After a waking up at the ungodly hour of 2.30am, Catriona and I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, after a short 1.5 hour flight from Phuket.
We hoped in a taxi and made our way across to the centre of town, and our accommodation; at the Bliss Villas.
We were absolutely exhausted after our early start so had a nap before heading out for the evening in our extremely comfortable beds! Before we left we organised our excursion for the following day to see the legendary temples of Angkor Wat – with a 4am wakeup to come it looked like we would be getting used to the wee small hours…
We wandered up into the main area of Siem Reap and took in the incredible buzz of the city – it was brilliant! We walked up the not so subtle ‘Pub Street’ where we settled on the aptly named ‘Angkor What?!’ bar for a few drinks, toasting our first night in Cambodia.
After a couple of drinks we wandered up towards the night market enjoying all the wares on offer. We decided to grab some food on the Sok San road and both chose traditional Khmer food off the menu. I had Cambodian red curry, which hands down became my favourite meal of my travels – it’s a mix between a Thai red curry and a peanutty satay – it’s delicious! Catriona had Lok Lak which is marinated beef served with rice and a fried egg. As always we started off with our beloved spring rolls!
Knowing that we would have to be bright and early, we hopped on a tuk tuk and made our way back to our hotel for a fantastic night sleep.
The next morning our alarms woke us up at again, an ungodly hour; 4am. If there wasn’t such an exciting day ahead, we would have found it far too easy to curl up and go back to sleep. Our driver T was waiting patiently for us outside our hotel. We swiftly got on board and made our way through the town, where party goers where still revelling from the night before!
T drove us first across to the visitor centre where we were photographed and issued our tickets for the day. Once we boarded the tuktuk, the race was on to get across to Angkor Wat, the most famous of the Wats (temples) in Cambodia, before the sunrise. Luckily we made it with plenty of time to spare; T dropped us off just outside where we made our way in and perched ourselves, amongst the other travellers to watch the sun come up over the incredible temples.
As day light drew in, we wandered inside the incredible stone structures and were completely in awe and the incredible scenes in front of us – you really feel like you are in a movie set. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer empire, in a mind blowing 802 AD and was once the seat that ruled much of Southeast Asia. This ancient city is now one of the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world, attracting more than 2 million visitors per year.
As the largest religious monument in the entire world, it is little wonder the Angkor Wat temple itself is the most visited of the temples and most photographed. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple by the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat temple eventually became a Buddhist temple by the 12th Century. Around the complex you will find endless bas-reliefs (2,600 feet to be exact), depicting the famous scenes from battles. It really is incredible. I particularly loved the detailed engravings in the temple walls – they are still so clear that it’s difficult to imagine someone hand drawing them over 1,500 years ago!
Catriona and I wandered around the temples for a couple of hours before grabbing a quick breakfast within the compound from the most enterprising (and persuasive!) of Cambodian little boys. We also had our first taste of Cambodian coffee, served with condensed milk – oh wow.
By this point, after our caffeine fix, we were well and truly awake and made our way back to the ‘tuk tuk park’ where T was waiting for us, a big smile on his face. I think we had really lucked out with our driver; although he didn’t speak much English he very was friendly and instantly put us at ease!
We soon hit the road again and made our way across to the second temple of the day; the Preah Khan temples. Preah Khan is one of the largest sites in the Angkor temple complex. Not only was this site an important temple, but it also appears to have been a large Buddhist university with over one thousand teachers at one time. It has remained largely unrestored, as evidenced by the many trees growing around the ruins and mossy stones left laying everywhere.
The site was a previous palace of Yasovarman II and Tribhuvanadityavarman, and historians believe a famous battle was fought on this site. This temple was lovely and quite, which was a stark change from the buzz of Angkor Wat, so we really felt like we could spend time exploring here!
After an hour or so we headed back to meet T and hit the road again towards the temple we were most excited about visiting; Ta Prohm. Still covered by the jungle, this place is exactly as they found it. Ta Prohm makes it easy to imagine how the whole complex looked when it was re-discovered in 19th century. This is the temple made famous in Tomb Raider so Catriona and I couldn’t help but have a photo in the spot where Lara Croft explored. This temple was a definite highlight!
Soon we made our way back to T, who took us to our final temple of the day, Bayon. We made a quick stop off at the South Gate which gave us our first glimpse of the iconic faces that we would be seeing much more of at Bayon.
