Day 57 | Catching the sunrise at Angkor Wat then off to Saigon

Day 57 | Catching the sunrise at Angkor Wat then off to Saigon

For our last morning in Cambodia, we biked to Angkor Wat in total darkness to capture the iconic sunrise over its central towers. Back at the hotel, we lingered over a long breakfast and relaxed in our room until it was ready to fly to Saigon, Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City to be politically correct) where we met up with our friend Luc visiting from Hong Kong.

Reluctantly, we rolled out of bed at 4 am, picked up our bikes from the hotel’s parking area and sped through Siem Reap for the dark and quiet 8 km ride to the west entrance of Angkor Wat.

When we finally got there, we were disappointed that it was already light outside.

Although the road was pretty much flat and the temperature invitingly cool, my short legs could not pedal fast enough. When it comes to two things biking and eating, I am always the bottleneck in this couple.

We speed-walked through the bridge over the moat to the best photo spot, just over the reflecting pool on the left side of the Angkor Wat entrance. We held the camera up high over the crowd in order to get this silhouetted shot.

Angkor Wat sunrise

Now, for the behind-the-scenes photo of what went into getting the above shot. We had to gently nudge our way through at least three rows of other tourists who waited here longer than we did in order to take serene unobstructed photos of Angkor Wat.

Crowds at sunrise

The right reflecting pool has less people taking photos since there is less water, the water looks dirtier and the sun rises off-center.

Sunrise part 2

We took the opportunity for a photo with both of us.

Mimo at Angkor

Other than humans, savvy monkeys descend down to this area in droves to get their free morning meals. Some monkeys crawl into trash cans, even opening them from the bottom to scavenge for food.

Monkey eating garbage

Other monkeys are more daring. Many tourists grab a packed breakfast from their hotels before coming to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. These shameless monkeys snatch tourists’ breakfasts straight out of their hands. And don’t even try to take your breakfast back. In this video, the girl with the scarf standing in the back had her food stolen soon after. She tried to grab the styrofoam container back and in retaliation the monkey ripped her beautiful scarf in two. It could definitely have been worse.

This monkey basking in the glory of his edible conquest.

Monkeys and temples

By 7 am, we left Angkor Wat and biked back to our hotel where we had our last breakfast at the Sarai.

Latte at Sarai

We went back to our comfy room to make reservations for our Saigon hotel and caught up on yolomimo blog work. Then it was time to check out and ride a tuk tuk to the Siem Reap International Airport, which is less than 10 km away. On the highway, my straw hat blew right off my head onto the street. We told the driver to stop and I dashed 50 m behind to grab the hat. I had déjà vu from the last time we took a tuk tuk to the airport in Chiang Mai, where my hat also blew straight off my head.

When we got to the airport to check in to our flight to Saigon, we had to present our passports. As an American citizen, I had to get a 90-day Vietnam visa in advance (at the sky high price of $160 in New York). Maurice, as a French citizen, did not need a visa but his stay was limited to 15 days. My paperwork checked out however the lady at the check in desk demanded to see proof of our departure flight. We did not book our departure flight. So on the spot using my phone’s 3G internet, I had to navigate AirAsia’s slow and nonintuitive mobile website to book a flight from Hanoi to Bangkok. The whole time we stressed that we would miss our flight. Finally getting through the mobile payment portal, my reservation was made but my credit card payment did not go through.

I showed the check in attendant my phone screen which showed the flight reservation details marked in huge letters NEEDS PAYMENT. She said this was acceptable but first we would have to go to Cambodia Angkor Air’s office and print out a copy of this. We both ran outside the terminal, through the airport’s airline offices to find the door leading to Cambodia Angkor Air. The two ladies working in the office looked extremely unenthused as they directed us to a vacant computer. We hurried to log into Gmail, “Please update your Google Chrome browser to the latest version.” Are you serious? I switched to Internet Explorer, “Gmail is not supported on this version of Internet Explorer.” Grrr! I went to the AirAsia website directly and typed in my booking number. I immediately printed out the confirmation still saying NEEDS PAYMENT. I tinkered with the payment portal to see if I could enter in my payment details again, as expected, it did not work.

