A six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, during which the driver somehow dodged cattle, potholes, dogs, bicycles, motos and other buses, deposited me just outside Siem Reap in the early evening. After a short tuk-tuk ride into town, I was greeted by Cambodia’s tourist mecca, a bit of a shock coming from up-and-coming Phnom Penh, not to mention the rural roads in between. Taking its cues from Thailand, the small town of Siem Reap overloads the senses with western restaurants and bars, air conditioned coffee shops, and a slew of street vendors all selling the same goods and services. While Phnom Penh caters to many westerners, those mostly seem to be ex-pats and NGO workers. Not so here. The crowds are a different breed altogether, ex-pats rooted to the workings of their new home and perhaps more jaded; tourists tan and wearing authentic southeast-asian clothes (I admit to having bought Thai fisherman’s pants. They’re cool.)
The crowds, of course, are here for the many temples in the area, the most famous being Angkor Wat. I had had my heart set on seeing Angkor Wat for a long time, and soon I would be satiated. The following morning I hired a tuk-tuk, and was driven around by the affable Buok Joy. I spent the first day doing most of the traditional small-tour of half a dozen temples, starting with Angkor Thom and ending with Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world.
The temples cover a vast area, mostly nestled in the jungle, and spending several days is really the only way one can take it all in. Even the smallest temple in the area is impressive, and I spent two days taking photos, imagining what the structures may have looked like in their heyday, and generally being impressed.
The biggest annoyance to visiting the temples are the countless vendors, from restaurant owners selling water to the dozens of children selling postcards and bracelets. It is hard to fault them for trying. After all, a parched foreigner, who can afford spending $20 per day for admission to the grounds, is a veritable money tree. One must remain zen about the experience; but with the barely tolerable heat (I heard 104 degrees) it was a definitely a challenge to do so the hundredth time I heard “Mista! Buy some wata!” yelled from a hundred yards away.
Many visitors go early in the morning before it gets too hot. Being a late sleeper, however, I forced myself to cut my losses and endure the cruelties of the mid-day sun and explore. It was most definitely worth it; the creepy stone faces of Angkor Thom, the ruins overgrown with trees (as seen in Tomb Raider) best seen at Ta Phrom and Ta Som, the dried up pools and stately walkways throughout.. and finally stepping beyond the threshold and into Angkor Wat I was reminded exactly why I had come in the first place. The site is spectacularly large — the perimeter wall measures 1025 by 802 meters. It is grand beyond compare, and to think of building such a structure boggles the mind. I was very much reminded of Chichen Itza, from the scale of the grounds and temples, down to stone steps engineered for dolls feet. Perhaps it was simply the sense of history one gets from seeing ruins broken down and are pillaged over time.
It is impossible to do the place justice with words and amateur photographs. For me, it was even impossible to take in such a place with a cursory visit; days later I am still processing what I’ve seen. I will need to come back someday, preferably during the rainy season, to simply sit on the grounds and be.
After a couple of days this time around, however, I experienced serious temple burnout and opted to laze about the town my last day, barely able to move in the heat. Instead, the afternoon was spent drinking late into the night with other travelers at my guest house, including a fellow San Franciscan, who, in selling others on the Bay Area, reminded us of why we live where we do. Faded, I left the party early to pack up for my early morning’s boat trip to Battambang, Cambodia’s Second City.