The cure for Saigon and temple exhaustion

Getting to Siem Reap after a day in Saigon and before heading back there for a couple of more days was a relief. Don’t get me wrong. I like the Vietnam city. The energy of the place, the urban sounds, the food, and most of the people. But when you get screamed at in the marketplace, get almost run over by one of the millions of motorcycles (how predictable, right?), and get screamed at by the driver of said motorcycle (because I’m the newbie at crossing the Saigon streets, hence my fault entirely) on your first day, it can get a bit overwhelming. Thank God for helpful hostel and hotel owners, nice Banh Mi ladies, sublime bowls of pho, and cold Vietnamese coffee. (More about Saigon here.)

It was also a relief because we were finally in the town just outside the Angkor temples, a town that–at least for the next couple of days we were there–offered a little time of quiet and not a massive number of motorcycles.

We got things started on the right foot when we got to our inn. We booked a room at Angkor Discover Inn, a lovely little 2-story boutique hotel located in a quiet part of town, but a short 15-minute walk from the Old Market Area. The inn was supposedly designed in a traditional Khmer house manner. Loved how it look, loved the greenery around it, loved coming home to our room (though a bit small was still pretty and always kept clean), loved the very helpful staff, and how nice and quiet everything was. There were other people booked in the inn, but we only saw a couple of them during breakfast and while we were waiting for our tuk-tuk driver to pick us up before sunrise to head over to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Discover Inn

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Day 2 of Angkor temples: Banteay Srei, Pre Rup and Phnom Bakheng

Or also known as the day I was supposed to run in the Angkor Wat Half-Marathon.

For all the planning in the world, sometimes the world has a plan of its own. I had to have a medical procedure done a little more than a week before we left for Vietnam and Cambodia and my doctor was not exactly too keen on me even running a 10k until we knew the result. It was something I wanted more than running in the race so even with our race kit ready to be picked up in Siem Reap and my running gear in my backpack, the day before the race, I finally decided not to run.

The day of the race though was not wanting of physical exertion (but not of a half marathon variety). Aside from having to walk around more temples, the day involved climbing up a hill and some of the steepest stairs known to man. I didn’t get a chance to cross a finish line that day, but did manage to find a speck of fulfillment in the day for not rolling down some steep temple steps.

Banteay Srei

Our first temple for the day was almost an hour away from town via tuk-tuk. Banteay Srei is around 38 kilometers from Siem Reap but many tourists still go out of their way to see it; it has been dubbed one of the most beautiful temples in Angkor for its very elaborate carvings and red sandstone walls.

Travel guides will tell you that it is best seen before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m. We wanted to start our temple hopping a bit late: left town by 11 a.m. after going around the Old Market area and got there in the Banteay Srei right smack at noon. But even with the harsh high noon sun, you can’t miss the temple’s predominantly striking shade–different from most of the other temples’ walls.

slouchingsomewhere

Banteay Srei is only a small temple and it was built in the late 10th century when the Khmer empire was only starting to gain significant power

slouching somewhere

slouching somewhere

The inner enclosure of Banteay Srei was not accessible to tourists, but one can already appreciate the intricate carvings from outside…

slouching somewhere

…or take a look inside the inner enclosure for some more fascinating carvings and statues

One of the minor perks of going around a temple at noon–you don’t have fellow tourists getting in all your shots. (Just most of them)

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Red sandstone can be carved like wood so it’s no wonder that the walls of Banteay Srei are so densely covered with beautiful and elaborate carvings

Pre Rup

We stopped at Pre Rup on the way back from Banteay Srei. The moment I saw it–its lofty towers, high stairways and people making their way to the summit–I knew I wanted to see it up close.

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Beyond Angkor Wat: exploring Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Ta Keo, the Bayon and the other ruins of Angkor

(The post below is another writeup on the temples of Angkor, but before we get into that, I just want to share about the terrible disaster that happened recently to some of the cities in the southern part of the Philippines: a tropical storm left more than a thousand dead (and still hundreds are missing), as flash floods swept through many shanty homes last Friday late in the evening. The local news now are filled with images of fathers and mothers wailing over their lost children, children left orphaned, entire towns wiped out. Those left behind need help. My friend Pinay Traveller, wrote a post on how to help the victims of typhoon Sendong, kindly take a look if you want to help. Let’s “go out into the world and do good until there is too much good in the world.”)

