Angkor Wat: Our Cambodian Adventure

We decided to use our break from school to our benefit and decided to take a 2 week trip outside of China. We had fewer options due to the Coronavirus outbreak, but the one country Korey has always wanted to visit was still open: Cambodia. A smaller Southeastern Asian country, Cambodia holds the largest religious site in the world, Ankgor Wat. This post is all about our trip to Siem Reap to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We had flown into the capital of Cambodia a few days early Phnom Penh. There are many flights directly to the city of Siem Reap, but the difference in cost was a few hundred a ticket and getting to/from is so much cheaper. Instead of hiring our own taxi or driving with a private tour group, we went the most economic way and decided to take a sleeper bus to Siem Reap. We went with the first company we found (our mistake, I will explain later) and had our $15 tickets/per person to the city of Siem Reap. That next night, a tuk tuk picked us up from our hotel and took us to the sleeper bus that would would get us to our destination in roughly 6.5 hours. I was excited because I had never taken a sleeper bus before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect! The bus had over a dozen flat bunks equipped with 2 pillows and a blanket fit for 2 people. We had to take off our shoes as soon as we entered the bus and had to have our bags stowed with us on the bunk. Thank goodness we only brought a backpack each with essentials! Calvin slept below and we slept above for the duration of the ride. We had a few stops, but mostly slept through it. I awoke about 4 am as we hit another stop and noticed people were getting off to use the restroom. I followed suit and realized we were out in the country, nothing in sight but the station and cows! I returned to the bus and woke at least two hours later….to find we were still in the exact same spot! Somehow, I failed to realize that the bus had gotten a flat tire and that was why we had pulled over. The bus driver had us get out and sit at the open-air station while we waited roughly 30 minutes for another bus to pick us up. I took some time to delight in the pork pho at the station and boarded the regular bus (not a sleeper) so it could take us the last two hours to our destination.

Eventually we arrived in Siem Reap about 2.5 hours after we were supposed to. It was now 9 am and we had lost some of that precious time to explore. Luckily, the company we had purchased our bus tickets through had already arranged a tuk tuk driver to meet us at the bus station. The poor guy had waited that entire time for us to get there so he could take us to buy tickets and then head to the temple. He tried to charge us $25 for the day, which is a tad unreasonable. So we bargained him down to $20 because we couldn’t look for someone else when he had already waited so long. He took us straight to the ticket station which is quite a distance away from Angkor. It is also the largest expense we have accrued since being in Cambodia. One-day tickets are $37 per person, way more than other tourist attractions in Cambodia. However, we found ourselves quite lucky because we brought our 11-year old with us. We happened to have his passport and as a result, did not have to pay ANY entrance fee for him. I couldn’t believe it! We save $37 because he isn’t 12?!? SCORE! So we took our tickets and had our tuk tuk driver continue on to Angkor. Unfortunately, we had a bit more bad luck as we continued on with our journey. Halfway to the site, we heard a loud POP! The back wheel of the tuk tuk had gone flat! I need to stop eating chocolate..jk. Our tuk tuk driver hobbled the last remaining distance to the temple and told us to take at least an hour or 2 so that he would have time to fix the wheel. No problem!

