Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia

This is the last entry in our Cambodia blog series. To read our Cambodia travel journey from the start, click here

Siem Reap’s pretty full-on and bustling with tourists, as you’d expect, but it’s still a pretty nice place to spend some time pre/post visiting the big draw – Angkor Wat. In the days before we visited, we spent time relaxing on the river, drinking bia hoi, eating delicious ‘fish amok’ (Cambodia’s most famous dish, a rich tasty curry), drinking endless coffee, buying silly traveller trousers for the temple, and finding an affordable nice hostel ($9 as opposed to the original $15 we found over the weekend!)

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We also spent time finding a bike rental – an unbelievable $1 a day! – for Day 1 of Angkor Wat. Up early, we excitedly gathered packed lunch of baguettes, bananas, and cake, and took the excitable hour’s cycle down leafy lanes, past bustling schools and towns, and across crazy busy highways, to Angkor Wat itself. Having not cycled since Laos, it was really novel and fun to be cycling on the road, and we were pumped up and full of excitement by the time we arrived!

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Our first day was perhaps a little overzealous, and we covered over 40km to some of the furthest away temples! Err… they looked a lot closer on the map. We cycled past beautiful lakes, to tiny Neak Poan – a little temple surrounded by ponds – had lunch at the Botanical Gardens, then visited corridor-filled Preah Khan, known for its ‘hall of mirror’s effect, with framed temples seemingly going on for eternity. Outside is the ‘churning of the ocean of milk’ relief, which is like a giant row of gods playing tug of war! Some of who’s heads have been removed by the Khmer Rouge. We then cycled back by Ta Nei and Ta Keo temples, replete with huge elephant pillars on the corners of the temple.

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Cycling is super fun, and for lots of the day there’s leafy coverage, but the heat was also pretty extreme at times, and we were super exhausted after the first day! Not to mention extremely sore and a little sunburnt!

Our second day was a little disastrous, as we were both exhausted and Sam accidentally picked up a terrible bike from the hire place with almost flat wheels. We held it together for the best part of the day, visiting Pre Rup, and Banteay Kdei via Sra Srang Lake (to stop for lunch) and Ta Prohm temple. The temples were all stunning with some impressive stupors, in the classic ‘Angkor Wat’ style of relief, dramatic archways, incredibly preserved carvings (hidden behind jungle for years), and god faces reminiscent of Bayon that we would visit the next day. Ta Prohm especially was pretty dramatic, and is known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, as its totally overgrown with tree trunks growing out of the stone itself – and features on the Tomb Raider film!

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After hours of cycling round and sightseeing in the now unbearable heat, we called it a day mid-afternoon and started the long cycle back, when Sam’s wheel really started playing up and he could only go at a crawling pace. We stopped to watch some hilarious monkeys dive-bombing into the big lake near the park entrance, when the bike wheel flattened completely. We took the executive decision to take the bike back to town on a tuk-tuk, which we wrangled for a bargain $4, and Sam cycled behind us on my bike. I sneakily returned it without the bike lady noticing – given she’d rented it out almost flat, we figured it was her responsibility!

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We decided to take the next day as a rest day, so spent the night on the town drinking delicious cocktails, cheap fresh beer, and a new cheap local restaurant with great curry, noodles, summer rolls, and an adorable little girl who played with us all night at our table with her aunt, the restaurant owner!

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After a relaxing day mooching around town, we woke up at an agonising 4am to cycle, in the dark, to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Waking up so early and cycling when the streets were yet to come to life, was really exciting in itself. Tour groups and tuk-tuks whizzed past us in the darkness as we peddled furiously on the high quality bikes we’d treated ourselves to (a whole $2 rental price!). Arriving for sunrise, to be frank we found the experience a little underwhelming. Heaving with ten-rows deep of tourists, and idiots shouting loudly at each other, dispelling the magic of the moment, and hustling for a good photo op, we decided this probably wouldn’t be the highlight of the day.

