Day 10: Siem Reap
This morning we felt much better and lounged around the hotel until mid-afternoon, when we once again met our tuk-tuk driver David (who, as it was becoming clear, was our personal driver :)) and set out for more temple trekking.
Our mission was to see nearly everything in Angkor Thom (‘Great City’), which is a gigantic, 2200-plus acre plot of Cambodian jungle surrounded by a tall square wall and 100-meter wide moat. Entering the complex, we were greeted by immense gates topped with large stone faces of the Angkor King responsible for the city’s construction.
After another ten minutes of driving (seriously, this place is huge), we came to the center of the city featuring several important structures comissioned by Jayavarman VII, the Angkor King referenced above. But one stands out as his crown jewel: the Bayon Temple.
From a distance, Bayon looks a bit like a pile of rubble, but that changed when we stepped inside. On the first and second levels, there are impressive bas-reliefs with over 11,000 figures carved into the stone (many depicting everyday life in 12th-century Cambodia).
But the third level is where it got awesome – 54 towers decorated with 216 enormous smiling faces (said to bear a resemblance to the king Jayavaraman VII, the king responsible for nearly everything in Angkor Thom).
Everywhere we looked the faces were visible, some looking down on us from up high and some at eye-level. From the perspective of a 13th-century Khmer peasant, there would be no doubt in your mind that Jayavaraman VII was a god.
Next up was Baphuon, a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of a temple (its restoration was interrupted during the Khmer Rouge years, all records were destroyed, and experts were basically left with 300,000 pieces to put back together). We didn’t realize it, but this must be an active temple because I was not allowed in wearing my shorts and tanktop. Matt made a quick pass through while I walked around the perimeter, admiring the giant banyan trees that surround it.
After Baphuon, we wandered north through the jungle to Phimeanakas (‘Celestial Palace’), a small temple near an area that once housed the royal palace, and climbed its long staircase to check out the view.
We walked on to the Terrace of the Elephants, a long causeway that once held large audiences for public ceremonies, and at the Terrace of the Leper King, our guidebook led us to a hidden ‘terrace within a terrace’ below the main outer wall with four tiers of gorgeous carved apsaras that have been beautifully preserved.
Prasat Suor Prat (‘Temple of the Tightrope Dancers’) is a series of twelve large towers that served dual purpose: tightrope performances for the king, and public trials: the two parties in dispute were made to sit in each tower, and whoever got sick and died first was (obviously) guilty.
Tired and SO sweaty, we found our driver (napping under a tree again) and went to Phnom Bakheng, where everyone goes to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat. We climbed the hill alongside a circus of tourists, but once at the top, we decided it wasn’t cool enough to wait another hour before sunset and walked back down.
After one more stop at Angkor Wat to take some pictures in the evening light, we drove back to the hotel for drinks and dinner, stopping by the night market to do a little more haggling. Our hotel, the Golden Banana, was so fantastic we didn’t feel the least bit bad about not seeing any of Siem Reap besides it and Angkor; we wanted to stay another month. It’s one of the best hotels we’ve ever visited. 🙂
Cambodia was awesome. It’s terribly hot in summer (or all the time), you get covered in dust, the roads kind of suck, and it’s pretty dirty, but the people are incredibly friendly, it’s SO cheap, the food is great, we felt very comfortable navigating around the cities, and Angkor is one of the most impressive sights we’ve ever seen. We’d return in a heartbeat.
Tomorrow it’s off to Hong Kong for the last leg of the trip!