Article and photos by Elena del Valle
Getting to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the nearest city to the world famous Angkor Temples, from the United States required many hours of travel and a change of airplane in several cities. After spending a few days in Thailand to adjust to the eleven hour time difference and relax a little I headed to Cambodia with some trepidation (after reading about incidents with visas and border guards among other issues). To minimize problems I paid the extra fees to purchase a Cambodian visa online ahead of my trip and requested an airport transfer from the Hotel de la Paix, my Siem Reap hotel. Fortunately my stay was without incident.
As we were landing I saw miles of emerald green fields and began to feel excited about visiting the area. My flight from Bangkok, Thailand arrived early in Siem Reap so that when I exited the customs area I almost missed my driver. He was English speaking and friendly, making the drive from the airport to central Siem Reap pass by quickly.
When I arrived at the hotel I breathed a sign of relief. Friendly and welcoming faces greeted me as soon as we stopped at the hotel’s porte chochere. I immediately liked the new looking and pretty hotel where I would be staying during my five nights in Cambodia. I knew I would be comfortable and safe. With the help of the hotel staff we planned my outings, filling the early part of my days with visits to the Angkor Temples.
By 6 a.m. most mornings I would be on my way to the nearby temples in the company of Chhai Heaor, a hotel driver, and Pouv Siya, an English speaking official guide and photography lover. Both of the young men were courteous and professional in their demeanor, and service oriented. My guide, a self starter who was learning Spanish online in order to increase his income, was keen to show me the many photography oriented angles for the temples and statues he had discovered.
Pouv Siya, my guide
The reason for the early departure was to avoid the ubiquitous crowds at the temples and catch the temples at the best early morning light for photography. I chose to see fewer temples and spend quality time at each one, stressing my preference for crowd free visits whenever possible. My friendly guide was quite pleased with the news and able to accommodate my request.
Between the early arrival time and my guide’s familiarity with the temples (as well as the seasonal rains which invariably caught us) we were fortunate to enjoy relative quiet at the temple sites. Although there were always many other visitors at each temple, often they were in another area of the temple or arriving when we were leaving and for the most part we avoided lines, loud visitors and overcrowded areas.
During three outings of several hours each on three different days we visited Angkor Wat, the most famous (and most crowded), Ta Prohm, Bayon, Sras Srang (King’s Pool), Banteay Srey (Lady Temple), Pre Rup (Red Temple). The temples were in a state of disrepair from years of neglect; many of the statues were beheaded, and there was always standing water sometimes inside and outside. Walking required attention as the ground was uneven and at times very slippery, especially just after it rained and it rained daily, sometimes more than once in a day. At several of the temples there were major restoration projects taking place. Although this was a good thing in the long term during our visit it meant that the tall metallic cranes, scaffolding and staff members at work marred the view of the temples.
The temples were striking, elegant and memorable. Each temple had its own charm although some were far more popular than others. My favorites were the tree filled Ta Prohm famed for the scenes in one of the Lara Croft movies, and the smaller, less imposing and more intimate Banteay Srey. The Lady Temple was popular in spite of the drive through the countryside that was necessary to reach it. Fortunately, the drive was on a good road where we had a chance to glimpse local homes and monks on their daily rounds. Once at the temple there were clean and modern restrooms and a covered entrance where we took refuge from the rain briefly.
In addition to our early morning arrivals, a little rain gear and some advance planning made it possible for us to miss most crowds and lines. As we walked along the temples, admiring their beautiful artwork I was glad I had made the trip to Cambodia. I look forward to a return trip with my husband to discover more of the temples, the people and the natural treasures of Cambodia.