When initially planning our big trip, we had this wild idea that we'd visit basically all of Southeast Asia in a two week timeframe, an itinerary we quickly realized was, perhaps pushing it. After making Vietnam our primary focus, we decided we'd gone so far, we might as well take advantage and add on juuust one more country, a fast hop-skip over to Cambodia to visit the Angkor Ruins. One of the most famous (and heavily visited!) ancient sites in the world, 'twas too good to pass up. So we booked ourselves for essentially 48 hours in Cambodia, including transit time. It was bonkers and exhausting, and with the flights, additional Visa and other fees, expensive, adding at least $500, if not way more to our "budget" trip. Whoooops!
But despite all that it was 100 million percent totally worth it!
...and that's just the beginning!
We arrived in Siem Reap around 6 PM, encountering truly the most insane airport experience of all time, which I will not recap here because that might take all day. Essentially it involved grouchy security guards, mysterious paperwork, fingerprinting pads, hordes of Chinese tourists plowing people down with their matching rolly suitcases, sneaking past customs because we somehow never got a customs form, invisible ATMs and a lot o' stressing on the part of your chill, intrepid world travellers.
Now that we've done a big, crazy foreign trip, we swear we'll be calmer on the next one. (Yeah! Right!)
We checked into our lovely hotel, had a delicious dinner at their restaurant and a night swim in the pool, before tucking in for an early night's rest, as our Angkor tour guide was due to arrive at 4:50 the following morning.
The Angkor Archaeological Park, now around the modern city of Siem Reap, houses the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor, which thrived from around the 9th to 15th Centuries and was believed to house .01 % of the whole world's population at one point. I had gone into this trip thinking it was just one or two temples next to a town - big and old, but just a few - when in fact the whole Angkor region consists of 500 acres, housing the ruins of over 250 buildings, primarily temples and palaces. I sort of described the experience as visiting Yellowstone but with old crumbly ruins instead of mountains. Not at all an equal equation but you get the picture, I hope!
It's a LOT to see and do in one day but not impossible. Basically you have to book a great guide, start early and be cool with knowing you won't see everything there is to see. We read a lot of reviews of other people who visited and all said it's possible to get "templed out," which is kind of true, so if you have the time, do maybe 2-3 shorter days but it's absolutely possible to see a TON and have a worthwhile trip in just one day!
A word on booking a guide: Just do it. You could probably tour around on your own but it is SO big and vast and there is so much to learn, it's best to have an expert by your side. This was one thing we failed to do before leaving the US, thinking our hotel would just assign us one, and it led to our one and only mini-fight of the trip as we stressfully poured through TripAdvisor the night before we left Vietnam. Somehow we managed to hit the jackpot despite our delay, booking Guide Pal Sauron and tuk-tuk driver David, both of whom were funny, intelligent, charming and so knowledgeable about the area. A tuk-tuk is basically a little cart pulled behind a motorbike. The funnest!!! Sauron knew the history and legends of the temples but, more importantly, had such an genuine enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and for being a tour guide. They kept us well supplied with water bottles and cool towels at every stop. There are about five hundred zillion tour groups available on Tripadvisor, from solo guides to bike tours to big bus trips to hiring someone to drive you around in an air conditioned BMW. I'm sure most of them are fantastic, but we couldn't recommend these two higher!
I suppose now would also be a good time to explain our ensembles, huh? SO! Angkor is considered a sacred site and some parts are still working temples. Because of this, it is asked that guests cover their shoulders and knees. This is just a courtesy in most parts of the park, but in some areas you are not allowed to enter if not appropriately dressed. This primarily applies to women, which I, of course, irks me, but I try to be gracious to other schools of thought and respect mores and traditions of other cultures and religions even when they are directly opposing to my own. (Brian tells me this called moral relativism , a topic I've been reading up about lately, super fascinating stuff!) The dress code is heavily communicated, too. We of course knew all about it because we did our research, plus our tour guide told us in an email AND our hotel told us when we checked in, so it's not like we didn't have a clue what to expect. We were blown away by how many other people rolled up in inappropriate attire - both too skimpy and just generally inappropriate for the zone, wearing high heeled sandals, dresses, carrying white leather handbags around a dusty archaeological site. Like, where do you think you are?? I know Brian and I tend to over plan and research but truly how did you arrive here, after all these warnings and things not appropriately dressed? Did you fall down from another planet? Sometimes people are morons.
On top of these restrictions, Cambodia is hot as all get-out. It was 85 degrees when we left the hotel before sunrise and eventually peaked in the high 90's, with blazing sun. We knew we needed to figure out attire that was both full coverage and fully breathable AND comfy to walk in for many hours soooooo we picked up a few pairs of these breezy "pillow pants" from the markets in Vietnam (all the idiot tourists walk around in these. I now own three pairs!), Brian brought a hat and an extra t-shirt to cover the back of his neck and I packed a light scarf, which I rocked Virgin Mary style, to protect mine. We also wore sneaks for all the stair-climbing we were set to do. My sneakers had been rubbing my heels, so I wore a pair of Brian's higher socks which happened to be bright blue. All of this together, coupled with our awkwardly lanky limbs made for quite the look.
