It was the fourteenth day of my ‘Big Indochina Adventure’ and I had just arrived in Siem Reap after an hour’s flight from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap is home to the largest religious monument in the world, which we would be visiting the following day. It is therefore a very popular destination spot for tourists, and has certainly capitalised on this by creating a culturally exciting city, filled with things to see and do. Our transfer to our new hotel gave us a glimpse of life in Siem Reap and I was looking forward to exploring.
We settled into our new, lovely hotel and then went for lunch in groups, depending on the food we fancied. Knowing we would venture into the night markets that evening for authentic Cambodian cuisine, my group’s lunch choice was a little different. We found a Mexican bar and grill and I was delighted as I had been craving a burrito bowl since my time in New Zealand and Australia (where I had come across a lot of Mexican restaurants). This is one of my favourite cuisines, and Maybe Later Bar and Grill did not disappoint. The restaurant was also beautifully decorated with Mexican-style art painted by Cambodian artists, and the staff were really friendly too.
After lunch, we had a quick wander around Pub Street, Siem Reap’s centre for pubs, clubs and bars. It was full of tourists, but looked like an exciting place to spend an evening.
It was soon time for our fun-filled afternoon activity. We were going quad biking and everybody was really excited. As a lot of us were from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, we would be learning to quad bike on the other side of the road. My only other experience of quad biking was on a school trip in primary school, where I was instructed to stop because I kept putting my feet on the ground! I’m not sure why I did that, but it didn’t bode well for today…
Fortunately, I was no longer quite so inept at quad biking and got the hang of it quickly. It was exhilarating! It was also one of my first experiences wearing a face mask (to stop us inhaling dust and dirt from the road), that would later become the norm worldwide.
We travelled to an open field to watch the sunset, before venturing back on the road to our starting place.
It was then time to explore Pub Street by night, and we looked around the markets and sampled Cambodian food for dinner (I tried and enjoyed the popular dish, Loc Lac). This was followed by ice cream from a café that came highly recommended by our tour leader, Lee. It was known for “the best ice cream in Siem Reap”, so we knew we had to try this! I could definitely understand why it was viewed so highly – it was delicious.
Before long, it was time to hit the hay, as an early start the subsequent morning would allow us to see the world’s largest religious monument at sunrise.
An unwelcome 4 am wake up greeted us, but it would be worth it for the day ahead. We boarded our coach and began our journey to Angkor Wat. We had to get tickets first, on which they printed our photos. This was not the most flattering experience so early in the morning, but now we could officially venture around the temple complex.
Firstly, we waited for sunrise at a popular spot, with the best view of the temple. Though cloudy, this was a rewarding wait as the stunning temple outline against the pink and purple sky was exquisite.
The temple complex of Angkor Wat (which translates to mean ‘city temple’) was originally constructed as a Hindu temple and dedicated to the god, Vishnu in the early twelfth century. It was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the same century and is therefore often known as a Hindu-Buddhist temple. Built in classical Khmer architecture, it has become a symbol of Cambodia and appears on the national flag, as well as being the prime attraction for tourists.
Our new guide, Thara, led us on a tour of the temple complex, providing us with fascinating information on the ancient buildings. As the Himalayas mountains are known as the heaven of the gods in Hindu tradition, Angkor Wat is seen as an artificial Himalayas. It took 5,000 craftsmen to build it, 300,000 other workers, and an estimated 300 million tonnes of stone.
We walked up to the highest and most central point of the complex and were given some time to explore on our own.
After we had made the most of our time walking around Angkor Wat, we returned to our hotel for breakfast, and it wasn’t long before we got back on the road, this time in tuk tuks, to visit Angkor Thom.
Angkor Thom (meaning ‘great city’) is a nine-kilometre walled city state, with eight metre high walls and five impressive gates providing access to the ancient city. It was the last and longest capital city of the Khmer Empire, built by the Khmer King, Jayavarman VII, in the late twelfth century.
Filled with ancient ruins, two of Angkor Thom’s most famous temples, which we visited, are the Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm.
The Bayon Temple was carved with 216 giant faces on its towers. Many believe these were representations of the Khmer King, with others saying they were intended to honour the Bodhisattva (somebody who has made a resolution to become a Buddha) of compassion, Avalokitesvara.
The Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm is famous for appearing in the Tomb Raider films and the temple looks as though it is being swallowed by a large tree!
After some free time for the rest of the afternoon, we ended our travels through Cambodia with a trip to the circus and a night out. This was also sadly a farewell evening, as only seven of us were continuing on to Vietnam and we would really miss the rest of our wonderful tour friends!
Since 2013, Phare Circus has helped young Cambodians transform their lives through jobs in performing arts. They use theatre, music, dance and modern circus arts, including high-flying acrobats, to tell Cambodian historical, folk and modern stories.
This was a really lively and enjoyable experience and we met and congratulated the incredibly talented artists at the end of the show. We then continued the evening’s fun with some drinking and dancing as a group. Two of us even performed some (probably very embarrassing) drunken karaoke!
The next morning, nursing slightly sore heads, we said goodbye to our lovely friends and promised to keep in touch. I really hope we will all see each other again one day!
It was now time to board a flight to Vietnam, and continue on our South East Asia Adventures with a new group of friends. Watch this space to find out about my time spent in the “land of the Ascending Dragons”.