Let me start by saying that the Siem Reap airport is probably the most beautiful airport I have ever flown into in my life. It's brand new (they were actually still working on some areas) and shiny and whoever designed it made it both traditional and modern at the same time. It reminds me a little of airports in Hawaii because it was one of those airports where you just walk from the runway to the gates, except it was different because the vegetation and architecture were definitely southeast Asian, not Hawaiian. And after an exhausting and short 24 jet-lagged hours in Bangkok, walking off the plane to the most gorgeous Cambodian afternoon with deep blue skies and towering white clouds, smelling the fresh, tropical air had us immediately smiling wide and exclaiming over how this was the exact vacation experience we had been hoping for.
When we were planning the trip and making reservations for accommodations, I stumbled upon a screaming deal for a place called Angkor Palace Resort & Spa. It had amazing reviews, was a 5-star property, and was 75% off so we went for it and were so glad we did. We were welcomed with tropical drinks, Cambodian scarves were draped around our necks, and Clara immediately started going crazy over the geckos that were all over the place. One of my big mistakes on this trip, though, is that I didn't take pictures of the places we stayed! Oops.
Anyway, after swimming and room service, we called it a night so we would be ready for a big day of touring the Angkor temples the next day.
We hired a private driver to take us around for the two days we spent visiting temples in the Siem Reap region. I actually found him when I was researching whether there was a branch of the LDS church in Siem Reap and came across a website talking about when and where the branch meets there and mentioning that the former branch president, Brother Bunseak Loy, operates a tuk-tuk and taxi service and could take people to church on Sunday since the building is not in the regular tourist areas. I ended up emailing him and arranging to have him drive us around in his very nice and very air-conditioned (yay!) SUV. He was such a nice person and had so many interesting things to share with us about the area, the people, the government and the history of Cambodia. And he supplied us with ice cold waters all day long every time we got back to the car and took us to good restaurants for lunches that we didn't have to worry about getting sick from.
On our second day with him (that I will post about in a different blog post because this one is already going to have too many photos), I asked Mr. Loy about whether he had lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. I maybe shouldn't have and it shows my lack of knowledge and cultural insensitivity for doing so, but I didn't realize that until after Mr. Loy explained that he was 9 years old when the the military went through Phnom Penh and evacuated everybody, claiming that the Americans were coming to bomb the city and they were all going to the countryside for 3 days to be safe. Eventually his entire family was killed and only he survived. I found a children's book at the airport bookshop as we were leaving called "Half a Spoon of Rice" that I bought for the girls which does an excellent job covering this very difficult topic in an appropriate way because it is an aspect of our trip that I want to educate them about in the future. And even better, it is about a 9-year old boy, just like our Mr. Loy. Anyway, if anybody is heading to Cambodia we would absolutely recommend hiring him.
So the first major temple we visited was Bayon, which is known for the many smiling faces of Buddha carved on it. The temple complexes are surrounded by moats and have bridges lined with beautifully carved statues leading to impressive gates that mark the entry to the ancient city which housed a million people in its day, which is just insane to think about. On one side of the bridge are guardian statues and on the other are demon statues. And all the moats we saw had lilypads floating around.
The carvings and stone hallways were just beautiful. It is hard to imagine how much work went into creating these places hundreds of years ago and how they could be abandoned to the jungle for centuries. Mr. Loy said that a lot of the labor was done by slaves, often Thais who were enemies and often at war with Cambodia. Mr. Loy also told us that because of border disputes in the past there are at least a few temples in what is currently Thailand that are actually Cambodian temples and you can tell because of the carvings which use the Cambodian alphabet instead of the Thai one.
The girls actually really had quite a bit of fun at the temples. They climbed over rocks and stairs and explored hallways and alcoves like excellent little adventurers. It was only later in the day when they were tired and hot and hungry that things got not so fun, but that is when we bailed to do lunch or go back to the resort to swim.
It was so exciting to actually see macaque monkeys hanging out around the temples! They weren't at all worried about the human visitors and just kind of did their own thing. We saw one monkey going after a man with bananas in a clear plastic sack and another one that grabbed a water bottle sitting next to a woman who was meditating and unscrewed the lid, drank her water, then scampered off.
Just as we were finishing up these three showed up in traditional Cambodian costumes along with a handler. We aren't sure whether they were for any tourists to take pictures with or if they were placed there by a tour company for one of the massive groups that showed up after we left (we got an early start knowing that the best time to see the temples without too many people is first thing in the morning before the buses show up). I just used the telephoto lens to take the picture from farther away like a paparazzi.
I had climbed some steep steps to take a picture of the buddha above and headed back down to notice Clara and Rose resting below me. So sweet.
Then I called for them to look up at me and snapped this. Love them.
And then I went down and handed off the camera so I could have a moment with the girls talking about the monkeys. The girls were so funny and loved making monkey noises, which turned out to be a better prompt for us than asking them to "cheese" because it got them giggling.
This hallway was actually part of the Elephant Terrace temple, which was interesting but not as photogenic as Bayon, which I think everybody who visits just loves.
Not sure what gate this was - it was leading from the Elephant Terrace to the temple of the Terrace of the Leper King - but we loved it. It felt like being in Indiana Jones and Paul and I were like little kids climbing around it.
After a bit of a break in the car and driving to a different area, we set off to explore Ta Prohm, which is also known as the "Tomb Raider" temple from the Lara Croft movie that Angelina Jolie starred in. I had the foresight to bring the baby carrier and Rose was out within minutes of strapping her in on my back. Poor little gal. You can also see that Clara was flagging at this point too. This is when we broke out the leftover Halloween candy that I had saved for just this occasion and with the help of gummy worms, starbusts, smarties and dum-dums, we got through moments like this without too much of a meltdown. Not our finest parenting moments, but it got all of us through it.
Paul took this photo which gives such a great perspective of the enormous trees that have overrun parts of this temple and grow in between cracks in the stone blocks.
You can see when Clara's sugar rush kicked in.
And when she started to crash again 30 minutes later. Oops.
What these pictures don't show is that a literal horde of Japanese tourists showed up in a giant group (must have been multiple buses) and SWARMED this area while we were there. We stepped off to the side in a secluded doorway and rested from the heat and the crowd before realizing that neither obstacle was going to let up anytime soon. So we bailed just a couple minutes after taking this image (one of my favorites of the trip) showing Rose with her slumped shoulders and sweaty post-nap hair and Clara and Paul both looking ready for naps themselves. But despite the exhaustion we all felt, it was a great first day of touring the ancient ruins.