Cambodia Pt VIII: Phnom Penh

On my previous visit to Cambodia at the end of 2006 my travel friends and I didn’t really give the capital city much of a chance and other than a tuk-tuk evening tour and a few drinks in one bar we left the place after just a sole night. I wasn’t too sad about it at the time but back then I was fairly clueless about Asia and still had a lot to learn!

Nearly nine years later and I was more interested in spending a bit of time in Phnom Penh and so, following our tour of places associated with the dark side of Cambodia’s history, we moved riverside for a spot of lunch. After a very sombre morning I was in need of a beer and food-wise I plumped for the Khmer Boran chicken curry.

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We eventually left the restaurant and walked the short distance to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (below) which were nice enough but in some ways just box tickers.

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One of the more quirky features of this complex was a miniature Angkor Wat (below) which was a nice teaser for the real thing which was to come a couple of days later.

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Our base for our first phase in Phnom Penh was Tama Hotel on the 22nd floor of Phnom Penh Tower; a very nice place with some great views (below) of the city but perhaps not the best location although that matters not so much when you’re never more than a quick tuk-tuk ride away from anywhere. One place quite near was the 007 bar (above) which was an interesting photo opportunity for me though no doubt there was no connection to James Bond whatsoever!

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For my birthday night out, we went out to the Night Market and to get some more local Khmer food. It was the first day of the Premier League season in England so I was hoping to find a bar showing some a game or two. Rice Paddy Irish bar had been recommended by a mate but they were mainly showing rugby and the Everton game. A few doors along though and I was surprised to find a bar showing the Leicester v Sunderland game live and I was quite stunned to find we were already 2-0 up when we entered the place. It ended up as a marvellous 4-2 victory and (cliché alert!) was the perfect way to celebrate my birthday.

The next morning we took a walk round the city and ended up at Wat Phnom (below) for a bit before taking a seven hour bus ride up to Siem Reap.

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Five days later we were back in Phnom Penh for our final day in Cambodia following a taxi ride from Kampot. This time we stayed in a more central location; the very cool and modern Lebiz Hotel & Library, just a short walk from the Central Market where we initially went before having lunch at the nearby Sorya Shopping Centre.

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After eating beef brain noodle soup we split for a few hours as I was still keen to see a few things further afield. One of those places was the National Museum (below) which had a wonderful courtyard with four pavilions surrounding the beautiful garden.

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Our funds were running very low so our last night in Cambodia saw us return to the nearby Sorya Shopping Centre where we ate in the same food court as at lunchtime.

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My previous trip to Cambodia still counts as one of my favourite ever trips as it was such a laugh travelling with mates but experience counts for a lot and this time I left the country with a far greater appreciation and understanding of it’s history, culture and cuisine.

For other reports from our Cambodia trip click on the following links:

Pt I: Killing Fields & Tuol Sleng Museum     Pt II: Main Temples Of Angkor                       Pt III: Lesser Temples Of Angkor     Pt IV: Lara Croft Tomb Raider Filming Locations     Pt V: Kampot                    Pt VI: Bokor Hill Station                                                                    Pt VII: City Of Ghosts & R-Point Filming Locations

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Cambodia 2015 Pt VII: City Of Ghosts & R-Point Filming Locations

Ever since I saw ‘City Of Ghosts‘ for the first time in 2010 I have been interested in the Old Bokor Hill location which appears towards the end of the movie. Further online research informed me that a Korean movie had also been filmed there which I alerted my friend Mostyn to ahead of his visit to the area in January 2011 and thankfully he bought both films on DVD so I was able to borrow and re-watch them ahead of this trip.

Le Bokor Palace a.k.a. Old Casino Hotel is shrouded in history with tales to tell from within its walls since construction began around a century ago. All fascinating stuff but it is the last decade which is of most interest to Tokyo Fox when ‘City Of Ghosts‘ (2002) and ‘R-Point‘ (2004) were filmed there.

WARNING: Contains spoilers!

