Cambodia: Angkor and Siam Reap

After a week traveling in Vietnam - exploring the city life in Hanoi, the quiet stillness in Ha Long Bay and the intrigue of the Cu Chi Tunnels, it was time to head to a new country. Another one hour flight brought us to Siam Reap, Cambodia to see the amazing ruins in Angkor, including the Temple of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Angkor spans an area of nearly 250 square miles and served as the center for the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. There are over 1,000 temples in Agkor, though you have to use your imagination for some of them as some include just rubble and a few unidentifiable pieces. We drove 45 minutes one day from one site in Angkor to another. The footprint is similar to that of Los Angeles.

A highly recommended way of seeing the Temple of Angkor Wat is getting up earlier than you want while on vacation to watch the sunrise. The problem is that everyone knows this, so you won't be alone. No matter though. It's still beautiful.

Angkor Wat took over 30 years to build in the 1100s and was created during the reign of Khmer King Suryavarman II. The temple was built to honor the Hindu god Vishnu and later converted into a Buddhist temple. It's complete with walls a half mile long on all sides and a moat with a 3.5 mile perimeter.

You can climb the tiny, steep steps up to the central tower for a view of the entire area, and get a close-up look at the 3,000 heavenly nymphs (aka apsaras) that adorn the walls - each different and sporting over 35 different hairstyles.

It seemed difficult to think anything could top the beauty of Angkor Wat, but then there was the Bayon Temple. Bayon was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat and is striking for its 2,000 large faces carvings, thought to be images of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara . The slightly upturned lips have dubbed this the Mona Lisa of SE Asia.

There's thought to be over 11,000 carved figures across the perimeter wall, depicting historic events. Going at sunset is a good way to avoid crowds, heat and see the shifting sun on this magnificent structure.

Another head turner is Ta Prohm where tree trunks wrap and wind around the structural remains. It was an interesting enough site to be included in Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie running around the ruins.

Structures used to cover the tree roots, but a full restoration was decided against since roots and walls were so closely entwined. Now they work to maintain the jungle-like atmosphere. It's absolutely jaw dropping.

One of the smallest, but equally memorable stops in Angkor was the tenth century temple of Banteay Srei. The road was slow and unforgiving to get there, but after about 45 minutes we were rewarded with a quiet and beautiful temple nearly to ourselves.

Red sandstone fills Banteay Srei, along with intricate, well preserved detailed carvings. Faces, animal heads, historic scenes and adoring apsara fill every nook and cranny of the temple grounds. Sunset is another good time to visit for the peace and quiet and to fully appreciate the glow of the sandstone.

We were able to go into one of the small villages nearby and visit a school where the kids were in session.

The kids were friendly and open, donning everything from similar uniforms to pajamas and even what looked to be an Yves Saint Lauren bag. I'm going to go with a knock-off? Some kids worked raking a yard while other played, but most with a smile on their face.

The local market in town had a free-for-all selection of meat, fish and vegetables and some unidentifiable ingredients in between. Most of the markets I witnessed in Vietnam and Cambodia had women displaying their food in baskets on the ground. Shoes were optional. Tables were rare and seemingly unnecessary.

Siam Reap is the town you want to stay in or near when exploring Angkor. It's a town I felt comfortable walking around in by myself, and it might also have been because I was now more confident in my street crossing abilities.

It does help that there are pedestrian friendly areas that are closed to traffic around Pub Street. While you'll see a lot of tourists, you'll also find some inexpensive shopping that isn't all junkie souvenirs and there's also decent eating. I ate the delicious local dish of Amok, a fish curry, along with my daily spinach-like morning glory and a beer for a grand total of $8.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I was a little sad to say goodbye to Cambodia. It was my favorite stop on the trip. I loved the ruins at Angkor, was drawn in by the color of the local villages and the school kids, and enjoyed the evening action in Siam Reap, but dad and I had one more city to visit, Bangkok.