“Get the three-day pass if you like looking at temples!” a friend advised me before I left for Siem Reap, site of the famous and iconic Angkor Wat. “So many people bought a three-day pass and then got bored, stupid people.”
Well, even if you, like me, are only fairly interested in looking at temples, the three-day pass can still be a worthwhile experience. For one thing, it allows you to take your time when looking around, and not have to force yourself to attempt to move at speed through the insane, oppressive heat. And at $20 for one day but $40 for three, it’s good value for money!
Day 1: Having arrived after 10 o’ clock the night before, I slept in, arising only around 11. I had coffee and breakfast, and enquired of the expat working at the hostel if it was too late to go to the temples, and if not, what would he suggest I see. He obliged with an excellent itinerary.
Angkor Wat is not just the famous temple everyone knows from the pictures, it’s actually an entire complex known as the Angkor Archaeological Park. It’s the remains of “several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the largest pre-industrial city in the world”. It covers an area of about 400 square kilometres and is 6km from the town of Siem Reap. You can cycle or walk. If you’re insane. But people do. Pray for them.
There are two well-established circuits for seeing most of the temples in the complex, the Big (or Grand) Circuit, and the Small (Petit) Circuit. Hostel guy suggested doing the Big Circuit the first day: one good reason is that the temples, while impressive on their own, look pretty lame after seeing the most well-known temples of Angkor and the Bayon.
So that first afternoon I visited Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup. I would have stayed and done the sunset view but, you know, it was incredibly hot.
Day Two: Up early for the legendary sunrise at Angkor Wat. Turns out that the best time to see it as during the spring and autumn equinoxes. Oh well. It was still pretty cool to see, despite the many tourists (and this was low season) and irrepressible hawkers.
Hostel guy had suggested leaving Angkor Wat straight after sunrise, and touring the other temples ahead of the tour buses. This would have been a good idea; sadly, I did not listen. I spent a good couple of hours exploring Angkor Wat (I bowed under pressure and bought a guide book. And another book about Cambodia that the vendor tossed in for a mere $5. DO NOT TEMPT ME WITH BOOKS) and then moved on to the Bayon, Ta Prohm (some scenes from Tomb Raider were filmed here), the Baphuon, Banteay Kdei, the Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King. By this time I was almost dead from heat exhaustion, so we called it a day.
Day Three: This was my favourite day. We drove more than 40km out of Siem Reap to Banteay Srey, a small but incredibly beautiful temple, carved out of red sandstone.
After we drove a further 5km on to Kbal Spean, also known as The Valley of A Thousand Lingas. There was a 1.5km walk up to the start of the valley, which is decorated with many interesting sculptures. The walk was not as difficult as I’d been lead to believe by the Lonely Planet: I drank water every 100m (there were convenient route markers on the path), and it was shady for most of the way. There were also clouds of butterflies everywhere, and as everybody (except my sisters) knows, butterflies are the least awful insect to be surrounded by a cloud of.
The sculptures themselves were not very well signposted, but there were guides of a sort who tried to help by pointing them out. There is also a small waterfall. Overall, quite a pleasant experience.
After the valley, my tuk-tuk driver joined me for a free (but donations of minimum $3 were encouraged) one-hour tour of a wildlife sanctuary, right next to the entrance to the valley. The organisation, Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, rehabilitates local animals that have been trafficked and abused, and aims to educate local people about endangered species. I enjoyed the tour very much, despite the heat, and felt like I was helping a worthy cause.
On the way back to town we stopped at the Landmine Museum – I felt like I came at an awkward time, having just missed the start of the English tour (it’s a very small museum but there is an American who works there and leads unofficial tours around the exhibits) and the person checking tickets was very unhelpful and I ended up wandering around the museum in the wrong direction. Arrows would be great! But again, a worthy cause – they museum houses and schools needy children and those affected by landmines, which are still a huge problem in Cambodia.
I took the next day off, just to chill, but I wish I could have spent more time in Siem Reap – there’s so much to do!