Tours, Tuktuks and Temples: 5 days in Siem Reap

So we’ve made it to Cambodia! Our 11th country in as many months. We started out with just the two of us, and now there’s four – Rebecca is still with us after deciding to stay for ‘just one more country’ again, and my cousin Becky has also joined us for our two weeks in Cambodia.

Blakey is now completely outnumbered by girls and cannot wait for his friend Martin to come out at New Year so he’ll finally be able to even the odds and have some man time.

We started out Cambodia adventure in Siem Reap as it was a good base to explore Angkor Wat & Phnom Kulen, plus flights were cheaper than to Phnom Penh, so that was that.

Becky’s first tuktuk ride!

So far we’re loving Cambodia – it’s a lot calmer than Vietnam, the local people are far friendlier and the roads less busy. There’s no persistent honking of horns, no obstinate vendors determined to get you in their tuktuk or buy their clothes – once you say no, people here tend to smile and wish you a good day rather than keep harassing you.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

We collected Becky from the airport with no drama, and headed off back to the hostel. I felt bad informing her that we had a 4am start the next day… just what you need after 24 hours traveling from the UK. She took it better than I would have done.

The reason for the early start was a sunrise trip to Angkor Wat – Cambodia’s iconic temple complex on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple as a tribute to the god Vishnu, but by the end of the 12th century it was switched to a Buddhist temple. I’m sure Vishnu was pretty pissed about that.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We arrived while the sky was still completely dark and managed to make our way to the banks of a small lake in front of the temple. The only reason we knew where to go was by following other shadowy figures in the dark – without them, we’d have had no clue.

We were among the first people to arrive, which was lucky because it meant we got prime seats on the sandy ground right on the lake shore. After half an hour or so I looked behind us to see massive crowds gathered.

As the sky began to lighten, we started to make out the iconic shape of Angkor Wat, tall black towers rising against the backdrop of the grey sky. It was breath-taking. The sun rose from behind the temple, meaning we got the dramatic silhouette of Angkor Wat for the longest time before finally we were able to make out details as the black shadows slowly changed to show the 1000 year old temple in all it’s glory.

Angkor Wat against the dawn sky

Just as the sun peeked up behind the clouds, we got up and made our way to the sandstone causeway in front of the temple. We began to see the incredible detail – the inscriptions and carvings on every surface of rock were mind blowing. The time it must have taken to add that level of detail… we just couldn’t comprehend it. And building a structure of that scale, and that beauty, with the tools available 1000 years ago… how do you wrap your mind around that?

And then you think of all the centuries gone by while Angkor Wat remained hidden in the Cambodian jungle, slowly falling to disuse and disrepair, only being ‘discovered’ by the western world in the 1800’s by a French explorer. Then, in the early 20th century, the French began archaeological work to explore and restore the site to be opened for tourism.

Exploring Angkor Wat

It’s been nearly 1000 years since it was built, but the original structure still looks incredible. Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples are exactly what you imagine when you think of an ancient jungle temple, crumbling walls and trees growing through the structure, monkeys playing in the ruins, the whole place a little spooky and weird.

We spend the morning looking around various temple sites, including the famous ‘Tomb Raider’ temple where the original Tomb Raider film was shot. That was pretty cool!

‘Tomb Raider’ Temple

Angkor Wat was everything we’d imagined it to be, and it’s a big enough site that you don’t feel like you’re stuck in huge crowds. In fact, you’re given a surprising level of freedom to explore unsupervised and run your hands along ancient carvings, climb worn steps to peer into crumbling spaces, find deserted corners and imagine you’re walking in the footsteps of hundreds of monks and priests throughout the centuries.

Exploring Angkor Wat – ancient carvings on the wall by Rebecca’s head

You can get one day, two day or three day tickets to explore the temple sites. To be honest, we were completely templed-out after a solid 7 hours. Unless you have a guide, and/or are super interested in the history of each individual temple, you won’t been to fork out $100+ for the three-day pass. One day was plenty for us.

