One of our most anticipated excursions on this South Asian Cruise was a visit to Angkor Wat, the UNESCO World Heritage temples at Siem Reap. Friends of ours had visited the temples the year before, and had insisted it was a “must see” if we were ever to find ourselves in Indo-China. Siem Reap is in the north east of Cambodia and nowhere near the sea or a port. Azamara offered an overnight excursion from Bangkok to Siem Reap which was scheduled to leave at 2:30 pm (just 2 hours after our ship was scheduled to arrive in Bangkok) with a return the next evening at 6:00 pm. The excursion included a flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap, dinner and lodging at a 5-star hotel in Siem Reap, visiting the temples the next morning followed by lunch and a flight back to Bangkok.
While this journey would have allowed us to visit the ancient temples we so desperately wanted to see, we could not justify the $1,800 cost per person for an overnight excursion. Leaving the ship at 2:30 pm on our arrival day also meant that we would miss the Azamazing Evening (see Day 10 post) that is a special part of each Azamara Cruise. Rather than skip the temples altogether, we looked for other possible options.
After some vigilant research, Kim was able to find a private tour company that could provide us virtually the same itinerary as offered on the Azamara excursion, but at a fraction of the cost. The only caveat was that instead of a relatively quick flight to Siem Reap, we would be trekking from Bangkok to Siem Reap by car - a trip of approximately 400 kilometres. We were more than willing to sacrifice the dinner and lodging at the 5-star hotel in Siem Reap given the superb quality of the food and accommodation that we were enjoying on the Azamara Journey. Since the actual temple visit would be the same, we opted for the private excursion. Not only did we save a considerable amount of money, but we had an opportunity to see parts of Cambodia that we would have missed had we flown directly to Siem Reap.
Our journey to Angkor Wat began with a wakeup call at 2:15 am! We had barely slept for 3 hours after our Azamazing Evening and here we were, heading off on a trip across one country and into another. We walked through the eerily quiet ship to the gangway and descended the steel steps to the deserted pier. We crossed over to the main gate and our awaiting van. It was quite surreal as we climbed through the open doorway into the rear of the vehicle. It was the middle of the night and we were heading from one foreign country that we had just arrived in, to another foreign country with a driver that we had never met before. Once that thought had dissipated, the comfort of the van’s deep leather seats and the low hum of the engine as we slipped out of the port towards the main road to Cambodia slowly lulled me to sleep. Kim was stretched out across the 3rd row seats (she had brought her pillow from the ship).
We only stopped once on the 4-hour trip to the Cambodian border so the driver could fill up the van with gas. We arrived at the border just as the sun was rising. Our driver pulled into a small parking lot amid a cluster of shops on the Thai side. As the van came to a stop, the front passenger door opened and a young man jumped into the seat beside the driver. He greeted us with a big smile and introduced himself as Mr. Sok. He spoke English rather easily and his cheery personality was as bright and colourful as his purple shirt. He explained what we needed to do to cross over into Cambodia. We would be driving another minute or so to the actual border crossing where Kim and I would get an exit visa from the Thai border patrol. We would then walk across the border into Cambodia and he would meet us on the other side where he would facilitate our Cambodian Visa purchase.
Our driver brought us to the government building at the border crossing. We exited the van and took all our belongings as the Thai driver was not permitted to go into Cambodia. We would be meeting another driver who would take us to Siem Reap once we crossed over and obtained our Cambodian entry visa. Mr Sok directed us to the entrance of the Customs building and we ascended the stairs and watched him pass beneath us under the archway into Cambodia. We would meet him on the other side.
The customs area was surprisingly crowded at 7:00 in the morning. Despite the large numbers of people in the customs area, it was strangely quiet. It took us about 15 minutes to mill our way through customs and obtain our exit visas. We needed these to get back into Thailand after our trip to Cambodia. As we left the building on the Cambodian side we descended the steps into an archway that funneled us into the border town of Poipet - and utter chaos.
Hundreds of people and dozens of scooters were zigging and zagging through the narrow intersection that terminated at the border. We pushed our way to the street corner and looked around anxiously for Mr. Sok. He had told us he would be waiting on the other side, but wasn’t specific about the location. Searching for him in the ever-moving crowd was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. A group of young men on parked scooters by the corner had been watching us for several minutes and noting our anxiety, shouted to us and pointed to the building across the street. It was obvious to them that we must have been lost tourists in distress. The building they were pointing to had several flags hanging from the entrance with a painted sign in English that read “Visa”.
We assumed that Mr. Sok must have meant for us to meet him there so we crossed the busy street to the building. We entered the building and walked into a small square room that had a couple of hightop tables in the middle and a cashier style window on the far wall. Aside from a young couple who were standing at the window and being attended to by a government official, the room was empty. After waiting another 10 minutes or so, our anxiety level was becoming alarmingly high. We decided to start the visa process ourselves in the hopes that Mr. Sok would arrive shortly. As Kim was filling out the forms at one of the hightop tables, I stood outside the building hoping to spot Mr. Sok. Just as Kim was completing the visa transaction, I saw Mr. Sok jauntily walking towards the building smiling and greeting locals as he approached.
With the visa application done, we now needed to go through Cambodian customs in another building a few hundred yards up the street. Mr. Sok escorted us to the building and we entered another square room, this time with about a dozen other people waiting to be processed. Mr. Sok warned us that Cambodian officials were corrupt and that we may be asked for money before being allowed to enter. He advised us to tell them that we had already purchased our visas and that we were not going to pay any more money. We went through the process with no issues and were not asked to provide further payment.
