If you missed part 1 of “Our Adventures and Misadventures in Vietnam and Cambodia”, click here.

Ariel and I very reluctantly got up before 5 in the morning. While our bodies protested to the early start (vacations, after all, should afford us longer time in bed!), our minds excitedly wondered what adventure awaited us for the day.

Our Tuktuk driver (Kun) and guide (Sophal) were waiting for us at the lobby. Ariel carried a small backpack which contained a few bottles of mineral water, my shawl, my travel journal and a few other travel must haves. I carried the camera bag containing my DSLR, plus two lenses, an external flash, and extra sets of batteries.

A few minutes later, I extracted my shawl from Ariel’s backpack. The early morning chill was enough to numb our hands and dry our lips, and the open tuktuk did not offer a bit of warmth. Before we knew it, we were entering the Angkor perimeter and we got off to get our 3-day pass for US$40 each. This was something we couldn’t get ahead of time as we had to have our pictures printed on the ticket. A digital camera is installed in front of the ticket booth for this purpose.

By 5:30, we were already walking the dark path into Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument in the world, and the most popular among the Angkor temples. Good thing Sophal had a flashlight. It was pitch black and it took a while before our eyes got accustomed to the dark. We quickly found a good spot right in front of Angkor Wat, a big pond between us and the temple. I quickly set up my tripod and waited for the sun to rise behind the temple. As sunrise approaches, we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the temple, making the early start really worth it.

Angkor means “city” and Wat means “temple”. Hence, Angkor Wat aptly means Temple City. Indeed, the vast complex make it look like several temples in one big perimeter instead of just a single monument.

As we toured the temple, Sophal fed us information on the history of this landmark. It took almost four decades to complete the temple with people driven by sheer devotion to both their religion and their king. The sandstones used to build the temple were collected from the Kulen moutain with the help of elephants.

The pond in front of the temple

After taking a few shots, we decided to have breakfast at the food stalls within the Angkor Wat complex. Ariel ordered Chicken Noodle Soup (US$2) while I opted for a Banana Pancake (US$2). I got a big pancake with slices of bananas underneath – no butter, no syrup. It was so dry but I didn’t really mind as I was so hungry already. While eating, some kids selling books came by and I decided to get my own copy of “Ancient Angkor” by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques. It’s the same book I borrowed from my colleague Rachel. I read it over and over again even before our trip so I could map out our itinerary. I left my borrowed copy at home having decided that I will get my own copy anyway. I haggled a bit and got one for US$8 (I later discovered it was being sold at US$5 in other temples!).

After getting our tummies filled, we started walking into the temple. There are two “libraries” on either side of the walkway into the main temple. While the term “library”may suggest that these structures housed documents, they actually were used more as shrines.

Other than the sheer size of this monument, Angkor Wat is also popular for its Bas Relief galleries depicting both religious and historical events.

One of the bas relief galleries

The bas relief galleries are now protected by the temple authorities. Some parts of the walls have become glossy from frequent touching. To prevent further deterioration, a length of rope was installed about a meter from the walls to prevent people from touching the delicate walls.

One of the more memorable stories depicted in one of the bas relief galleries – the Churning of the Sea of Milk

The bas reliefs were so detailed that we couldn’t help but marvel at the artistry of the ancient Khmers. It was difficult to imagine how this work of art could have been made without the luxury of sophisticated equipment.

While there were hundreds of tourists visiting the temple on the same day, we hardly noticed the crowd because of the sheer size of the complex.

Our next stop – Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom literally means “Great City”. It is not a temple in itself but a walled region with several temples inside it, the most popular of which is Bayon, located at the very center if the city.

There are five gates into Angkor Thom. We entered through the south gate and we were greeted by a tall tower, the top of which was carved with a face, the most prominent feature of the Bayon style architecture.

All the gates into Angkor Thom are lined with the “Avenue of the Gods and Demons”, depicted in the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Gods line the left side of the entry way, while demons or “Asuras” are on the right side. They are all pulling a big 7-headed snake called Naga like in tug of war.

The “gods”

The Asuras or “demons”

Our first stop in Angkor Thom is Bayon. There is an option to ride an elephant from the Angkor Thom gate but we opted to just take our tuktuk.

Details of the Bayon restoration work

While Bayon also features some bas reliefs, albeit in a much smaller scale compared to Angkor Wat, what sets it apart from the other popular temples of Angkor are the face towers.

This is one of the most memorable temples we visited. No special reason other than the fact that I had a little accident inside the temple. I wanted to get a closer look at one of the Buddha statues in the temple. As I stepped into a darkened room, my right foot landed on a gap on the floor and I lost my balance. I was holding my camera on my right hand and I wasn’t able to break my fall. I fell sideways to my right and twisted my ankle. Pain shot through my lower leg and for a while, I thought a broke by ankle. I sat there a for a few minutes while Ariel and Sophal stood in dumbfounded silence, mouths and eyes wide open. I consoled myself with the fact that I didn’t fall in front of an audience other than my two male companions. After a while, I was able to limp into a better sitting position. I took off my shoes and socks, and surveyed the damage. I was in pain, but quite bearable so I didn’t think anything was broken or dislocated. Nonetheless, I was in enough pain to prevent me from fully exploring the temple. Just my luck – it was only our first temple day and we were just on our second temple.

