A few days exploring Angkor Wat
Last fall, while living in Bali, we had a week off of school and were excited to explore some of Indonesia's surrounding countries. We packed 3 nights in Siem Reap, 3 nights at Cambodia's beaches, and 2 nights in Kuala Lumpur (more on the last two in different posts) into the break.
I talked my friend and her kids into joining us on this trip. Since she was also an art history major in college, she didn't need much convincing. It was an absolute dream to plan a trip to see Angkor Wat in person.
We flew from Bali to Siem Reap and were greeted at the airport by our hotel in a vintage Mercedes. My friend opted for the vintage Rolls Royce, much to the pleasure of her kids. The hotel, Viroth's, was rated #1 by travelers and this is a small example of the lovely details they incorporate to make your stay incredible. Scented, cold towels and a refreshing lemongrass drink every time you return to the hotel, a beautiful pool, and an amazing spa- more reasons to love this place. It is also a small, boutique hotel so it feels extra charming and the staff all go out of their way to make everyone as comfortable as possible.
After checking in, we wandered around Siem Reap to a bit to get a sense of the city. We aimlessly strolled in and out of the street markets and past temples and street food vendors. It is an easily walkable city, but there are also tuk tuks if the heat becomes too much for you.
Our first dinner was at Cuisine Wat Damnak, which was very highly recommended and required a reservation in advance. The restaurant is located in a traditional Cambodian wooden house and thankfully we were seated upstairs, which feels even more authentic and charming. You choose from one of a few tasting menus, depending on your level of curiosity and bravery. My son was the most daring of all of us with frog legs and the like. They kindly made me a vegan meal, which was delicious. I highly recommend this restaurant for both the meal, as well as the experience.
Angkor Wat- Day 1
We arranged a tour guide to take us to Angkor Wat through the hotel. We decided to get up early, but not for sunrise on our first day. Our guide was quite interested in providing us with a lot of Cambodia history, which was good, though unfortunately he was a little boring and didn't quite know how to cater his history lessons to kids. Nevertheless, the temples of the massive Angkor Wat complex are varied and all extraordinary in their own way. The detailed carvings tell all sorts of stories, while the placement of certain elements have to do with history and/or geography. We had a great time exploring several of the temples, including:
Angkor Thom. We got out of the van here and scooted right past the people peddling elephant rides.
Bayon Temple. This was our first stop, so it was much less crowded than any other. The carvings are exceptional.
Ta Prohm. The overgrown, "Tomb Raider" temple. Be prepared for large amounts of tourists all trying to get the same photo. .
Ba Phuon Temple. Built in honor of the Hindu God Shiva, this 3 tiered temple is great site for climbing around.
It becomes evident upon arriving at the UNESCO heritage site, just how enormous this complex of temples is. We were hot and exhausted after several hours of walking and climbing around the structures, and yet, we barely scratched the surface.
We were grateful to be able to return to our hotel for the pool and spa. Our tired feet were pampered and it was luxurious to not feel like we needed to see every last inch of Angkor Wat. After all, we still had our sunrise visit planned for the following day.
Angkor Wat- Day 2
We woke very early in order to secure spots on the edge of the pond in front of Angkor Wat. I had read extensively about this and was warned that if you do not get on the absolute edge someone will wedge in front of you. Well, I was prepared and we planted ourselves with no room to spare. Low and behold, someone with a large camera still wedged in front of us disregarding the fact that his feet that were submerged in the water and muck. Thankfully we had a little spot to stand on, so it wasn't that big of a deal- but this is no joke. Stake your claim.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat was everything that I had hoped. We watched the sky turn from dark to purple and then hot pink and orange. It was beautiful and I felt so fortunate to be able to have this experience and share it with my kids.
Exploring the temples inside at such an early hour also has many benefits. It's less hot and less crowded, for starters. The sun is still rising and you can see the structures in beautiful silhouette. It is hard to imagine how massive this all is until you go there. But we did our best to cover as much ground - and sky- as we could. There are great vantage points from up high, if you are old enough to be allowed up (12 and older.)
The kids enjoyed getting blessed by a young Buddhist monk, who was probably younger than them. I enjoyed the carvings and the beauty in the decay of the walls.
We returned to our hotel for a late breakfast feeling like we had packed in a whole day of sight-seeing, though it was only 9:30am.
After a little rest, we decided to explore more of Siem Reap beyond the temples. We were able to have our tour guide take us to the floating village, Kampong Phluk on Tonle Sap Lake. Life on the water was alive and busy with residents emptying fishing nets, motoring around to their neighbors and kids playing in the water. It was fascinating to see a little slice of life for these locals.
One thing I did not enjoy was being taken to the very touristy area around the mangrove, flooded forest, where we were whisked into flat canoes and guided through the trees by a local woman. Everything about the short trip was designed around having us buy things like junk food, sodas, and school supplies for the local kids. In addition, our lady kept a steady mantra going the whole time: "Tip. Tip. Tip. Tip" while pointing to her little plastic tip box. I understand that our part in the relationship as tourists in this area is to provide financial assistance, but I did not like the way it was done. However, the kids did buy some pencils for the local school kids and they really enjoyed handing them out along with the notebooks they bought. The local kids came running for the supplies and it was a nice exchange.
I'm glad that we got to see this particular area, but I wish there was a way to do it that didn't make me feel like such a voyeur.
For our last evening, we got to see the spectacular Phare Circus. This is such an interesting organization, as they use the proceeds of the tickets sales to provide education and arts training for kids in need. The acrobatics are phenomenal. Sometimes the story, which is in Cambodian, is a bit hard to follow, but regardless it is such a great cause and a fun night for sure.
I am forever grateful that I was able to see Angkor Wat and spend a few lovely days in Siem Reap. The Cambodian history is quite brutal and dark, but the people that we met were so welcoming and kind. I highly recommend putting this on your next Southeast Asia itinerary.