Greatest photo of all time? LOOK AT OUR ANKLES!!! Brian showed this to me while we were had braked (breaked? Were on a break?) for lunch, and I may have been a little delirious from heat and hunger, I almost passed out I was laughing so hard. We look like cartoon characters. Like Doug and Patti Mayonnaise:
Amazing. The best-best part of this is all is that for once on our whole honeymoon we had a third party to take couple photos and Sauron LOVED taking pictures of us. At every stop he'd have us pose for a dozen pictures, it felt like our wedding day. So of our whole two weeks of looking mostly cute but having no one to commemorate it, all of the photos of the two of us from our trip we look ridiculous.
Totally worth it. We stayed cool and fit the dress code and now I can look at these pictures and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Ok, moving on. Angkor is so big and expansive, to recap fully would probably take a year and a half, so I'm mostly going to let the pictures do the talking. (Yeah, right, you know me I'll ramble endlessly at every pause...but I'll at least try!) We visited basically five temple sites and took a few stops to see other places along the way. I'll give a little intro, show photos, pepper with my witty commentary and link to Wikipedia for all the educational stuff. Sound like a plan? Great, let's go!
Angkor Wat: The most well-known and recognizable of the temples, it is actually the largest religious complex in the world! Built in the 1100's, it has served as both a Hindu and Buddhist worship site. We (and eleventy hundred other tourists) arrived before dawn to watch the sun rise behind the towers. It wasn't the transcendent experience the internet had made it out to be - again with these high expectations! - but it was a gorgeous way to start the day.
Angkor Wat took about two hours in total to poke around, and none of these photos really do justice to the sheer magnitude of it all. Crumbling stone walls covered with intricate relief carvings telling Cambodian history and legend, steep stone staircases leading to imposing towers, statues of Buddha or Hindu gods watching down from every corner. It was mesmerizing.
While at Angkor Wat we experienced our VERY BEST moment of the whole entire trip. While waiting for sunrise, we were people watching / people judging hardddd because that is our number one favorite thing to do as a couple. There were these two idiot women just prancing around totally underdressed, one was wearing a spaghetti string mini romper and the other was essentially wearing a bra and underpants, each carrying their own selfie sticks, posing duck-face in front of the temples, pushing their cameras up in the faces of little Cambodian children who were begging or trying to sell trinkets. They were truly disgusting examples of humanity.
AKA our dream people to judge.
Angkor Wat is three levels and the top one is a working temple, so it is one of the zones where modesty is required. You actually had to line up and go through a check point before climbing the steps up. Guards were fully turning people away for super small infractions - a hint of knee, the outline of a shoulder or tummy. Like, Catholic School nuns are lenient compared to these guys. Our two girlfriends were right behind us in line, taking NO notice of their surroundings and we waited gleefully for them to get turned away. And OH IT WAS AMAZING. Even before they reached the checkpoint, a security guard pointed to them and said "no," motioning for them to get off line. They were completely dumbstruck and had no idea what he was telling them. "Out of line?" they asked in accented (I think French?) English, "but why?!!" When the guard told them they were not dressed right they argued with him, then asked him if they could rent clothes somewhere, then got mad at him that he didn't have any clothes to rent and then he yelled at them for holding up the line and was about to forcefully remove them before the finally flounced out in disgust.
GLORIOUS!!! We saw a lot of beautiful things on our trip but there is truly no more wonderful sight to behold than douchebags getting a public comeuppance.
Thanks for the memories, ladies, I'll cherish you forever.
Ok that's the wordiest I'll get about a temple, I swickety swear! Onto the next one!
Angkor Thom: This was the last and longest running capital city of the Angkor region, operating until the early 1600's when the whole region was abandoned. Within Angkor Thom are dozens of temples, palaces and monuments. You enter across a long bridge and through a stunning, imposing gate. Our guide helped us scramble up to the top of the gate to survey the land...clearly there were a LOT o' tourists visiting!
The bridge is lined with sculptures of warriors on one side, demons on the other. Sauron made us pose like this, I swear!
The gate is carved with four faces on either side, the face of Buddha and of the King Jayavarman VII, who comissioned the building of the city. He was a humble guy!
Bayon Temple is one of the most famous sites within Angkor Thom, again with faces of Buddha/the King carved into the temple towers, 216 smiling faces looking in every direction!
All the cool tourists pretend to be smooching the faces. Brian's NOT feeling this...
Again. Cheesy pose not our idea!
We then bopped over to Baphoun, which was originally constructed as a Hindu temple, before being reconstructed by the Buddhists, including a 70-foot reclining Buddha carved into the side. This temple was big and gorgeous with lots of steeeeep stairs and a thin long bridge that I can only imagine is gorgeous during the rainy season...but fun to play under when dry!
Brian was feeling pretty fly in his hippie doofus backpacker ensemble.
(He's so cute!!)
