Sunday, May 22, 2011

Raiders of the lost Cambodian temples

From India we flew into Bangkok for a couple days while waiting for our friend Jeri who was flying from the US for 10 small days just to visit Cambodia with us (Thanks Jeri!). Once with her we flew into Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we would spend the next week visiting the many temples around, including the world famour Angkor Wat.
Siem Reap is definitely geared towards tourism generated by the temples. The center has many restaurants and bars for tourists and what the city lacks in local charm, it makes up for in comfort and easiness.
During our 6 days there, we visited temples every other day, and hung out, ate, swam and got massages (for the ladies) the rest of the time. Taking the time to relax and visit with Jeri was a great luxury.

Something you may not know (at least we didn't) is that the Angkor area has a huge number of temples spread over 50kms. You could probably spend a whole week to see them, but we opted for 3 days and decided to start with the smaller ones to make our way towards the most famous Angkor Wat at the end.

Day 1: Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and temples of Pre Roup and Eastern Mebon

Ta Prohm is famous because it's overrun by trees growing over the stones of the ancient ruins. It's the one you see when you watch Tomb Raider. It was much bigger than we expected as it felt like the ruins of a small city. Despite the trees, the place was actually in decent shape and you could tell there was a lot of work being done to restore it. Overall it's more of a temple with uber cool trees than old ruins and it was an awesome introduction to the temples. Even if you have only a day in the area (which would be a shame frankly) you should go check it out.

Detailed columns

Holding up the fort

Next up was Banteay Kdei, with its imposing head at the entrance. It's funny it's one of those sculptures that is part of our collective memory and when you get there you can't help but throw a "there it is! I know this one!". This place is pretty big as well and what surprised us the most was the amount of carving on the columns depicting those two dancing ladies. They were everywhere! There were also a lot of other carvings and we had fun hunting for that one piece we had not seen anywhere else yet.

Finally, during the heat of the day we visited the smaller temples of Pre Roup and Eastern Mebon. As opposed to the spread out temples we had just seen these were compact in footprint, but very tall. You have to climb the stairs to wonder how many people fell off and got hurt. It's a real exercise especially in the heat. But the temples were amazing and deserted (Indeed it was low season, so most of our photos of all the temples are unspoiled by those pesky tourits...). It gave us the chance to have some photo fun and it was well worth the trip!


Sanskrit in stone

By the end of the day we noticed that many of the statues and carvings were missing their heads.  We later found out that they had been pillaged by raiders when these temples were first discovered.

Headless goddess

Buddha (I'm sure this is sacrilege)

On one of our non-temple days, we decided to visit a silk farm. I had never really wondered what happened before the silk scarf showed up on the store shelf. The short and concise tour gave us an idea of the work that goes into making that scarf, from the farming to the dying to the looming. My take is: farming is the easy part, it's the weaving into a fabric that's pretty impressive especially if it's hand made.

Silk worms on mulberry leaves

Extracting raw silk from the cocoons

Dying silk

More photos of day 1 here (map)

Day 2: Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea
These three sites are actually quite far from the city so we rented a car and driver for the day. I think we did pretty good on negotiating the price because when we later discussed it with locals they were impressed with the deal we got for driving so far. I guess we're getting good at this. Having Jeri added to the team helped a lot as she jumped right in on the game.

An umbrella is your best friend with the brutal sun

Banteay Srei is super famous for its very fine carvings throughout. It's also small, which means that it easily gets crowded with tourists. Funnily enough, even though the carvings are indeed impressive the place didn't jive with us as much as others we've seen in the area. We didn't understand why it's so much more touristy than the rest (I can't imagine being there during high season). It's worth seeing but is just one piece of the wonderful puzzle that is the Angkor temples area.

This daemon was at the entrance to the doors


Next was Kbal Spean. This is not a temple per se, but a series of carvings made within a river bed. Some of the carvings, called lingua, (which really are just a symbol for a penis) are supposed to be continually wet, hence them being made in the river bed. It's a unique place to see and gave us the opportunity to do a little hiking, which wasn't a bad idea after all the fine dining we'd been doing in the city!

