Days 1717-21, 11-15 Feb ‘19, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Sometimes we travel for a day and end up half a world away. On our departure from Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam we travelled all day and ended up in the country next door - a couple of 2 hour flights and a lot of sitting - sitting at airports, sitting on buses to remote stands, sitting on the plane on the tarmac... sitting, sitting, sitting. Our flight eventually took off from Saigon and finally landed (all of 45 minutes later) in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We had a man with the sign waiting for us from the hotel and the included transfer was actually a took-took (tuk-tuk). Between the pair of us, the two bags and the two cabin bags - there was not a lot of spare space and we were hanging on to the bags, and each other as we took-tooked into and through Siem Reap town. We were a bit brain fried but taking it all in however 20+ minutes in a took-took after dark in the dust and smoke and so forth was a bit much. We were therefore ecstatic to reach the Anachak Residence and check into our Junior Suite - a swish one bedroom apartment by any other name. Even for cash this place is utter luxury at about US$55 per night - we however found it and booked it using Iberia frequent flyer miles. Whilst Iberia (the national carrier of Spain) is a member of the One World Alliance - it is not as though we credit our miles to their programme. Last year however they had the most talked about airline miles promotion in a long while - for every flight booked you would receive 9000 miles - up to a maximum of 10 flights. No need to actually fly the flights - and the points would be credited to the account within a months time. So along with almost everyone else in the points & miles blogosphere we cracked on and bought a few flights - only 5 as we weren’t 100% sure how we’d utilise the miles and they expired on 30 Nov ‘18. With 45,000 miles in the account for an outlay of A$220 - we went hotel shopping and ended up spending 40,000 miles on luxury in beautiful Siem Reap.
We were greeted with chilled towels and a refreshing and very chilled lemongrass tea before tootling up to our suite/apartment and quickly getting changed into swimming gear for cocktails and dinner by the pool. It was a pretty early night and our private guide, Rethy Ly, was scheduled to pick us up at 9 am on Day 1. As it turns out it was the last time we had a sleep in until we left 4 nights later.
We threw a fair whack of cash at our Angkor Wat experience and don’t regret it in the slightest. We figured we were only visiting once and so, wanted to fit in as much as humanly possible with the least amount of physical stress as possible. The guide we chose was brilliant and ran the 3 days like a flexible and fun military operation - with things timed so perfectly we were where we needed to be at the right moment, almost effortlessly (almost).
Day 1 saw us head out of town after our luscious eggs benedict and fresh passionfruit juice at the hotel. We were visiting the Koh Ker complex about 80 kms out of Siem Reap and the airconiditoned drive was a pleasure in itself. We visited multiple temples along the way and have a new found respect for the trees of Cambodia - in many instances they’re the only thing holding the temples together. We were fascinated (terrified? relieved?) to see helpful signs all along the way advising that the minefields had been cleared (whew!) After several super interesting temple stops (and the mercury climbing the whole way), we reached the Koh Ker complex and saw the highlight of the day - Prasat Tom - the pyramid of Cambodia. Truly. Looked like some of the first pyramids experimented with in Egypt and we really felt like we’d stepped through a portal and were at the temples in Mexico’s Yucatan. Our guide was very quick to say we had plenty of time to climb the pyramid if we wanted to - we were very quick to say... ‘Never mind!’ - Afterall the view is really from the outside.
We trundled off to lunch and then on to the other ‘outer’ highlight - Beng Mealea. Ruined by variously old age, trees and bombs during the Khmer Rouge period, this used to be crawling with tourists in different stages of injuring themselves. It apparently got beyond a joke and now there’s a wooden pathway snaking through/up/down/around the ruins. Still requires a good level of fitness, flexibility and balance - but we saw people trekking along with walking sticks and not falling off - so can’t have been too bad. Mind you - held up the traffic flow something shocking. We stopped off on the way back to the hotel to buy the Angkor Wat tickets - they’re even personalised with photos to avoid shonky behaviour.
