After five days in Palawan and enjoying the paradise of El Nido, we flew back to Manila so Peter and Andrew could finish up some work obligations. A few days later we said our goodbyes to Andrew after having him travel with us for almost a month.
You know you really get along with another person after traveling for nearly a month and not getting on one another’s nerves. Peter and Andrew are very compatible travelers, and I guess I claim the same with him. Andrew?
Peter and I were off to Cambodia.
We would start in Siem Reap. It was approaching March and we had not been on our own in 2015. We only had each other and our locations to entertain ourselves now.
Personally, I was really excited about Cambodia. It was a new country to explore and I had seen beautiful pictures and heard just as beautiful stories from fellow travelers. The obvious allure is of the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat but I was also intrigued by the fascinating albeit tragic history of the country. There are very few places you can visit that have a dark spot on its history that occurred in your lifetime.
Travel and Leisure ranked Siem Reap #4 out of top 10 cities in the world for 2014. Just under Florence and ahead of Rome which are already two of my favorite cities so I was really looking forward to it.
We arrived in the evening and checked in at Shinta Mani Club. This hotel went above and beyond in terms of friendly service. We were greeted by staff with genuine smiles and with a few saying, “welcome home.” The theme of making guests feel like you are at home is what they strive for. If home is a a place where everyone is exceptionally nice to you and jumps at the chance to help you while simultaneously being in a beautiful relaxing setting, well then, they nailed it.
While checking in they delivered us jasmine scented warm towels and a glass of Rosé. See what I mean? They had me at Rosé.
Then they offered to take a picture of us. It’s like they knew me.
We got checked into our cozy room and called it a night. We had a big day of temple exploring the next day.
In the morning I booked a driver that I had found from one of the travel blogs I follow. They had recently posted about the best Tuk-Tuk driver in Siem Reap so I reached out to their friend Sok and got us booked for the next couple of days.
Before heading out for temple hopping, Peter and I headed downstairs to enjoy one of the best things at the hotel… the buffet breakfast. Not only was a beautiful spread offered, but on top of that there were swing tables set up outside to enjoy your breakfast on. I grabbed my go-to breakfast while in Souteast Asia which consists of fresh sweet mangos, yogurt, and coffee. What a brilliant way to start the day. I have a strong affinity to delicious buffet breakfasts in beautiful settings. I nearly fainted while enjoying a buffet breakfast while staring at the Egyptian pyramids.
We met Sok after breakfast and were pleased to meet a friendly faced and upbeat driver. He took great pride in his work with a clean Tuk Tuk stocked with cold water and he was dressed in a nice collared shirt.
Siem Reap is most known for the Angkor Wat temple, arguably the largest religious monument in the world. It is considered the Taj Mahal or Colosseum of Cambodia and the heart and soul of the country.
However, Siem Reap doesn’t offer just Angkor Wat. There are hundreds of temples to visit and some are just as easy to marvel at as the great Angkor Wat. In fact, Peter mentioned that he prefers the more obscure temples that lack the crowds of Angkor Wat.
We started our journey to explore the various temples.
We started with the walled city of Angkor Thom; we entered through the south gate. The south gate of Angkor Thom was where the camera got brought out and never put back that day.
After passing through the gate we landed at the Bayon Temple, know for its enigmatic smiling faces of Avalokitesvara, the god of compassion. The faces, however, do resemble the King during that rule, King J VII, giving an insight to his own narcissism and ego. Originally the temple held 54 towers, each adorned with four faces, while 37 remain today. The Bayon Temple is an enchanting place to walk around and get lost in.
From Bayon Temple we walked over to the nearby pyramid temple Baphuon which was built in the mid 11th century. When it was discovered in the 20th century it was partially collapsed and in very poor condition. Restoration began and in 2011 the temple was opened to the public.
Next we strolled over to Phimeanakas Temple which is shaped in a three tired pyramid that you can climb and allows for great views from the top.
After exploring the area of Angkor Thom we rejoined Sok and drove to our next destination.
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century by Suryavaram II and dedicated the Hindu god Vishnu. Later it was converted to a Buddhist Temple. Angkor Wat is an earthly representation of Mt Meru, the center of Hindu cosmotology. The five rectangle walls representing five mountain peaks while the surrounding moat represent oceans.
Ankor Wat was essentially undiscovered outside of Cambodia and virtually unheard of until a French explorer, Henri Mouhot, came across it in 1858. His journal was later published in 1863 where he recounted his experience in riveting detail:
“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”
On our way out I grabbed a refreshing coconut. I forgot to mention it was blazing hot while we toured the temples so every chance we got we cooled of with water an/or coconuts. We met up with our buddy Sok and had him drop us off on Pub St., the main area of Siem Reap where bars, restaurants, and night life are all located.
