Cambodians love Angkor Wat so much that it’s depicted on their money, their flag, and their beer labels. Telling someone you’re going to Cambodia but skipping Siem Reap (home of the famed temple complex) is sure to elicit gasps of shock and horror – it just isn’t done. Thus, we set out from Sihanoukville and woke up in the northern inland town in order to see what all the fuss was about.
Sure enough, Siem Reap’s economy seems largely built around the tourism industry, but isn’t without its charms. We recovered from the grueling bus ride by wandering along the banks of the Siem Reap River, having lunch in the Old Market, and trying unsuccessfully to trade away some of the sizeable book collection we’ve amassed. Our plan was to venture out to Angkor Wat only the next morning at dawn, which left the day free for other missions. In a stroke of divine inspiration, Riccardo suggested checking out a spot called Beng Mealea. We’d vaguely heard of this ruined temple about 70 kilometres outside town, now completely overrun by nature – apparently, Riccardo said, it was featured in some well-known movies. Barangs (foreigners) can’t rent motorbikes in Siem Reap, so the services of a smiling tuk-tuk driver were secured for the afternoon and we headed out.
Guys, Beng Mealea turned out to be extraordinarily awesome. Its distance from town ensured that we hardly saw another visitor while we were there, and we were able to clamber all over the remains of the 900-year-old structure at our complete leisure. Our gnawing misgivings about touching the ancient ruins were assuaged by the helpful guide who wordlessly directed us as to which paths to take. Gigantic blocks of sandstone lay in disarray and covered in moss, pillars were entwined with thick stubborn roots, and entire trees grew directly out of enormous cracks in what were once walls. Nature was left to run its course here, and it was staggering to think that what was once a majestic temple is slowly but surely being returned to the jungle.
On the way back, we passed a brightly-coloured wedding party, and our driver talked about his own. It lasted two days, was attended by 400 people, featured nine wardrobe changes, and cost $4000 USD (thoughts of getting married in Cambodia briefly crossed both our minds on hearing that). Incidentally, Cambodians (and Asians in general) love to talk about how much things cost.
When the alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am the next day, neither of us could believe we were actually going to follow through on our plan to bicycle out to Angkor Wat in time for sunrise (which, according to everyone, is the best time to see it). Amazingly, we found ourselves scrambling to get dressed and venturing out into the pitch darkness (my dorky headlamp once again came in handy here). Forty-five minutes of blind pedaling brought us to our first glimpse of the legendary temple just as dawn was breaking. Naturally, we weren’t the only ones with the bright idea of watching the sunrise there; we had to contend with about a zillion other tourists (many of them sporting the adorable coordinated outfits of an organized tour). Rather than join them all on the great lawn, which seemed to be the standard photo op location, we crept off into the mysterious halls of Angkor Wat on our own. Riccardo was particularly impressed by the extensive bas relief galleries; I was more amused sitting on the steps and eavesdropping on pretentious visitors’ remarks and the spiels of robotic tour guides. It is always amazingly fascinating to find oneself inside a 1,000-year-old building, and to imagine what life was like for people who walked the same corridors in the past. But we agreed that the lesser-known, nature-ridden Beng Mealea was a more interesting place to visit than the slightly contrived and circus-like vibe at Angkor Wat. Taking the obligatory photos with Angkor’s elegant spires behind us while persistent vendors hawked various souvenirs nearby, we were kind of thinking “Angkor wat-ever!” but we’re exaggerating – it really is quite remarkable and deserves its celebrated status.
Angkor Wat is part of a sprawling complex of ruined temples, which many people purchase a 3-day or even a weeklong pass in order to visit. While we can certainly understand archeology enthusiasts, extreme history buffs, or slight masochists availing themselves of this opportunity, we opted only to check out a few more spots before escaping back to our guest house. We had covered about 36 kilometres on dusty, bumpy roads, in scorching heat, and on rickety cycles – needless to say, an afternoon rest was well warranted.
Our last meal in Cambodia consisted of chicken amok (that’s a coconut-based curry), wilted morning glory with huge slices of garlic, and shrimp fried in tamarind and holy basil. We really tried to fall in love with Khmer food, but truth be told, it didn’t blow either of us away. We both looked forward to our return to Thailand and the heat and intensity of the flavours found there.