Cambodia · Travel Tales

Travel Tales: The breathtaking Angkor and the laid-back Siem Reap

This trip was months in the making following a frantic scrounging for money when Cebu Pacific announced its summer seat sale. Andy, my friend and co-teacher, had planted the idea of going to Cambodia via Vietnam. I think this trip has effectively stirred my wanderlust again.

Upon arriving at Ho Chi Minh City way past midnight, we waited for a bus to take us to Cambodia. I’ll talk about that beautiful country first.

This is my last view of Angkor Wat while I was on the tuk-tuk. I will never forget that moment.

A short description: The Kingdom of Cambodia is in the Indochina peninsula, bounded by Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. More than a thousand years ago, this country gave rise to what was later known as the Khmer Empire, which created the largest preindustrial settlement complex in the world. Wars against Thailand and Vietnam near the middle of the last millennium weakened the empire, and later on it became a French colony along with Vietnam. After gaining independence in 1953, it entered decades of unrest, first as part of the Vietnam War and then in a civil war under the Khmer Rouge. It was heavily bombed by the US in the 1960s and early 1970s, and up to now you can see victims of landmines and unexploded ordnance around. However, it is the mass genocide under Pol Pot’s regime that seems fresh in the minds of some Cambodians, especially those who are left alive after experiencing it firsthand.

I read in a Lonely Planet guidebook that it is not actually the monuments of Cambodia that are its greatest treasure, but its people. I couldn’t agree more. Obviously I might be generalizing as I’ve spent time only in one town, but the Cambodians I’ve met are a warm people who wear their long history with what seems like quiet pride. The Khmer language has also infused their English accents with some gentleness, and the way they talk to you is worth replaying in your mind (and to others, if you can do it).

How to get there: Secure a flight straight to Siem Reap, the tourist town a few kilometers away from Angkor. Alternatively, arrive via Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, or Bangkok in Thailand, and then travel by bus or ferry to Siem Reap. Ride to the Angkor complex via tuk-tuk (a cart pulled by a motorbike) or a tourist shuttle, or rent a bike.

We opted to take the Ho Chi Minh – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap route via bus. It was a long fourteen-hour ride. In Ho Chi Minh, we took a Sorya express bus for $16. I read that Mekong Express and Sapaco are better choices, but all the websites I’ve seen made no mention of reservations being a requirement. We were at the Sapaco terminal at around 2 AM local time (!) but apparently the bus to Siem Reap was already fully booked. The good thing, though, is that we met Bryan and Juli, both mountaineers and experienced backpackers, who were with us for the most part of our trip.

Our first meal in Vietnam — pho, of course!

Smelly toilet and lack of leg room aside, the Sorya bus was all right. It took us a few hours to get to the border in Moc Bai (Vietnam) and Bavet City (Cambodia). The bus conductor collected our passport, and we just had to wait for our names to be called before we got them back.

We reached the border at Moc Bai…
…and then we were in Cambodia!

The crossing to Cambodia was just a little stricter; we had to get our fingerprints before we were allowed through. Then we had lunch at a stopover in Bavet.

A few more hours of wide plains, farmland, and a smattering of grand-looking temples later…

…plus crossing the Mekong River via ferry…

…we made it to Phnom Penh. We’d wanted to spend more time in Phnom Penh, but the area where the bus station was didn’t exactly leave us a good impression. Maybe someday we’ll go visit the  museums and other tourist spots (they say that the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, while not exactly “touristy”, is quite an experience).

You will see a number of these on the way across Cambodia. Cambodians seem to have a predilection for exquisite architecture and bas reliefs (“Is it a national pastime?” Andy asked). But they present a strong contrast against the poverty as seen in the huts by the rice fields.

It was another eight-hour ride (with scary lightning outside the bus) to Siem Reap. Thankfully, right at the bus station, there was our tuk-tuk driver who’d been waiting for us for more than two hours! His name is Sarin, and he was the one who brought us around.

We got to our guest house, Jasmine Lodge, a little before ten. It is a cozy family-run guesthouse that my friend and college roomie Anj recommended to me. It arranged virtually everything we needed: room with daily breakfast, tuk-tuk ride, tickets to Angkor and Tonle Sap, and transfers to the bus station. I was drawn to it because for one, it’s cheap, and the accommodating owner Mr. Kunn quickly answered my emails. More importantly, though, it’s a guesthouse with a vision: it gives job opportunities to Cambodians who are poorer and are otherwise far from the economic benefits of tourism. Also, from what I’ve seen in Pagudpud and Caramoan, I feel that such small guesthouses allow for better interaction between hosts and guests, therefore giving us a better understanding of the area and its culture.

Anyway, that evening when we arrived, Mr. Kunn pointed us to an open-air eatery a couple of minutes’ walk from Jasmine Lodge.

I had rice noodles with chicken and heaps of vegetables for $1.50 — not bad! Thus began my taste for Cambodian cuisine.

We went to the night market later on, but it was starting to close since it was an hour before midnight.

The lights actually shut off about a minute after I took this picture 🙂

The next day, Sarin took us to the Angkor complex. We got our one-day passes for $20 each (part of our tour package with Jasmine Lodge).

Going inside, we passed through tree-lined boulevards and went around the moat.

On the way to Angkor! Andy is holding his day pass.
This moat surrounds Angkor Wat.

And then we entered Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat, lit. “temple city”. A wide causeway lead us to the west gate of Angkor Wat.