The Old Palace Hotel first appears on 90 minutes as Jimmy (Matt Dillon) approaches it  from the south-west but sadly whilst we were there I didn’t visit this particular spot which is a little annoying as I had all the screen shots with me! Instead, I include my first glimpse of the place. As mentioned in the previous post the old structure was obscured by mist and fog when we arrived with visibility cut down substantially. A perfect introduction to a place famed for it’s eerie atmosphere!

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Con artist Jimmy is in Cambodia to collect his share of money from an insurance scam involving his mentor Marvin (James Caan), who at one point in the movie performs the Khmer-language song ‘Bong Sorlang.‘ We are led to believe he is dead in a scene (below) on 96 minutes that was shot on the back left side of the ruin.

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However, he turns up moments later (below) as his high risk scam (involving corrupt Cambodian government officials, high-ranking military and the Russian mafia) is unravelled.

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The back right-side of the complex appears on 100 minutes as that is where Marvin’s car is parked. Having been wounded, Marvin is helped by Jimmy to his vehicle (below) as they escape their situation. Sadly, the old hotel has been stripped in recent years of the dirty, rotten, rusty look which was such a distinctive feature.

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As Jimmy drives his dead partner away on 102 minutes there is a much wider shot (below) of the Old Casino Hotel perched on the hill. The coastline is over 100 metres below and for reasons of elevation the French chose this location for the slightly cooler climate.

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Just a couple of years later and the makers of Korean horror movie ‘R-Point‘ decided to use this place as it’s major location. When I originally watched it I was just expecting a few scenes to have been shot there so was quite surprised that it featured so prominently.

Though it was filmed in Cambodia the story actually takes place in January 1972 in Vietnam with the Old Palace Hotel doubling as a colonial French plantation. On receiving a radio transmission at the South Korean base in Nha Trang from a missing platoon who had been presumed dead, a squad of eight soldiers are despatched to extract the missing soldiers from the rendezvous point or R-Point. They eventually locate a colossal, vacant mansion (below) on 25 minutes which they subsequently use as their base.

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They are given a week by the High Command to find the missing soldiers but as time passes slowly and as R-Point day 2 begins on 46 minutes, one soldier informs his Lieutenant on the front steps (below) of the old building that he can’t find Private Chung.

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Moments later two soldiers are sat on the steps at the back of the place (below) on the right side as you look at it from the front. As they ponder what has happened to Chung, a pretty gruesome and bloody scene solves that mystery.

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R-Point Day 4 starts on 66 minutes at the front entrance steps (below) as the soldiers are ordered to split into two teams to scout the region from the spot where they first arrived in search of the radio operator.

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As the film draws to a close, there is a final front-on shot of the ruins (below) on 104 minutes. The closing credits appear soon after that bringing to an end this tense, atmospheric and tightly controlled war and horror movie crossover.

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You can read ‘Cambodia 2015 Pt VIII: Phnom Penh‘ here

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Cambodia 2015 Pt VI: Bokor Hill Station

My main reason for going over to Kampot was to visit the Bokor Hill Station area and my original plan was to take a $12 tour bus to see it all. However, the night before the very nice hotel manager at The Columns introduced me to a retired American guy called Benji (now living in Thailand) and we agreed to take a taxi together to allow for more time and freedom at some of the sights.

Bokor Hill National Park is about 45 minutes drive from Kampot and accessed by a road which is perhaps the best road in Cambodia in terms of its condition and state. Domnak Sla Kmao was the first point of interest and set a prescedent for what was to come. I love to be able to roam around abandoned buildings which offer glimpses of yesteryear and this former royal residence was a good appetiser for what was to come.

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About 100 metres down the path was the former fruit shop; another abandoned place with a couple of other building ruins nearby featuring some beautiful bright features  within the derelict walls.

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The giant holy statue of Lok Yeay Mao Monument stands tall and overlooks the area. Many locals give offerings of flowers and food and pray to Lok Yeay Mao in return for a safe journey onwards or homewards.

