Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Angor Wat, Cambodia

Ever since I saw this guy's pictures of sunrise over Angor Wat (which I have just now realized was actually sunset in Bagan, Burma--smh), it's been on my bucket list.

To tell you the truth, my whole SE Asia tour was actually created with Angor Wat in mind. The more I researched the place, the more I knew I wanted to come here, even though the whole idea of Cambodia was pretty foreign to me three years ago. However, Siem Reap, Cambodia has seen a surge of tourism over the past few years, making it much more accessible to outsiders (just be sure to budget $32 for the tourist visa). TripAdvisor even named Siem Reap the #1 travel destination in Asia (#2 in the world) in 2015! 

Best welcome ever

Our trip in Cambodia started off with a 4:30 am wakeup call to see Angor Wat at sunrise. For this leg of our trip, we met up with our friend J, who had previously stayed with me for a month while she was doing an away at our school. She was doing an even grander tour of Asia with her family and friends including Malaysia, Singapore, and Bali and happily overlapped with us for a few days. Even though some of us didn't arrive in Cambodia until the middle of the night before, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the sunrise. Our tuk tuk driver picked us up at 5:00 on the dot and we sped off to the temples of Angor, only a 15 minute ride away.

We were pretty bewildered when we got to the Angor complex and found a large crowd gathered outside the gates. In our sleep deprived state, we didn't register that we would have to buy park passes before the sunrise. Since we didn't want to risk missing the sunrise and there was no wait for the 3-day pass, we bought the more expensive 3-day pass ($40 vs. $20 for the one-day pass) and it turned out to be the smartest decision we made. Getting the 3-day pass allowed us to space out the temples so we could take it at a lighter pace. There was no way we could have lasted from dawn to dusk in the 100 degree heat trying to pack all the temples we saw into one day.
 The first glimpses of Angor Wat at dawn

 Deserted temples at dawn

 Just a glimpse of how many people were camped outside the temples watching the sunrise. They must have gotten up at 3 am!

 The crowd watching the sunrise

The Angor complex is actually made up of more than 20 temples, of which Angor Wat is just the first one. After around 30 minutes of letting us explore, our tuk tuk driver would take us to the next temple and rinse and repeat. The first day, we did the small loop which covered the most famous Angor temples. The second day, we were able to see some of the outlying, smaller temples, which were just as good in my opinion.

My other tip for visiting Angor Wat would definitely be to hire a tuk tuk driver and have him take you around for the day. Ours was arranged through our hotel for a mere $35/day for all four of us. Your tuk tuk driver will be like your personal tour guide/photographer/dad for the day that will drive you to all the temples, know all the best spots to take pictures, provide you with a steady stream of cold water and fresh towels in the steaming heat, and look after you among the throngs of other tourists. We were constantly amazed at how how he knew exactly what we wanted (water, food, shade) and how we would always spot us out of a crowd of hundreds of coming out of each temple to pick us up.
The four of us outside of Bayon
 Bayon, temple #2





Baphuon

 Phimeanakas -- old royal palace
 Ta Prohm -- the famous tomb raider temple



 Ta Prohm


After Ta Prohm and battling the throngs of tourists, we were tired, hot, and famished from being outside in the sun since 5 am. We decided to call it quits for the first day and relax in the pool to rest up for another day of temples the following day (this was where the multi-day pass came in handy!).
 Khmer Lak Lak
The beautiful pool at Khmer Mansion Boutique Hotel
 Dinner at traditional Cambodian House restaurant. Delicious banana blossom salad--now I'm ordering that the next time I see it on the menu! 
 Amok (Cambodian curry dish)
After dinner, we walked to Pub Street, the backpacker/tourist central of Siem Reap, and stumbled onto a giant street festival party hosted by Trip Advisor to celebrate Siem Reap being named the #1 destination in Asia and #2 in the world. Not a shabby title and well deserved!