One of the office ladies handed us the printout and told us “What are you doing? You’re going to miss your flight.” We grabbed the copy and ran out of there, she was probably right. We ran back to the departure area and handed the paper over, finally we were given our boarding passes and our luggage was checked in. We went through immigration and security and ran to our gate, it was completely empty of people. We ran to the desk at the gate, turns out our gate was moved. We ran to the new gate, huffing and puffing. The attendant told us boarding had not begun yet and told us to take a seat. Ok it wasn’t so bad after all.

Here’s the plane we finally boarded.

Boarding plane to Saigon

And the takeoff video.

Of course, the landing video in Saigon, which is marked by the endless sprawl of white buildings.

We took a taxi from Saigon airport to our hotel the Park Hyatt Saigon. Taxis in the queue refuse to use the meter and quote prices up to 300,000 VND ($14), we shopped around the private taxi services and chose the cheapest option 200,000 ($9) which is still more expensive than using the meter.

As expected the Park Hyatt Saigon was extremely luxurious. Room rates start at $360/night, we used our Chase points converted into Hyatt points to pay for the upscale accommodations. Here’s our walkthrough of the most expensive room of our trip.

We were even welcomed with pitaya, which we’ve acquired a taste for in Southeast Asia.

Pitaya in Saigon

We then explored the area in Saigon from late afternoon till past sunset. Our hotel is close to this large walking street. Now this is a real, modern city. More developed than either Phnom Penh or Vientiane. Perhaps comparable to Bangkok, but smaller.

Saigon walking street

The Ho Chi Minh City Hall building at dusk.

City Hall building

The opera house near our hotel.

Opera house

We later met up with our friend Luc who lives in Hong Kong. He traveled down to Saigon for a five day vacation. We went to an upscale vegetarian restaurant called Hum.

Hum Vegetarian Restaurant

The boys are back together.

Luc and Maurice

We shared dishes from their overwhelming menu of creative vegetarian food.

Mushrooms in a coconut shell

We picked up some dessert at Mochi Sweets, then headed to a rooftop bar called Broma Not A Bar. We ordered cocktails and enjoyed the view of this splashy building with its continuous light show. Only in Asia will we find such excessive light displays, in the US this would be considered tacky. Here it fits in well with the pulsing energy of the city.

We both enjoy urban travel partly because you see how real people live. Here it’s not about the Western restaurants, tour agencies and other services catering to tourists in Siem Reap, but a real glimpse of Saigon families and friends skateboarding, picnicking and strolling on Nguyen Hue walking street. We found it to be surprisingly busy on a Sunday night.

Nguyen Hue walking street

Day 56 | Visiting Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon all in one day

Day 56 | Visiting Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon all in one day

Today was all about the major Siem Reap temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon. Very satisfied with our tour with Siem Reap Shuttle yesterday, we registered for another daily tour with them. We finished the tour with a walk up the hill where Phnom Bakheng is located, hoping to catch the sunset.

Just like yesterday, we started the day with an early breakfast at Goat Tree, our hotel’s restaurant. In addition to the platter of fresh exotic fruits previously mentioned, we also got watermelon juice, our favorite.

Breakfast at Sarai Resort & Spa

And just like yesterday, we got picked up at our hotel by a shuttle from the Siem Reap Shuttle travel company. We were sixteen people in the shuttle today, eighteen including our tour guide and the driver.

The first temple on our list for the day was the one and only Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was first a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. Of all the temples in Cambodia, Angkor Wat is without a doubt the most famous and visited one. In fact, it is so popular that it is depicted on Cambodia’s national flag. It’s also the largest religious monument in the world. For Mimi and I, it was one of our most anticipated places to see on our trip, together with Bagan in Myanmar and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.

We arrived on the site around 9:20 AM and got dropped at the western entrance, right in front of the very wide (190 meters) moat, certainly the most impressive moat we have ever seen.

In front of Angkor Wat's massive moat

We crossed the moat with hundreds of other visitors and got to the outer wall of the complex. This wall used to protect the city that surrounded the temple proper centuries ago. However, unlike the temple which was made of stone, all the other city buildings were built of perishable materials which is why they did not survive. We walked towards the temple and stopped for pictures several times.

A first time several hundreds of meters away from the main temple.

Angkor Wat

Then again in front of the right pond that immediately faces the central structure. There are two symmetrical ponds facing the temple on the west side but the one on the right when facing the temple had a lot less people.