Exterior of Angkor

The first (and most important) temple we wanted to see was Ankgor Wat. This temple is the largest of the 12 and considerably the most famous. Because we arrived so late, we knew this one needed to be our first stop. Tuk tuk drivers are not permitted on the site, so we had to walk a little bit and cross the moat before really seeing the famous structure. We were stopped by guides offering their services and decided to hire one based on our experiences in China. We had saved money by not having to buy Calvin’s ticket, so we figured a $15 guide was more than worth it. He knew the best places to take pictures and knew so much history of the temple. As he was explaining the history of the temple, I couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t that many people around. I had read in all of the informational guides that Angkor was ALWAYS busy, seeing 6,000-7,000 visitors a day. There sure as heck wasn’t a fraction of that here. Our guide, Sukpha, explained that it was all due to the spread of the Coronavirus within China. Apparently, China is Cambodia’s #1 tourism partner. With the spread of the virus, about 60-70% of the Chinese tourist groups cancelled and that meant thousands (potentially millions over the next year) of fewer people in the park. I hadn’t realized that the virus would make such an effect on the tourism in countries reliant on China. As we discussed this, we had our first run-in with some Angkor monkeys! They were completely surrounded by tourists and didn’t seem to mind people taking their pictures. They just sat with their giant guts hanging out seeming oddly disinterested. I got very close so I could snap a few pictures and was startled as the biggest monkey jumped off the pillar, maneuvered around a few tourists, and attacked a lady carrying a bag of fruit. She yelped as the monkey pulled the bag right out of her hand and ripped it open to grab the food. SO WHAT DID I DO TO HELP?!?!? Nothing. I kept snapping pictures as this little fiend stole his next meal. I KNOW, I KNOW. Are you saying you just took pictures and didn’t help at all? That is what is wrong with this generation, darn millennials. Heck no, there is no way I am risking a monkey love bite to save some lady’s fruit. Survival of the fittest, I say.

It was amazing walking around Angkor’s exterior, almost surreal. I had seen pictures of it since I was a kid and Korey has been talking about visiting since we started dating. It hadn’t quite hit me yet that we were finally checking off a place on our bucket-list, something we thought would take decades to accomplish. Even though it was only the first days of March, it was sweltering hot and there is very little shade. This temple is not completely covered in forest, even though the Tomb Raider movies lead you to believe otherwise. We brought an umbrella, sunscreen, water, but it only does so much. Plan ahead, especially if you are going in the summer months (I don’t envy you if that is your plan). Before you get to the actual temple, you have to get past the vultures, or the temple vendors. If you have been to any historic site then you know what I am talking about. Pushy salesman following you asking to buy a t-shirt or something even though you keep saying no. Our guide seemed to purposely take us through the worst part of it before entering the first level of the temple. There are three levels of Angkor Wat and the first was breathtaking.

I found Angkor’s color to be a little peculiar because it almost looks black up close, which my tour guide explained was caused by moss. Our tour guide showed us the AK-47 bullet holes that peppered the outside and walls of the temple. Damage caused during the civil war in the 1970s is clearly visible in the beautiful artwork carved onto the walls. The guide said that it was lucky that so little damage was done, considering what weapons were available. When Angkor was originally built, it was meant to be a Hindu temple and was later converted to Buddhism. So all the statues and artwork carved into the walls are all Hindu in nature, depicting gods and demons. Some of the artwork is roped off and protected because guests can’t help themselves but touch it, causing an oily shine to appear. We came across a long corridor, whose wall was covered entirely by these carvings. Our guide showed us a few figures of importance and how some depicted battle and some depicted celebrations. I was once again surprised by how few people were here, as I was able to take a picture of the long corridor similar to one I took in China! One without any people is very hard to get. We saw ‘pool’ areas meant to hold sacred water and then found the very center of the temple! It is marked with a square on the floor and there were a few people already taking their picture there. We waited a few minutes and our guide helped us get a photo, focusing on where the points of the ceiling meet.

Center of Angkor

We eventually headed up to the second floor which just seems to be a significantly smaller level that gains you entry to the third level. It also has ornate carvings and gives you a much better look at the 5 columns of Angkor. Our guide finished up and explained the rules of visiting the third level of the temple. While you need to follow a dress code just to buy tickets to the temple, it is even stricter to get to the third temple. My red shirt didn’t have sleeves and didn’t make the cut. Luckily, I had packed another shirt in my backpack as a back-up. Could you imagine coming all the way to Cambodia and then not seeing the top because I wasn’t wearing the right shirt? While I made it to the top, Calvin unfortunately could not. I am not sure why, but only kids above the age of 12 are permitted on the top floor. Perhaps that is why we weren’t charged for his ticket? Anyway, I went up first and then Korey went. It was really beautiful, you could see over the walls and out into the forest that surrounds the temple. We got some really nice pictures and had a little bit of a break before we headed out. We had to go through the vultures again and were so hot that we spent the buck a piece to get some cold water. Korey couldn’t help himself and also got a few souvenirs like a t-shirt and a miniature of the temple. We found our tuk tuk driver and headed on a 5-minute drive through the forest and on to the next temple!