The square parts are apparently Lingua

Butterflies love the sweet smell of flowers

Cooling off with blocks of ice

Our last stop that day was Beng Mealea. This is Indiana Jones at its purest. The place is in complete ruins. What is really sweet about visiting these ruins in a country like Cambodia, as opposed to Europe for example, is that you can climb around and explore the place the way you want, without worrying about the hazy concept of "safety". This was an awesome place to scramble through and it's very hard to have pictures render what it's really about as it was really huge and sometimes just a pile of stones. We had a ton of fun going through it, especially since we were the only ones there. Another Yay for low season!

Jeri and Denise climbing

Piles of rocks everywhere

On our off day, the ladies went and got massages, we ate good food, did some shopping... normal vacationing! The kicker came at the end of the night. Jeri and I had set our minds on trying something new: Fish foot massage!
You basically stick your feet in a big aquarium where a ton of little (or not so little depending on your mood) fish are waiting for you. Once you stick your feet there, they surround you and start nibbling at your feet, eating your dead skin. Yes it sounds pretty gross (there's a reason why Denise didn't join us) but mostly, it's hard to explain how it feels when you first get in there. I think the photo of Jeri and me says it all!

Truthfully, you get used to it and we even graduated to the bigger fish that definitely got us wincing again. But best of all, it actually works as our feet were smoother after 15min of treatment. For $2 you can't really go wrong!

More photos of day 2 here (map)

Day 3: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

This one is actually upside down...

This was the big day, with a wake up call at 4:30am to catch the tuk-tuk at 5am and be at Angkor Wat in time for the sunrise. If you're lucky, you get to see the sun appear from behind the towers. The problem is that it's also often super crowded with a zillion tourists. In our case, thanks to the fact that it's low season here too, there were not too many people around and we got our spot by the little pond which guarantees nice shots with the reflection of Angkor Wat. However it was also a cloudy morning and the sun never peaked through the clouds. It was a little disappointing to get up that early only to miss the sunrise, but the view was beautiful nonetheless and we consequently did most of our visiting outside of the heat of the day, so all was not lost.

Angkor Wat itself is in remarkable shape (minus the few spots being renovated) and the structure is huge. The distinctive part though is the large carved gallery spanning the four sides of the building. Each side was depicting a different battle involving the different gods like Garuda, or Hanuman and his army of monkeys, and many, many humans.

The gallery walls

The columns along the gallery

Love how this guy is surprised by the man-eating monkey chewing on his leg

Next and final stop was Angkor Thom which includes several structures. It is a fortified square that you can only enter through one of the four doors. We got in through the south door, which is surrounded by two rows of soldiers, gods being on the left, and daemons being on the right.

The gods at the entrance bridge to Angkor Thom

The daemon (and angel)

The backside of the entrance at Angkor Thom

One of my favorite temples was in Angkor Thom: Bayon. This was the most impressive for me because it's a temple that includes 54 huge pillars, higher as you get closer to the center, each of them featuring a huge head carving on each of its four sides (that's a total of at least 208 heads). It's really an impressive place to wander in!

The many heads of Bayon

The end of the visit included a couple more temples and the Terrace of Elephants, with many more carvings and crazy stairs. We finished that day right after noon, after 7 hours outside, and went for a well deserved break in the shade/AC/massage/pool!

Man eating tree

The terrace of the elephants:  Trunks clasping lotus

After six days in Siem Reap we parted ways with Jeri. While she was making her way back to the US, we hoped on our next plane to Luang Prabang, Laos.

More photos of day 3 here (map)

View Cambodia in a larger map


  1. Wow! When you write it like that, it seems like we jam packed each of those 6 days. But it never felt like that, except the sunrise day. Was the extra flight to Laos worth it? Miss you heaps. Can't wait to see you in France!

  2. How can it be jam packed when you have 3 massages in 5 days? :) :)
    The flight was so worth it. It's lovely here, though kind of a tourist trap, and not quite as nice since you're not here. I'm not sure I could have done 2 days on a bus.... I'm such a weenie!