By the end of Day 1 we actually figured we’d almost seen enough temples. A cocktail and a burger at the rooftop pool to watch the sunset and we were fine. Day 2? Well let’s say it started early... We had the alarm set for 4 am and met Rethy outside at 4.35 am (apologies to the night porter who had to wake up and let us out). This is where having a guide pays off incredibly. Obviously there’s the getting driven to the Angkor Wat complex in comfort thing. But then we were parked and in the queue at the gate with only 15 odd people in front of us - within minutes there were 50 odd behind us. At 5 am the gates open and the stampede starts - he snuck us via a short cut (along with other clever guides) to get us to the primo viewing point soon enough to be in the front row. He even found a couple of logs to upend so we weren’t standing in mud for the best part of 2 hours. Once seated, with the strictest instructions not to move for any reason, he left us to it. Before long, pitch black gave way to grey, then blue, then pink - the hues of dawn were spectacular as the main Angkor temple materialised out of the darkness in front of us. The reflections in the pond were superb and we took, literally, hundreds of photos. And then some. Eventually the temple was in full view and the the jewelbox colours of dawn gave way to gray - and it was only 6.20 am... We were under strict instructions to stay put until at least 6.45 am. 80% of the crowd ran off (literally) to get to Angkor Wat first. ‘First’ being a relative term - if you are in the first hundred to get there - that’s like having it to yourself. Anyway we continued to sit and slowly the grey faded almost to black again as the sun finally began, slowly, slowly, to rise behind the temple - creeping up until it was impossible to look at it anymore - then it was up and over and the day had begun. So many people who got up early to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat actually missed it due to confusing the concepts of dawn and sunrise. Shame really.
In the end we were reunited with Rethy at 7 am and we then made our way to the main Angkor Wat temple and climbed the Bakan. Awfully high, awfully steep, awfully long queue - but thanks to his encouragement we did wait in line and haul ourselves up the steps - and the view over the complex was worth it - putting it all in a perspective impossible to attain when on the ground. The Bakan is the highest point in the complex and where the king went to commune with the gods every night. We had a good look around then returned to terra firma. Then we were back on the clock, back through the complex (via the monks, via the monkeys) and in the car and back to the hotel for the best breakfasts we’ve had in a long time. Bless our guide’s little cotton socks - he kept suggesting a breakfast box so we could keep up the momentum of the early starts. Under no circumstances were we giving up eggs benedict. Just not happening. So breakfast down, fast shower, change of clothes and we were off again to a temple more beautiful altogether than Angkor Wat - in this case Angkor Tom or the four-faces temple. Stunning, glorious, many gates, seen them all, impressive and some funny photos to boot - pretty sure the guides all get together and swap notes on the best spots to take once in a lifetime photos of their guests.
Angkor Tom took up the rest of the morning then we had lunch next to the royal bathing lake of Sra Srong - amazing food including a chicken dish served in a young coconut called A Mok (the dish, not the coconut). Yum. From there it was on to Ta Nei temple which was fascinating because it was almost empty and almost untouched - the trees were growing everywhere and the ruins were particularly ruinous - won’t say we felt all Indiana Jones... but getting there. Speaking of famous, from there it was off to Ta Prohm - more commonly known as the Tomb Raider Temple. This is the place that literally, put Cambodia on the tourist map. A location scout for the movie had some Cambodian heritage and knew this would be the most perfect spot ever. The rest is history. Really quite an incredible spot and honorable Oscars mention should go to the trees once more - you just don’t realise how big and creepy they are until they’re holding up a building right next to you.
Whilst our guide is officially the energiser bunny of national guiding in Cambodia (and if not, he should be), we were stuffed. There’s probably a technical word for it, but stuffed will do. He offered more temples - we said the hotel is fine - and back we went to our luxurious digs at the Anachak Residence. Chilled out for a couple of hours and did very little indeed. Finally, with leftovers from lunch, we didn’t need to leave our apartment and ordered in mojitos to accompany ‘ding for dinner’. Well we did leave the apartment - but only to schlep upstairs to have a quick swim, see the sunset and order the mojitos. Then back to our big sunken tub and left over A Mok. Lush. Must Sleep. Must Sleep. Very early night.
