Siem Reap - Angkor Wat
In continuing our travels to places forgotten and overtaken by nature, our next stop was Siem Reap so that we could take the day trip out to Angkor Wat. No trip to Cambodia is complete without this stop, to the ruins of the massive city of Angkor and all of the temples that the complex includes. We had been here 10 years ago and were excited to return and see some of the sites that we had missed from our first excursion to Angkor.
Ten years is a long time, even longer in Asia, and we were shocked by the amount of growth that the city of Siem Reap has gone through. Some good, some bad - this I'm sure will be a reoccurring theme throughout our travels - as anytime we've revisited someplace there's always that realization and adjustment to the fact that nothing stays the same. You don't realize it in the city you're living in as the changes happen around you and your mind adapts to the updates in real time. We've said that about how Chicago changed, especially the area immediately around Wrigley Field, had we been gone during that time we would be shocked at how it looks now. I'm sure we will feel out of place when we return and see even more of the renovations completed.
Okay, enough of our shock on returning. Time for me to talk about what we were here for - Angkor Wat. The biggest change is the massive entry complex built at the outskirts of Siem Reap, there must have been more then 20 booths to purchase tickets. Tickets now require everyone in your group (ie. the two of us) to go in so that they can photograph you so that your photo is printed out on the ticket. Maybe there was some fraud, we don't know, but in addition to a photo ID ticket, you now need to show your ticket to a guard outside of each of the sites that you head into. It's a bit of a pain to keep pulling your tickets out for verification, we saw a lot of people with their tickets tickets hanging on a lanyard, that may be an easier way to go.
Last time we did all of the big sights, Angkor Way, Bakheng, Bayon, Baphuon, Khan, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm (with the famous Tomb Raider tree), so we decided that we would skip most of them of this time around. We hired a tuk-tuk at $15 USD for the day and set out on our adventure. We started with Angkor Wat, because why not, we need to see it again as it is the highlight.
It has changed, the crowds are massive, the tour groups of 15-20 being lead through the site seem to be everywhere. Most of the crazy staircases that we slowly climbed up and down years ago are roped off, and in one location wooden stairs up and down have been built to make it easier for the masses of people climbing to the top. We decided not to wait in the line but snap a few photos and head out to some of the other sites we hadn't previously seen.
We were dropped off at the main entrance (west side of the temple complex) and met our driver outside the east entrance, so in getting through to the back side a lot of the crowds thin out.
First stop, or our second actual, was at Banteay Kdei, which upon walking into we realized we had seen on our last visit.
It's hard to remember all that you've seen, and if you are doing too many temples in one day you will become "templed out" and eventually stop appreciating the beauty. We had forgotten the name, but once there again we (Tina) knew that we had seen it before. From there we went to an actual new temple for us, Pre Rup.
At this point the universe stepped in, and to make sure that we ate lunch, the batteries in both of our cameras died. Tina has 3 spare batteries, but she left them in the hotel since she switched from her camera bag to a small backpack. The backpack was to make climbing the awkwardly steep staircases easier - as mentioned we needn't have worried about that since new stairs have been erected. It could have just been bad planning on our part - not charging the night before - but as a matter of dumb luck I hadn't taken the charges out of my camera bag. Normally I stuff my bag full of electrical accessories for travel days and then thin the bag out for touring once we've checked into a hotel. Why I didn't this time I don't know. A 30 minute lunch and charging break later and we were back on our way.
Eastern Mebon, Ta Som, and then Neak Pean, these places are all amazing to see, and with fewer people then the main sites would have. It was well worth having the driver and being able to dictate to him where we wanted to go.
After finishing at Neak Pean we ventured back to the main temples and did a return visit to Bayon. I think at one point Tina stood in a spot with her camera held up for about 15 minutes waiting for the crowds to thin out enough to get a clear photo without anyone in it.
That's the thing about mass groups, they follow their guide and seem to be oblivious to the fact that there might be other people trying to document their memories as well. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen in small areas, Tina eventually had to give that semi-aggressive "move your ass out of my way" hand swiping symbol to a man at Ta Som as well, but is exponentially worse at the main sights. If there is a downtime at these places we don't know it, and the crowds are the downside to the beauty of more people being able to travel.
Bayon is one that you have to see, at least in our opinion, as it's more impressive then Angkor Wat - not in overall size - but just in the way it is constructed and with reliefs of the kings face pointing our everywhere you look, with him looking out over his kingdom, it was our highlight 10 years ago and it was again on this trip. Again, at this temple the changes are visible, closed original stairways, roped off areas, masses of people lining up for new official staircases. I've already said enough about that good/bad of people visiting places, but if you can do it - go now.
For there we did a final return to Angkor Wat, hoping to get that late afternoon sun on the temple. It was shining wonderfully when we walked across the pontoon bridge with masses of other people, but once we got through the crowds and the outer walls of the temple, clouds blanketed the sun. We waited for a while, watching the clouds to see if the sun would return, and after getting a few, still pretty amazing photos, we headed out to grab a our driver for the ride back into Siem Reap.
Again with timing, when we looked back the clouds had cleared, and those three temple peaks that everyone knows as Angkor Wat were glowing a gorgeous late afternoon golden color. We pulled our cameras out again only to watch the clouds shade everything over again before we could get the shot.
It doesn't matter, really, as even with that perfect photo it would still be one where we would say "The photo doesn't do it justice, you really need to be there...."