Translated by: Pal Capewell
So where were we? Oh yeah, Eni and I arrived to Siem Reap. To be frank the town is not too special, or pretty for that matter. There is, of course, the Pub Street, where one can get really wasted, and a street to get souvenirs. That’s about it. Naturally there are the usual shops, restaurants, malls, markets, but that you can find anywhere. A few older buildings look rather nice as well. But most importantly, this town has Angkor, Southeast Asia’s most visited site - our reason for dropping by.
But before we take a dive into Angkor, let’s say a few words about our host. Anti, our Hungarian host, has graduated from Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, as a photographer. He studied on a scholarship in Indonesia for a while, then returned to Hungary for a bit only to be called back to Asia soon afterwards, to Cambodia. This is his second year working with John McDermott, an American photographer who has quite the number of years behind him living in Asia and Siem Reap. Mr. McDermott has shot a few iconic pictures of Angkor as well; his signature method is taking pictures on an infrared film. You can check out some of his pictures by clicking HERE (PASTE LINK!!!), and if you visit Siem Reap, we strongly recommend dropping by his gallery.
Anti, our host, works mostly with advertisements for hotels, restaurants and records movies for circus groups. He is a very dedicated photographer and his eagerness to accept nothing less than perfection comes through his work (he has shown us a few pictures he took). He has made a great impression personally as well: Anti is open, kind and is exceedingly hospitable. Eni and I could not feel more at home at his place. The three of us had great chats, meals - luckily he had time to spare for us despite his busy schedule. You can find his works by clicking HERE (PASTE LINK HERE!). Eni and I picked his “kawahijen” collection (a sulfur mine) as our favorite, but his work on Angkor Mandala is impressive as well.
Anti can find his way around all the temples in Angkor even if you blindfold him, so he gave us plenty of tips as to what is worth to see and what to skip.
Angkor, the town of ancient temples, was established in the ninth century, serving as the capital for the Royal Khmer Kingdom between 802 and 1432. At it’s largest, this kingdom included Chenla Province, the flatlands of today’s Cambodia, large parts of Thailand and Laos and even the Mekong River Delta. In the twentieth century, they cleared off 200 square km of forest, where hundreds of temples and places of worship stand today - one of them being Angkor Wat. Only the temples were built from stones, all other buildings - even the royal castle - were built out of wood. As time progressed, the vast majority of these wooden buildings have disappeared, leaving a temple-city behind. At it’s highest point, the kingdom had approximately 600,000-1,000,000 inhabitants, which is more than any of the European cities’ population at that time. The Siam Thai people frequently attacked Angkor in the fifteenth century, and 1431 was no exception. The fight lasted for two months, ending with Angkor’s downfall. After the Thais withdrew from the area, the town was left mostly uninhabited. The Khmer people have constructed a new capital near today’s Phnom Penh, and the tropical forest overtook what was left from Angkor. The town’s fame is only preserved through legends. Angkor was discovered again by French scholars, in the middle of the nineteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia, translated from Hungarian)A map of the town
If you wish to see the sunrise, you must wake up early and get there on time. Eni and I got up at 4am as well, and rushed to the ticket offices. A few minutes after 5am we were there already, but faced endless queues. In all fairness to the locals, they handled the enormous masses of people with speed and efficiency and the admission passes with pictures on them were handed out fast. This is what is required for admission. One can’t lose it, as it costs a lot. Even the admission fee is pricey, at USD 20. That’s the one day pass, but there are also three day (USD 40) and weekly (USD70) passes as well. They say one day is not enough but three day might be a tad much, so we opted for buying a day pass and if needed, we can still swing for another day, not losing a penny. Most people watch the sunrise from Angkor Temple or the lakeside. The sun rises behind the temple and it’s simply breathtakingly beautiful, especially as it is reflected in the lake’s water. Huge crowds were present, with bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses.... True, one does need a vehicle as the surrounding region is next to impossible to conquer on foot. We put our bikes down and went with the flow (literally!). The best spots for picture taking were of course already taken so the option for professional pictures was out of the question. Luckily though, we did manage to find a reasonable spot towards the left, from where we could see everything and I could take alright pictures (on the rare occasion nobody decided to stand right in front of my camera). Little children were running around selling fridge magnets and postcards to tourists. Grown-ups were walking around with menus in their hands, trying to lure tourists for coffee and breakfast. There are at least ten restaurants side by side by the lake. The sunrise was truly beautiful but I assume there must have been prettier ones in the temple’s history.
Eni and I started to walk around, leaving Angkor Wat for last due to the crazy amounts of people present. The next site was Angkor Thom, with its stunning Bayon Temple and its monkeys.
We dropped by the Elephant Terrace as well, and I especially fancied the guard towers (okay, wait, that’s just how I named them, I’m pretty sure they have some sacred purpose).
