Stretching our legs stepping off the 11-hour train ride to Bangkok, we had planned for ourselves a day’s break before jumping on the 8.5-hour bus to Siem Reap. We bought this bus ticket before landing in Thailand following all of the warnings online that we needed an onward ticket to get our 30-day stamp. Since our plans had changed we needed to alter the date of our bus ticket (which was allowed in the fine print). After several emails and calls to the company the best confirmation we finally worked out of them was “Okay show up on time for the bus and provide the phone number you called on.” Who needs a confirmation number with promises like that?! Our confidence in them was so high that we wanted to pay them a visit the day before to shake hands and thank them for making the process so easy. When asked about our tickets the guy said he had no record of the call and dismissed us by saying we just needed to buy new tickets. Surprised? No. Infuriated? Yes. Whenever we get mad in these situations it’s not about the money to us it’s all about the principal of it! We did more than what was required of us to get our tickets changed and none of it mattered. Traveling through Thailand we learned this is one place you are much better off going to a local travel agency shop to let them make the calls, haggle with them a little and get that receipt in hand because you never know what’s going to happen to your reservation in the internet black hole of Thailand.
After two more visits to the office we were finally at least able to negotiate our ticket change without paying twice thanks to the helpful woman undermining the arrogant man. Suzie enlightened us on a bit of Thai culture that makes perfect sense to us now. The men of Thailand absolutely hate admitting fault which let’s be honest is every man on planet earth. Sorry ladies. However, Thai men will take it to extreme lengths to avoid the discomfort of admitting one’s mistakes. We had to leave a day later for Cambodia which was not a big deal because we had given ourselves a couple fluff days before our flight to Indonesia, so we made it work just fine.
The bus tickets included a VIP VISA service which was new to us and honestly amazing! They collected our passports and fees and took care of everything at a consulate just before the border. We were dreading a long, protracted, confusing border crossing like we experienced between Panama and Costa Rica. We literally breezed through the gates into Cambodia which made us speculate that maybe not every land border crossing is a terror.
The long and warm bus ride which allegedly had air conditioning but seemed to crap out right in time for the heat of the day drained us of any surplus energy to explore on our first night. Exhausted and dehydrated we crashed in the comforting A/C of our hotel room in Siem Reap. We did not become fans of this town, just south of the Angkor Wat, because of how damn touristy every inch of the city was. It is probably a young 20’s backpacker dream with $0.50 draft beers and loud music, but we are a little past that stage of our lives. I personally did not enjoy the cuisine of Cambodia and found it very plain and under seasoned. I doubt the touristy restaurants did the cuisine justice or perhaps my mouth was still reeling from the taste bud bliss of Thailand.
We had three full days to spend exploring the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and I wanted to explore by bicycle because of a blog I had read long ago making it sound like a grand adventure. I am glad we did it by bike, but one element that other blogger decidedly omitted was the insane heat!
Our first day started with getting our bike rentals squared away and then we had to ride 3 miles to the ticket office outside of town and then 3 miles back for lunch before riding the 4 miles to the park entrance. We did all our biking on the first day in the heat of the day and returned to our hotel room looking like prunes from sweating out half our body weight. As hot as it was, we still enjoyed getting the exercise after being cooped up on a train and bus for two whole days. We decided to save sunrise at Angkor Wat for the third day so we biked past to see the temples of Phnom Bakheng, Bayon, and Baphuon the first day.
Phnom Bakheng was built as a Hindu temple at the top of a hill two centuries before Angkor Wat. It was the primary temple of the region and is incredibly well intact for being 1,000 years old! It is a symbolic representation of the home to the Hindu gods, Mount Meru. The walk up to the top was very peaceful and interesting as we could see huge stones strewn about the wooded banks of the hill from tumbling down over the years we supposed. The view from the top was the best one we found of all the ruins. We could see Angkor Wat poking out above the trees in the distance and in the opposite direction we saw some hot air balloons on their ascent.
Bayon is a Khmer temple built in the late 12th century near the center of Angkor Thom, meaning “Great City.” This was our favorite temple of all because we loved the smiling stone faces everywhere! The temple was also the most complex and compact with multiple levels and intertwining passages. It is incredible to think of the people that built these massive structures over 800 years ago. I also loved the multifaced guards perched on top of the four gates of Angkor Thom protecting each bridge entrance in the four cardinal directions.
