Siem Reap, Cambodia, Part 1

On Monday Marie and I took a bus to Siem Reap, the city that serves as a base for exploring the ancient temples of Angkor.  A tuk-tuk driver we met in Phnom Penh arranged to have a friend of his – someone who apparently went by the name “Mr. Hart” – pick us up at the bus station and take us to our hotel.  If we liked Mr. Hart we could hire him to be our driver for the next three days.

Marie was sold on Mr. Hart as soon as she heard his name.  I suspected I knew why:  “Because that’s what the chauffer on Hart to Hart called Robert Wagner?” I asked.  Yep, sure enough.  When we pulled into the bus station Mr. Hart was there holding a sign that read “Mister Rob.”  He dropped us off at our hotel and agreed to meet us again the next morning.

By the time we checked into our hotel it was late afternoon, so we just caught a ride to the downtown area of Siem Reap and had dinner.  At sunset I had a chance to recreate a photo I took four years ago.


Siem Reap’s Pub Street in 2006
Siem Reap’s Pub Street in 2010
I’d already warned Marie that I wanted to take sunrise photos at least twice, and Mr. Hart was set to meet us at 4:45 the next morning so we could be at Angkor Wat by 5:30.  Marie calculated that in order to shower and dry her hair she needed to wake up at 3:30am.  My helpful suggestion that she should “Just wear a hat” was not well received.

Angkor Wat is the heart of Cambodia.  Its image is featured on the country’s flag and currency, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southeast Asia, and the national beer is called “Angkor.”  Why all the fuss?

If you’re impressed by history, Angkor Wat has been used as a place of worship – first by Hindus and then by Buddhists – for almost a thousand years.  If you’re impressed by size, it’s the largest religious structure in the world.  The outer moat measures almost a mile on each side.  The place is massive.  And if you’re impressed by style, it’s just plain cool-looking.  Someone who knows a lot more about architecture than I do said that it “attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions.”

And that’s just Angkor Wat.  The broader Angkor complex includes over a thousand other ancient temples constructed by a series of Khmer god-kings between 800 and 1300 AD.  Some of the minor temples in Angkor would, by themselves, be the primary tourist attraction in most other countries.

Normally I struggle to get out of bed to take pre-dawn photos.  But with Angkor waiting, waking up was no problem.  Mr. Hart met me and Marie, as planned, at 4:45am.  We made a quick stop to buy our three-day passes and then went right to Angkor Wat.  In the pre-dawn darkness we had to use a flashlight to find our way to the best spot for photos, although we had plenty of help from Cambodian entrepreneurs who, even at that hour, wanted to sell us breakfast, coffee, or the use of a chair while we waited for sunrise.  At first there weren’t many other tourists around, but by the time the sun rose at least 100 of us were trying to get the classic Angkor Wat shot.


Angkor Wat Before Dawn


Angkor Wat Pre-Dawn Portrait


Angkor Wat Pre-Dawn Glow


The clouds were great that morning, but I’d been hoping we’d get some red color in the sky.  Instead I had to provide my own red by taking a few shots with Hipstamatic, an iPhone app that Graham, who I met on the Gibbon Experience, recommended.  It uses the iPhone’s camera to simulate the retro look of different vintage lenses and films.


Hipstamatic Red Angkor Wat Dawn


Once the sun rose we started walking around the rest of Angkor Wat.  During my previous visit I learned that photos showing only the buildings of Angkor Wat in normal daylight tend to be boring.  The best way to add some interest is to find and include one of the two Ms:  monks or monkeys.  The bright orange robes of a monk contrast really nicely with Angkor’s gray stone.  And adding monkeys just makes anything better.  Unfortunately, though, no luck that morning – we hunted for over an hour and couldn’t find either M.  Then I realized I had a third M right there in front of me, and Marie was a great sport about posing for photos.


Marie on the East Side of Angkor Wat


Angkor Wat Entry Hall


Scenes from Angkor Wat


On the way from Angkor to Bayon we passed a group of elephants waiting to give rides to tourists.  We planned to ride an elephant up to Phnom Bakheng later in the day, so we just stopped to say hello and give them a few bananas.  Marie found that handing out food made her very popular with her new friends.


Marie Feeding Elephants at Angkor (Video)


Bayon is my second-favorite Angkor temple.  From a distance it looks like a crazy, jumbled pile of rocks.  Up close it still looks like a crazy pile of rocks, but you start to feel a sense of balance and harmony in the design, and you realize you’re being watched by hundreds of huge stone faces carved into the temple’s towers.


Bayon Reflection
Bayon Faces

Four Faces at Bayon

Next up was Ta Prohm, my third-favorite temple, which boasts a Hollywood claim to fame:  it appeared in the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider.  Parts of Ta Prohm were reclaimed by the jungle a very long time ago and roots of large trees now cover several of the buildings.


Roots at Ta Prohm
Marie in Ta Prohm Window


Ta Prohm Landscape
Ta Prohm Tomb Raider


No tour of Angkor’s highlights would be complete without a trip up the hill to Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset.  We rode an elephant up to the temple, saving us energy and marking the first time Marie had ever traveled by pachyderm.  “Walking is for suckers,” we agreed.


Marie’s First Elephant Ride


We knew Phnom Bekheng was a popular sunset spot, but the crowd swelled to the point of being a little ridiculous.  By 5:30 there were at least a few hundred people on the top of the temple, including an older Malaysian man who seemed intent on having a conversation with me and Marie, with or without our participation.  At one point he told us that a lake we could see in the distance was the biggest lake in the world.  “Bigger than Lake Superior?” we asked.  He promised it was, despite the fact that the entire country of Cambodia is only about twice as big as Lake Superior.  Then he started regaling us with stories about the sunrise at Angkor Wat that morning.“Beautiful!” he gushed.  “Very beautiful this morning.”

“Lots of red in the sky?” I asked.

“Oh yes, very red,” he assured us.


Sunset Crowd at Phnom Bakheng (Video)


Thanks to a wall of clouds the sunset was a dud.  A small opening lit up with color but the rest of the sky stayed gray until the sun was all the way down.  On the way back to the hotel, however, the photography gods compensated for the disappointing sunset.  The front gate of Angkor Wat was lit up (only because of restoration work, I think) – a beautiful sight made even better by the moon rising overhead and reflecting in the moat.


Moon Over the Angkor Wat Gate


Marie and I felt great about our first day at Angkor – we put in a solid 12 hours at the temples and saw one amazing place after another.  We looked forward to changing out of our sweat-soaked clothes and having a beer.

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