Angkor Wat and its reflection in the water

The other pond had food stands next to it which attracted the crowds. Our group stopped to get refreshments as the sun was already hitting strong in the morning. Mimi and I opted for fresh coconuts, our first ones for a while. The coconut water was very sweet and we asked the waitress to open the fruits so we could eat the meat inside. She cut a part of the coconut itself for us to use as a spoon. It worked great, probably because the meat was particularly tender.

After that, we entered inside the temple proper. The walls there were covered with very extensive and detailed carvings depicting wars as well as various important religious scenes. Our guide gave extensive explanations about the meaning of each decoration, none of which I was able to remember minutes after he was done. We passed by four large pools that used to hold water during the Angkor period. The guide made us guess what these pools were used for, although nobody actually knows the answer with certainty, not even these two monks that were walking around one of the pools.

Monks inside the Angkor Wat temple

This area of the temple was surprisingly empty as most people seemed to walk through it with little interest. For us, it meant that we were able to have our pictures taken with no stranger on them, pretty impressive considering the number of tourists visiting Angkor Wat every day.

Inside one of the four Angkor Wat pools

After that we got to the center part of the temple where the iconic three towers are located. We queued up in the line to get up to the top of the structure and admire the rest of the temple from up there. The guards were letting the next set of people up only as other people came back down. We climbed up there quickly. The view from up there was impressive, as expected. We saw a hot air balloon far in front of us which reminded us of our Balloons over Bagan tour back in Myanmar.

Hot air balloon flying next to Angkor Wat

We stayed up there for as long as we could, as our guide had set a limit time for the group. Next, we came out of the central section of the temple.

Angkor Wat

Walking out of the temple, we saw more reliefs. This particular one represented a Hindu legend about churning the Ocean of Milk.

Tug of war relief inside the main Angkor Wat temple

We finished our visit of Angkor Wat at noon. As we walked out of the complex, we turned around one more time to see the temple’s three main towers slowly appear smaller behind us.

Looking back at Angkor Wat

After that, our group came back to the shuttle and we went to a local restaurant for lunch. The food was much better than what we have for lunch yesterday. We got to socialize with the other folks on our very international group. There were people from South Africa, Malaysia, China, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Georgia.

We then moved on to the second temple on our tour, Ta Prohm. This temple was used as a filming location for the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider 2001 action movie starring Angelina Jolie. Fun fact, our guide told us that Angelina visited Ta Prohm within the last month with her son Maddox and that she will be directing a movie in Cambodia about the Khmer Rouge. One of the most distinctive feature of this temple is the presence of many trees growing out of the ruins. The presence of these trees (some of which can be quite high) greatly contributes to giving Ta Prohm a very unique look.

Tree over an entrance in Ta Prohm

Here is another tree directly covering a wall.

Inside Ta Prohm

In some places, the trees have caused real damage to the ruins to the point of threatening the structural integrity of nearby walls. We passed in front of a set of columns that had recently collapsed due to the pressure of the growing roots.

Destroyed columns inside Ta Prohm

We kept walking around and admiring the beauty of the temple. We were not the only ones. This temple felt a lot more crowded than Angkor Wat, probably because it’s a lot smaller and denser too.

Crowd of tourists in Ta Prohm

We managed to find the one tree we could do a silly pose with, and so we took turn. Mimi’s pose was better.

Blending in with nature in Ta Prohm

This other tree had an impressive network of roots.

Massive tree in Ta Prohm

As we kept following our guide through the tour, we suddenly felt something hitting our shins. We looked back and saw a little Cambodian girl, maybe five years old, repeatedly snapping a rubber band at us for no apparent reason. It did not hurt much so we laughed and tried to have her stop but alas she would not listen. Mimi was her first victim.

She attacked me next. I tried to have her attack our tour guide, without success.

She eventually stopped and we resumed our tour. Our guide was already talking about these interesting carvings including the one that looks like a Stegosaurus (third one from the top).

Dinosaur looking carving at Ta Prohm

We finished our tour of Ta Prohm and drove to the third major temple of the day: Bayon. Unlike for the other two, our visit of Bayon was not a guided tour. We had freedom of movement and explored on our own for about an hour. But before leaving us, our tour guide gave us some background about the beautiful reliefs on the external walls. This one depicted a scene of war involving the Khmer soldiers.

War reliefs at Bayon Temple

That one was also depicting a war scene but featured an elephant, which automatically signaled to Mimi that she should chant her now infamous “We love elephants” song.

