September 2, 2018 – Luckily, we got to sleep in a bit this morning since our day exploring the temples of Angkor Wat didn’t start until 8:00 am.
We were able to enjoy breakfast in the open-air restaurant at our hotel which was lovely. I had the continental breakfast and Eric had the English breakfast. We also ordered some fruit and I got an iced latte. All were delicious!
After breakfast, it was into the tuk-tuk and off to see more temples with Pich and Mr. Socheat.
Our first stop of the day was Preah Khan. Even though we started later, there weren’t many people there. This temple was so beautiful. It looked like it wasn’t kept up as much as the other temples, but the slight overgrowth of the jungle made it look prettier in my opinion.
My visual assumption was correct. I looked up this temple when we returned and found out that the last time any restoration had taken place was in the 1920’s. Since then, it has been untouched which has allowed vegetation to slowly take over.
This temple was built in 1191 and is predominately flat, unlike surrounding temples which are marked by large towers.
This was honestly one of my favorite temples we had seen so far. The fact that it was mostly flat made all the hallways so beautiful because you could see far through them.
You can see the sweat dripping from my chin in the picture below. It was insanely hot.
After Preah Khan, we made our way to the beautiful and unique floating temple: Neak Pean.
In order to get to the floating temple, we had to cross a terrifyingly narrow wooden boardwalk. It was very windy as we crossed and there were several groups leaving as we came in. This made it even more terrifying. The boardwalk was only about 4 feet wide, with loose boards and zero railing. Below us was shallow murky water. I just tried to focus on the temple at the end.
There were several vendors located on the small piece of land before we got to the boardwalk. Pich pointed out one lady in particular who was selling roasted nuts. They were Cambodian cashews, which are apparently very special. She was selling a baggy of them for $1 and since Pich had picked some up for us to taste, we felt like we had to buy some. I was a little annoyed, but it was a $1 and these people put great value on that $1. I tried to see it like we were doing good rather than getting conned into paying way more for a baggy of nuts than they probably would cost elsewhere in Cambodia.
We moved on and entered the temple area. The landscape was beautiful, even if the walk was terrifying.
The temple was very small, surrounded by water so we couldn’t enter it. Even though we couldn’t go inside, it was still very beautiful and so unique from all the other temples we had seen. The four connected pools to the main pool with the temple represent the four elements: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire.
Since we couldn’t go inside, we didn’t spend much time here. Only about 30 minutes. Then we moved on to the next temple.
When we exited the temple compound, our driver was nowhere to be found. We eventually found him and also found out he was an avid chess player. We were on the same route as another driver who was a friend of his. They were in a huge chess tournament all day long as we and the other driver’s clients were out exploring temples. It was so funny because every time we’d show back up he would rush to put the chess board away. Of course, we didn’t care but I guess he thought it was unprofessional.
Ta Som was the next temple we visited. Just like Preah Khan, this temple went unrestored for a very long time. In 1998 the World Monuments Fund stepped in and helped with clearing the grounds and fortifying the structures. Their project completed in 2012 having successfully restored Ta Som.
I love temple cats! Who am I kidding? I just love cats.
As we were exploring the grounds, we saw more vendors. Every temple we went to had small children who would run up to us asking us to buy their little trinkets for $1. There were always at least 5 of them that would follow us up the path to the temple hoping to guilt-trip us enough with their terribly sad faces and little voices into purchasing a Cambodia magnet or a cheap scarf. We were warned about this before our trip and were told repeatedly not to give in.
The reason? Many of these children are forgoing school to sell cheap junk to tourists. They see a quick buck to be made and don’t see the immediate value in an education. Their parents see this as well and many of them keep their children out of school to beg in front of tourists. A begging child makes more money than a begging adult.
There were always adult vendors too. However, they were never seriously persistent like I’ve experienced in other parts of the world. A simple, “no, thank you” was usually enough.
But at Ta Som Pich introduced us to a man selling history books about Angkor Wat. Pich pulled a book off the man’s shelf and was essentially trying to get me to buy it. The man was selling these books for $1. I listened to his pitch and when he realized I wasn’t going to buy it, he finally let us move on.
As we walked away Pich told us the man had stepped on a landmine a few years ago and lost his arm. He had 7 children and lost his wife to cancer last year. He had to give up 2 of his children to an orphanage because he couldn’t afford to support them anymore.
My stomach wrenched. I felt like somehow I had a hand in this man’s demise because I didn’t buy the book from him. But I had been passing up vendors all day long without knowing those people’s stories.
