Cambodia · Travel

Siem Reap: Angkor Exploration

What firstly pops up in your mind when you think of Cambodia? Angkor Wat? This internationally famous temple complex is always at the top of every Cambodian travel guideline. However, it was not my first pick when I planned my trip to this country since I considered between beaches and temples. I really wanted to see Cambodian beaches but a friend of mine just warned me about the rainy season (my trip was in August which is the time of rain in Cambodia), so I decided to go to Siem Reap and visited the temples at the end.

After 1 week volunteering in CPOC, I said goodbye to the kids and other volunteers to head up north to the city of the World Wonders, Siem Reap.With $5 bus ticket, which is very cheap, I was packed on a rather old bus with locals and goods. Out of my expectation, I was the one and only foreigner on the bus. There was no wifi or food provided but I didn’t need anything more than one which is with air – con (a must for the hot weather) and able to take me to the place I want to go. And could I demand more with $5? Everything went smoothly until when we were only several kilometers away from the city center. The bus was broken all of a sudden and we had to get off and waited for another bus to come and pick us up. My Siem Reap part obviously didn’t have a good start but thanks to the accident, I had a nice talk in Vietnamese with a guy on the same bus with me, who happened to be a Vietnamese – Cambodian. I arrived in Siem Reap around 6 or 7 pm. After the hostel check – in, I quickly ran to the street to get something for my empty belly. While crossing the street, I randomly met a lady who happened to run a local restaurant so I ended up eating a huge bowl of vegetarian tofu curry at her place for $3.5. She even gave me a dessert dish of water melon for free. Unbelievably, I finished them all. It was such a good treat for me after a long day on the bus! Unlucky at the beginning, then lucky after, that’s how my Siem Reap trip started!

The following day of mine was dedicated to explore Angkor temples. Most of guidebooks or travel websites recommend people to spend 3 days to discover this World Wonder, but I just wanted to see the Small Circuit, so I went for the 1 – day ticket. With a bicycle rented at the hostel for $2/day, I spent a whole day to hit up as many temples in the Small Circuit as I wanted.

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Angkor Wat was my first stop. To be honest, I didn’t expect so much before getting there since Angkor Wat was way too famous and touristy and I didn’t want to be disappointed like I was with Luang Prabang. But all of my doubts were gone and I actually was blown away by its deadly charm. It was just unbelievably fantastic! Under the blazing sun, it looked more solemn and stunning!

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I ambled around this gorgeous temple to discover every corner of it and randomly listened to discussions of tourist groups with their tour guides which actually brought me some useful information about the temple. There are things galore to learn about this largest religion structure and one of things that can tell you about Angkor Kingdom from its history to religion is sophisticated and graceful sculptures and cravings on the wall.

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They are delicate dancing ladies, depict battles and scenes from Hindu mythology or wars between royal brothers which led to the fall of the powerful Khmer Empire. Besides their historical values, those breath-taking sculptures are one of the main features making the temple so astounding an achievement.

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Also, the temple is amazingly well preserved although hundreds thousands of visitors come and freely touch everything they please every day. Seeing this world wonder with your own eyes, you will understand why Cambodia can proudly put the picture of Angkor Wat onto their national flag.

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Angkor Wat really allured me that I couldn’t leave it. I was just afraid that if I leaved, I would miss all of its beauty and my wonderful moments in this spectacular temple. But eventually, with all of my brave, I left for another site. Over the bridge lined with statues and across the river I went…

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Bayon is home to Buddha head statues. While other temples in Angkor areas were built with Hindu architecture or mixed of Hinduism and Buddhism, Bayon truly represents Buddhism.

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This temple really reminded me of the image of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, trying to escape from Buddha palm. There are some limitations in life that we can’t get over. Being humble and aware of our strengths and weaknesses are lessons of that story. I suddenly felt I was Sun Wukong and was being watched over by thousands eyes. But not the feeling of being scared, but being embraced, familiar and peaceful just came to me so naturally and I, as a person with a non – religious background but have had exposure to Buddhism, received it with all of my appreciation. And do I need to tell, I actually fell in love with it at the very first sight.

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Followed by Bayon was Ta Prohm, the famous temple where the Tomb Raider movie was shot.

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Unlike other temples in Angkor system, Ta Prohm was swallowed by giant trees and a vast roots system, which brings it a mysterious jungle – like look and gives visitors the feeling of discovering a hidden gem in the jungle also.

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This one was also decorated with elegant cravings which show its conversion from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist temple later on. I myself was not as impressed with Ta Prohm as I was with Bayon or Angkor Wat even though it was amazing, but in general it is worth a visit.

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Besides those above temples, I also visited almost other monuments and temples in the Small Circuit. Having a bike gave me great freedom and I could do everything at my speed, so I cycled and hit up almost every monument and temple in the Small Circuit under the sun. The following day, I didn’t do anything more than wandering around the city and happening to observe a Buddhist praying ceremony since it was the full – moon day. My last few hours in Siem Reap were ended beautifully with a nice dinner and chatting with a Chinese girl, who stayed at the same hostel with me.

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Unlike the rough and busy Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, which is a city of slow and pleasant pace, is a genuine treasure of Cambodia. Not only does it broaden your internal encyclopedia with a long and eventful history shown by spectacular temples, but it also can amaze you with its simple beauty and friendly and helpful people. Siem Reap turned out to be my favourite city in Cambodia and I was happy with what I did in Siem Reap, including the sunburn on my shoulders which is a consequence of a – day – long Angkor exploration. I didn’t have any fancy sunrise or sunset observation but at least I did what makes me feel good. Why do you have to force yourself to do what you don’t want if one of the reasons of travelling is for your personal joy? Just go with the flow and you will love it, like I did in Siem Reap.

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