Yangchau and Spring Roll - beside Ben Thanh Market, Saigon.
Tonle Sap. Your chartered boat stays here for a bit before taking you to an area where you can feed a school of fish (much like Thailand's Chao Phraya River). Several floating vendors would offer you pho (yes, the population of the floating river is 99% Vietnamese). My boatman and his assistant had their snack, while I patiently waited. The cruise takes a little more than an hour, as you wait for your sunset. I didn't want to, so off we went. My tuktuk was waited at the wharf, and was surprised to see me back so early.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Reality is, one cannot possibly view all these temples in a day, though the temple grounds open as early as 5AM (for the avid photographers, this would mean daybreak photos overlooking the Western Baray and Angkor Wat) and close at 5PM. You need a minimum of 3 days (that’s $60) to appreciate majority of these temples.
You also need a comfortable ride because it is almost impossible to walk from one temple to the next, unless you have several weeks of holiday. A bike may be used but Siem Reap (SR) has prohibited bike rentals within the town’s confines (unless you have rented your bike outside SR.)
Some of these temples are poorly maintained, remote and unpopulated. Some can be found in the bowels of a jungle, thus not so safe especially for lone female trekkers (a couple of rape cases have been reported). Next important thing to consider upon visiting these temples: it is physically daunting! You need some stamina to climb up and down each temple. There may be limited mobility/activity for the physically challenged (the handicaps) or the elderly, unless they're happy watching the view from the outside. I had 4 shirt changes during my visit. The sun can get harsh - so bring extra shirts, bottled water, and maybe a face towel.
As I moved from one temple to the next, I would raise my soaked shirts against the wind (best sensation there is). Another must-have: a good sunblock with high level spf! I used enough and still got fried. Some of these temples, like Ta Keo, were very very steep. After persevering it’s very thin steps, I was petrified coming down. It was hard to maneuver your feet sideways (to fit the width of the steps), balancing yourself so you won't suffer a long, bumpy fall.
Another tip: if you have agreed on a $15 whole-day ride with your tuktuk, make sure that this includes Banteay Srey. I was emphatic to point this out to my driver - or it would be a “no-go”. Banteay Srey turned out to be “pretty”; it was a girlie temple, relatively small and with a pinkish hue! This "most beautiful" temple is some 30 minutes from the central congregation of temples.
I enjoyed the ride through the countryside on my way to Banteay Srey. Green fields, wooden houses that rise on stilts (typical old khmer architecture – as noted by a Chinese farmer who first visited the temples way back 12th century). This was a far advanced civilization, with a population of 1 million when London only had 100,000.
I noticed several “artesian wells” that had signage’s “donated by Mr. So_and_so of Toronto, Canada” or “By Fredirique of Nice, France”. There were signs that led to other temples further afield, but you had to risk landmines as well as hoodlums to visit such remote temples.
Outside Banteay Srey, there were stalls selling brass wares, paintings, souvenir shirts. Several young men offered Lonely Planet books of Cambodia and a Special Edition of the Angkor Wat Temples. It was sold at $13. I had no intentions of buying one, but these young boys were so persistent. “I wait for you, mister,” remarked one of them. I told him not to wait for me, but he disregarded my reply. After roaming the temple, I found him waiting outside. He kept dogging me every step of the way until I finally relented. "$9," he offered, but I wanted him out of the way so I said, "$6" or I'll go! He stared at his wares then finally handed the book over. I almost felt sorry for him, but this was a book I didn't need! Was I bad? He was the persistent one! Over at Shangrila's Powerbooks, the Cambodian Lonely Planet sells at $36 (PhP1650)! This edition was a special edition of just the Temples of the Angkor Wat!
This is the Eye in the Sky!
I have since visited Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples for the 2nd time this year (July 2011). The actual travelogue is posteD here - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2011/07/siem-reap-bakhen-temples-golden-sunsets.html - and the successive posts follow.
Comparing the countryside of Vietnam and Cambodia, it is obvious that Vietnam has succeeded in outpacing its neighbor by leaps and bounds, but taking into consideration the catastrophic history of Cambodia, I am amazed with the steady pace of slow-but-sure development in the country. The resilience of the people is nothing to scoff at, and economic gains are catching up. This is more obvious in Siem Reap.
In the early 70's, after a 5-year struggle, the Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh (PP), and by 1975, ordered the mass evacuation of all towns and cities. PP became a virtual ghost town and thousands were massacred (thus "the killing fields"). The Khmer Rouge was a devastating power, leaving no infrastructure. By 1978, institutions like education, money, social facilities, any form of commerce and industry were non existent! BUT the subsequent Vietnamese invasion drove the khmer rouge to the countryside, and the country had to start from nothing!
Ambulant vendors in NEAK LOEUNG, near the Mekong
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh & Siem Reap