Our last full day in Siem Reap started really early. We’ve been told that we absolutely must see either the sunrise or the sunset at Angkor Wat and we chose the sunrise. So our driver was waiting for us at 5:45 to take us to see the sunrise. we were told that if you need to buy your ticket on the same day you want to see the sunset, you need to leave well before 5 a.m.
So we woke up and settled at the edge of the moat in front of the Angkor Wat hoping to see the sunrise. Unfortunately it kind of never came. The day was dawning as really cloudy, so there wasn’t anything resembling bright colors, it just got gradually lighter.
The woman next to us spent quite some time setting up her video equipment and was rather disappointed. We just decided to do what an older Japanese woman next to us did – relax and enjoyed the relative quietness and gorgeous view.
After that we found our driver and started a new day of temple sightseeing. Generally speaking everybody roughly follows the map below. There is a red route and a purple route and it is usually recommended to see the temples in two days according to the routes. I would say that if you start early and keep a good pace, you can do both in a single day, but that will take some stamina. 🙂
We headed towards Preah Khan, but had to wait for about 10 min for it to open as it opened at 7:30. Most temples you exit the same way you enter and do the sightseeing clockwise, but this temple was “walk-through” and or driver said he’d be waiting for us on the other side. It was super cool to enter the temple first and experiencing what it would be like there without the crowds. So if you are an early bird, I definitely recommend it. And as a cherry on top of this cake, you get to enjoy a much nicer temperatures. Temple sightseeing during the mid-day in March temperatures is truly not a great experience. 😉
So we entered first and made sure to stay ahead of the few people that were at the location at the same time. Preah Khan means Sacred Sword and was built by Jayavarman VII and likely served as his temporary residence during the construction of Angkor Thom. The temple was dedicated to 515 divinities and had 18 festivals during the course of a year, so it also required a large amount of people to maintain the place.
According to the Lonely Planet guidebook Preah Kahn is a fusion temple: the eastern entrance is dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism with equal-sized doors and the other directions dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma with increasingly smaller doors – to symbolize the unequal nature of Hinduism.
After Preah Khan our driver took us to Preah Neak Pean, which he said is very small, but we definitely should see it as it is surrounded by water. The temple turned out to be nothing special, but the road to the temple was amazing! The temple was located on a small island in a lake and the lake in the early cloudy hours of morning looked like something out of the horror movie. 🙂 I’ve never seen desolate-looking still swamp-like waters to stretch as far as the eye can see.
We walked on the narrow wooden causeway and the water was on both sides of us. The water was kind of low, but I imagine it’s an even more intense experience when you walk almost among the water.
The temple itself couldn’t compare to the temples we saw before. It basically was a large pool with four smaller pools and statues in them, but I was completely enthralled by the walk there.
We continued our way and made a quick stop at East Mebon, which is a Hindu temple. It was once situated on an islet in the Eastern Baray reservoir, but currently dry land is all you can see. The temple was very different from any we’ve seen before as it was built from equal-sized bricks, when other temples had large stones as building material.
Our final destination was Banteay Kdei, which is a Buddhist monastery built in the late 12th century. It seemed much less busy than the other temples nearby and is a good place to visit if you want to avoid the biggest crowds. It also clearly had a large population of bats as you could see bat droppings everywhere and we saw a few bats sleeping on some of the higher ceilings in the temple. Apparently there are bats in all the temples, but this is the only one where they were really visible.
Right when you exit Banteay Kdei, there is a small view of the water right across the road. Our driver joked that this was a pool for king Jayavarman VII.
We returned back to our hotel around 11 a.m. just in time for it to get really really hot outside. 🙂 We decided to grab lunch at a Genevieve’s restaurant nearby. Our hotel served food as well, but the breakfast was generally quite unimpressive (fresh fruit, eggs, and coffee or tea). Genevieve’s got really good ratings on Tripadvisor, but the food was pretty good, but nothing spectacular.
The rest of the afternoon we spent at the pool and napping because we woke up so early. 🙂
In the evening we decided to go to a restaurant called Spoons. We were told that Cuisine Wat Damnak is absolutely the best restaurant in Siem Reap, but they were closed for family emergency and then I missed when they started taking reservations again and their calendar for the next month was filled in a blink of an eye. So if you want to dine there, you better pay close attention to their web pages as they are closed for short periods of time quite often. Anyway, we chose to go to Spoons, which is a training restaurant. I have read that only 4% of Cambodians graduate high school, so there are quite a lot of NGOs, which offer vocational training especially for at-risk young people. We went to Romdeng in Phnom Penh and now to Spoons and I must say that the quality especially in Spoons was really good and service in those restaurants has been the best.
Spoons was difficult to find for our tuk tuk driver and even though he said that he knew where it was, we needed to guide him there. Thank you data plan! 🙂 The restaurant itself was very trendy and had a lot of things like place mats that were handmade in Cambodia.
After appetizer it started drizzling and at some point the light went out and first the backup generator kicked in, but the lights went out shortly after that everywhere except in the kitchen. The staff brought candles out and we managed to eat our dinner in a very intimate atmosphere. 🙂
The food was good, but because the restaurant was located in a quiet side street we needed to walk a bit to catch a tuk tuk. In the evening we packed and were ready to leave Cambodia behind and head to Vietnam.
The next day we checked out and took the tuk tuk provided by our hotel to the airport. Oh, what happened is that every single of our flights in Cambodia or Vietnam was postponed. This Angkor Air flight was postponed, but luckily only by half an hour. Our flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue by Jetstar was changed from 13:35 to 18.55! That absolutely didn’t work for us, so we had to cancel this flight and book a new one with a different airline on just a week’s notice. And the flight from Hue to Hanoi was postponed by two hours. So yeah, don’t plan you connecting flights too closely. 😀
What I learned about spending three days touring the temples in Siem Reap:
- You don’t need to spend 3 days if you don’t have the time or don’t want to, but there are so many different kinds of temples that it is worth it.
- If you only have one day, go with the most popular ones (Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm). They’re the most popular for a reason and you get a great overview of different temple styles.
- There is quite a lot of hawking going on in front of the temples, but not inside the temples. People are trying to make a living by selling clothes, books, post cards or by playing music. If you’re not interested, just keep walking and keep repeating “No, thank you!” This approach worked for us really well. Of course if you need or want something being sold, you should support the local people.
- In a couple of places there were children either asking for candy or selling post cards. A lot of posters at the temples ask you not to give anything to the children or buy anything from them because that just teaches them that they can make money and their parents can take them out from school. If you want to support the locals, donate to a reputable charity or a teaching restaurant instead.
- In hindsight we should’ve woken up early every day for the temples. It is just so much more pleasant to tour them when the temperature hasn’t reached its peak and there is just a lot less people (except maybe for Angkor Wat).
- We didn’t spend much time in Siem Reap itself, which was a pity. If I would do this trip all over again, I would also try to stroll the streets of Siem Reap a little bit even though walking seemed to be as big a problem here as in Phnom Penh i.e. either no sidewalks or sidewalks full of parked motorbikes or street food vendors.