In terms of how we planned our visit – we spent the first full day in Siem Reap visiting temples until early afternoon. At that point, we had reached our saturation point and couldn’t appreciate too much more. We took a day ‘off’, staying in Siem Reap, going to the museum and markets, and enjoying an easy pace. There are other activities to enjoy while in Siem Reap, but we really focused on the temples and relaxing. If we’d had one more day (I think I have a litany of “If we’d had more time…”), we probably would have visited Tonle Sap, a lake south of town that is unique both culturally and also ecologically, or explored a bit more off the typical tourist route. However, we didn’t want to go-go-go the entire time, so we appreciated the day in town.
The last 2 full days in Siem Reap, we tried to make the most of the experience, seeing a wider variety of temples which also allowed us to experience or have a bit more of a feel for the countryside since several were 30-40 kilometers from Siem Reap and a bit out of the way of the normal circuit.
We began Tuesday bright and early with a sunrise viewing from Phnom Bakheng. This temple is apparently THE place for the sunset, but we didn’t want to fight with crowds, another reason that we didn’t watch the sunrise from Angkor Wat, which was lined with people waiting for sunrise (and it probably is spectacular there). It is a bit of a walk to the top of Phnom Bakheng, and we hurried a bit to get there for the sunrise. Once we arrived, we settled in – we certainly weren’t the only people with this idea, but, again, it wasn’t crowded. The sunrise wasn’t the most amazing that I’d seen, but the experience of sitting there, in the jungle, in silence, except for the sound of monks at a distance who were chanting their morning prayers, was unforgettable, and we tried to stay mindful of where we were and what we were experiencing.
After our sunrise reverie, we continued on to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire. Rather than one temple, it is very much a complex with so many different areas of interest to see. We started our visit at the South Gate (there are 5 different gates), crossing over a bridge with statues of deities carved on one side and demons on the other. A very dramatic entrance!
From the South Gate, we first explored the Bayon, which is a temple with over 200 faces on towers throughout the structure and is at the center of the temple complex. It’s incredible, simply put, even though this photo doesn’t do it justice.
Like Angkor Wat and other temples, the Bayon is built on three levels – and the towers dominate the third level.
Again, we couldn’t help but wonder what the structure was like in the 13th century, right after it had been built. After spending much of the morning at the Bayon, we continued and explored other temples and structures that are a part of Angkor Thom, such as the Baphuon and the Terrace of the Elephants.
After walking along the Terrace of the Elephants, we were even more excited when we saw this:
In the afternoon (we took quite a break between Angkor Thom and this excursion), we explored the Rolous Group – a three different temples that mark the earliest structures around Angkor Wat, dating from the 9th century. These are a bit of drive (via tuk tuk) from Siem Reap, but, as I said earlier, the change of scenery was good. Also, these temples, while small, are worth the effort to see.
For our final day, we set out to see Banteay Srei – also known as the “Ladies’ Temple”. This temple also lies aways from the main temple complex of Angkor Wat and Thom. Before arriving at Banteay Srei, we stopped at Pre Rup which was almost totally empty at 7:00 am – so we had it to ourselves which was quite fun. This was also an earlier temple, built in the 10t century.
From Pre Rup, we drove about 30-40 minutes to Banteay Srei. All the guidebooks say that despite its size (somewhat small) and that it’s a bit out-of-the-way, Banteay Srei rewards the visitors. It ended up being the most crowded temple we visited, but it was, hands down, my favorite. Despite the crowds, which usually affect whether I like a place or not, I found Banteay Srei charming. According to the Moon guidebook and other sources, Banteay Srei features some of the finest carvings. Unlike other temples, Banteay Srei has also been very well-restored – other temples are trying to balance conservation with restoration and aren’t fully embracing restoration. Not the case at Banteay Srei. I suppose I’m not much of a purist because I did like the restoration, although it did not have the ‘wild’ feel of the jungle encroaching on the temple, just biding its time to take over.
You can see, somewhat, the detailed carvings, and while the statues in the interior of the temple are replicas, the relief work is original.
In addition to the temple, we also saw some water buffalo at the Banteay Srei! And then we saw more along the road back to Siem Reap. It was exciting for us!
On the return trip to Siem Reap, we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum (which also functions as a school), and that was fascinating and sobering. In visiting the temples, one learns about the legacy of the Khmer empire in all of its glory, but it’s also important to keep in mind the more recent history of Cambodia. This museum serves to educate visitors about Cambodia’s recent past and also the issue of landmines and child soldiers. I’m not sure where to fit this piece in, with all of the exuberant superlatives that easily came to us while visiting the temples, the Landmine Museum was a sobering experience.
And, maybe that is the takeaway from the trip to Cambodia – it’s a beautiful country with a rich history and a people that has suffered yet remains positive and open. There is so much that we did not see, but we also feel fortunate that we did have this experience. While, yes, it was pretty typical in terms of tourism and what we did, it did expose us (me, especially) to a new area and to the history and culture, and the experience, like most travel, broadened our perspective. Would I like to return to experience more? To understand the language, the culture, the people better? Absolutely! We can’t wait for that next time.