War reliefs at Bayon Temple

The temple’s main distinctive feature is the presence of large smiling stone faces carved on the many towers of the structure. There are hundreds of them all around.

Mimi posing in Bayon

Smiling stone faces of Bayon

Mimi found a quiet place to pose too.

Mimi sitting on a window in Bayon

We took a lot of pictures of these smiling stone faces. Here is a close up of one that was very well preserved.

Close up of a smiling face in Bayon

We came back to the shuttle around 5:40 PM and drove to Phnom Bakheng, our last stop on this tour and a very popular place to watch the sunset. As we arrived there, we saw elephants that lazy or tired tourists can ride to the top of the hill where the temple is located. Poor elephants!

Elephant for riding to Phnom Bakheng

We walked up the hill for about ten minutes. The temple was getting ready to close but we just made it on time before they stopped letting people in. Though the sky was cloudy, we got beautiful shots as the sun had already set over Siem Reap (we arrived a bit too late).

Sunset view from Phnom Bakheng

Beautiful sunset view through the trees

As the temple closed, we walked back down the hill to our shuttle. It was the end of our tour. The shuttle brought us back to our hotel. It was still a little too early for us to have dinner so we decided to finally check out the hotel’s swimming pool. We swam and played in the water for about 45 minutes. We were almost alone there!

Swimming pool at the Sarai Resort & Spa

After that we took a shower and we went for dinner. We ended up eating at a brand new restaurant that opened just a few days ago called Molop Wat Damnak Restaurant. They were so new that they asked to take a picture of us sitting at one of the tables with food in front of us so they could use it for their online social presence (we later checked and did find our picture on their Facebook place page). The food there was okay but what we liked the most was the quality of the service. The watermelon shakes were delicious, as always.

Watermelon juices at Molop Wat Damnak Restaurant

When we got back to the hotel, we asked the staff to help us renting bicycles for tomorrow. We planned to wake up super early and bike to Angkor Wat to be able to see the sun rise over the temple, an activity frequently present on Southeast Asia travelers’ bucket lists.

Day 55 | Admiring ancient Angkorian temples and a contemporary circus

Day 55 | Admiring ancient Angkorian temples and a contemporary circus

We took an all day minibus tour of Angkor’s Grand Circle which includes Banteay Srei, aka the woman’s temple, and other neighboring temples. Afterwards we saw an amazing performance of Phare The Cambodian Circus performed by former street kids trained in circus arts.

We started with breakfast at the Sarai then we got picked up by our tour service Siem Reap Shuttle Tours. There is an overwhelming number of tour services available in Siem Reap, our hotel concierge recommended a private tour that starts at $55 per car plus $55 for a certified tour guide to tell you about the sights. I looked through TripAdvisor and this was not such an inflated rate, $85 per day seemed reasonable across the board. By chance, I saw an ad for Siem Reap Shuttle Tours on a free map given to us by the hotel. They advertised a minibus tour for up to 11 people with a certified tour guide for $13 per person for Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples and $15 for Banteay Srei and its surrounding temples. Works for me, yesterday I booked the Banteay Srei tour online for today. And if today’s tour is enjoyable we planned to take the Angkor Wat tour tomorrow.

Through some slowness on our part and perhaps a misunderstanding on the tour staff’s part, all three of us sat in the lobby for 30 minutes not realizing we were all there ready to go. We apologized and got on the packed tour bus where other tourists looked at us disapprovingly for taking up 30 minutes of their time.

We first got dropped off at the tour company’s office, where we paid for the tour and switched buses, making sure we were on the one going to Banteay Srei. Since it’s the less popular option, we had a smaller van and only eight tourists including us onboard with the driver and guide.

The first stop of our tour was 10th century Pre Rup constructed as a temple mountain built with multiple terraces and stairs leading up to the central towers.

Pre Rup

Very close by was East Mebon which is located on an artificial island inside the East Baray reservoir (which has now dried up). Pre Rup and East Mebon are considered twin temples since they are similar in size and layout and are only 1200m apart. East Mebon has unique free-standing sculptures like these two lions guarding a gate at the top tier.

East Mebon

And this elephant. There is one elephant guarding each corner of the two lower tiers.

Elephant guarding East Mebon

Next we all got back on the van and drove to Ta Som, a small late 12th century temple. We liked the gate with its four calm, smiling faces pointed at each direction, very much like Bayon which we saw the next day.