The next day, we set out bright and early (around 8 am, not quite as early) for the grand loop which would take us to some of the smaller, less well known temples. One perk of getting there early was that we had the whole complex to ourselves!




We took a detour to visit the Cambodian land mine museum (a sobering glimpse of the harsh history of Cambodia) and the Siem Reap butterfly center amidst temple hopping. At the butterfly center, we got up close and personal with some of the butterflies and insects.




After the butterfly garden, we were pretty pooped, however our tuk-tuk driver encouraged us to do one more temple before lunch.
Back to temple-ing



Before long, we couldn't do it any longer and had to stop for lunch at one of the questionable roadside cafes. It was a welcome reprieve at the time but sometimes I wonder if this was the meal that gave me food poisoning for the next 4 days....
The original coconut water

Pineapple fried rice
For our last temple, we went to one last Tomb-Raider esque temple (the name escapes me now--they all started blurring together quickly). This one was less crowded and gave off the same ruins in the jungle vibe.



Famous candlestick photo op
Hall of dancers

For our last day in Angor Wat, we wanted to stick it out for the sunset even though we'd been out since 8 am. After planning our whole day around the sunset at the most famous spot, Phnom Bakheng, we got to the top of the mountain and were underwhelmed by the view. So we then rushed back to Angor Wat, literally running down the side of the mountain to make our tuk-tuk driver drive us, before the park closed. And good thing we did! 
Even though it was cloudy that night and we didn't get the best sunset pictures, we still got these phenomenal pictures of Angor Wat almost deserted since we were there so close to closing. Some of the girls actually stayed past closing to buy some paintings from the nearby street artists, and we got hustled by some of the cops trying to usher us out. The painter thankfully told him off, my friends left with paintings in hand, and I got these priceless pics.


Successful Angor Wat experience

For our last night, we treated ourselves again to the same restaurant across the street for a whopping $4 each and then $4 foot massages. 

One last plug for Cambodia. I think one of the reasons Angor Wat was one of my favorites (ok, I had a lot of favorites) was because of our hotel, Khmer Mansion Boutique Hotel. We stayed in some beautiful hotels on our 3 week jaunt throughout Asia, and Khmer Mansion was not the biggest or most beautiful, but the level of service and hospitality we received from the staff was beyond anything I've ever experienced. It was a smaller, boutique hotel, so you feel like they really knew every guest, and worked to cater to your every request. You want to eat by the pool? Sure. You want to order 5 million things off the set breakfast menu? Sure and we won't charge you extra. They welcomed us with cold drinks, cold jasmine scented towels, and spelled out my name in bamboo on my bed. And then arranged our transport to and from the hotel (first time I was picked up at the airport with my name on a sign! And then taken by tuk tuk to the hotel) and to and from the temples too. My friend's flight was delayed so she didn't arrive until 1 am, and the hotel's tuk tuk driver still waited for her for 3 hours past her scheduled arrival time. We didn't have to worry about a thing with them, making us feel like we were genuinely on vacation. Every time we walked in and out of the hotel, they greeted us and asked us how our day was. We kept talking about how we were so spoiled by Khmer Mansion throughout the whole rest of the trip, and every other hotel felt cold and impersonal by comparison. When we arrived in our next destination, Chiang Mai (even though that hotel's facilities were my favorite), I was taken aback they didn't greet us every time they saw us, we were so spoiled by Khmer Mansion. 
Breakfast by the pool our last morning
Posing with our favorite hotel staff with our free scarves!

Angor Wat was one of my favorite cities we visited on the trip for many reasons--because of the world famous ruins we saw, being able to climb on temples thousands of years old, being with our complete quartet (we would later splinter off to do our own thing), and because it was the cheapest locale we went to (last tip--buy all your souvenirs in Cambodia! Cheaper than Thailand). And I highly doubt I will ever be paid for my opinion so obviously wasn't paid for this one, but our hotel definitely played a big role in that ranking too.

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