There’s something about entering each temple in Angkor. I walked the long causeway with so many other people, and all I could think about was how doing the same thing a millennium ago had been like, and what it took to create a huge temple like that during a time when there was no heavy machinery. The stones, by the way, came from a nearby mountain and brought to Angkor via elephants and/or the Mekong River.

This is the entrance for servants, according to our tour guide,

A guide named Mr. Bonrong gave us a tour of Angkor Wat. The temple was built by Suryavarman II and was dedicated to Vishnu, the Hindu protector god. However, there are images of the Buddha around; it is believed that later kings, who were Buddhists, put the sculptures of the Buddha in.

Angkor Wat faces the setting sun — this supposedly symbolizes death. It thus might have been built as a temple and a tomb, and sure enough, Suryavarman II died a year after Angkor Wat is built.

The architecture is apparently symbolic as well — the walls represent the ends of the world, the moat the cosmic sea, the five towers lotus buds, and the tallest tower Mount Meru, home of the gods.

Two seven-headed snakes (the naga) guard the entrance to Angkor Wat. It is actually a common theme in many temples.

I was gobsmacked by the sculptures and bas reliefs — it was like every wall and pillar had a decoration of sorts, save for an area for meditation.

This is a bas relief of a scene from the Ramayana. There are actually galleries dedicated to scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and histories of the Khmer empire! I could not wrap my head around it. Before this trip, I’d barely realized how vast the influence of both epics are. It puts Homer and the Greek gods to shame! But I also felt a bit sad upon remembering that very little (if any) of pre-colonial Philippine literature is preserved this way.

If I remember right, this is the evil king Ravana of the Ramayana.
Rama riding on Hanuman
This used to be a pool!
A pillar with ancient Sanskrit writing. Mr. Bonrong said that only about two scholars in Cambodia can read them. My gosh, what an awesome study that would be!
One of the many, MANY carvings in Angkor Wat (and in all other temples in Angkor, for that matter). I wonder how many sculptors were employed to do all these? (And remember that these are all made of stone.
Andy beside carvings of apsara (celestial dancers). 🙂
This area was used for sport.
One of the towers, seen up close.
Andy and Juli looking at pictures with Mr. Bonrong.
The obligatory jump shot! Pic taken by Bryan.
Just a boy looking outside 🙂
A view of Angkor Wat from the east side. Just marvelous. Notice the green tent beside the highest tower — there’s some reconstruction going on, I think.

We had lunch behind Angkor Thom (lit. “large city”), where we headed out for later on.

Terrace of Elephants in Angkor Thom. Used for military and other such parades.
Seeing these actual elephants actually made me giddy with joy.

The center of Angkor Thom is the Bayon temple, the last temple built in Angkor and famous for the many, many faces of the Buddha facing the four directions on its towers.  Unlike his predecessors, Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist, as reflected in the sculptures.

Entrance to the Bayon. The towers look haphazard in the distance, until you come closer…
These towers feature smiling, seemingly all-knowing faces looking at the four directions. Scholars say that they are of Avalokitesvara, made to look like Jayavarman VII.

These faces are seriously just spine-tingling. It seemed that the ancient Khmer carved them bit by bit before putting them all together. It’s amazing how they still stand without cement holding the pieces.

Inside the Bayon
Bas reliefs of apsara dancers in the Bayon
Juli and Bry in one of those “frame” shots 😉
An image of the Buddha near the north exit.

Afterwards, we went to the Baphuon temple, which is also inside Angkor Thom. We had to climb steep staircases to get near the top.

This is my very embarrassing depiction of an apsara, taken at the causeway to Baphuon.
After a scary climb, we reached almost the top of the Baphuon temple. This pyramid represents Mount Meru (a sort of Mt. Olympus of the East, but more awesome, because it’s represented in so many temples here).
Can you see the likeness of the reclining Buddha? I almost didn’t see it. Like the Buddhas of Angkor Wat, this was probably added later on because Baphuon was originally a Hindu temple. The reclining Buddha has been restored by the French.

We then left Angkor Thom and went eastward.

The east gate of Angkor Thom. Notice that the causeway is flanked by statues — supernatural beings called the devas and asuras, holding nagas as though in a tug-of-war.

We passed some minor temples before getting to our actual next destination.

Chau Say Tevoda.

Here’s where I realized that different countries restore different temples in Angkor. The French restore Baphuon; China, Chau Say Tevoda; Switzerland, Banteay Srei; and so on.

The Thomannom temple, right across Chau Say Tevoda. The boy was playing with two girl friends when we found him. Also, we taught him that pose.
Ta Keo, undergoing what looks like massive reconstruction.

Finally, we got to Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm. I find it a good thing that the restoration here isn’t extensive because — look here, this is ethereal. It gets you wondering if our present-day buildings will be eaten up by nature someday.

Ta Prohm is quite popular because of this tree which seems to have eaten the temple. This would have been what the Angkor would be like if it weren’t cleared of trees.

Carvings at Ta Prohm.

Our last stop was Banteay Kdei.

Banteay Kdei

We went to temples farther away the next day: East Mebon, Banteay Srei, and Preah Khan. We also went to the floating village in Tonle Sap lake, which is on the other side of Siem Reap.

Read the next parts of my Vietnam-Cambodia trip:
Part 2: Tonle Sap and the Angkor’s great circuit
Part 3: A Ho Chi Minh City Walking Tour

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