As we were leaving the customs booth and walking back to the busy street where Mr. Sok was waiting for us, we were startled by a long, sharp whistle that lasted about 15 seconds. As the whistle ended, every car, scooter and pedestrian came to a complete standstill. The cacophony of noise resonating up and down the street suddenly stopped. At the same time, music began blaring from speakers hanging from telephone poles on either side of the street. All the pedestrians were standing at attention. Car occupants and scooter riders sat perfectly still. Everyone began singing in unison. This lasted for about one minute and then the music stopped, followed by another long, sharp whistle. As the whistle blew, the chaos from a few minutes before resumed as if the interlude had never happened. We would learn later that this ritual occurs countrywide, twice a day, at 7:00 am and 5:00 pm.
We walked with Mr. Sok to the next street corner where there was a small plaza lined with parked cars. He led us to a Toyota Camry and introduced us to our new driver who would take us to Siem Reap which was just over two hours away. He explained that he would meet us here on our return at the end of the day to help us cross back into Thailand. We bade him goodbye and settled into the back seat of the air-conditioned vehicle. Like our driver from Bangkok, our Cambodian driver spoke very little English, but was extremely polite and welcomed us to Cambodia.
It took about 15 minutes to drive through Poi Pet on the main road to Siem Reap. The stretch was a bit seedy with tiny shops lining each side of the road. A narrow sidewalk separates the shops from the street and there was a steady stream of scooters and pedestrians. At one point, we passed a massive tent set up on the sidewalk that was lavishly decorated. Our driver indicated that this was for a wedding.
The drive to Siem Reap was quite uneventful. The road, which is mostly tree lined, is relatively straight and was in fairly good condition. We passed a few scattered villages on the way. The countryside was mostly flat with large, open fields and a smattering of forested areas. As we approached Siem Reap, the road morphed into a boulevard lined with shady trees. Tin shacks made way to larger bungalows, then to old French houses, many of them converted to shops, then to sprawling hotel resorts with manicured hedges and gated entrances. This was a sharp contrast to the relative poverty we had observed in Poipet.
It was approaching 10:00 am when we turned into one of the very grand resorts and parked near the hotel entrance. Our driver made a call and in a couple of minutes we were greeted by our guide who would take us through the temples. We were at the hotel long enough to have a quick bathroom break and then we resumed our ride for another 10 minutes to the Angkor Archeological Park to pick up our tickets. Our driver parked in front of a large open-sided building where we would have a quick breakfast before entering our first temple.
Angkor consists of multiple temples, basins, dykes, reservoirs and canals covering an area of over 400 square kilometres. We would be visiting three temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom. These temples, along with several others, were the centre of the Khmer Kingdom from the 9th to the 14th century.
We began our tour at the west gate of Angkor Wat. This temple dates back to the 12th century and is the largest religious monument in the world covering an area of 400 acres. A lilied pond serves as a natural welcome mat when approaching the temple from the west. The temple was originally built for the Hindu god Vishnu, but in the latter part of the 12th century converted to a Buddhist temple. The temple consists of 3 rectangular galleries inside a 3 kilometre wall. The 3 galleries are stepped from smallest to tallest with a series of 5 towers in the centre arranged to form a cross when viewed from the top. It took us approximately 2 hours to walk through the temple and to take in the detailed architecture including bas reliefs and myriad Hindu deity etched into the walls.
We ended our tour of Angkor Wat at the East Gate with the sun nearing its apex. The East Gate exits to a pathway lined on either side with tall, shady trees. Our car was waiting a few hundred yards past the East Gate to take us to our next temple - Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm was immortalized in Hollywood by Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft - Tomb Raider. This temple was started in the late 12th century and was constructed as a Buddhist Temple. It consists of many towers and corridors covered in bas-reliefs. What is remarkable about this temple is that it is covered in jungle with large trees growing from the walls and rooted in the stone structures. The whole effect gives this area a fantasy land feeling.
The last temple we visited, Angkor Thom, like Ta Prohm, was constructed as a Buddhist temple, and was the last capital of the Khmer Kingdom. It was a fortified city built to house priests, officials of the palace and the military. Much of the main city was built of wood, and as a result, there is little that remains of these original structures. What does remain are the many stone monuments within the 360 acres where the original city was built. At each of the 5 entrances to the temple is a causeway that leads to a tower. Each causeway is flanked by 54 stone statues on each side - demons on the right and gods on the left. A serpent, held up by the gods and demons, is stretched the length of the causeway forming a railing.
It was approaching mid-afternoon by the time we finished our visit of Angkor Thom. We had been walking all day and we were beginning to fade. As we were leaving the temples, we stopped briefly at a makeshift market and purchased a few items made by local merchants. Our driver took us back to the hotel in Siem Reap where we had a quick bathroom break and bade our guide farewell before we headed back to the Thai border.
Our drive back to the border was uneventful. We stopped at a roadside restaurant about an hour into our trip and purchased some take-out food to eat on our way back. We arrived in Poipet just at dusk where we met up with Mr. Sok who guided us through immigration and introduced us to our next driver for our trip back to Bangkok. We managed to get a little bit of sleep on the way back. We arrived at the pier in Bangkok around 10:00 pm totally exhausted, but glad we had made the effort to visit one of the great wonders of the world - Angkor.
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 1 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 2 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Hong Kong Part 3 & Onboard Azamara Day 1 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 2 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 3 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 4 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 5 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 6 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 7 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 8 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 9 - click here
Adventures in South East Asia - Onboard Azamara Day 11 - click here
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.