Peter and I stumbled upon Red Piano, a restaurant that looked to have a fun and lively atmosphere. We grabbed a table on the upper balcony where we served good food in a friendly manner. The locals have the welcoming and friendly vibe down and they seem to also take a lot of pride in service. After observing the staff at the hotel, Suk, and now our server, I began to realize that this demeanor is the Cambodian way – makes visiting a country that much more enjoyable.
We later found out that back in 2001 when the movie starring Angelina Jolie, Tomb Raider, was being filled in Siem Reap Red Piano was the designated bar for the crew and actors. During that time Pub Street had very few other bars. The owner of Piano Bar became friends with the crew and was even an extra in the movie. He created and named a drink after the movie that is till available on the menu. On the last day of shooting the wrap party was thrown at the bar. Angelina Jolie was in attendance so the owner snapped a picture with her and that photo is now adorned on one of the walls of the restaurant. The owner accredits the movie to much of his business success as well as the success of Pub St in general. Not only did Angelina Jolie save and adopt the life of a beautiful Cambodian child, she boosted the economy.
After dinner we headed back to our hotel and called it day. A very successful day.
In the morning we went to my happy place downstairs and enjoyed breakfast on the swing tables. Shortly after we met up with Sok and we were off again for our 2nd day of ancient temple exploring. This time to the more secluded ones.
We started off at Preah Khan, built in the 12th century by by King Jaya-varman VII which he dedicated to his father. Sometime in the 1990′s looters came though in search of buried artifacts wrecking havoc on the temple which has been left in those conditions.
It was at this temple that we started to witness the majestical balance between human vs nature. Over the centuries, the trees have grown through, on and between the temple’s stones, destroying the monuments in its path. Its a great reminder of the power of Mother Nature relative to Mother Time. Creates some interesting thoughts on the human condition. It also looks really, really cool.
Neak Pean Temple
Surrounded by water and built for medical reasons this temple was thought to cure illness for those that bathed in the water.
A smaller temple built at the end of the 12th century also invaded by jungle.
Built in 952 and dedicated to the the Hindu God, Shiva. It was originally built on an artificial lake that is now dried up.
Peter and I had a strong debate on whether or not the poster child for backpacker (pictured below) or the temple were more mystifying.
Either way that guy is nailing it. And so are the temples. Win-win.
After four temples we took a break for lunch. Sok took us to an excellent restaurant, Khmer Angkor Kitchen. And not a moment too soon, someone needed some air conditioning. STAT.
After cooling off in the AC for as long as we could and enjoying some tradition Khmer cuisine we were back at it and teamed up with Sok for a few more hours of exploring.
Built in the 10th Century and believed to have been used for cremations. Also a popular location for sunset gazing and one of my favorites for the day.
This was our last of the day. Ta Phrom is none other than the shooting location for Tomb Raider. This temple is essentially and purposely left untouched to show the awesomeness of Mother Nature. Around every turn jungle trees and plants are swallowing the stone temple. Ta Phrom is in the condition the other temples were in when they were first discovered by European explores. It is straight Indian Jones/Laura Croft style and it’s incredible to witness.
And that was a wrap on the temples, but first…does this trunk make my butt look big?
We rejoined Sok and headed “home” for a little rest before dinner. Back at the hotel we said our good-byes to Sok who really was a reliable, professional, and good companion over the past couple days.
That night we hit the lively Pub St and went for Indian cuisine at Dakshin’s where the service was once again top notch. The owner came over to our table at one point and chatted us up after we ordered. It had been a challenge for me choosing a main dish because I was strongly eyeing 2 options, but finally had to settle on one. I relayed all this information to the owner because he was listening and I wanted someone to hear about my struggle. To my delight when the food arrived both dishes were placed in front of me. He told me, “I could tell you really wanted both., so I bought you one” I could get use to this style of people, real quick.
The next day we enjoyed one last delightful swing table breakfast then we were off to our next destination, Phnom Penh.
I left Siem Reap undoubtedly realizing why it is considered a top city in the world. It’s a place where you can see incomparable nature combined with man-made wonders of the world; tree kings of the jungle engulf worn stone temples. Sights that will stupefy your soul and bedazzle your eyes. A city with a pulse yet encapsulated by warmth. A place where the locals welcome you with a smile and a genuineness that might surprise you to the point of quesitoning intent. Siem Reap stays with you long after you have left her.
Thank you as always for reading along!