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After a bright sunny morning the place was completely covered in mist when we arrived at our main destination; Le Bokor Palace a.k.a. the Old Casino Hotel, not that we could even see where it was. However, once the mist descended it began to appear, giving it a perfectly eerie feeling like how it was portrayed in films like ‘City Of Ghosts‘ (2002) and ‘R-Point‘ (2004). Click here to see the location match-ups from those movies.

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The construction of this French colonial settlement began in 1917 and took eight years to complete. The French chose the location for the slightly cooler climate as it is located 1,080m above sea level atop a lush green forested mountain.

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It was built as a resort for the French social elites living in Cambodia who needed to escape from the humidity and heat elsewhere. This was in a time before air-conditioning of course and the breezes and mountain air kept the hotel cool. The long road up the hill and the palace compound itself was built with slave labour and 900 lives were sadly lost during construction.

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The Palace has experienced a lot over the years ranging from French dignitaries having lavish ballroom dances to the ruling Cambodian elite in the 60’s and in the late 70’s it was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and used as a prison. This place was in fact one of their last strongholds in the country before the Vietnamese invaded, when this area became a battlefield between the two forces.

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The Bokor Palace Hotel had 38 bedrooms and was the centrepiece of the hill station consisting of a post office, Catholic church, royal apartments and shops dotted around the settlement.

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To be able to freely wander inside and outside of the whole place is something I love about being away from all the enforced rules of Japan (and the UK for that matter!). There were many puddles inside and the place was a bit of a maze at times as we searched for the right steps that would take us all the way to the top where the views were fabulous.

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A few hundred metres down the road is the aforementioned Catholic church. In the late 1970’s Vietnamese forces were entrenched here and firing at the Khmer Rouge, who were holed up in the old hotel. The multiple views from the hill behind it were superb with a coastline 100 metres below on one side, Bokor Palace on the hill in the distance and looking down on the abandoned church itself.

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Next up was Wat Samprov Pram; a temple perched right on the edge of the cliff with a huge drop down to the sea beneath. This was a quiet place with hardly anyone else around other than a couple of monks studying amidst some plastic animals under an interesting rock formation.

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A brief stop at the slightly polluted waterfalls (above) and we were back in Kampot mid-afternoon to enjoy the rest of the day in the river town before we took another taxi back to Phnom Penh the next morning.

You can read ‘Cambodia 2015 Pt VII: City Of Ghosts & R-Point Filming Locations‘ here

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Cambodia 2015 Pt V: Kampot

Put off by the seven hour bus ride that took us from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we decided that time was of greater importance than money and so took a Bayon Airways flight ($80) on the return journey. That was quickly followed by a taxi ride to Kampot ($45) and so we were already in the river town before 1pm whereas with a couple of buses it would have probably been late night!

A great idea and it was heightened with door to door service, air-conditioning (and not the non-stop loud Cambodian movies which played on the bus) and a driver that spoke good English and who we could talk to about present and past life in Cambodia.

I wasn’t even aware of Kampot the last time I was in the country in 2007 and my friends and I must have passed through it on our way to Sihanoukville. Since then though, more and more visitors have discovered the sleepy town and I wanted a bit of that so decided that we would go over that way for a two night stay near the South Coast.

The Old Bridge comprises a strange mix of varying structures having been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period and that was where we first headed for when we later set out on a walking tour of the town. The bridge is now closed to the public not that it stops some people from walking or cycling over it or kids from jumping off it!

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Kampot was a place that was just nice to wander round with its wide roads, limited traffic and many dilapidated French-era buildings. We went in search of Phsar Samaki (the market) but it didn’t seem to be where it said it was on the map. I think we did eventually locate it (the photo above maybe?!!) but by then had lost interest as the heat was quite intense and we needed to find something to eat which we eventually did at a restaurant just across the road from the Durian Monument below.