Next in Angkor Thom we visited Phimeanakas, a temple that only the king was allowed to visit. According to legend, he spent every night there laying (biblically) with a Naga woman - a snake who became a woman at night. If they did not meet every single night, a curse would fall on all in the kingdom. Oooooohhhhh.
We then walked through some ruins of the king's palace, pretty much only some foundations and old pools (where he would bathe with his literally thousands of concubines) remained. Seriously on the thousands, though. These guys LOVED them some concubines. I don't know where anyone gets the energy for that, you know???
And then to the Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace, stages where the king would sit and watch people perform for him ... or watch executions. Fun stuff like that. Fun fact: These are built at this height so he could ride up on his elephant and step right off onto his stage!
Still with me? GREAT!
Bantaey Srei: This was one of my favorite temples, known as "Lady Temple" (not, as I thought, because they worshipped women there, but because it was small, delicate and pink...whomp whomp!) It was about 40 minutes tuktuk ride away from the downtown area and the journey there was a site in and of itself, giving a glimpse of the Cambodian countryside and rural life. (I'll get into this another time, but Cambodia is VERY VERY VERY poor and it was eye-opening and difficult to see and process. I'm still processing, I think.)
Built in the 900's, it wasn't discovered until 1914. Can you imagine that? This whole beautiful ruin just hiding away in the jungle for years. Gorgeous. Bantaey Srei is almost Angkor Wat in miniature, little doors, little towers, tiny, intricate carvings along every wall.
This particular pose WAS my idea... and we don't look too bad in the pants, so long as you can't see our ankles!
Maybe the second funniest moment of the Angkor trip (after the banishment of those idiot ladies from Angkor Wat, of course) came at Bantaey Srei. As you'll have noticed, there are a lot of towers present in the architecture and the phallic symbolism is very, very much on purpose. Apparently these are "lingam" a form in Hindu culture that among other things, yes, represents the big D. Every tower, our guide kept pointing out all the "phallic lingas" and was not shy about it. I feel like in Western architecture, everyone's like "Whattt? That monument looks like a penis? I had no idea!" but he was like, "yup, dick, dick, dick." It was awesome.
AND: in addition to lingam, they have "yonis" which represent female fertility. Or, as our guide said, AND I QUOTE:
"The yoni represents the woman. You know, the pussy."
Andddd we died. We are so mature. I do kind of feel like a jerk laughing, I imagine that somehow the slang term just made its way into his English and he now he just drops it like it ain't no thang and I wouldn't want it to embarrass him - lord knows what kinds of accidentally dirty words I'm saying in other languages, but OHHH how we laughed.
So here you go, a statue of a pussy:
(PS: forgive me if you are Cambodian/Hindu/Buddhist and I'm mixing up all of this history & religion...I'm basing ALL of this off the notes I took in my journal from what I remember hearing a tour guide tell me so I could be messing it up bigtime. Which also means if you're using any of this info to write a research paper on Angkor, um, you may want to consult some other sources.)
After all this sexy talk,we'd worked up quite an appetite, so we tuk-tuked back towards town for a traditional lunch, well, "traditional Cambodian" in the way that a pizza place next to St. Peter's Basilica is "traditional Italian" and a little rest. By this point we'd been up for about a million hot sunny hours and getting a bit nutty. But we were rejuvenated by coke lights and curried rice and soon were on the move again!
TaPhrom: Known as the "Tomb Raider" temple, they famously filmed the Lara Croft movie here, and elsewhere in Angkor. This may have been our favorite spot. Built in the 12th Century, and abandoned in the 1700's, it lay neglected by man for centuries, but not by nature. The jungle essentially overtook it again, with trees and vines growing right up and over the rocks. After its discovery in the late 1800's, conservationists have worked to preserve this mix and I think it is just astounding and humbling, the reminder of the power of the natural world.
Can you see the little face peeking through the roots in this one?!
We were getting prettttty loopy and delirious at this point. Not gonna lie, this pose was totally my idea.
How cool is nature, guys??? And how cool are humans too? Like, people built these immense structures over a thousand years ago before electricity or bulldozers or any of the technology we have today. Mesmerizing. What a world!!!
Kravan: This was our last stop of the day, a small but super old temple, built by a king to honor his parents in 921. NINE!! It blows my mind that we touched and saw something that was constructed over one thousand years ago.
And that was our trip! By this point it was about 4 PM and we'd been out exploring temples for coming on 12 hours and were b-e-a-t. So we hopped in our chariot and tuk-tuked home.
We again had dinner at the restaurant, cooled down in the pool and crashed, hard. It was a hot, long, exhausting, AMAZING day. Absolutely worth the travel insanity and money, and then some.
And on the next day, we rested! But I'll save that saga for the next post. This is long enough as it is! Just two more days to go (plus a hilarious flight home). I'm getting kind of sad as we come to the end here, I've been enjoying reliving the trip by blogging about it and now I'm reliving the sadness of it ending all over!
Whomp. Time for another vacation I guess!!
xoxo Liz Ho