This time, though, my uncle and I went to visit my cousin in Siem Reap, where he's volunteering for an NGO. Another uncle and aunt met up with us there and we had a lovely 5 days (even though I was struck down with a dodgy tummy for the last couple days). Mostly we just ate a lot (USD1.25 for a bowl of noodles and 50 cents for a beer!), but we also spent one of the days visiting the temples. I thought I'd share a few pictures and tell you a bit about our trip, with a couple tips if you're ever planning to go (it's a long one, btw!).
We arrived at lunchtime and headed straight for our hotel, HanumanAlaya Boutique Residence, which was every little bit (and more) lovely than the Agoda website suggested. My cousin came to meet us at the hotel and we headed out for lunch at a little roadside cafe where I had the hugest fresh coconut I've ever seen, before checking out the town (v. touristy, avoid Pub Street if you don't want to feel like you're in the Costa del Sol), having a wander in the markets (some good bargains to be found if you're willing to haggle) and going back to the hotel to relax for the rest of the afternoon.
There are hundreds of temples to visit in Siem Reap, all covered under a single ticket; for us, a 1 day ticket costing $20 was enough, but there are also 3 and 7 day tickets available. If you're getting a 1 day pass, you can purchase the ticket from 5pm the day before, which allows you to go into the temple complex for sunset that evening, and be ready bright and early for the sunrise on the day. We bought our tickets and headed over for sunset - a tuktuk will drop you at the 'viewing point', not the main Angkor Wat temple. The path up is steep and there are A LOT of people at the top. The view was very hazy so we actually didn't stay up there long, and ended up going back to Angkor Wat to see the golden light reflect on the moat.
Our hotel packed us a little breakfast box, but there are quite a few cafes where you can get coffee and fried rice as you wait for the sun to appear. If I were you, I'd take this opportunity to use the toilets first thing in the morning. On a side note, we made a couple of loo stops during the day and the facilities are catered to tourists, with a couple of flush toilets as well as traditional squat styles, all quite well maintained. I waited until lunch, when we stopped at a restaurant, to use the loo.
Early morning is the perfect time to explore the temples as the weather quickly heats up, but the interior is often cool and calm as the sun doesn't reach inside. Angkor Wat itself is such a sprawling complex, but even with all that space, it still felt a little crowded. To go into certain parts of the temple, you need to cover your knees and shoulders and I saw guards even turn away women wearing sleeveless tops who were using a scarf to cover up.
The second temple we visited was Angkor Thom. The temple sits in a huge, walled complex that used to be the ancient capital. The grounds are now planted with beautiful towering trees that lead up to the temple, which features the face of Buddha looking out at all directions.
All of the temples are undergoing major renovations and slowly, over the years, being restored to their former glory, with expert work going into both structural and artistic elements. In some temples, like Preah Khan, there are still piles of rubble everywhere, while on the bridge of Angkor Thom's South Gate, the Artisans d'Angkor are slowly replacing the menacing figureheads, breaking and ageing new sculptures to blend in with the existing pieces.
Ta Prohm temple was our last stop of the day, and the busiest! You may recognise it from the Tomb Raider movie. It would have been breathtaking if it weren't for all the Chinese tour groups lining up to take pictures under the arching tree roots. Actually, large tour groups, on the whole, spoiled the day for me and if I were to visit Siem Reap again, I would go on this Escape the Crowds tour my cousin recommended.
In the evenings, we ate in town a couple of nights and also ate at the hotel. The hotel food was amazing, and by European standards, inexpensive. If you eat on Pub Street, the food prices vary but you can eat a good meal with drinks for under $5 per person. The hotel mains were around $6 but the authentic, local dishes were delicious, generously sized and amazing quality, plus the atmosphere was really nice and it was a treat to just head back to the room and roll into bed.
On the second last night we went to the circus; I think it was the highlight of the trip for me! The circus is run by a local NGO, a couple of hours outside of Siem Reap, who set up a school for disadvantaged children. They provide an academic education, heavy supplemented with arts of all kinds, from painting and graphic design to circus. It's such an awesome idea and the show was so enjoyable, with lots of daring feats of acrobatics set within a story about witchcraft and accompanied by a two-man band with a modern drum kit and a traditional xylophone-style instrument. Enjoy the LOL-worthy picture of me with the performers below.
I heard that we just hit the end of the high season, and tourism starts to tail off in the beginning of April as it is just too hot to do anything. If you can stand the heat, the hotels all slash their prices and you can get a reasonable deal and one of the luxury ones; the Sofitel looked BEAUTIFUL, but you can't beat a boutique hotel like ours (with 15 rooms) for a more personal, authentic experience.