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It really didn’t take too long to walk round most of Kampot and so we headed back to our hotel (called The Columns – a very nice hotel of French architecture) mid-afternoon and a short while later I went out alone for a wander in the other direction which basically just included a few monuments at the roundabouts and intersections.

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My original selfie with the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument was ambushed by a local boy which was quite funny so I eventually gave up on that and just got a picture (below) with him and his school friend. Besides, the monument was not much to look at really and is not even worthy of inclusion in this piece!

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I was intrigued by the Kampot Olympic Stadium (above) from one of my maps which was located close to the aforementioned Durian Monument. A game of volleyball was going on behind the clubhouse/temple but I really wasn’t too shocked to discover that this place was just a dirty field. I was still happy to take a look round though and photograph the gates and some signboards carrying the famous five Olympic rings on them.

There’s a fair few foreigner bars and other such restaurants along the Kampong Bay river front and in the evening we went to a couple of them. We had dinner at a popular cheap Asian place and on the short way home (passing the funnily named Oh Neil’s – as opposed to the Irish chain pub O’Neills!) we stopped at Happy Special Pizza as I wanted to sample something called Happy Pizza. This was the only western food I had on the whole trip and rumours of it containing special herbs that, erm make you happy were unconfounded!

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When we returned to Kampot the next day following a taxi tour of Bokor Hill Station,  Benji and I went out on a short walk of the area whilst Rina rested back at the hotel. We strayed away from the main area and wandered round the lake towards the prison whilst taking in the local street life which is always fascinating viewing in such countries.

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Photos of tourist spots are nice but my memories of Cambodia come from observing the locals going about their daily business, riding around on their motorbikes, sitting around on the streets and so on. Phnom Penh was a bit too chaotic for just standing roadside snapping away but the relative calm and quiet Kampot was ideal for trying to catch a half-decent shot of the natives riding their moto’s en-masse.

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 You can read ‘Cambodia 2015 Pt VI: Bokor Hill Station‘ here

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Cambodia 2015 Pt IV: Lara Croft Tomb Raider Filming Locations

This film adaptation of a popular video game has probably been forgotten by many but it’s legacy certainly lives on in Cambodia where it is mentioned day in-day out by the thousands of tourists who descend on main location Ta Prohm to see it’s fascinating tree roots which have swallowed up parts of the temple complex.

The action in Cambodia starts on 40 minutes as Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) is on a mission to retrieve half of the triangular MacGuffin. Before Ta Prohm though, there are a couple of other temples playing cameo roles. Having called in a favour from the Special Forces, she is parachuted down (in her Land Rover no less!) and waves goodbye to the plane which helped her from the Central Sanctuary at Phnom Bakheng.

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This temple, located 400 metres south of Angkor Thom, is an incredibly popular place for tourists to photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise and sunset and is where Lara begins her journey. She gets to work straight away and. looking through her special binoculars, she sees Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) and Alex West (Daniel Craig) getting up to mischief at the East Gate of Angkor Thom. 

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To get to this place involves a 20 minute hike up a hill although elephants are sometime on hand to do the hard work for you. At a cost of course!

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Moments later she prepares her ammunition and shoots off in her Land Rover from in front of the sacred Bayon temple (below) which is the centrepiece of the fortified city of Angkor Thom. Bayon is famed for its enigmatic faces donning the many towers within its three levels. 

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The most famous temple though is of course the aforementioned Ta Prohm which first appears on 42 minutes. This spectacular temple has been swallowed up by the jungle over time and the roots are growing out of the ruins. Lara parks her vehicle at the eastern entry which has seen a lot of restoration work between my two visits in 2007 and 2015.

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A mysterious girl appears and disappears a few times as Croft enters the complex and soon she comes across the huge tree below which is entwined with the ruins.

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Croft wanders around the eerie place for a bit before she finally catches up with the young little girl who points her in the right direction.

