Angkor Wat Temples: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Biking around Siem Reap

Our first day, we biked around a bit. Then went to see sunset at the temples – unfortunately we weren’t the only ones with that idea!

Angkor Wat Sunset crowd

Angkor Wat Sunset

Angkor Wat Sunset

Then out to Pub Street, but we didn’t last long.

Pub Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia

We enjoy good local food much more than cheesy tourist drinks, so off to the market we went to get Amuk Fish (win!!) served in a banana leaf bowl and Lok Lak Beef (so-so). We had to be up early for our sunrise tour of the temples. Totally worth it, sunrise was awesome!


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The Temples of Angkor Wat were really impressive and beautiful. It’s a HUGE area – like probably 10 square miles of jungle with temples throughout. Our favorites were the ones that had been taken over by the jungle.

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The fascinating thing about it is the duplicity of the jungle that has taken over the temples. The roots that grow over and through the stone temples in some ways destroys them, as you would imagine, as it grows pushing stone blocks aside. But we learned that it also preserves them in some ways, acting like ropes that hold the stone in place and prevent it from breaking apart and falling over. There’s also a great debate about how much to let the jungle take over and when to stop it. Archeologists realize that the thing that makes these temples really special is how they were “forgotten” for decades and the jungle took them over… but how much more do you let nature take over? Nature vs. Preservation.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

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We had a pretty crazy experience with our tuk tuk driver…

Rick and Liz in a Tuk Tuk

Here is the story as Rick tells it:

He was our driver from the bus station to the hotel, and as most of the drivers that take you anywhere do in this part of the world, they really want you’re “drive you around; full-day” business. He seemed nice enough and his price seemed reasonable for a full day of driving us around so we agreed and made plans for the next day as he’s dropping us off at our hotel; pick up at 5:00am for sunrise.

The next morning, on our way to the temples, we asked about going to Ta Prohm temple as we had heard it was less crowded than Angkor Wat for sunrise, he told us it was closed and Angkor Wat was the only option for sunrise. Ok, no problem. When we arrive at Angkor Wat, about 5:30 (along with 5 million other people) he tells us he’s going to the bus station to pickup someone else and take them into town then he’ll be back at 8:30. We were a little shocked but he insisted he’d be back by the time we were ready to go to the next temple. We said we moved pretty fast. He said he’d be waiting.

We watch the sunrise beautifully, then wonder around the temple with the other 5 million people and it’s now 6:30 am and we’re ready to move on. We walk to where he said he’d meet us and he’s not there, we ask a few other tuk tuk drivers, no luck. We wander around looking for him for 30 minutes, no luck. So we decided we’ll try and walk to the next temple and look for him later. We start walking after the bunch of tuk tuk drivers pass us asking us if we need a ride, one informs us that it’s more than 4 kilometers to the next temple, so much for that plan. At this point the new tuk tuk driver offers us a full day tour (promises us he won’t leave us and agrees it was weird of the other guy to ditch us like that) at about 60% of what the other guy was charging us. Done deal!

We enjoyed the rest of our day, found out a number of the temples really do open at 5:30am for sunrise and saw everything we wanted to before noon, and never saw our old driver again.

Later that night we’re out in the night markets and all of a sudden Rick gets tapped on the shoulder and in a super creepy voices hears “Remember me?!?” – it was our original tuk tuk guy. And he starts shaking me down for a full days fare.  I said “No way you left us.” He said he was waiting right there the whole time. I said no way we looked for you for 20 minutes and all the other tuk tuk drivers said you left.  I give him $5 for the sunrise ride out there (which was the standard rate for a sunrise tour) and said I wasn’t going to give him anymore than that for leaving us out there. Liz and I were both annoyed – are we really being shook-down by a tuk tuk driver who ditched us?! And more than a little creeped out – how’d this guy find us?!

On the bright side, we snagged ourselves a really great deal, thanks to Rick’s negotiating skills, and stayed at really cool hotel our first night in Siem Reap. It even included a welcome drink and cool towels!