Our host suggested to give Prasat Preah Palilay Temple a try as it is truly magnificent and would be a shame to miss. It was also less crowded. Tourists visiting Angkor Wat have a very distinguished path which would be wise to avoid as it is overcrowded and one misses out on a great number of sites that are just breathtaking. A lot of temples hide inside the jungles, waiting for you to discover them. This is exactly what makes adventures in Angkor Wat so rewarding, being able to wander off wherever you please. Eni and I just sat under the trees, enjoying the cool atmosphere, staring at the pyramid shaped buildings and taking nature’s power all in. Trees were hugging the temples with their roots, and branches hiding them all. Interestingly, you can use Google Maps to check this region out in street-view mode - it’s super cool!
Our lunch was at the parking lot, in front of Preah Khan Temple, observing tourists with the weirdest pants. “You must buy a loose, baggy, colorful pair of pants with elephant patterns on it” is probably some kind of inner nudge among people visiting Southeast Asia. When we decided we saw enough versions of the touristy pants, Eni and I entered the temple. This was the first larger temple that is still under true captivity of the jungle. This was my personal favorite, to be honest. One is allowed to wander around the gardens freely, and we took our chances climbing on different walls to see further into the ruins. It was again a breathtaking view; man-made and natural blending together, stones and wood melting into one, living in symbiosis.
We found separately standing buildings within Preah Khan’s inner garden.
Eni and I spent an hour or so here and rewarded ourselves with a nice coffee for all the hard work. We continued on our big loop. It became clearer and clearer that not all will fit into our tight schedule, and some will have to be skipped. At the time we had no idea how true that was going to prove. For Neak Pean, we only had a peak really. It was built on a a small lake, with a narrow bridge leading to it. We walked over and peaked inside to see the first building, but had no time for more.
Next came Ta Som, one of whose gate stands in many popular pictures of Angkor. Here another group of children awaited us, a girl counting from one to ten in three languages and speaking fairly good English. Since children don’t attend school here, the source of her wisdom peaked our interest. “Well the tourists, of course!” came the answer. We bought a few postcards from them as they were really the cutest ever. And the ever so famous gate? Truly stunning.
On our way to Ta Prohm, we decided to stop for a meal as we became truly hungry. Our meal was grilled chicken with rice, and to spice things up, some frog meat. It was tasty, with lemongrass filling. Ta Prohm Temple is often called the Tomb Raider Temple (as the movie was recorded here in Angkor Wat). Huge crowds awaited us again, making it impossible to take pictures at main points. Giving up our picture-taking wasn’t that big a deal though, the walk around the park made up for it, giving us enough to take pictures of.
We departed rather late from Ta Prohm, sure of one unfortunate fact: no Ankor Wat for us this time around. Our tight budget didn’t permit us to spend another twenty bucks per head to see one temple, but I can’t say we were disappointed with our trip. Eni and I saw a lot, and what had to be felt was felt and taken in. Hey, maybe we will return one day as a family!
The next days were filled with market runs, cooking, a lot of coffee (a tad more than should have), and great chats with Anti. Blogposts were written, videos were edited and we enjoyed the comforts of the apartment. Our 11,000th mile caught us in Siem Reap - or did we catch up with it? Oh well, we asked Anti to be on the picture with us, further, he should take the picture himself! This became the first, and probably last, “thousandth” picture taken by a professional.
The three of us watched Everest, and decided that it fell short of our expectations. It seemed to be more based on John Krakauer’s work, instead of Bukrejev’s more in-depth book. (If you are into this topic it’s definitely worth a read!)
I finally started learning how to use the Lightroom photo editing software. About time, huh? The first picture I did with this was the Angkor Wat sunrise. And who else should I ask advice from, if not the very pro himself, Anti?
The day of our departure was fast approaching. Eni and I wished to spend Christmas Days in great comfort instead of biking, on the road. We had the beach in mind, but to get their in time we had to go by bus to the capital. We already found a Warmshowers spot. We had our eyes set on the noon time bus, but unfortunately not all buses had enough free seats (must be booked in advance) and not all buses could transport bikes. As a result, Anti had us for another half a day, and we left with a bus in the middle of the night. We were told to get to the tourist office by 22h, for a 23h departure, to allow sufficient time to handle the bikes. Naturally, we were there by 22h, but no bus to be seen anywhere. Then we spotted it around 100m away from us, parked, idle. Then finally, ten minutes before 23h it pulled in, but the staff wasn’t in a hurry to let pax board or handle baggages. Finally I ended up helping to speed things along, decreasing the delay to “only” thirty minutes. It was just an added bonus that stepping on board the bus we saw the driver passing out on the steering wheel, reeking of alcohol. F*ckin’ great, we thought. The layout of the bus was bunk-beds on both sides, where the upper bunk was about chest-height. Eni and I got floor-level beds.
The width was bearable, but the length? That I couldn’t handle. Luckily we managed to sleep a bit, waking up frequently to the roller-coaster nature of the ride. The bus got to Phnom Penh by seven in the morning and Eni and I thought of a city tour for the day. But before that, we HAD to eat something for breakfast - our tummies were rather loud in their adamant statements. Yes, we needed all the energy we could get to dive into another chapter of the Khmer history - a sad one, unfortunately. I’ll have Eni take over from here.