Temple Run

Exploring the ancient ruins of Angkor

After another three hour endeavour on a fishing boat back to Sihanoukville, I boarded a bus back to Phnom Penh. The road infrastructure in Cambodia is still quite limited, so it’s not straightforward to travel directly to Siem Reap without first going to the capital.

Happily, though, I made the most of this stop to visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre run by Wildlife Alliance. Here I had the chance to get up and personal with some exotic wildlife species. Many animals here have suffered brutal treatment in circuses, farms or tourist attractions and cannot be released back into the wild. It’s tragic to hear some of the stories, but equally heartwarming to see them being treated with such care.

One elephant called Lucky has developed such a bond with her guard that the two are now inseparable. Another elephant has a prosthetic leg after he was caught in a snare, which the team mould and replace every couple of months. We also learnt how harmful elephant riding is to these magnificent creatures, and how almost everywhere they are abused outside of tourist eyes. If you’re ever thinking of interacting with elephants, please help end the suffering and only visit an official rescue centre instead. Quite frankly it’s a shame these rescue centres need to exist in the first place. Unfortunately nature is coming worse off as a result of increasing economic development in the region.

Smile like a gibbon!

Smile like a gibbon!

Cheeky monkey business

Cheeky monkey business

After a memorable day, I boarded an overnight bus to Siem Reap. In terms of comfort it was far superior to the night buses in Vietnam, and I could just about stretch all 6ft of me on a lie flat bed. I’m sure it would have been a great snooze if it weren’t for the screaming kid next to me and the fact we arrived two hours early due to malfunctioning air conditioning system. It was 5AM when I arrived at the hostel and I was pretty exhausted.

Angkor What?

The Angkor site is a vast area of ruins from an ancient Khmer empire, consisting mainly of Buddhist and Hindu temples that were built as monuments under the direction of kings in the Angkorian period. In its heyday it was the largest city in the world, but after abandonment many of the large, intricate stone temples were consumed by the surrounding forest. The ruins were discovered in the 20th century, but even today further ruins are being unearthed in nearby regions.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

I spent a total of 4 days looking around the temples. It can probably be done quicker with a guide and tuk-tuk but I enjoyed taking it slow and getting an appreciation of the whole site. For the first three days I biked around the core complex which itself was a feat with the stifling hot temperatures. The bicycle brought some other challenges too. Late on the first day the lock broke while it was chained to a tree during a thunderstorm and torrential downpour, and on the last I ended up biking through the jungle in pitch black with an iPhone strapped to my head providing the light! Getting around just with a tuk tuk would have certainly been much easier but would have made it much less of an adventure than it was.

So, the temples. I’m won’t detail all the sights here – there’s a lot of them! The pictures say it all and no superlatives can do the place justice. The iconic Ankor Wat is of course a mesmerising sight and is the best preserved of all the temples. Perhaps this is because it’s been used for worship continuously since it was built, whereas the other city structures succumbed to nature. Though I didn’t find it as fascinating as many other temples, there’s no denying it’s special presence with its thick jungle enclosure and large moat encircling it. I particularly enjoyed deciphering the detailed carvings depicting the final battle of the Mahabharata, receiving blessings by a monk in the central shine and seeing Angor Wat’s beautiful silhouette at sunrise. image

My favourite temple was Ta Prohm. It featured in the 2001 film Tomb Rader and is distinctive for being preserved largely as it was found, and it’s succumbed to nature with huge trees nestling their way into the structure of the ruins. Banteay Srei was another unique temple far north of the main Ankor complex. The precision carvings of scenes from Hindu scriptures Ramayana and Mahabharata are as fine and intricate as they were 1100 years ago. The attention to detail is breathtaking.

The Angkor site is deceptively large but roads connect all of the temples. It’s easy to get around with a paper map. There’s masses of tourists but usually easy to avoid them by starting early, visiting the lesser known (but equally fascinating) temples and traversing the trails in reverse. Tickets are very reasonably priced at 40 USD for a 3 day pass. Part of the beauty of Angkor is the thick jungle surrounding it. It’s what makes the place feel truly magical. The temples are teeming with life, from monkeys to butterflies and it’s incredible to see tree trunks warping their way through the rock structures and see natural and human structure become one. The ambience is heightened after rain, which – aside from providing relief from the heat – brings out the colour in the stone and gives the temples an eerie look to them. I’ll forever remember taking shelter amidst a downpour in the Elephant Terrace, with the sound of insects and reptiles accompanying me.


Ta Prohm, a.k.a the Tomb Rader temple

Templed out

I’m going to say it. The Angkor complex is the most spectacular place I’ve ever visited – period. The combination of historical, cultural and natural sights is a wonder to behold. Sometimes I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a Universal Studios theme park, but the remains of an actual city from hundreds of years ago. Four intense days at Angkor had taken its toll on me and my energy levels had reached an all time low.

Before I knew it my all-too-brief visit to Cambodia had reached an end. As I sat on the bus to the Thai border at Poi Pet, I reflected on the experience the country had offered me. From the moment I arrived to when I left, there were nothing but positive experiences to dwell on. From a thrilling motorbike ride through mountains, sleeping in a yurt in a mangrove swamp, swimming with plankton, giving a gibbon a foot massage and discovering hidden temples amongst the jungle, the breadth of experiences in Cambodia exceeds that of any other country on my trip so far.

Traversing the country had been far less hectic than Vietnam. The locals were more cheery and relaxed and I didn’t suffer from any scams – everyone I met was genuinely sincere and willing to help me. Despite Cambodia’s rapid economic growth, many still live in poverty. But you wouldn’t have known that from speaking to people who can still muster a smile on their face.

That was all about to change soon after crossing into Thailand.


Next: A very sombre Bangkok

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