Once more, and we’re up to Day 3, Rethy was keen on a breakfast box so we could make the requisite early start to get out to his all time favourite temple - Banteay Srey. Never let an early start get in the way of eggs benedict we say. Breakfast box be damned. So we got the hotel staff on side at the end of Day 2 and wrote out our order so everyone could have a head start when the restaurant opened at 6 am. ‘Lo, the breakfast was out swiftly and we were done and dusted by 6.30 am ready for our early start to Banteay Srey. En route our first stop was an ‘in and out’ of the car - just for a photo of Pre Rup temple before folks arrived, then back in the car and, due to pesky perfect timing, we were driving past the royal bathing lake once more and the most incredible pinky purple sunrise was in progress - so we pulled up, took far too many photos and then finally headed off to Banteay Srey (our 3rd official stop for the day and it was lucky to be 7 am. (Finally!!!! said Rethy). As it turns out, we arrived about 4th - there were only a couple of people ahead of us taking in the golden hues of the intricate carvings and the sun warmed the face of this ancient temple... 1100 years or so old and the carvings were as fresh as if they were done yesterday. We had a sneaky private tour in and around the temples (‘nuff said) and it was, indeed, magical. Even for us - on the verge of CTF syndrome, Chronic Temple Fatigue - absolutely endemic in this part of the world.
Moving right along we were at Preah Khan and the heat of the morning was starting to bite. Either that or sheer exhaustion. The temple was of course, fabulous. Even more interesting was the walk in the shade of the trees along the major avenue to the temple gate (mind the buffalo... off for eats and drinks). Rethy showed us the seed of the Quinine tree (looks like a Mentos breath mint) - and explained how the local people use it vs. modern malaria medicine. Preah Khan is a major temple site and took quite a while to pick our way around - particularly interesting because the king who built it was trying to satisfy two masters and the temple is split between Hindu and Buddhist figures. We never realised that Cambodia’s leaders and flip flopped back and forward several times between the two faiths.
Our next stop was the Hospital Temple - Nea Pon, set in a large pond and accessed by a long bridge. Absolutely fascinating - it really was. But it had been a long three days and a hospital could well have been on the cards due to the heat, so we took a couple of pics then headed for lunch. Yesterday’s had been so good, we returned to the same spot (yay - more leftovers). There was the oppounity to see 3 or so more temples after lunch but, we’re sorry to say, we failed to rise to the occasion and headed back into town. A quick trip to a candy shop (well jewellers... but same thing - though didn’t buy anything). Then an artisans’ workshop area (the joys of having no space or weight available... can’t buy even if we want to. Then, to an undersold feature of Cambodia - a major pharmacy. Codeine? Yep. Pseudo-ephedrine? Yep. Whatever you want? Yep. And back to the hotel mid afternoon. We enjoyed our final night and, even more so, because we didn’t need to leave until 2pm the next day. We had a late checkout and the manager was organised to drive us to the airport - which meant we didn’t even need to think about packing until the morning of our departure. Utter luxury.
Our final day dawned, our final breakfast snuffled - after a decadent lie in until 9 am. We packed. We had a room service lunch. (Too hot to even approach the roof top pool at midday - so hot they probably cooked lunch next to the pool.) We jaunted to the airport. We had a very pleasant flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. Even more pleasant beacuse it was over an hour and Vietnam Airlines had a dinner box for us - which came in handy at Laos airport where the chaos of getting a visa on arrival was in effect. Always good to have a decent blood sugar level when there are crowds of tourists and officials tripping over each other. Out the door and wow. What day is it? Where are we? Laos? That’s right! (We knew that.)