Cooking Class & the Phare Circus

We started our next day in Cambodia at a much more respectable time – we didn’t even have to get out of bed until 11am. As it was the beginning of December I decided the best way to wake Rebecca up was by having Christmas songs played loudly next to her head. You can imagine how that went down. In my defence, it was revenge… she’d done the same to me the day before. It’s war! My cousin just looked at us all like we were mental – she’s not one for Christmas music unless it’s Christmas Day. Scrooge.

We really enjoyed our cooking classes in Sri Lanka and Vietnam so we thought a cooking class would also be a good idea as an introduction to Cambodian cuisine, especially since we had no idea what to expect from the food – you can easily get Thai food at home, and sometimes Vietnamese, but I didn’t really know what Cambodian food would be like.

Time to get cooking!

Turns out it’s pretty similar to Thai – lots of coconut based soups and curries, and it’s all delicious. It’s also got some similarities to Vietnamese food – fried rice and noodle soups. None of us were huge fans of Vietnamese food to be honest so we’re relying on the Thai influences while we’re here.

Our cooking class was a bit of a disappointment after the amazing one we had in Vietnam. We had a group of 5, and all of us were making three dishes each. Some of our dishes were the same, some were different, making it all a bit chaotic. Our instructor ended up doing most of it for us – she’d say ‘put a tea spoon of salt in the pan’ and then do it for us. Great. I ended up chopping one onion and one leaf. In a two hour class.

Fish Amok – classic Khmer cuisine

On the plus side, the fish amok I chose was really nice, so now I know I’ll be ordering that in future. The other dishes though were just kind of average, which was really disappointing as everything we’d made at previous cooking classes was delicious. It didn’t help that the others all had plenty to do while I stood there like a lemon.

Once we got back, full of food but grumbling about the $30 price tag, it was happy hour so we enjoyed a large amount of beer for $4 on our hostel’s rooftop bar. That got us in the right mood for the circus, so we were excited when our tuktuk driver came to pick us up.

The Phare Circus is Cambodia’s version of Cirque du Soleil, just on a smaller scale. The performers use a mixture of theatre, dance, music and circus acts to create a brilliant hour-long show, which they perform each night to a packed audience. All of the performers in the circus are graduates from a school for disadvantaged students, which gives children from difficult backgrounds a chance to learn skills which they can use in future to provide for themselves and their families, earning themselves freedom from the cycle of poverty.

One of the contortionists firing an arrow with her foot

The show we saw was a mix of rock music, comedy and traditional circus acts such as contortionists, juggling and acrobatics. It was hilarious and performed so well, I can see why they have full audiences each night. The music was fantastic – all their own composition.

If you’re in Siem Reap, you have to go and see the Phare Circus. It’s fantastic and you’re supporting a great cause.

Phnom Kulen Sacred Mountain

The next day we had another (reasonably) early start as we were heading to Phnom Kulen, a national park that is a couple of hours drive from Siem Reap. It’s sacred as the birthplace of the ancient Khmer empire, when the king proclaimed Cambodia’s independence from Java. It’s another place where Buddhism and Hinduism mix in peace – the Buddhist temple at the top of the mountain is home to the largest reclining Buddha statue in Cambodia, carved out of the mountain itself.

The view from Phnom Kulen

The mountain is also sacred to Hindus as the site of the river of 1000 lingas, tributes to the god Shiva. The lingas are carved into the bedrock of the river, making the water flowing over them holy. The lingas are mostly representing phallic symbols… does that make it the valley of 1000 penises? The water then crashes down over a huge waterfall (the one in Tomb Raider that Angelina Jolie jumps down at the end of the first film), and you can swim at the bottom.

The River of 1000 Lingas

We headed down to the waterfall and spent an hour swimming in the freezing pool. When we first got there the pool was deserted, but once we’d braved the cold water we were soon joined by plenty of others. We had fun but it was much too cold to stay in there long, and the little fish kept nibbling our legs, which made us jump every time.

Waterfall at Phnom Kulen

It was such a nice day, and the views from the mountain were beautiful. All in all it was a brilliant start to our Cambodia trip, so let’s hope it continues the same way!

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