Crossing the amazing temples of Angkor Wat off the bucket list

Last year, 4 million tourists from over 100 nations holidayed in the Kingdom of Cambodia. More than 800,000 of these were Vietnamese. Why do so many people from all over the globe come to a country ranked as one of the world’s poorest? A country whose violent past resides in the recent memories of so many? Ask more than half of those 4 million and the answer is clear – the unforgettable ancient temples of Angkor. Long on our own bucket list, we boarded a Bangkok bus headed for Siem Reap to witness the renowned majesty of Angkor for ourselves.

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*Images by Andrew and Laura Leckie

Within an hour of setting out, the bus journey had already become an adventure for some. One young American tourist had disembarked after failing to understand that a passport would be needed to cross the border into Cambodia. Meanwhile, a Thai grandmother had paid a fee to the conductor to lock her in the toilet, since she, too, knowingly lacked the necessary paperwork for a border crossing. It was all quite exciting. We were no longer just travelers, but accomplice smugglers.

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Some six hours later the endless rice paddies gave way to the sprawling mass of Siem Reap. The city whose name translates as “Defeat of Siam,” owes its moniker to a 16th century battle in which the Khmer people staged a decisive victory against their invading Siamese neighbors. With all forms of conflict long since over in the region, Siem Reap has become an incredibly prosperous outpost. With a wide range of hotels, luxury resorts, budget guesthouses, bars and restaurants, it is possible for tourists on any budget to enjoy the gateway to Angkor.

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Most sources say the best introduction to the region is to begin your day witnessing the sunrise over the country’s most famous temple: Angkor Wat. At nearly 1,000 years old, Angkor Wat is one of the finest examples of classical Khmer architecture still in existence. Despite the ever-increasing tourist numbers making the sunrise experience a little less personal these days, it was definitely a sight to behold. Then, once the sun has risen, it is time to explore. With almost 1,000 sqm of bas-reliefs depicting both Hindu and Buddhist stories, it took us quite some time to take it all in – monkeys, elephants, griffins, unicorns, celestial Apsara dancers, dragon-drawn chariots and fierce armed warriors so expertly carved into stone.

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A hurried tuk tuk ride through the jungle past wild-eyed monkeys and tourists on elephantback whisked us to the second not- to-be-missed Angkorian temple, the Bayon. Staring up at the multitude of stone faces protruding from all sides, we could not help but smile, mirroring their peacefully content expressions. As the temperature soared and the cicada chorus approached a deafening roar, we ascended a few more temples in the Angkor Thom complex before calling it a day. After all, Siem Reap’s infamous Pub Street was calling our names.

Seeing Past the Tourists

Whether you desire a taste of home, traditional Khmer cuisine, pizzas topped with illicit substances or 50 cent beers to wash down barbecued tarantulas, the area around Pub Street has something for everyone. While many Khmer dishes here seem to have been altered for foreign taste buds, you can still find a fairly faithful amok (curried fish) in many restaurants. We couldn’t resist the barbecued frogs and snakes, both delicious. Once the main course is taken care of, simply pull up a stool at one of the plethora of pubs and bars along the strip and enjoy the party. Many bars have live music and things tend to get quite rowdy as the night wears on. Alternatively, if the atmosphere of Pub Street gets too much, the Night Market is a short stroll away where you can shop for souvenirs and trinkets, or even kick your feet up for a relaxing foot massage.

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Deciding we hadn’t seen enough of Angkor’s seemingly endless ruins, we set out the following morning to see Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame) along with some temples at less visited sites. Expecting to be blown away by Ta Prohm’s naturally reclaimed state, unfortunately we were not. We’d seen so many images of the monstrous silk cotton trees warping and consuming the ruins creating an incredible ‘lost world’ atmosphere we were ecstatic to be able to finally see them with our own eyes. However, the reality is that we could barely see past the throngs of tourists crowding the new walkways and barriers to really feel anything. Our disappointment quickly faded, though, as we continued to the temple of Ta Som which offered the same experience without crowds or modern barricades. Things only got better when we reached Preah Khan, a huge site which has seen much less restoration work and draws a lot fewer people. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones, this is your temple. It felt as though we were discovering a place no others had ever seen as we climbed through crumbling walkways and across piles of rubble.

On our final day in Siem Reap we decided we’d seen enough temples to be braving 38 degree Celsius heat. Despite staying in a budget guesthouse and thus forgoing the luxury of a swimming pool, there are many hotels in Siem Reap which will allow you to use theirs for a small fee. As we floated around in the cool water trying to decide which temple ruin we liked the most, conversation quickly turned to the matter of deciding in which bar that night’s Pub Street adventure would begin. The temples of Angkor proved to be some of the most amazingly impressive man-made structures in all of Southeast Asia, but the thriving city of Siem Reap made our visit even more worthwhile.

BIo: Andrew Leckie is one half of www.quitjobtravelworld.com – the blog of a Melbournian and a Brisbanite who met when they became Londoners. After six years of living in the UK, and less than 12 months until they turn 30, they decided to quit their jobs and travel the world.