This temple was our least favourite of the few we visited on the day. Unfortunately there were FAR too many tourists in one cramped space which made it impossible to move around and take in the scenery. It really was a shame, the temple was probably, visually, one of the most beautiful we visited.
Built by Jayavarman VII, the temple stands in the centre of Angkor Thom. With its 54 towers and 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara, the temple was built on 3 levels: the first 2 are rectangular, while the 3rd is circular. It really is incredible.
We enjoyed the buzz outside of the temples, the elephants, the mischievous monkeys and the interesting locals with their wares for sale.
By this point we were pretty exhausted, we heard that lots of people become templed out at Angkor Wat, we certainly didn’t – we found it fascinating, but our feet were certainly tired after a full day of exploring.
T took us back to our hostel for around about 2pm. Catriona and I sat out by the pool for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the Cambodian sun, eating lunch, sipping cocktails and talking to the other travellers – bliss!
That evening, Catriona and I decided that we would head back into the centre of Siem Reap for the evening. We wandered across a little Italian restaurant and clearly the pull of Western food was too much after our day of exploring. We sat down with a bottle of wine (which is quite the luxury in Cambodia) and enjoyed watching the world go by.
After our meal we decided to take a look at some of the nearby shops when one instantly caught our eye; the Khmer Ceramics Centre shop! We had read that Cambodia was renowned for it’s fantastic ceramics so we couldn’t wait to take a peek inside and check out their stuff. We were literally blown away – their stuff was so lovely, literally the sort of stuff you would see in an expensive ceramic shop in East London. We almost set about purchasing bits from the shop when we noticed that they ran a ceramics workshop at their main centre. We were in! We excitedly booked in for the following morning – we could not wait!
After spending some time in the store we headed back into the hustle and bustle of the main area and set about looking for a beverage (or three).
All along the main street enterprising locals had turned their Tuk Tuks into pop up cocktail bars. We were a little sceptical at first but after one DELICIOUS lemon grass mojito we were sold. We stayed for a few drinks at the ‘bar’ enjoying the music blaring out the speakers and watching the travellers all dancing in the street – it was a great atmosphere! We got talking to the local couple that owned the bar – they explained that they were 8 weeks pregnant which was lovely! We got chatting about our travels etc which made the experience even more memorable – it was great.
After a few more cocktails than we anticipated, we got on a tuk tuk of a non-bar variety and made our way back to the hostel where we slept like logs after a fantastic day!
The next morning, our last in the city, we woke up early where we were picked up by the Khmer Ceramics shuttle and taken across to their centre a little outside of the town. Catriona had taken pottery classes before, whereas I was a complete newbie to the craft. The session was around about two hours; we were buddied up with an instructor who sat in front of us and told us how to manipulate the clay on the wheel. It was literally so much fun. In total we made 5 different pieces, mostly of the bowl and vase variety. I was pleasantly surprised at my pottery skills – I’m not sure I’ll ever let Catriona forget the fact that the instructor told me that I should teach the craft… not that I’m bragging or anything!
Normally, after the class, you chose one of your five creations to have fired in the centre’s kiln which you can take home, but because Catriona and I were leaving the city that afternoon, unfortunately that wasn’t an option. Luckily for us however, we were allowed to choose one piece each from the shop which was exciting to say the least.
I think it’s safe to say that Catriona and I both went a little crazy and came home with way more than our allotted one piece of pottery; it was all far too lovely! We picked up noodle bowls, mugs, milk jugs and chopsticks just to name a few!
After our class we headed back to the hostel to get packed; that afternoon we would be boarding the bus and making our way to our second Cambodian destination; Phnom Penh. After getting our stuff sorted we headed out to the pool and ordered lunch. Annoyingly our shuttle to the bus depot turned up half an hour early so we had to apologise to the hotel and cancel our lunch.
After a lugging our bags out of the hotel, we eventually loaded up our stuff onto the minibus, being careful of our coveted pottery and we hit the road towards the bus depot. The next thing we knew, the bus was being flashed and beeped at by a moped driver until the bus pulled over. The driver got out, opened the door and there he was, the porter from our hotel with Catriona and my lunch in his hand. Probably the sweetest thing ever, even if our bus driver wasn’t impressed – that alone was a testament to the hospitality we received in Cambodia!
Next stop – the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh!