I had left Ho Chi Minh City for two nights in Phnom Penh, where I took the cooking class I wrote about earlier and met another American who was traveling to Siem Reap as well. We decided to share a guide and driver for our first day in Siem Reap, when we visited much of what is called the “little tour”, encompassing Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including Bayon), Ta Prohm, and a couple of other shorter stops. Exhausting but fabulous!
We started out the day with Ta Prohm, the temple featured in all the postcards of banyan trees growing into or on the temple, and also known for its cameo in the Tomb Raider movie. Seeing the trees was amazing. Given how big they are, they must be incredibly old. Here and there, they are pushing the temple stones away, but in other places, it looks like they are supporting the temple. Ta Prohm also has some lovely carvings. Something you see throughout the various Angkor period temples (and on some of the earlier temples) is figures of dancers, called apsara. I was told the various poses of the dance reflect the steps of planting, growing and harvesting rice.
We headed towards Ta Keo, but unfortunately they were working on maintenance/restoration and had closed it off for the day. I was ok with skipping one set of super-steep stairs as I suspected there were many more to come!
Next we entered the Angkor-era royal city of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom’s walls are well worth seeing, as the various gates consist of monumental stone heads representing the king or a god, and there are several terraces as well. Then within the walls lie a number of temples and royal buildings, the best known of which is Bayon. (Yes, that would be the monumental head temple – forty or fifty of them, I’ve heard.)
We entered through a victory gate:
But the morning wasn’t over yet! The next temple to explore was Baphuon. Climbing it was…interesting, for someone scared of heights. (The stairs are awfully steep!) There aren’t really major carvings with this temple, but a great view from the top.
We passed the ancient seat of the king, the only part of the palace to be built in stone, apparently. All of the other non-religious royal buildings were built of wood and no longer exist. I passed on climbing up this one.
We headed out of Angkor Thom through another gate and onto the Elephant Terrace, where the king apparently watched elephant fights eight hundred years ago. At this point it was time for lunch, before heading to spend much of the afternoon at Angkor Wat. We ate at one of the touristy restaurants across from Angkor Wat, nothing too great, but not bad Khmer food. Fresh coconut juice drunk directly from the coconut helped to fortify us for the afternoon – when people mention how hot Siem Reap is, they aren’t kidding! Very, very hot and humid.