggs, which is basically a boiled chicken embryo. I didn’t try it, but my boyfriend and some other people did and they said that it didn’t taste as bad as it looked. 😀 Most of the food we tasted was quite, well for the lack of a better work – normal, but in one place a woman was passing by carrying a plate of different kind of bugs and our guide asked who wanted to try water bugs and bought a couple for himself and a couple of other people in our group. You don’t need to eat anything you don’t want, but there is obviously an opportunity. 🙂
We were returned to our hotel at the end of the evening and it was a lot of fun trying all the different dishes and asking our guide about the Cambodian way of life as he has been living there for a few years.