Crossing the border
We had read quite a bit about the topic beforehand and were expecting all kinds of scams. We were on edge, ready to handle anything ! If you’re planning on crossing this land border, we can only advise to check the numerous travel blogs that list all the possible scams you might be confronted with. It really helps to be prepared.
Inside the minivan, we met Camille, a French girl who dropped everything to start a 6 months trip by herself. We warned her about the border crossing and she decided to join us in our effort to avoid getting ripped off. To sum up our experience: the driver of our minivan brought us to a fake immigration office where we were given official-looking application forms. They were asking 45$ for the visa (the official price is 30$), and in exchange, no need to get off the bus, they were going to take care of everything. When we said we would prefer to do it ourselves, he insisted: asking for a visa ourselves would take too much time, too many people do it that way and there are long queues, the bus can not wait for so long, we would miss it. He even went as far as saying that the immigration office at the border had run out of visa stickers… Calmly, we told him that we were willing to take the risk, and it was fair enough that if we took too long it would be our problem. Seemingly distraught, he let us leave with our bags.
In the end, everything went smoothly and quickly. There was almost nobody at the official Cambodian immigration office and we got our visas in a few minutes, with only 2$ of ‘processing fee’ to pay on top of the official price. It went so quickly that in the end we had to wait for the bus for almost an hour ! We then learned that in the meantime the bus brought everyone to an ATM on the Thai side, telling them that fees at ATMs in Cambodia were extremely high and that they would be better off exchanging bahts into riels with their ‘friend’. Of course, this was not true and their ‘friend’ offered a pretty terrible exchange rate on top of giving them riels, which are in fact only used instead of quarters (every transaction in Cambodia is made in dollars). The bus then brought us directly to Siem Reap, the effervescent city famous for being the base to explore the temples of Angkor.
First day visiting the temples of Angkor
The classic first day visiting the Angkor temples starts with an early rise at 4:30am and a walk in the dark to get a good spot to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, the eponymous temple and the biggest of them all (it is, apparently, the largest religious building in the world). The day before, we had agreed on a price with a tuk-tuk driver (for Camille and the both of us). He arrived on time but, how unfortunate, his tuk-tuk broke down just in front of our guesthouse. Luckily, his ‘father’ (who was about the same age) was here (at 4:20 am) and could take over for him. The replacement tuk-tuk had no seat for the third person (only a cushion taped to the wood), and did not want to do the temples in the order we wanted, we had to stick to the usual ‘big tour’ or ‘small tour’, nothing else. We tried to negotiate this but to no avail, so we simply left and started to look for another tuk-tuk. 10 minutes later, it was mission accomplished: at that time of the day we were not really in a position to negotiate so the price went up, but at least we would do what we wanted during the day.
The tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the ticket office just before 5am. The management of the Angkor archaeological zone is private, and the prices have just gone up. A 3 days pass costs 62$ per person (compared to 40$ a month before). Unfortunately, it seems that there is still no transparency about where the money goes.
To see the sun rising over Angkor Wat, we followed along the horde of tourists walking in the dark with their lights in hand (of course we forgot ours), passed over the moats without seeing them and arrived early enough to get a spot just in front of the water. The building and its surroundings lit up progressively in front of hundreds of dubious looks that seemed to say “Where the hell are all the nice colours we’re supposed to see ?”
The sunrise itself was fairly disappointing, but the progressive discovery of the temple was impressive. We then went inside Angkor Wat, almost empty due to the common urge to go back in town to have breakfast, but we did not take the time to properly visit it as we wanted to get to Ta Prohm as soon as it opened.
This temple is more famously known as the ‘Tomb Raider temple’. Covered in trees, the temple looks like it has been reclaimed by nature. In fact, the temple is constantly being restored with the idea that it should look the same as how it was ‘found’ by the French at the beginning of the 20th century, but without letting the trees take over completely (this would completely destroy the ruins). Apart from this magical “the nature has taken over” atmosphere, the sculptures are also magnificent (there’s even one of a dinosaur). You really need to visit this temple at 7:30am sharp (its opening time) if you want to avoid the many buses full of tourists that come all day armed with their selfie-sticks.
We appreciated this one as much as Ta Prohm. It’s as beautiful as the latter, but way less visited. In front of it is a ‘little’ artificial pool (800m x 400m) that a king ordered built for his ablutions.
This temple reminded us of the architectural style we have seen in Lopburi, Thailand. Indeed, the Khmers invaded Lopburi and brought their architecture with them.
We thoroughly enjoyed walking among the ruins and sculptures of this temple. It is famous for its eastern gate, reclaimed by an impressive fig tree.
After a quick lunch in one of the many tourist restaurants inside the archaeological zone, overwhelmed by the blazing heat, we opted for a little nap in the restaurant’s hammocks. Our tuk-tuk driver started to get impatient and seemed to be eager to get on with the visits, although we have already agreed to go on until sunset. This little break turned out to be essential as it allowed us to get some energy back and to avoid temple fatigue.
The temple itself, surrounded by water, is fairly uninteresting but the wooden bridge that leads to it is relaxing and beautiful.
