Siem Reap in Cambodia made it to number 2 on Trip Advisors top 25 travel destinations for 2015 and it isn’t really for the city itself but for the nearby ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is Hindu’s heaven on earth, the temples are representative of Mt Meru, the abode of the ancient Gods. It is actually a strange mix of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, a religion unto itself where the King himself was God-like.
I recall our time in Cambodia and how everything in Siem Reap seem to be dragged to the ground …
Dragged to the Ground – The Arrival
We left Vietnam and bounced through Luang Prabang in Laos before touching down in Cambodia heavy with travel fatigue we feel our tired weight making the plane descend to the ground. It was October and the Tonle Sap River had burst its banks and spilled across the flat landscape. I almost expected our plane to make a splash when it landed, thankfully it didn’t or I think we may have been sucked down into the mud.
Our small plane landed at the similarly small airport where we were waved through passport control and our bags were on the third time round the conveyor belt already. Customs was unattended and we breezed straight outside to our driver. The city was still recovering from the flood and our moto sped across the ‘puddles’ sending up drenching showers of water. We climb over the sand barricade into our beautiful little haven.
We’re immediately guided to a lounge and plied with ice cold drinks, cool washers, fresh sweet toasted peanuts and hot rice puddings wrapped in banana leaves. In front of us a bright blue pool that has fountains cascading into it, teak Buddha carvings hide amongst the leafy green plants, fish ponds with stepping stones have small lotus flowers floating preciously on top. Our room is big, and beautiful and the huge bed has rose petals arranged in intricate patterns which our 3 year old promptly flops into the middle of, the curtains are thrown open to a private courtyard. We melt at the comfort of it all and spend the afternoon getting massages, swimming in the pool and feasting on local foods before sliding into the big soft bed, leaving the drenched chaos of Siem Reap on the other side of the sandbag wall, as sleep drags us under her gentle embrace.
Sounds heavenly right, but like most of the travellers in Cambodia, this isn’t (entirely) why we have come here.
Dragged to the Ground – Reclaiming the Ruins
Angkor Thom is the main city with a 100 metre wide moat and an 8 metre high wall that stretches for 13 kilometres all around it. That is a serious ancient security system. Through the South Gate past the demons and Gods lining the entry we go to Bayon where the smiling faces seem to watch everything you do, which seems very passive aggressive to me. I really enjoyed climbing around the small tunnels and up the steep stairs exploring the history that peeked out from behind years of decay and moss.
We wander through the forest, tumbled ruins lay scattered amongst the trees, moss bright green spreading its alluring fingers across the smooth surfaces as if to drag the rocks back down into the earth where they belong.
The incredibly steep steps of Baphuon are worth the effort. Our toddler (3yo) wasn’t allowed up here as it is too steep and high. It is almost like a pyramid and in an attempt to restore it they dismantled the entire thing, then war broke out and everything halted, the records were lost and they then had to figure out how to jigsaw the entire thing back together again! This is taking puzzle loving to the extreme.
Angkor Wat Temple itself is considered to be the largest religious structure in the world and it is epic and has been well preserved, nature hasn’t been able to reclaim this one. It is afternoon when we explore the temple and the thunder rolls around in the sky above us giving a great atmosphere.
Dragged to the Ground – & Covered in Mud
It was our anniversary night but our daughter had fallen asleep after a huge day exploring Angkor Wat and so my husband ventured into town to grab some dinner for us. The streets were flooded, it was dark and on the way back he got disoriented and ended up lost. Using the light on his phone to try and see where he was going and check the small hand drawn map that the front reception had given him, a young boy kindly offered to help. He wasn’t any help.
He snatched his phone and ran. As you do when your phone has all of your work contacts and pretty much everything you need in life contained in it, he ran after him in hot pursuit. They splashed through knee deep flood waters and he ended up tackling him and dragging him to the ground. The kid dropped the phone in the water and mounted a fence, disappearing into the darkness, just as the phone did. Meanwhile dinner floated off in the gentle current of the water.
Obviously not answering any of my messages and hours later my husband turns up at the hotel with his boots in his hand, utterly drenched and dejected. I think he is more disappointed that he lost our dinner than he is about the phone.
The aftermath of all this is that Cambodian police are not easy to deal with and will pursue a bribe with violent vehemence of which I wont get into here. Suffice to say that when we no longer felt safe following this up we simply gave all the details to our insurance, explained the situation and as soon as we mentioned that we were in Cambodia our claim was instantly approved. They had obviously been through this before. Cambodia’s reputation has been dragged to the ground and rubbed around in the mud, everyone seems to have a ‘dirty’ story to share.
Dragged to the Ground – Washed of the Frustrations
Frustrated at the whole situation and upset that it was putting a taint on our trip we climbed aboard our moto and headed into the countryside. I tried to let the fresh wind blow my cares and frustrations away and they began to dissolve somewhere over the vivid green rice paddies lined with palm trees and the smiling faces of the small children fishing with bamboo poles from a low bridge.
We travelled through small villages all the way out to Kbal Spean where we hiked about 2kms under the cool green canopy of the jungle up a mountain. The recent rains had left a bare riverbed for us to climb along. We used the curling roots as foot holds and scurried up boulders. With no real track to follow I felt entangled in the jungle. It was a feeling of joyful surrender though, rather than entrapment.
At the top a natural spring burst forth with fresh cold water and glided over the sandstone bottom which was carved with sacred symbols. The male fertility symbol, lingas, are repeated over and over with a single female sign accepting the ‘sperm’ as the water rushes past. The creation of life. The water also passes over the 3 Hindu Gods, making this Holy water and very special to the local people. Further down there is a natural stone bridge with a spectacular waterfall. We emerge at the base of the mountain, back into the sunshine, cleansed by nature, our frustrations washed away and dragged back into the ground.
Dragged to the Ground – The Sinking Sun
Banteay Srei, the temple of the pink lady is one of my favourites. Made from a rare pink sandstone, it is a miniature compared to many of the other sites, but the carvings are far more intricate and delicate. I linger here, trying to absorb its beauty, rescued from the clutches of the jungle.
We join the crowds and line up to climb Phnom Bakheng to watch the sunset. The golden orange sun kisses the leaves of the trees and with a gentle lighting upon the ancient ruins it sinks over the far horizon. It is enchanting to watch the sun being dragged back to the ground.
Everyone leaves quickly as hundreds of people need to climb down the steep side of the temple and back down the hill before it gets too dark to see what you are doing. The steep stairs in the temples were deliberately designed this way so that you have to prostrate yourself to climb back down. These ones aren’t quite this bad but the crowds and racing the dying light make it tricky. Surprisingly there is little pushing and shoving and in the darkness of night we slip back down to the ground and return to our hotel.
Dragged to the Ground – Travel in Siem Reap, Cambodia
My biggest tip for anyone venturing to Siem Reap is that you won’t be able to see it all. Try to familiarise yourself with the Angkor Wat areas prior to arriving and pick and choose your favourites and focus on those. You are mostly free to explore the ruins on your own and you will inevitably get side tracked along the way, so allow a little extra time in your schedule for accidental discoveries. They are often some of the best memories.
There are staff about mostly for your safety and to help protect the ruins from any further damage. Our toddler loved exploring Angkor with us and was not bored at any point. The locals loved her, a little too much, and there are plenty of places to grab some food.
Have you explored Siem Reap?
Have your travels ever dragged you to the ground?
Be sure to come back on Wednesday to read more travel stories from the #WednesdayWanderlust travel link party.
Maybe you have a great photo or story you want to share?