At its peak the capital city of Angkor Thom was populated by 150,000 people which at that time was 8 times the population of London. The Khmer Empire at this time pulsed with more promise and wealth than most more developed regions of the world. Much of the stability came from the control of water in the region by the many canals and reservoirs strategically placed around the temples and cities. The cities and temples were built by floating the large stone blocks, quarried 30 miles away, on rafts to the site. We find it fascinating how the Khmer people were able to control and use the canals to build what has been called a “hydraulic city.”
The final collapse of the Khmer Empire and cities came from an all too familiar foe in these days, Mother Nature. In the last decade scientists unraveled the long-standing mystery of what happened to cast the final blow in the decline of the Khmer Empire. Intense monsoon rains after a period of drought caused widespread destruction of the city’s infrastructure by flooding and erosion. It is tragic and at the same time poetic that the source of the city’s power should also become the destroyer.
Baphoun was built in the mid-11th century as a temple mountain dedicated to the Hindu got Shiva. The temple was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 15th when a massive 30-foot-tall and 230-foot-long reclining Buddha was built into the back of the structure. We marveled at Buddha which still remains and even baffled archaeologists and engineers when tasked with supporting the structure during restoration and repairs. Here we learned a trick to telling a temple from a city. The entrance to this structure is at the end of a long-elevated walkway which signifies it must have been a temple. Cities are accessed also by bridges, typically over their surrounding reservoir, but their access is characteristically at grade to facilitate transport of carts and elephants.
At the end of our first day of biking in the scorching heat I believe I might have had a slight case of heat stroke or severe dehydration. I developed a headache on our bike ride back which grew worse until I drank a whole liter of aloe water under the A/C unit in our room. We hydrated hard the rest of the night for the next day knowing full well what to expect now.
We got an earlier start to beat the heat which helped with our plan to ride to one of the furthest points of the park. On average I would say we biked about 20 miles each of the three days. We did see a few others out biking however it looked like they had been training and planning a long time for their coordinated spandex adventure on their fancy road bikes. Our rental mountain bikes had a few gears for us at least. We would have perished on heavy gear-less city bikes.
We made two new stops on this day at Preah Khan and Neak Pean. The furthest point we biked to, Neak Pean, is an artificial island in the middle of a reservoir that looked like the bog Frodo and Sam crossed in LOTR. There are stone lined pools of water decorated by statues in the middle of the island where religious pilgrims would come to wash away their sins. Honestly knowing how little there is to see on the island in hindsight I don’t think I would have invested the sweat of biking there. I imagine it was quite a beautiful sight hundreds of years ago when the reservoir was clear of undergrowth and mirroring the sky above in all directions.
Our first Tomb Raider-esque temple was Preah Kahn where we first saw some trees growing over ruins shared with only a handful of other people there. We were amazed by the sprawling size of this temple that seemed almost endless as we walked around exploring for at least half an hour. Historians believe this to be an ancient city built on this place where a great victory was won. The name Preah Kahn has the meaning “Sacred Sword” echoing back to the victorious battle. We enjoyed the ambiance of this temple much more than the famous Ta Prohm which is crawling with tourists because it is the actual temple where Tomb Raider was shot.
A day older and a day wiser when at the end of our bike ride Lauren suggested we jump in the pool at our hotel. It was glorious! We did get some sour looks from others around the pool on their electronic devices as we were the only ones in the pool horsing around and splashing. After recharging in the A/C we ventured back out in the protection of night for dinner a short walk from our hotel. Lauren had one of her most memorable meals when she ordered an Italian dish, mushroom ravioli in a vegan alfredo cream sauce. From her first bit it was a challenge to finish her meal. Not the direction you thought it was going huh!? I am ashamed to say I found a little bit of pleasure in watching her eat it because of a playful argument I have kept going. I argue that Lauren would not survive if stranded on a deserted island because she would simply refuse to eat a flavorless meal or the same thing every day. She disagrees. Now I have evidence. I swear she has heightened taste buds because she can always pick out individual ingredients from complex flavors that I can only describe as yummy. This meal was like cruel and unusual torture as she force fed herself the ravioli in a sauce that can only be described as blended tofu water void of all flavor. I graciously offered her a slice of my vegan pizza which she refused with a grimace several times I believe out of spite and not prove my point. She called it quits about halfway through the dish for fear of her tongue running away to tastier pastures and had a slice of my pizza for survival.
