We woke up at 4am for the 20 minute drive from Siem Reap, Cambodia to travel to the Temples of Angkor, the largest preindustrial city in the world and UNESCO world heritage site. There are over 1000 temples at Angkor – ranging in size from a few bricks of rubble on the ground to the magnificent Angkor Wat. We decided for our trip to explore just a few temples. By 5am we were joining the other early morning tuk tuks to Angkor Wat for sunrise. We were especially lucky coming to Angkor Wat in March when the sun rises directly over the main temple. The sunrise was hazy but still magical. Of course, we were joined by hordes of other tourists all trying to gather at the best spot for a picture.
Most tourists stay at Angkor Wat after sunrise before traveling to the other temples. We knew this and decided to go immediately to Ta Phrom after sunrise to beat the crowds. Ta Phrom was incredible and Amber’s and my favorite. A lot of the temple has been destroyed over the years and the natural growth of the forest has come back. The trees are interwoven into the temple, which creates a magical atmosphere. It made it even better that we beat the crowds so it was peaceful and quiet.
For those of you who have seen Tomb raider, some famous shots are taken there. Of course Amber had a Tomb Raider outfit ready for the day. See the resemblance?
After Ta Phrom, we went back to Angkor Wat to explore the center of the Khmer Empire. This temple is the symbol of Cambodia, and appears on the country’s flag (and on many of their beers). After Angkor Wat, we hopped back in our tuk tuk and took the 10 minute drive to Bayon temple – most famous for its massive stone heads from the 12 century (a temple for Buddhists, then Hindus…then Buddhists again).
After a few hours at Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom – we were exhausted. Between not sleeping much the night before and the heat (by 11am it was close to 100 with heat index), we had no energy to see any more temples so we headed back to our hostel in Siem Reap. But wait…
Oh my goodness! We discovered the latest sequel in the Indiana Jones series – Amber and the Temples of Angkor. An epic journey and a race against time as the Temples of Angkor are explored in Cambodia. Starring Amber Lefstead.
Yip…we had some fun at the Temples of Angkor 🙂 I was so exhausted that I had little desire to be filmed but Amber was ready for the main stage.
SIEM REAP TOWN
The Temples of Angkor are magical, an architectural wonder with lots of cultural history for the Khmer people. But the town of Siem Reap has lost a lot of it’s own culture, especially the culture that tourists are exposed to. Siem Reap is the town 10 km away from the Temples of Angkor where tourists stay as well as locals live. Overall, Amber and I were disappointed by the central part of Siem Reap city.
At first, you think it is awesome. There is this cool downtown area nicknamed “Pub Street” with bars, restaurants and everything written in English for you to read. Then you start peeling back the layers and realize no patrons are local Khmer people. The only Cambodians are servers in restaurants or Tuk tuk drivers. The downtown Siem Reap area is a tourist zoo and it just feels…wrong. More so than other tourist centers you see in other cities. You walk just a few blocks away from the glitzy street and 5 star hotels and you see shacks and impoverished people.
It is a bit of a conundrum for tourists. You want to be engrained with local culture, yet you feel uncomfortable at the thought of staying in a shack in 100 degree temperatures during a vacation. Also, one of the primary economic drivers is the tourism industry so your money is going back to local Khmers, so overpaying at a tourist restaurant or getting a ride with a tuk tuk driver* does directly help locals. This dichotomy is not unique to Siem Reap. Anybody who has traveled to lean countries knows about the separation of locals and foreigners. Obviously, it is a supply/demand argument for people who are willing to pay big $$ to stay at fancy hotels but I think it is an important question to think about how luxurious to be in a poor town.
* Tuk tuk drivers are everywhere and are constantly harassing tourists for rides. You become jaded very quickly but try to stay positive and nice to these drivers. Amber and I played a game while taking a 15 minute walk to guess how many people would ask us if we needed a ride. Amber guessed 15. I guessed 19. Amber was closest with 14 requests in 15 minutes.
We spent about 2.5 weeks total in Siem Reap, while volunteering at a local Cambodian School for a few days. We also ended up staying a few extra days because we got Amoebic Dysentery…more on this soon…