We reached a dead end and had to turn around. This meant we had to pass the man selling books again. I was feeling so awful. Here I was, this privileged tourist just turning a blind eye to this poor man who lost an arm and had all these kids to take care of on his own. I ended up giving him money and told him to keep his books. We didn’t have room to take home very many souvenirs and I truly didn’t want the book. All I wanted was to help this guy out a little bit.
At that moment I realized that Pich had been doing this to us all day. Showing us things trying to get us to buy them from various vendors. Was it the tip we had given him the previous day? Did it make him think our pockets were endless? I’m not sure. But that man struck a chord with me. He had 2 of his little babies playing in the dirt by his stand. I could see that he was, in fact, missing an arm. Was the other information Pich fed us true? I will never know. But regardless, I knew he needed those few dollars more than I did. That man and his two little ones will be etched into my memory forever.
I was emotionally exhausted when we left Ta Som and it wasn’t even 12:00 pm.
Cows blocked our way to the tuk-tuk, but we eventually got through and then moved on to another temple called East Mebon.
This temple was dedicated in 953 to the Hindu god Shiva. It is most well known for its beautiful stone elephant sculptures that dot the 4 corners of the temple.
This temple was nice, but not my favorite.
The next temple we would be going to, Banteay Srei, was a 45-minute drive way out in the Cambodian countryside. Pich had told us the day before that a car would have been preferred for this journey, but we were fine with the tuk-tuk. I think he was a little disappointed, but the car was double the price of the tuk-tuk.
The drive out to Banteay Srei was long, but the scenery was beautiful. We passed numerous farms and rice fields along the way. I could see how a car would have been nice. The roads we went down were paved, but very bumpy and covered in dust. Many times we would pass big fires which just added to the strain on our respiratory systems.
We could tell Pich was worn out. He fell asleep on the drive there and we ended up missing the spot where we were supposed to stop for lunch. We both noticed he wasn’t trying as hard as he did the previous day. Again, we weren’t sure if it was the tip we had given him that made him relax and not care as much or if he truly was just exhausted.
Mr. Socheat turned us around and we went back to the lunch spot. The only places we passed the entire ride to the temple looked like homes or little shacks set up on the side of the road. We were once again very nervous for this meal.
We walked into the restaurant and it looked so much nicer than we were expecting. There were nice tables set up with pretty water features all around. If you didn’t guess already, everyone dining in the restaurant was a tourist. It was so random but at least we could relax a bit.
We ordered our food and it came quickly. Just like the lunch we had the previous day, the food was terrible. But what were we going to do? We couldn’t just leave and go somewhere else. This was literally the only (safe) place to eat for miles. So once again I went without a meal. Well, I ate some rice. The absolute worst rice I’ve ever had in my life.
Lunch was fairly quick then we were back in the tuk-tuk to go to Banteay Srei.
This temple was unique in that it was constructed entirely of red sandstone. Also, the structures inside the temple were very small which made it look very different from all of the other temples in the Angkor Wat complex. ‘Banteay Srei’ means ‘Citadel of the Women’. The name comes from the elaborate and delicate carvings throughout the temple. It is said the carvings are so delicate they could have only been done by the hand of a woman.
Before it was rediscovered in 1914, the last known inscription on the temple was dated 1303. It is widely believed this temple was abandoned and lost to the jungle for 600 years until the French came in and rediscovered it. The temple was not restored until the 1930’s.
The carvings on this temple were definitely the most well-preserved and most intricate of all the temples we had seen thus far. It was a small temple, but so beautiful.
After Banteay Srei we were trying to figure out our next activity. Pich told us we had done all the major temples, but it was only 3:00 pm. We had planned to see the sunset that day so we needed to fill our time.
Pich kept pushing us to go to a floating village. I did a lot of research on this before we traveled to Cambodia and I knew all the floating villages close to Siem Reap were 100% tourist traps. All the money they charge to take a boat tour goes back to the corrupt people running the tours even though they advertise the money goes to the families living on the river. The tour isn’t optional and is $20… way too expensive for Cambodia. There is one floating village that is still entirely run by the families that live in it but unfortunately it is 2 hours outside of Siem Reap. This is how I knew whatever floating village he brought us to would be a trap and I wasn’t about to fall into that.
I was adamant that we did not want to go to the floating village, so Pich said he would take us to a lesser known temple a little off the beaten path called Banteay Samre.
This temple was seriously out in the middle of nowhere. The roads going there were all unpaved which made for an extremely bumpy and dusty ride.
