In the April of 2016, we decided to go to Asia for three weeks of vacation. I first thought it would be more than enough time to visit Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. But Jesse finally convinced me not to rush the trip and instead focus on only one country: Vietnam. After booking our flights, we realized several of our travel days would overlap with local Vietnamese holidays. In other words, everything was going to be super crowded during those days! So I was feeling more than lucky to escape to Siem Reap, Cambodia for three days. Ever since seeing a picture of monks wearing beautiful orange robes in front of a temple being eaten by the roots of a tree, I've wanted to go there. So on April 30th, we flew from Da Nang, Vietnam and landed in the very modern international airport of Siem Reap, where they issued our visa within minutes.
One of our first impressions was that Cambodia, or at least Siem Reap, was far more expensive than Vietnam. But that said, it was still an incredibly affordable city to visit. At the beginning, I was a little suspicious because everyone seemed extra friendly, but then I realized that Cambodians are just happy people. They seem to always have a big smile. After getting settled, we arranged a deal with one of the tuk-tuks (rickshaw drivers) outside our hotel to take us around Angkor Wat the following day. He charged us a daily fee to the Angkor Wat park of $15 and $20 including waking up early for sunrise. The US dollar is the de facto currency. We were also advised to tip between $2 to $5 per day. As I said, it was still incredibly affordable.
Before the trip, Jesse was considering that we hire some bikes to explore Angkor Wat. Don't be so silly! Unless you have plenty of time, energy, and a very good demeanor at 40°C and full sun, avoid doing such a thing at all costs. Also, you don't need to hire an expensive car to see the temple complex. Taking a tuk-tuk is just perfect.
We're not sure if our route was the perfect tour, but it worked perfectly for us. Don't forget to go early to the ticket office at the entrance of the park, as it gets crowded quickly.
We started our tour around 9 am in the Ta Prohm temple to avoid the buses full of tourists. That was the best idea ever because we were able to see many of the main attractions with relatively few people. Then, all of the sudden, a mass of tourists started pouring in and posing for pictures one by one. A never-ending story.
If you like Indiana Jones, you're going to love this former Buddhist monastery and university as much as we did. The Khmer dynasty left for unknown reasons and nature conquered it forming its own gigantic tree empire. The trees growing out of the ancient ruins make it a truly fascinating visual experience.
The East Mebon temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It stands on the center of an artificial island formerly surrounded by water and it used to be apparently reached by boat. Don't forget to photograph the stone elephants in the first and second tiers.
This small temple was once dedicated to the king Jayavarman's father. Ta Som's entrance and the huge trees surrounding it are probably the most beautiful parts.
Neak Pean is an other artificial island with a Buddhist temple. It must be beautiful in the rainy season.
We had to cross an old bridge to get to the Preah Khan temple. We were told that people stole the heads of the statue to sell them in the black market. The most special part of this temple were all the details on the remaining walls.
On day two, our tuk-tuk driver picked us up at the hotel at 5:30 am, and we arrived at Angkor Wat around 6:00 am. I started to get really nervous because the parking lot was already full of cars and the sun was about to come. I was hoping to be one of the first photographers at the site. We jumped out of the tuk-tuk, ran across the bridge, and got to the little lakes in front of the main temple. It was already crowded with both professional and amateur photographers — some of them with huge tripods and lenses. My little GorillaPod tripod was a joke next to theirs, so I didn't even take it out of my bag. I was able to find a tiny place patch of dry land in front of the water surrounded by frogs, mosquitos, and hundreds of people. Jesse was less frantic than I was and went to the lake on the right side of the main walkway. It turned out there were far fewer people standing there, even though the view was also great. My advice to photographers: get there at 5 am if you visit in late April or early May. Don't risk arriving later if you want to take a good sunrise photo. And yes, take a proper tripod with you. It's always a pain in the butt to carry, but you're going to need it for this shot. Your tuk-tuk driver can even take care of it later.
After sunrise, everyone headed inside to the main temple of Angkor Wat. We decided to go back to our tuk-tuk to pick up our breakfast bags that our hotel prepared for us. That was the best idea ever! We ate under the shade of a tree along the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat and then headed back to the temple full of energy. By the time we got inside, most of the people that were there at sunrise were already leaving, which made our visit much more enjoyable. If you want to go to the top of the temple, you will need to cover your shoulders and knees. It's the only temple in Angkor Wat, where you need additional clothing to cover those areas.
But about 9 am that morning, we were already so hot! We were sweating profusely (me more than Jesse, of course). At that point, we decided to go back to our hotel to enjoy the late morning and early afternoon next to the pool. I was a little frustrated with the pictures I took during sunrise, so we went back to Angkor Wat in the afternoon. That was another great idea because the light was no longer behind the temple allowing us to take some cool pictures from the lake on the right. Our tuk-tuk was not so happy about this little change in the itinerary, but we convinced him — probably with some extra dollars.
Tuk-tuks like to take tourists to the Bayon temple right after visiting Angkor Wat. This means that you get there around noon when the sun isn't ideal for photography (or for humans who can't handle the high temperatures). Since we took a break at our hotel after Angkor Wat, we got there around 4:00 pm — the perfect time! There were a few different groups of monks visiting the temple, which made me the happiest person in the world — and a bit of a stalker too.