Built around the same time as Ta Prohm, Preah Khan also belongs to the major temples. Each of its 4 gates is dedicated to a different deity, mixing Buddhism and Hinduism (Buddha, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu).
While visiting, we were approached by one of the guards, dressed in the official uniform, who told us a few short historical elements about the temple. After thanking him, we started to walk to continue our tour but he started to follow us and asked for money in exchange for the services he had just provided us with. We would have never imagined that a 2 minutes conversation with a guard of the temple could cost 1$, but it’s very hard to say no to a heavily insisting figure of authority…
Angkor Wat (bis) and its bas-reliefs
To finish the day, we went back to Angkor Wat. By chance, the temple was almost empty, and we were the only ones in front of the bas-reliefs !
Armed with our guide book, we spent an hour trying to decipher the many scenes of these magnificent bas-reliefs (which is a hard task when you don’t know much about Hinduism).
We negotiated with our tuk-tuk driver for the next day. Once again, he doesn’t seem to be willing to negotiate the price, but as he brought us where we wanted during the first day, we still decided to go with him. He advised us to do 3 different zones a little outside of the main archaeological zone in an order that would avoid the tourist crowds, we agreed.
We started the day by visiting the ‘women’s citadel’ (literal translation of Banteay Srey). Built with red sandstone, this temple is particularly famous for its intricate carvings, sculptures and bas-reliefs that are unrivalled in beauty. Although fairly small in size, the temple has been restored very well and is now one of the must-see ones.
It even has a modern information center and an exhibition on the restoration works that have been going on during the 20th century. Fun fact, André Malraux (then completely broke after some bad speculations on the market place) tried to steal some of the carvings and sculptures to bring the mback to France and sell them to private collections. Luckily, he was arrested in Phnom Penh. Ironically, 30 years later, Malraux became the minister of culture in De Gaulle’s government 🙂
Banteay Samre is a fortified Hindu temple that is not heavily visited. Its main central tower is impressive and in very good shape. In the temple, we are practically the only ones enjoying its atmosphere.
The tuk-tuk incident: it was 10.40am when we got out of the second temple. When we asked him, the driver said the third and last temple group we had left for the day would only take 1h30 to visit. We therefore asked him if it was possible to bring us somewhere else after so that we could make the most of our day. He refused categorically: he had to go to a party at 2pm and we had only agreed on the 3 temples. He tried to get some support from the other tuk-tuk drivers around but didn’t get any when they learned what the agreed price was. We tried to find a compromise so that everyone could be happy but he was intransigent (communication problem ?). Everyone was beginning to get annoyed, he started to be aggressive and properly scared us when he raised his hand seemingly with the intention to hit us. It was noon, so we gave him half of the agreed price and he left us there. In the end, we were rather happy that he had left and after a bit of a walk we found another tuk-tuk to finish the day.
Compared to the other temples, this group is fairly disappointing and probably not worth the extra miles you need to do to reach it. To be fair, we can’t really be objective about this as we were all a bit tensed because of the driver’s aggression and the blazing heat that was making us melt.
Built by the most powerful king of Angkor, it is one of the major temples. Its most striking feature are the 54 towers representing the 54 regions dividing the kingdom at the time. On each side of each of these towers, a huge smiling face is sculpted. This face is supposed to represent a Buddhist deity, however the resemblance with the king is very striking… A tiny bit megalomaniac perhaps ? 🙂
The bas-reliefs surrounding the base of Bayon are equally beautiful to the ones at Angkor Wat and truly deserve to be seen.
Just like the day before, it seemed that there were only very few tourists around. We were surprised as this was contrary to everything we had read or heard before. Is it because of the steeply increased entrance fees ? Is it because we tried to avoid doing the temples in the ‘classic’ order ? Is it because we are getting closer to the hot season ? Or is it simply because we are lucky ? We don’t have an answer but it allowed us to properly enjoy our visit.
A bit disheartened by the previous day’s experience, we decided to rent motorbikes and visit by ourselves rather than rely on a tuk-tuk. We started the day by another visit to Ta Prohm (at the opening time, once again) with one goal in mind: take advantage of the beautiful light to take better pictures than 2 days before. We failed. Anyway, we continued our visit with the fortified city of Angkor Thom. We took our time to stroll around the different ruins and tried to enjoy the visit while the sun was still allowing us to walk without becoming liquid. We went back into town at noon to do the check-in at our new hotel and enjoy its swimming pool. After having splashed around for a couple of hours, we went back on our motorbikes to see Angkor Wat one final time…
We finally got our answer, we had simply been very lucky the previous 2 days. We still tried to visit the parts we had missed the 2 previous times but unfortunately we could not get access to the temple in the uppermost part of the central building. The temple was closing an hour later and the queue to enter was getting close to an hour and a half of waiting time… In the end, we had only two regrets: being stupid enough to not visit Angkor Wat when it was empty, and not being able to take pictures that do justice to the extraordinary beauty of the temples.
One thing is for certain though, the temples of Angkor will remain one of the highlights of our trip and are definitely among the marvels of this world.