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She heads towards the doorway seen below where, having picked a jasmine flower, she falls through the ground…..ending up in Pinewood Studios! Alongside the screenshot is a photo I took on New Years Day 2007 as the place has changed a bit since then and is now more restrictive with the area roped off from the public who can only view it from a boardwalk.

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World Heritage site Angkor Wat appears on the hour mark and appears to be looming over a lake bursting with waterlilies and boating villagers. There are mixed reports on this one with some saying this elaborate floating village was constructed on the northern pond. Others refute that and say it was just a set with CGI used to add the worlds largest religious building into the background.

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Whilst there are a couple of pools at Angkor Wat, there is no activity on them whatsoever. Croft comes ashore asking a monk in Khmer language where she can make an international call.

You can read ‘Cambodia 2015 Pt VI: Kampot here

Click here to see the London filming locations of ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider‘ (2001) 

Click here to see the Hong Kong filming locations of ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life’ (2003) 

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Cambodia 2015 Pt III: Lesser Temples Of Angkor

As nice as the previous days cycle tour of the main temples was, it didn’t really offer anything too new so I was more excited about taking a tuk-tuk around what is known as the Grand Tour Circuit. I may have titled this piece as the lesser temples and though they are less popular on the tourist circuit than the Small Tour Circuit ones they are all still very impressive.

It felt good to be able to just drive on past the crowds at Angkor Wat on our re-visit to the Angkor Thom vicinity which we both wanted to see again as we didn’t have enough time the previous day to explore much beyond Bayon. It was still nice to take another look around that temple’s gothic towers which are decorated with over 200 faces.

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200 metres up the road from Bayon is Baphuon; entered via an elevated sandstone walkway and featuring some very steep climbs via ladders. It’s just over 40 metres tall and the views from the top of this mid-11th century built temple were impressive. Sadly, my wife wasn’t allowed in as she wasn’t dressed appropriately as her top was sleeveless!

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Just beyond Baphuon were some terrace walls (below) decorated with some meticulous carvings that were chiselled out in the late 12th century. Impossible not to appreciate and unbelievably the walls were never quite completed!

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It was good to get to Preah Khan (below) and then experience unknown territory (hard to remember exactly which places I visited at the end of 2006 when I was last in town!) and this temple involved a fantastic straight walk from one to the other which took quite a while to complete.

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As we got towards the end, things opened out a bit and it’s appearance was similar to that of Ta Prohm a.k.a. the ‘Tomb Raider‘ temple!

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Ta Som (below) was the quickest stop of the day and involved taking a fairly lengthy  boardwalk over swampy water wastelands which led the way to a small but pleasant temple surrounded by water somewhat similar to a water feature in a park.

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East Mebon (below) was another one reminiscent of Ta Prohm with the trees roots growing out of the ruins.

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The temple tour continued and though we were getting a bit tired they were all different and still so impressive. Pre Rup (below) and it’s stone figure elephants was next on the agenda and that was followed by some very late lunch at Sras Srang.

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The final place on our tour was the brick-built Prasat Kravan (below) which I actually went to in 2006 whilst stupidly attempting to walk between Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat! My friends and I didn’t quite realise the scale of the map back then! The brick carvings contained within one of the tower walls was an impressive sight.

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Just as we were looking forward to getting back late afternoon our tuk-tuk got a puncture  shortly after leaving our final temple. Luckily, our driver Sna could get the tyre repaired very nearby leaving us roadside in the middle of nowhere which bemused each and every passing motorist as they wondered why the hell two foreigners had stopped there with no form of transportation apparent. Back at the hotel later I finally used the swimming pool and we had some some local food ahead of our exit from Siem Reap the following morning.

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You can read ‘Cambodia 2015 Pt IV: Lara Croft Tomb Raider Filming Locations here

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Cambodia 2015 Pt II: Main Temples Of Angkor

The main reason tourists go to Cambodia is of course to see the temples of Angkor and there are three main temples which are considered a must on any travellers itinerary. They are Angkor Wat itself, Bayon and Ta Prohm a.k.a. the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple which we did on our first day in Siem Reap along with one other place.