Since we only had four days in Cambodia, and days one and four were going to be spent on the road, we decided to take a tour of the Angkor temples on both days. Friends had told us that three days of temple hopping would be enough, beyond it and you might find yourself all ‘templed’ out. (Unless of course you’re an Angkor or archaeology enthusiast, then you can be there for weeks.) Two days for us regular tourists meant exploring Angkor Wat and the other temples in its vicinity for Day 1 and going to the farther temples on Day 2.

After spending the early morning in Angkor Wat, we told our tuk-tuk driver Savin (from Angkor Discover Inn)  that we wanted to see Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom for the rest of the day. We appreciated it that he also suggested additional temples along the way.

The ruins of Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm was on top my must-see list in Angkor. It’s most known for those eerie images of massive centuries-old trees staking their claim on temple ruins with their massive roots draped over the walls and corridors. It was probably all those Indiana Jones movies growing up that had me fantasizing about walking through a jumble of ancient ruins and jungle.  (Ta Prohm was also one of the locations of the little known movie called Tomb Raider)

On the way, we passed by Banteay Kdei and Savin suggested we also take a look inside. It’s supposedly built in much the same style as Ta Prohm. A look at the free Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide will tell you that it was also “built using an inferior grade of sandstone and using poor construction techniques,” which has lead to much of its deterioration. That and the jungle.

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Love this particular small detail of an apsara carving

The biggest tree we saw in Banteay Kdei was thrice this size

Banteay Kdei had some areas closed from tourists and a look at the scaffolding or the sorry state of some of the towers and corridors should have anyone in their right mind steering clear of them. (You don’t want centuries-old sandstone falling on top of you–even if they are of inferior grade. But signs such as “Do Not Touch” on certain bas reliefs or walls apparently do not have the same effect to most as other fellow tourists still kept touching them.)

But if I thought Banteay Kdei was in a bad state, it seemed a much larger area of Ta Prohm was in worse condition. It was undergoing major renovation so more areas were inaccessible to tourists. After a few minutes walking within the temple, I started wondering in which part you could see those huge trees. Though they’re probably the reason why much rebuilding or restoration was happening. Those ancient temple walls and doorways and corridors do not stand a chance against massive trees. Unless of course there’s a chain saw involved.

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Angkor Wat in the morning

After being on the road for almost 14 hours the day before, traveling to Siem Reap in Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, flying from Manila two nights ago, we finally found ourselves standing in front of the main temple of Angkor by sunrise. I was happy and grateful just being there, looking at the silhouette of those five towers while the sky came alive in gorgeous shades of red, orange and pink.

slouching somewhere

slouching somewhere

With hundreds of other sunrise-over-Angkor ‘devotees’

For years, I’ve wanted to see Angkor Wat. Sure, it’s become one of the most touristy places on earth and watching the sunrise is one of the most touristy things you can do when you visit Angkor (another is the sunset at Phnom Bakheng, more on that in another post), and you’ll be among hundreds of others who made the trip, most of whom will likely be blocking your “perfect sunrise over Angkor shot”, but that doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t take away the fact that you’re right in front of something beautiful that has withstood centuries, including the decline of an ancient empire and genocide. I could only imagine how many sunrises this 12th-century temple has seen.

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From Saigon to Siem Reap (and back)

Finally home. It was a fantastic and exhausting trip. We haven’t even unpacked all our bags yet. I can’t wait to post the photos and write about the things we saw (yes, the temples, and oddly enough, a LOT of weddings while on the road), tasted, and got to do, but first, here’s a post about traveling between the two cities.

When I was making arrangements for the Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Siem Reap trips, finding reliable overland transport choices available between the two cities was one of the things I spent a great deal of time on researching online.

The Sinh Tourist bus from Saigon at the Vietnam-Cambodia border

A friend who backpacked through Asia many years ago recommended Sihn Cafe (now known as Sinh Tourist). I also looked at the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree travel forum to find out what other travelers were recommending. In the end I decided to book tickets with the Sinh Tourist online, to go from Saigon to Siem Reap; and to book Mekong Expess (highly recommended by people in forums) when we got to Siem Reap for our trip back to Saigon. I hope this post can help folks planning to travel to these cities and trying to figure out how to go from Saigon to Siem Reap. Continue reading