We arrived and had to walk down a very long dirt path to reach the entrance to the temple. Of course, there were little shoe-less kids at the front begging us to buy their things. There were also adult vendors begging me to buy their clothes, telling me they would wait until I came out of the temple so they could show me more items. I want to say these people were more desperate since they were set up outside of a less-visited temple. I wasn’t sure if it was just the time of day or not. Surely the Chinese mega buses came out every now and then.
Pich told us this was his least favorite temple because it was unfinished. It was built by a king for his son and the construction was rushed due to war. I found it funny that Pich said this was his least favorite temple because I thought the history of it made it fascinating.
We could see examples of how the temple was rushed because the carvings decorating the structures weren’t deep like those at Angkor Wat or Banteay Srei and they were very simple. Most were shallow flowers or shapes which showed the artist was very rushed and/or not as experienced.
As we left the temple, the vendors and children ran up to us again. I hadn’t seen any other tourists the entire time we were there. These 2 little girls would not stop asking us to buy their bracelets. I almost gave in but I had all those people in the back of my mind telling me not to. They were so cute and they were trying so hard. We stuck to our guns and didn’t give in. I still see that little girl’s face in my mind. I sort of regret not giving her money because what if that was the difference in her family eating that week? I know I can’t single-handedly save Cambodia, but I just felt so awful towards the end of our second day exploring temples. Seeing these children and knowing what the people have been through just tore me down and made me feel so guilty for having so much when they have nothing.
When we left Banteay Samre it was around 4:30 pm. We decided just to head to the sunset temple, Pre Rup, since we didn’t really have anything else to do.
We arrived around 5:00 pm and decided to sit at one of the tables in front of the little shacks selling water and coconuts. Of course, we bought some waters from the girl whose shack we were sitting in front of. Eric got a beer too. Someone nearby bought a coconut so we watched her whack it open with her cleaver. She couldn’t have been more than 14 years old.
As we were sitting there, we noticed that we were the only tourists. All the other people sitting around the shacks were Cambodian women and children. A little Cambodian baby girl just old enough to walk and say a few words waddled over to us holding a basket. The only English she knew was, “one dollar.” She must have been trying to be like her older siblings selling trinkets to tourists. It was adorable and all the Cambodian women were laughing hysterically at this baby trying to make money. Eventually, an older child came over and picked up the little one to bring her back to her mom. At least we didn’t have to feel bad about not giving money to her!
Around 5:30 pm we decided to walk up to the top of the temple to get a good spot for the sunset. I was expecting this spot to be just as crowded as some of the other spots we had seen earlier, but to our surprise, there weren’t many people up there with us.
We ended up sitting next to two girls from New York, go figure. The few days we had been in Cambodia we hadn’t come across anyone else from the US. It was mostly British, Australian, Chinese, and Korean.
All of a sudden as we were sitting waiting for the sunset I hear Eric shout, “OH MY GOSH!” The ants had found the nuts we had bought from the lady at the water temple earlier in the day. Eric had stuck them in one of the outside pockets of the backpack and even though they were sealed in a baggy, the little guys found them. There were thousands of them. I didn’t even see ants when we sat down; it was like they came out of nowhere. Of course, we had to ditch the baggy. We felt bad for littering but it was very rare to come across a trash can and there was no way we could salvage that thing from the ants. The bag was unrecognizable.
Hunger started to set in for me right before the sunset. I hadn’t eaten hardly anything since breakfast and we had been walking and climbing through temples all day long in the crazy heat. Luckily we had one protein bar with us so we shared it while we sat there. I was so thankful we brought those.
The sunset wasn’t the prettiest I’ve ever seen, but it was still beautiful. The warm light made the structures of Pre Rup turn a really pretty color.
Once the sun had set, we made our way back down and to our tuk-tuk. It was finally time to return to our hotel.
On the way back, Pich filled us in on why Cambodian’s are so bitter towards the Chinese tourists. We’ve experienced their huge tour groups all over Europe and to be honest, they are some of the rudest and most inconsiderate tourists we’ve ever encountered. The same was true for Southeast Asia.
I’ve pretty much drilled this into you by now, but Cambodia is poor. Money talks. China has used Cambodia’s weak economy to their advantage. They have bought numerous hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and spas all for their citizens to use when they visit Cambodia. You would think this would help Cambodia’s economy, right? Nope. Almost every cent these people spend in Cambodia goes back to the Chinese government. Their tour guides, drivers, hotel staff, restaurants… everything is run by China. It’s hard for Cambodians to benefit from any of this because, in order to work in any of these places, they have to know Chinese. Chinese tourists don’t eat local food, they don’t take tuk-tuks and they don’t venture out beyond their hotels unless it’s with their massive group and guide.
