“We’re templed out.”
That’s what my sister and I heard from travelers as we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and asked them about their impression of the great Angkor Archaeological Park. Really?? Too many temples? Templed out? Impossible.
In my twenties, I had lived in Japan for over a year (more on that later), and I just couldn’t get enough of the beautiful temples, shrines, and torii gates there. I was an Anthropology major, so perhaps geekier than most in that respect, with semi-delusions of being Indiana Jones’ side-kick; so okay, I may not have been among the majority on that vote.
I booked us four nights at La Niche D’ Angkor, which had a charming staff, a pool, free airport transfers, free breakfasts, one included dinner, and a one-hour aromatherapy massage for each of us — and all for just $55 a night! I was a huge fan.
The first night we requested a $1 tuk-tuk ride to downtown Siem Reap to eat dinner. The heart of Siem Reap is a criss-cross of lively, bustling streets teaming with tourists, food carts, massage spas, nail parlors, restaurants, bars, night clubs, and tanks of water where little fishies can feast on your feet. No, my sister wasn’t excited about the fish, so we did not partake, which might have saved me from contracting some hideous parasite or flesh-eating disease. But I’m still open to tempting my fate some day with those little fish.
We went to bed fairly early that first night, so we could partake in the must-not-miss thing to do here: watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
So at 5am, bleary eyed and cold, we sped through the dark in our tuk-tuk to the entrance of the Angkor complex and bought a 3-day ticket. We found ourselves a place to sit along the water to the far left, facing the temple, just as daylight started to break. The sun painted the sky various colors as it rose above the horizon, creating a stunning silhouette of the temple.
Despite the hundreds of other tourists (yep tons of ’em, to my right, directly across from the temple), the experience was breathtaking and one I’d definitely recommend.
Once the sun had risen, most tourists hopped in their tuk-tuks to explore other parts of the very large Angkor Archaeological Park, which stretches over 400 square kilometers. My sister and I decided to explore Angkor Wat in depth since we were already there. It used to be the capital of the Khmer Empire, built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, and is the largest religious monument in the world. It was first a Hindu, and later a Buddhist temple, designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.
We let ourselves get lost among the many stone columns, intricate carvings, rooms, and passageways.
By 7am, it was already getting humid and sticky. So we left Angkor Wat and let our tuk-tuk driver lead us to other temples within the Park. Each was unique and impressive in its own way. We would get out, wander, gawk, take pictures, and then get back in our tuk-tuk for the next destination.
This method worked well until we got really hot and lazy, and we decided to leave all of our stuff in our tuk-tuk. Drum-roll for stupidity please. I guess my side bag weighing all of four ounces really pushed me over the edge, and I just couldn’t carry it anymore.
Unfortunately, my bag contained our entrance tickets. I vaguely remembered the guide book saying that each individual temple might require us to present our tickets. This seemed dumb to me since we were already inside the main Park complex. Why would I have to show my ticket again and again? The last several temples we visited had had no guards, so we weren’t on, well, our guard. So when our tuk-tuk driver let us out and said he’d drive around to the other side of this particularly large temple complex and retrieve us from wherever we would eventually emerge, we thought, fantastic.
He had barely turned the corner out of sight when we realized there was a row of guards at the entrance to this temple, and our lovely little entrance tickets had just driven very far away from us. Well, fuck.
And there was no sweet-talking our way into that temple. Those guards were not having it. No smiles. No budging. Just, NO.
GAH! AND THE HEAT! How were we supposed to get to our tuk-tuk!? For all we knew, he could’ve driven miles away; we had no concept of how large the perimeter of this complex was. And we were on a very low-traffic road. We looked up and down the dusty path and there were no other tuk-tuks or buses in sight.
Just one man on a bike.
Hello, man! We tried to look as pathetic as possible (we didn’t really have to try that hard, we were hot and desperate and pathetic), until the man rode over to us noticing our distress. He offered to let one of us ride on the back of his very precarious and rickety bike to track down our tuk-tuk. I was the lucky winner.
As we biked away, I had visions of news headlines, “GIRL ABANDONS SISTER IN CAMBODIA, NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN”, and of having to phone my mom to tell her I left my youngest sister alone on a dirt path in a third world country while I clung haphazardly to the backside of a Frenchman. Nice, real nice.
Luckily, about two miles down a handful of turns, we found the tuk-tuk driver, rushed back to pick up my sister, and continued along our merry-temple-hunting-way. By mid-day, we were exhausted by the sweltering heat and our tiny misadventure, so we went back to our hotel for a nap and a dip in the pool.
The next morning, we rose early (but not for the sunrise this time — we were pooped) to explore Bayon temple before the crowds swarmed. Bayon quickly became one of my favorite spots, with its massive stone faces on its many tall towers.
We ended our temple explorations with a visit to Ta Prohm, made famous by the Tomb Raider movie. Ta Prohm has been left mostly unrestored, with the jungle and trees reclaiming their stake on the land. It was other-worldly to scramble over the crumbling walls at dusk, where the trees feasted on the stone remains. We veered off into hidden nooks and popped out into small enclaves, with the feeling that we were all alone.
As the sun began to set and the guards called out that it was the leaving hour, I looked around, sad to have to say goodbye. We only had time to use two days of our three day pass, and I wished we had a week more to explore every inch of the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Until next time, Cambodia. I will be back.