The second temple we went to was Bayon Temple and I think it was the family’s favorite. The outside was surrounded by monkeys and there were even fewer people here. The Bayon temple seemed even more ancient than Angkor and much less open. With no tour guide, we were free to run around at our own pace and see what we wanted to see. The interior was dark and small, making us feel as though we were the first people to discover the temple. Calvin kept humming the Indiana Jones theme song as he picked which direction we would go to next. We went up stairs, then down stairs, and we had so much fun in the cool hallways of the temple. There were a few Buddha statues and more intricate carvings in the temples highest peaks. But what I will remember most was how much fun we had running around, getting lost, and hiding behind pillars so I could try to scare Calvin. The only bummer was the top floor was closed for preservation, but nothing else was off-limits so there was still plenty to see. It was really nice and I would definitely suggest this temple to anyone who has the chance to go. I only wish I had more pictures but we were truly ‘in the moment’ and only snapped a few!

We eventually left to head to our last temple of the day, the famous Ta Prohm Temple. This temple was also not near the others and we had to pass many other ruins and the most BEAUTIFULLY carved bridge to get there. It is known as Angkor Thom Gate and there were at least two that we passed. It was so gorgeous that I had to stop our tuk tuk driver so that I might get a picture of it. Anyways, we headed to our last temple which is most famous for its scenes in the movie Tomb Raider. It was definitely one of the more atmospheric ruins due to the trees growing out of the buildings and encompassing the areas around them. This temple was definitely the most decrepit though, as there were piles of rock blocking passages. Many of the walls no longer had the original stone and revealed the lighter, volcanic rock beneath used to build the interior of the structures. Cambodia is currently working to restore this temple and we saw archaeologists and other workers measuring and taking pictures of the areas they were working on. I only hope that the slow-down of revenue doesn’t hamper their project. The trees were the real stars though, if the ruins didn’t make the place feel ancient enough, then the trees sure did it! We decided to end our tour here because it was almost 3 pm by this point and we were all hot and sweaty. We headed back to Siem Reap to meet up with a friend for lunch and find a bus to take us back to Phnom Penh.

After lunch, we bought our sleeper bus tickets back home and this is when we found out we got ripped off by the first company (I told you we would come back to it). The company in Siem Reap offered us the EXACT SAME deal, except only $8 per ticket. That is about half the price of the bus to get there!! Sure it isn’t a lot of money to some people, but I don’t like the feeling of being taken for a fool. Especially when that bus broke down on the way here. Anyways, we had 5 hours to kill so we decided to hang out at a local mall and then bought tickets to a dinner show of traditional Khmer dance. There were shows that were $30+, but we lucked out on finding this one for $12 a person and it was really great. The food was both local and international so there were choices galore. The show had only 5 dances, but it lasted an hour and showcased the best dances of the culture. I especially loved the ladies costumes, who did the bulk of the show. I am glad we found something to do that was cultural after our time at Angkor and it was a really great inexpensive way to end our fun-filled day.

We waited another hour and finally joined the sleeper bus that would get us back to Phnom Penh. I settled in and then laid in my bunk realizing…THIS WAS THE SAME BUS WE TOOK TO GET HERE! I am not even kidding, I had picked the same bunk as the last bus and that was how I realized it. Apparently they can fix a bus tire quickly in Cambodia. Made me even more disappointed that we paid twice the amount to get here on the exact. same. bus. Even the driver was the same. So do yourself a favor, don’t pay hundreds more in airfare to get Siem Reap! Pay the $8 sleeper bus and get there 6-7 hours later. It is so economical and not uncomfortable (as long as you aren’t 6’4″). That was our Angkor Wat adventure and I wouldn’t change any of it. Most people suggest staying a few days to see all of the temples and if I didn’t have the kid, I might have done it. Here is a guide to the other temples if you are interested! https://www.bruisedpassports.com/wheres/angkor-temples-itinerary-guide

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Bayon Temple

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