So while it looks like the Angkor Wat temples are always packed to the brim with tourists, nearly 60% of those people clogging up the ancient sites are not contributing to Cambodia financially (except for the temple passes they have to purchase). You can imagine how the locals feel about this.
As we were walking through temple after temple, we heard Pich yell (in Chinese) to the tourists who were being disrespectful and damaging the ancient structures. We saw them climbing parts of structures that clearly said “NO CLIMBING”. We saw them touching ancient carvings with big signs in front of them saying “NO TOUCHING” with a rope to clearly keep people back. It was infuriating and I can’t imagine being Cambodian watching these people disrespect your country’s holy sites. This might not be every single Chinese tourist, and I don’t mean to put an entire country’s people in a box, but this wasn’t the only place in the world we experienced their disrespectful behavior. It’s been consistent no matter where we’ve been.
Hearing all of this after witnessing the extreme poverty of Cambodia all day long shook me to my core. It made me sick! The Chinese may not see it as a bad thing, especially because it benefits their people, but to me, they are essentially robbing the poor people of Cambodia the opportunity to make a living.
You might be wondering how we knew these people were Chinese. Well, it was pretty clear when they understood what Pich was yelling at them. Also, they were the only tourists that didn’t know a word of English (which goes back to why they have their own tour guides) and the only tourists going around in massive buses in groups of 50 or more.
I don’t ever post anything without doing my research, so if you want to read more about the Chinese in Cambodia, this Washington Post article explains it well. Also, if you look up Angkor Wat on TripAdvisor and put “Chinese” in the review search box, the reviews say it all.
I’ll step off my soapbox now.
We made it back to our hotel around 7:00 pm, quickly changed and grabbed a tuk-tuk to the restaurant Pou.
Pou was recommended to us by the kind expat from Amsterdam we had met on our first day in Cambodia. We looked it up and the reviews were amazing so obviously, we had to go.
The restaurant was on the other side of the river by the Night Market, which we hadn’t yet explored. We saw it as the perfect opportunity to browse the Night Market after we ate. By the way, no matter where we went from our hotel, we were always able to negotiate our tuk-tuk rides to $1 each way. It was so cheap!
We arrived at Pou and it was tiny! We almost missed it when we were trying to find it from the tuk-tuk; thank goodness for Google maps!
It was a cute restaurant and full of English speaking expats. I was instantly comforted whenever we went somewhere with English speaking people. I know that sounds so unadventurous of me, but we were very worried about getting sick from the food and we knew if a place was full of tourists and/or expats, we would be ok. Still, we never drank the water if we didn’t see it poured directly from a previously unopened plastic bottle. Everyone in the restaurant was drinking it, but we took no chances.
Everything on the menu looked delicious. We decided to split the chive dumplings, then Eric got a dish with curry chicken and I got the grilled beehive and vegetable pancake. I also got a pineapple martini which was so fresh and delicious.
Before I go any further, I’d like to share with you the description of my dish directly from the menu, “Grilled beehive with chili and garlic, sweet potato puree in coconut cream, vegetables with rice’s flour pan cake and tofu sauce.” Sounds delicious, right?
Our food came and it was SO GOOD! I was in food heaven in a place where I thought I would be surviving on protein bars the entire time. I had no idea what to expect from the “beehive” but I assumed it would be like grilled honeycomb with spices. It looked like a veggie salsa and tasted delicious.
I had Eric try a little bit and just as he was tasting the forkful that I handed him, I noticed an ant on my plate. I didn’t think much about it. We were in Cambodia and bugs were everywhere; maybe it just snuck on my plate.
Then I saw another bug and suddenly I lost my appetite. This was no accident. The entire “beehive” was tiny insects. It wasn’t a veggie salsa, it was a bug salsa and I had eaten nearly all of it. Later, after digging through reviews, I came to find out that there were ants, bees, bee larvae, and some other type of flying beetle bug all in the beehive.
Moral of the story: If you go to Cambodia with no intentions of eating bugs, you will probably end up eating bugs at some point.
After dinner, we walked over to the Night Market. It’s right next to the river and the bridges leading to it are covered in pretty colorful lights. We were told by many people not to spend our money at the Night Market and save it for the Made in Cambodia Market. Apparently, most of what is sold at the Night Market is fake and not made in Cambodia. So we just walked through to say we did it and then decided to go back to the hotel.
We were so tired from our day. I was ready for a shower and sleep!
We would be visiting the Killing Fields and APOPO (the landmine-detecting rats) in the morning and then the rest of our day would be completely unplanned.
Oh! I almost forgot to show you this fine example of Cambodian security in the building next to our hotel…
That is broken glass embedded into the concrete ledge.