Having been to many of the places I want to visit in Asia, I am now starting to repeat a few countries (which I never used to do) in order to show my wife around some of these great places and Angkor was one area I wanted to show her. On the back of a seven hour bus journey the day before and a long cycle ride from our hotel in Siem Reap she may not have been too keen at first though!

We didn’t get on the road till 10:45 am and, having got our passes ($40 for a three day pass not that we would be using it beyond two days!), we arrived at Angkor Wat about an hour later. This is the world’s largest religious building and the first stop for many visitors not only due to it’s fame but also because of it’s location.

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There were a few spots of rain as we entered and walked along the causeway ready to explore the architectural masterpiece. The attention to detail in the sandstone bricks is so impressive and it really is hard to believe how such a place was ever built.

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Back in 2006 we were quite surprisingly allowed to climb all over the structures and the steps were frankly asking for trouble as they were so steep and dangerous. However, nearly a decade later, and with even more people travelling to these wonders of the world, things have changed a bit. Boardwalks and wooden steps have been implemented for safety and preservation reasons.

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On a boiling hot day I was in need of a couple of refreshing drinks after wandering around the place. Locals selling drinks and so on are never too far away in Cambodia and to the side of the northern lake (pool of water?) in front of the esplanade I could quench my thirst. My animal-loving wife though was more interested in playing with a cat!

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Our bicycles were boiling hot when we returned to them and cycled on down the road to Phnom Bakheng (below) which was a new sight for me. This is an incredibly popular place for tourists to photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise and sunset and despite us being there early afternoon there were already a couple of people hanging around for sunset!

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Angkor Thom was next and during the ride from it’s south gate entrance I realised that the temples weren’t quite as close in reality as they were in my mind. It’s a spectacular entrance (below) with giant statues of gods on the left and demons on the right with the moat running beneath.

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The many enigmatic faces of Bayon (below) provides the centrepiece of Angkor Thom where a lot of climbing was done around it’s three levels as we sweated it out in the early afternoon heat.

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In my mind I knew that we could easily return to Angkor Thom (and indeed Bayon) the following day and as time was ticking I didn’t want to devote loads of time (as we easily could have) to this splendid fortified city as we needed to cycle to Ta Prohm and I wanted us to be back in Siem Reap before sunset too. As it was, we still spent a sufficient amount of time looking round Bayon’s most distinctive features which are the many large, serene stone faces gracing it’s towers which cluster around its central peak.

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The eerie Ta Prohm seemed to take forever to get to and, like Angkor Wat, this place was more restricted than last time I was there and a lot of restoration work had been done.

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This place was like a maze to me and without a map to hand we found it quite hard to locate some of the more famous spots within the complex which has been swallowed by the jungle. Eventually we managed to find the iconic tree root areas where trees are growing out of the ruins.

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As I was taking a photo of my wife beneath one of the giant tree roots a local kid hijacked our picture and climbed all over her which in hindsight was a clever way of getting a dollar off us as we took further photos with her and she then proceeded to monopolise my selfie stick remote control and snapped away constantly.

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When I wrote about these temples in January 2007, I did worry about tourism taking its toll on such places and I guess there has been no choice but to rope off certain areas and lay down boardwalks to cater for the crowds. I visited Ta Prohm twice last time as the first time I went it was overly crowded and so I knew from my second visit back then that this place was much quieter in the late afternoon as many tourists seek a sunset shot in other parts of Angkor.

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My bicycle (borrowed from our hotel) had been creaking noisily all day and as the rain began to fall and it started to get darker on the way home I did wonder if I was going to encounter similar problems to what happened on less successful cycling journeys on my travels in Laos and Nicaragua in recent years. Thankfully both bicycle and I made it back to our hotel in one piece though and it felt so nice to have a much needed lie-down and relax on our balcony with a beer.

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You can read ‘Cambodia 2015 Pt III: Lesser Temples Of Angkor here

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