Welcome bowls


The next night they were fully booked, so we went exploring for new accommodations. We accidently walked into a boutique hotel that was still being built, we apologized, but they insisted we look at the one room that was done. It was SO cool, very modern and nice looking. We knew it would be way out of our budget… but they insisted on knowing what our budget was. And a few minutes later we were the first people to stay in this adorable boutique hotel! – for $15/night!


We totally lucked out on the lodging in Siem Reap!! (good thing, too, because we had spent two nights on sleeper buses before that!)


Throughout Southeast Asia we’ve seen all of these “mini markets” of offerings to either Buddha, monks or ancestor spirits. Including live birds, flowers, fruit. In Siem Reap it was lotuses and hawks and swallows.

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So that’s whirlwind Cambodia – oh, don’t forget the 3 hours in immigration leaving the country… surrounded by a giant Russian tour group. Whah whah whah.

Leaving Cambodia


Phnom Penh, Cambodia & The Killing Fields

We only spent about eight hours in Phnom Penh, we had planned on spending the night but bus schedules didn’t work out that way. I had heard that there was history there not to be missed, but I didn’t know much, hardly anything really.

We hopped in a tuktuk and headed to Cheung Ek, where from 1975-1978 over 17,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed and thrown in mass graves. We learned it was only one of hundreds of  “killing fields” in Cambodia, that have been found so far.

One of MANY mass grave areas at the killing fields
One of MANY mass grave areas at the killing fields

Starting in 1975 the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and killed over 3 MILLION people, a third of Cambodia’s population. It hit me hard that this massive horrific        genocide happened just a few years before I was born, yet it’s not something that is ever taught or talked about in our history books.

The killing fields were an orchard before the Khmer Rouge took them over, and it still looks beautiful from a distance, and peaceful. There’s a memorial now.


But as we walked around we heard the stories of torture. It was heartbreaking.


The Khmer Rouge wanted Cambodia to be a completely agricultural society and anything or anyone associated with other trades, with city life, with arts, education, business was wiped out. They had a saying “better to kill an innocent, then chance leaving a guilty person alive” – what’s a guilty person? Anyone who could be considered a business person or intellectual, for example, they killed people with soft hands, people who wore glasses. And they killed the whole family so there was no one left to want revenge – down to the babies.



They were killing so many people that they didn’t want to have to buy bullets – so they bludgeoned people to death with whatever tool was handy, a hoe, a bamboo stick. And some were just thrown in the mass graves alive and covered with other bodies and DDT to kill them.


There are so many bodies there that they haven’t collected them all. Bones and clothing are still coming up in the ground as you walk – at such a rate that they only collect them once a month, and only the big pieces. As we walked along the path, we would step over a tooth, or a femur.P1080197



One of the most bone chilling areas is a tree they call “The Killing Tree”, here the Khmer Rouge would take mothers and babies. They would take the babies, hold them by their feet and swing their head into the tree to kill them. There is a pit right there of children’s bones.


And what’s crazy is that until the 90’s the U.S. recognized the Khmer Rouge as the governing body of Cambodia, welcomed them in New York City for meetings. And the leaders are still living out their lives in Cambodia, not having been brought to justice yet.


P1080205Even those that were not  taken to the killing fields or tortured in the camps, nearly died of starvation when the Khmer Rouge forced all city dwellers into the country with no land, no knowledge of farming and no way to feed themselves.

It was heartbreaking to look around at our tuk tuk driver, the lady selling fruit in the market, the man sitting next to me on the bench and think “you’re a survivor. You lived through that, and were probably tortured and lost family members.” But there’s still this incredible joy that radiates through the huge smiles everyone has, and Phnom Penh really is a beautiful city. I’m sad that I didn’t know more about this atrocity before traveling here. I’m sad this ever happened. It has been really eye opening and heart breaking.