Anyway, I urged Ariel to go up the tower where I was able to take some of my favorite photos for the trip – thanks to a 200mm zoom lens, I was able to take decent shots from below.

I took Advil for the pain and the swelling and after a while, I was already fit enough to limp my way around the temple.

A short walk from Bayon, is a “temple mountain” called Bapuon (also Baphuon). It is currently undergoing restoration work and we did not go inside. Instead, we circled into the west side of the temple to see the reclining Buddha. It took a long while for me to spot the Buddha. It was so massive that we didn’t realize it was a reclining statue. We thought it was just a wall.

We then proceeded to Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace. One look at the temple and I knew I wouldn’t be able to climb the pyramid-like tower. My ankle is still every bit painful and will definitely not survive the steep climb. Ariel had to go on his own while Sophal stayed with me below.

One of the two ponds of the Royal Palace

A few steps away are the Terraces of the Elephants and of the Leper King.

The Terrace of the Elephants is where the King used to stand to address the soldiers before going into battle. We enjoyed looking at the hidden reliefs, most interesting of which are the five-headed horse and three-headed elephants.

By this time, it was almost noon and the sun was directly above us. We slathered sunblock earlier in the morning that didn’t stop us from feeling the scorching heat of the sun.

The Terrace of the Leper King is adjacent to the Elephant Terrace and is also popular for its hidden reliefs. I was really confused why it was called Terrace of the Leper King. I remember hearing that the King did not really have leprosy. I wasn’t paying attention at this point as it was so hot and I was already hungry.

We had lunch at Khmer’s Family Resturant, near Srah Srang. We ordered Spring Rolls, Fried Catfish, Fried Pork, Coke Light for Ariel, Mixed Fruit Shake for me plus a bottle of ice cold water. We invited Sophal and Kun to eat with us. Ariel noticed Kun and Sophal dipping their viand in a strange-looking sauce. We found it was made of fermented fish and (gasp!) fried ants! Ariel was brave enough to try it, he swallowed the local delicacy and shuddered. I was impressed!

After lunch, we proceeded to Ta Prohm, a temple popularized by the Angelina Jolie movie, Tomb Raider.

This temple is still very much in the middle of a jungle, and has a very eerie feel brought about by the dark surroundings. It was a long walk from the drop off point into the temple proper. We were greeted by the gigantic Silk Cotton (locally referred to as Gum Tree) and Strangler Fig (referred to as Spung) trees – the main feature of this jungle temple.

The roots of the giant trees are breaking the stones apart, leaving the temple is an almost ruined state. It’s quite ironic that the very same trees that make this a unique temple are also the ones destroying the structures. Kill the trees and the temple will be just like any other in Angkor. Leave the trees alone and the temple will soon be a heap of rubble.

After Ta Prohm, we stopped by Ta Keo. I was easily intimidated by this temple-mountain. I wasn’t sure if my ankle will survive the climb. However, the Advil seemed to have worked its magic leaving me a very tolerable level of pain. I decided to give it a go. I handed my load to Sophal so I won’t have any additional weight that might affect my balance. I crawled up the narrow steps without looking down. After a few exhausting minutes, I found myself at the top.

Going down is a different matter. Now that I was forced to look down, I was terrified. Ariel and Sophal held my hands as I took my first few steps down. After a few grueling minutes, my foot touched solid ground. I was very pleased with my accomplishment!

We then stopped by two small temples – Chaosay Tevoda and Thomannon.

Chaosay Tevoda was undergoing restoration work

We just relaxed a bit and chatted with Sophal who shared with us a bit of Cambodian history, specifically the reigh of Pol Pot.


Our tuktuk

Our last stop for the day is Phnom Bakheng. It was perched on top of a hill, a good 15-20 minutes hike. We had an option to ride an elephant up the hill but we opted to walk, a decision, I have come to regret later.

It was another challenging temple to climb given the very narrow and steep steps. However, I heard that the top of the temple offers a spectacular view of the Angkor region so I bravely climbed up the temple.

Angkor Wat as seen from Bakheng

We waited for the sunset so I could take photos. However, everyone seemed to have the same idea and we soon found ourselves in the middle of a huge crowd. We decided to descend before everyone else to avoid the stress of rushing the descent in the dark with a long line of tourists behind us.

The mob

It was already dark when we reached our tuktuk. We asked to be dropped off at Pub Street instead of our hotel to avoid either walking to the famous street or paying another US$2 for a short ride. Before we got to Pub Street though, we saw a pizza joint so we decided to get off and just have pizza for the evening. We arranged for another early start to see the sunrise at Srah Srang.

We ate at The Pizza Co. where we ordered Crispy Double Cheese Pizza (US$ 6.80), Sausage Spaghetti (US$ 3.3o), Tiger Beer for Ariel (2 bottles at US$ each) and OJ for me (US$1.50).

Back in the hotel, we decided to get a massage. Hmmm…I can’t remember how much it costs but it was reasonable and the massage was quite good! I told the girl that I have a swollen ankle and she gently massaged it. I endured the pain hoping that it will be better the next day.

To view all of Part 2 photos, click HERE.

To read Part 3, click here.

Written by Alby Laran

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