Gate at Ta Som

The temple was left mostly unrestored until 1998 and many parts contain just piles of mismatched stones. Don’t worry, Maurice is here in the courtyard helping reassemble the stones.

Hide and seek at Ta Som

Our guide shown here is explaining one of the reliefs.

Our guide explaining a relief at Ta Som

The fourth stop on our Grand Circle tour was Preah Khan, like Ta Som, it’s another 12th century temple left to fall into disrepair until restoration efforts started in 1991. Unlike the other temples we saw today, this one had a moat.

Walkway across the moat to Preah Khan

Similar to Angkor Wat, the walkway is lined with gods and demons at their eternal tug of war game.

Gods and demons at their eternal tug of war game

Similar to Ta Prohm (aka the Tomb Raider temple), overgrown trees have climbed over and destroyed many parts of the temple and its gates.

Statue next to overgrown tree at Preah Khan

Dead tree trunk atop section of the wall.

Dead tree trunk atop section of Preah Khan

I like how this tree looks like a tall, elegant brontosaurus.

This tree looks like a dinosaur

Two trees attacked this section of Preah Khan. It’s sort of beautiful in a way to see nature fighting with man.

Two trees attacked this section of Preah Khan

Preah Khan has this unique two story structure that is unlike any other Angkorian temple. Its purpose is still a mystery.

Mysterious structure at Preah Khan

Looks like someone in the past did some “tomb raiding” here as the lintel and pediment are missing.

Stolen lintel and pediment from Preah Khan

We had lunch before visiting Banteay Srei at a restaurant chosen by the tour company. The restaurant unfortunately was very expensive for a casual restaurant in Cambodia. Each dish was at least $5 and our fried noodles and fried rice were only tolerable to mediocre. Maurice and I talked with two young solo travelers: a French-speaking Swiss guy and a British girl working in Hong Kong during our lunch break. The girl and I started talking about financial risk management since she also works in the field and this got tiring after ten minutes because I’m not in Cambodia on sabbatical to talk about work!

Our final stop was at 10th century Banteay Srei meaning “Citadel of Women.” The temple is constructed of red sandstone which gives it its unique reddish color.

Entrance of Banteay Srei

An example of the intricate carvings.

Intricate carvings Banteay Srei

Getting lost between towers at Banteay Srei.

Central towers at Banteay Srei

I love the texture of these different columns.

Detailed reliefs at Banteay Srei

Here we’re facing the central tower of Banteay Srei which is only 9.8m tall.

In the mini temple of Banteay Srei

More towers in the compound.

Banteay Srei towers

The guide pointed out the “Mona Lisa” of Banteay Srei. This carved relief shows a young woman with a mysterious, slightly mischievous smile like her Italian Renaissance namesake.

Mona Lisa of Banteay Srei

When we finished with the temple, we walked back to the bus. On the way we passed by this band of landmine victims playing traditional Khmer music.

The minibus dropped all of us off either at the center of town Pub Street or our hotels. We opted to return to our hotel. From there we relaxed for just about an hour, dining on crackers and wasabi nuts. I checked my email to see if Tepsavon, the English teacher from the school we visited yesterday, had confirmed he would pick us up from our hotel at 5pm today to see the class in session. He did not. As we feared, the village school was an incredibly elaborate scam preying on the kind hearts of foreigners, the worst kind of scam! We took it as a lesson to be much more cynical and wrote off the $40 as a very expensive slum tour.

We then hired a tuk tuk to take us 15 minutes out of town to the Phare circus tents.We bought the cheapest C tickets and since we arrived 30 minutes early (which wasn’t early enough) we had seats on the side somewhat obstructed by a pillar. The performance follows the story of a Cambodian village where a disabled boy is an outcast who is unable to join a group of cool kids.

Phare The Cambodian Circus was founded by Phare Ponleu Selpak, an organization first established in Battambang to train street kids in circus arts, music and other performing arts.

The acrobatics were intense and impressive. Here’s just a sample of what we saw.

Jumping over and rolling under a flag.

This guy climbs a faux coconut tree like I have never seen.

Climbing a coconut tree

The fire jump rope.

The epic seesaw.

After the show, we met up with our tuk tuk driver who drove us back to the hotel. We wanted to get a good night’s rest before our full day tour of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm temples.