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After sunrise, we walked around the big Angkor Wat itself, which was beautiful – albeit fairly similar to the temples we’d already seen – and we climbed to the top, with hilarious fashion consequences, as I had to wear my new patterny travel trews with my crazy flowery top! – and the view was pretty amazing.

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However, the best was yet to come when we visited the stunning temples of Angkor Thom, namely Bayon. Bayon is an incredible ancient temple, replete with surrounding walls of bas relief detailing wars, daily life, religious scenes and history in wonderfully preserved conditions. Inside, the temple moves upwards up crumbling steps to the top, where you find yourself surrounded by imposing and humbling giant God faces carved into the walls, in statues and stupors facing every direction. Said to be placed there to reassure man that God is watching over, and to inspire worship and fear, the faces do just that. Looking up at them, and at the surrounding relief, was the most awe-struck I found myself during our time at the temple complex.

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The temples are said to have been built by various kings – each trying to out-do the previous king – to show that they were sent from God, and should be worshipped as such. It’s clear as you cycle around that each has its own particular beauty and form of extravagance, and I’m glad we chose to spend three days looking around in detail rather than a rushed tuk-tuk tour. We really felt like adventurers, and despite the sweat, toil, and sore bums, it was worth it!

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh is a pretty crazy, frenetic city, but despite the stressful hot hours we spent bustling through traffic-clogged streets, we found crucial historical sites here, that shouldn’t be missed: namely, S21 Prison and the Killing Fields.

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The city itself has some redeeming features – like a beautiful art-deco inspired central market replete with the usual textiles, jewellery, and also some really wonderful fresh fruit, veg, and prepared meals. We ate here pretty much every day, as the restaurants otherwise are pretty turistico in town! The Russian Market is also pretty good, but far more frantic! There’s also a pretty river in town, where locals and tourists alike sit to basque in the sunshine, and the nearby palace makes a nice backdrop to the view. There are also lots of ‘happy herb’ pizza places on the river which we tried a couple of times, with pretty hilarious results!

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Now, to the real highlights: firstly, S21 Prison. For the uninitiated, S21 Prison is an old high school building that was converted into a torture prison during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the ’70s. Thousands of people of all ages passed through these torture chambers during the regime, from both Phnom Penh and nearby cities – thought to be impure capitalists, to be tortured into submission to the new communist Khmer empire. The building itself is haunting, with near-empty torture chambers (old classrooms) with remnants of their previous use – from bloodied tiles, to dented metal bedframes, to chains, to torture instruments. Outside, on the courtyard, the gallows where people were tied until they passed out, still casts a shadow against the concrete.

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We walked around and listened to the incredible audio tour – taking in the mass detention cells, the wooden cubby holes used to separate prisoners, the rooms full of hundreds of photos of faces, distraught, staring vacantly outwards, the room of skulls of the departed. We heard about torture techniques – toe-nail pulling, shocking, blugeoning to death (to avoid being heard outside), the even more unspeakable – and were reduced to shuffling silence, taking it all in.

Afterwards we chatted to a tuk-tuk guy outside as we drank coffee, and his friend’s dad had been taken into the centre. We were so shocked by how recent the history was, and how little we’d done as a country to stop any of this from happening.

On our last day, we took a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields themselves – the place where torture victims would be taken after S21. Walking around the fields was a similarly sobering experience: we saw clothes buried in the mud slowly emerging from decades of being submerged; we saw the ‘baby killing tree’ where they smashed babies skulls (complete with hundreds of bracelets hung by visitors in blessing). We saw pits where people were pushed into after being bludgeoned to death (the Khmer didn’t want to waste their bullets); and finally, a huge column sculpture full of hundreds of skulls of the deceased. A truly necessary, if horrific, day.

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After one more ‘happy’ pizza and a few shakes on the river, we hit the hay and spent the next day bussing it to our second Cambodian location, Siem Reap.