One night, I forget which, we walked to the Art Center Night Market at the edge of town to peruse. There was not as much art as we expected from the name. It was mostly stands selling shirts, jewelry, and touristy souvenirs. We walked through most of it and did see a few stands with some artwork but didn’t dare to stop and look too long at anything for fear the vendors would encircle us chanting “please look cheap price please look cheap price”.
On our last day touring Angkor we woke up at the crack of dawn and biked out to Angkor Wat ready to fight for a good position to see the sun rise behind the temple. We both called our parents for a video chat to share the experience, along with the hundreds of other people. To our surprise we found a good spot to watch from with no problem because of how large the courtyard space is out front of the temple. Sadly, we didn’t get the chance to see the sun rise over the temple because of heavy cloud cover or perhaps smog cover. Yes, it is very smoggy in South East Asia and dusty biking around Angkor, so we learned after the first day to bring something to cover our faces.
Slightly disappointed we followed our monkey guide up towards the temple entrance to have a look inside. Angkor Wat is the most well-known temple for a couple reasons. First, it is the best-preserved temple because even after the dissolution of the Khmer Empire the site was used for religious purposes and was lived in by monks for hundreds of years who tended to the upkeep. It is also the best preserved because it has the largest reservoir surrounding the temple which provided a better barrier from the jungle reaching across to retake the grounds it was built upon. When French explorers rediscovered the complex of temples in the 1860’s they romanticized Angkor Wat because it was the most intact and impressive when they showed up. Most if not all of the other temples were hidden in the strangles of the jungle and much of the original structures had collapsed. So now it is no wonder why everyone knows the name Angkor Wat, but most likely do not know that it is one of dozens of temples in a massive complex of ancient cities. All that being said Angkor Wat is impressive, and we enjoyed looking at the intricate wall carvings and tall towers, however it was not our favorite. The temple just didn’t have the same character and allure as some of the others we visited like Bayon. It is obviously a must see while you are there but do yourself a favor and check out some of the other temples too!
With the early morning start at Angkor we were able to fit in a lot of temples on our last day before the heat struck us down. Banteay Kdei is a short distance from Angkor and is often overlooked for Ta Prohm a little way further down the road. Again, we found ourselves sharing the temple with only a handful of others. This temple was interesting because there were sections still standing that looked like they could collapse at any second and they let you walk right around them! *Hard hats not included*
Next on the list was Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider) temple which was absolutely overrun with people flocking to the iconic insta pic location. There was a waiting line and four picture limit. We gravitated to the north and quieter side of the temple where we found several trees growing on the ruins without fighting elbow to elbow for the picture. We walked the temple and enjoyed looking at the aggression the jungle has towards the ruins but did not stay to wait in line for our picture by the one and only tree of Instagram.
The last temple of the day was the unfinished Ta Keo which is also one of the oldest temples and the only undecorated temple. We shamefully found it hilarious that the 95% complete temple was abandoned after being struck by lightning as we contemplated the ways it may have been interpreted. We joked that they may have thought the gods hated their ugly temple which interestingly may have some truth when considering after this temple all others were decorated outside and inside.
Leaving Cambodia, we must have been about ten pounds lighter from all the water weight we sweated out on our bikes. We went with the same bus company on the ride back to Bangkok (not that we had much choice) to catch our flight to Bali. I suppose the VIP VISA service is only one way when at the border our “guide” ran from the bus so quickly that he lost half the group in the shuffle through the local market at the border. We got stuck in the back of the group and watched the first half of our bus going up the stairs when border control blocked off the stairs. We waited patiently hoping we would not be left behind by our “guide”. About twenty minutes later we finally get released to go up the stairs where we were stopped at the top in a line winding out of the door. Another twenty minutes and we can poke our heads in the door to see all of the miserable faces on the inside. We were stuck in a room with about 300 people shoulder to shoulder during the heat of the day with no air conditioning, windows closed, and the only reprieve offered was the faint breeze of four wall fans selecting the lucky few to enjoy their oscillating relief. Now this is more like it, the type of land border crossing we know and love (totally joking). Three hours it took to get through the line and in that time, we saw two attempted coups for air conditioning and one poor Polish girl actually faint from the heat. Oh, and our three-hour wait started at lunch time. I think I would have led one of the uprisings if I had not grabbed our bag of snacks from the bus. We carefully avoided direct eye contact with the several death stares as we snacked on our bags of chips. Good bye Cambodia you are too damn hot for our liking! And thanks for the cool ruins we really enjoyed them 😊.