The day after we biked the Angkor complex, we booked a guided tour through our hotel Khmer Mansion for the temples to better understand what we were looking at and to learn more about the history of Cambodia. Uncle Bill had arrived the night before from Vietnam, so it was his only day to visit Angkor Wat. Julio unfortunately was sick that morning, and opted out of the tour, so it was just the five of us, our driver, and our guide, September (yes, that was her name!).
We left the hotel in our air-conditioned taxi at 8am, and on our way we asked September if we could visit Ta Prohm, or the Tomb Raider temple first, since we had had such a bad experience with the Chinese tours clogging up the temple later in the day. She agreed, so we after stopping at the entrance to buy a day pass for Uncle Bill, we arrived at Ta Prohm a little before 9am. What a difference coming earlier made! The forest is attempting to reclaim the temple area as its own, but temple workers keep the plants at bay, and do regular conservation and restoration work there. Still, Ta Prohm is so unique in that these giant trees look as though they were meant to be a part of the temple layout in the first place. There are maps of the temple as you walk around the set path, marking photo opportunities in front of the enormous trees that are growing around and over the temple ruins. Most of these photo ops were crowded the day before, with lines of people waiting their turn, but this morning we walked right up! One of the great things about having September as our guide was that she introduced us to the vertical panorama photo, which helps when you’re trying to capture a shot with a 100 foot tree behind you. How did we iphone users not know about this already?? She also told us about all of the jewels and riches that used to be inside the temple. Apparently, one of the towers had hundreds of gems- rubies, sapphires, and diamonds fastened in little divets in the walls, so that when the sun shown down into it, the entire tower sparkled brilliantly. Unfortunately, most of the gems were stolen and the others were removed to prevent further loss of the artifacts.
We were really happy with our experience at Ta Prohm that morning and felt like we saw everything we wanted to during our time there. On our way out, September was discussing Pol Pot’s rule with us, and how he despised everything having to do with education and religion. A lot of the damage done to the temples happened during the Khmer Rouge, and the way September spoke about it, you could tell she was very devoted to her country and very angry with the way things are going politically. Cambodia has elections every few years, but it’s widely known that it is still a communist country. There is always a new representative for “King,” but September told us that no matter how many people vote, the man who is currently in office will still win again. Violence and murder are still very prevalent during these election years as well. September told us that she had 9 brothers and sisters, but after the Khmer Rouge, she only has 2 left because her other siblings were killed. She also explained to us how there is an ongoing argument with Thailand over who owns the temples at Angkor Wat. Thailand says that the temples belong to their country, while Cambodia maintains that they belong to theirs. The boundaries between the countries are occasionally changing, because Thailand and Vietnam both believe that Cambodia is their territory. Even after the wars in the 1970’s, hundreds of thousands of active land mines are still buried in and around the borders, and people are still dying to this day from stepping on an unknown mine. September was very adamant in her Cambodian pride and at times it made the conversation a little awkward (she is not a fan of the United States either) but for the most part her information was very helpful and interesting.
Our next stop was Bayon, the temple with the faces. September also knew of several unique photo opportunities here, including one taken at an angle so that it appears like you are nose to nose with a buddha. She gave us about 15 minutes of free time to explore here on the upper level of the temple, but we mostly sat in the shade because it was getting extremely hot. After Bayon we passed the Terrace of the Elephants on our way to lunch. I would have liked to have stopped there but we didn’t have time. It’s a large platform that the King used to stand on to view his victorious returning army, and for public ceremonies or the King’s grand audience hall. The wall around it is carved with life-sized lions and garuda, or phoenixes. We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant within the Angkor complex called the Krousar Khmer Restaurant, which served traditional Cambodian and Khmer food selections. September encouraged us to try fish amok, which is a steam cooked curry in banana leaves that results in a thick soup with fish, vegetables, egg and coconut. She said it was a very traditional meal and we could have it with chicken as well. Joe was the only one brave enough to try it, and he said it was alright; I had a mango chicken salad that was interesting but edible. After all the meals we had in Cambodia, we all agreed that we weren’t big fans of the food- Thai food was ten times better. After lunch the restaurant had a hammock area outside where you could relax and let your food digest. Then it was on to Angkor Wat!
By the time we were heading to Angkor Wat, it was over 100 degrees outside and we were sweltering. However, guides say that the best time to see Angkor Wat is after lunch, because all the sunrise tours and morning groups have already passed through. Boy, were they right! We walked into Angkor Wat via the lesser used east gate, and as we walked in, we realized there were only about 30 people inside the inner wall. Our plan to wait to see the upper-most level of the temple worked out perfectly, as there wasn’t a single person in line. The only downside was that September said my scarf covering my shoulders wasn’t enough for the upper-most level, but the temple workers at the bottom of the stairs luckily had spare T-shirts for public use. The view from the top was fantastic, and we had the entire level practically to ourselves. Uncle Bill had a slight issue going down the extremely steep stairs once we were finished looking around (he’s afraid of heights), but we made it down in one piece and headed out towards the west gate.
September told us that when there was no wind, you could see a perfect reflection of Angkor Wat in the pools in front of it, which was a great photo opportunity. There was a slight breeze, so we sat down in the shade to enjoy a coconut. Stacy and Allison had never drank the water straight from a coconut before, so we enjoyed 3 large ones as we waited for the wind to die down. Coconut water is very refreshing, and after you finish, you can eat the white coconut meat inside. I’m not a fan of the meat, but the water was a welcome relief from the heat. We walked over to the pond in front of the temple afterwards and got a few final photos in front of this amazing religious monument. Then we headed back to our hotel to cool off in the pool.
September did a great job with our tour and was very knowledgable about both Cambodian history and the history of the Angkor complex. She knew all the great photo spots, and the temples weren’t very crowded in the order that we visited them, which was great. She was a little strong-worded about Cambodian politics, and she took us to some areas where we felt we almost had to purchase something from the vendors because she got a kick-back (the coconuts, but I had wanted to get one anyways), so that was one draw-back. And I would have liked to see some different temples than we had visited the day before. But all in all, it was a great tour for the price, $80 for 5 people for the day, not including lunch, which was only about $8 per person. I would suggest doing both tours of the temple complex- self guided and a guided tour, because they both give you a unique perspective of this amazing time in history.