Siem Reap in western Cambodia is probably best known as the town near Angkor. It's a popular tourist destination. We flew in from Bangkok and must say they have a very nice airport. It's extremely air conditioned and that's a positive. You can get a Cambodian visa here on arrival, it's a fascinatingly old school process. Make sure you've filled out the form and have the US cash to pay for the VISA. (There's an ATM in the terminal.) Siem Reap is along a main road from Phnom Penh to the Thai border (Poipet). The road is where most of the mega-hotels are located. These are the hotels best suited for accommodating tour buses, although a few of these are located along the road to Angkor as well. We stayed at a much smaller hotel in the center of Siem Reap. While a few tour buses still prowl around the city center, it's relatively quiet, most everything is in walking distance and the streets are shaded and filled with colonial buildings. This is the park in central Siem Reap which fills up every evening with group exercise, kids playing and bats. Okay the bats are technically above the park.
We generally stayed away from the crowded parts of Siem Reap but on our last evening in town curiosity got the better of us and we wandered down to Pub Street. Coming from Bangkok it's actually a low key version of the entertainment district but it's still a bit surprising (and western) for Cambodia. It's a party scene a bit at odds with the rest of Siem Reap. There are however quite a lot of restaurants in the vicinity.
We used a tuk-tuk each day to get around Siem Reap and Angkor. It's a relatively cheap hire and you can basically spend the whole day going wherever you want. The Angkor ruins are not really walkable as the distance between them is often several kilometers and it is hot out there. Also, sometimes this monsoon sort of thing happens with little warning. Our driver was also kind enough to provide us with cold bottles of water.
We purchased a three day pass to Angkor. Passes are checked on the way out of Siem Reap as well as at most of the sites. (A few of the smaller ones didn't bother.) A ten minute tuk-tuk ride from central Siem Reap will get you to the enormous moat around the man-made island home to Angkor Wat. This is the entrance to Angkor Wat from across the moat.
As you might expect, Angkor Wat is destination number one for most visitors and the parking area is a zoo. We were approached by everyone selling everything, kids needing money to "go to school" (a common scam in Cambodia), legitimate and illegitimate guides and a small army of additional tuk tuk drivers. We later learned that if you survive this at Angkor Wat the rest of Angkor is a breeze. In fact most of the chaos that happens here isn't repeated at any of the other Angkor or non-Angkor sites we visited in Cambodia. The floating bridge across the moat here is temporary while they reconstruct the original. Our impression was that it will be the temporary bridge for quite a long time.
There's a macaque on the roof in this picture. In fact, all of Angkor Wat is downright infested with them. There are signs telling you not to approach them or feed them and most people were doing it anyway. Do what you want but we saw more than one cell phone end up in a tree in the maybe 90 minutes we were at Angkor Wat. The Macaques are also inside the temple and all over the parking lot, the woods around the temples and the main road intersection from Siem Reap.
So yes, back to Angkor Wat. It means city (angkor) temple (wat). It's the most famous portion of Angkor but Angkor is mind-bogglingly enormous (we spent three days visiting it and skipped a lot of the sites) and Angkor Wat is just one temple. It is a fabulous temple though. It once had nine towers (most of the Angkor period wats had nine towers) but four are now missing.
Angkor Wat is a good example of Angkor construction all over the area. You have a wall delineating a square area usually surrounded by a water moat. Inside in the center are the main buildings and a cross shape radiates out from there. Smaller buildings called libraries are found in the four relatively empty quadrants.
The central part of Angkor Wat is surrounded by a long colonnade on all four sides. There are fabulous murals along this entire distance and you could probably spend hours going through the stories on each wall if you were so inclined. When you have a seven year old along, you're slightly less inclined but most of the highlights of Hindu mythology are included.
Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu when it was built in the 12th century and it converted to a Buddhist monument when the Angkor kings did. You can climb the central building at Angkor Wat if you're deemed physically able to do so. This is an arbitrary process and all children under a certain age (nominally 12) will be denied. The steps are extremely steep.
Phnom Bakheng is a temple mountain a short distance from Angkor Wat. No one comes here. Well, when we visited at least no one came here. Not a single other visitor. No one else was parked in the small parking area except our tuk tuk. It's a natural hill with a temple on top and it has the best views in Angkor. This is looking back towards Angkor Wat from the top of Phnom Bakheng. You can also see most of Siem Reap, Tonle Sap and the Angkor reservoirs. It is a hike and a bit of a climb. Most Angkor sites are immediately accessible from the parking area, so maybe that's why no one comes here.
On the way up we took the 'people' trail. There's also an 'elephant' trail where apparently they offer elephant rides to the top, maybe in the high season? There were no elephants on our visit and we came down the elephant trail just to be different. This trail was absolutely filled with butterflies.
Next up is Angkor Thom which is the actual city of Angkor (Thom = capital). It's the usual square surrounded by moat and the square in this case is huge. Tuktuks will cross this awesome bridge and go into the city through the narrow gate. This bridge features a line of demons and a line of gods pulling on the ropes which churn the ocean of milk. It's a creation story in Hindu mythology and a commonly repeated motif throughout Angkor.
Inside Angkor Thom are dozens of sites. The highlight of them... really the highlight of all of Angkor in our opinion, is Bayon. Bayon is at the center of Angkor Thom and features many towers with a large smiling face on each side. Look carefully in this picture and you'll see several. In fact, no matter where you are in Bayon you can generally see several. The face is supposedly some sort of blend of Buddha and Jayavarman VII (the king who had it built).
Bayon also has impressive murals around the outside walls. Then there's the obligatory cast of carved animals. This picture is here because we liked the actual cat sleeping underneath his mythological relative.
Another view of many of the faces of Bayon. There are more than 50 in total. Bayon has good views of other monuments in Angkor Thom like Baphuon and Phimeanakas.
Phimeanakas is a Hindu temple. The stairs were blocked off on our visit but it seemed like sometimes they may be open to climbing (there were informational signs on the way up). This temple was inside the royal palace which was a walled enclosure inside the already walled enclosure of Angkor Thom.
There are a couple terraces near the palace and they are both very impressive. One is the terrace of the leper kings, the other (pictured here) is the terrace of the elephants for obvious reasons. The parking area for Angkor Thom is a bit past these terraces and there is a small collection of food stands there. We moved on from Angkor Thom at this point but it's worth noting there are at least a half dozen major sites we didn't visit.
Preah Khan is located northeast of Angkor Thom. It's yet another temple and it is less restored than many others. There's precious little signage here and neither our guide books nor our driver could shed much light on it either, so if you happen to come here, just wander through and enjoy the ruined-ness of it all.
The normal cross plan was in effect here, so there are some long transverse sections of buildings where you can peer through doors. The center of it all was a golden stupa.
That strangler fig tree on the wall may be the most photographed tree in Cambodia. It is pretty impressive though the way it has grown over the wall. Incidentally, the more rubble scattered around a temple site, the more interesting it was to our son, so this one was one of his favorites.
This is one of the library buildings located in the corners of many sites, including Angkor Wat. They're very picturesque. One guide we were with told us they were used to store records, another told us no one really knows what they were used for. Take your pick.
Out on the north edge of Angkor is the site of Neak Pean, perhaps the most unique site we visited at Angkor. It's a temple on an artificial island that you reach by crossing a long boardwalk over wetlands and swamp (in the rainy season at least). This was intended for medicinal purposes, either as a hospital or as a sort of spa. The central pond is surrounded by four smaller ponds. The precise uses of them are unknown.
This is the impressive looking East Mebon. There are two barays at Angkor, where a baray is basically a reservoir of water. Each of them (east and west) had a Mebon temple on an artificial island in the middle. The east baray is now dry. We didn't explore this one much because vast amounts of water started falling from the sky just after our arrival.
That brings us to Ta Prohm, the last stop on our personal visit to Angkor (We could easily have spent two more days visiting additional sites). Ta Prohm is a temple built by Jayavarman VII to honor his family. It's also unrestored and atmospheric with moss covered ruins, boardwalk sections and giant strangler figs overtaking the buildings. There was also an enormous flock of something in the parakeet family in the trees while we were there.
There are no museums on site in Angkor but there is a huge Angkor Museum back in Siem Reap close to the Angkor visitor center. It's absolutely worth a visit. The first room alone (the room of a thousand buddhas) is worth the price of admission. You can get some background on the mythology and the history of the kings.