When in Siem Reap, you are obligated to visit the many and various temples around the city.
For $16 USD, you can rent a tuk-tuk and the services of a good English-speaking tour guide to take you around. The drive from Siem Reap Central isn’t very far, maybe about a half hour from the hotel.
We start at the end of one loop and continue running up and down temple stairs and through damp-scented corridors. There are beautiful carvings every which way to look, sweat pouring down in the sweltering mid-day sun, even when we step into shadows.
The temples are grooved and smoothed my fingers and feet. Orange dirt turns our shoes and skin to clay-like colors. I stand at the top of one, the funerary temple (called Pre Rup) where people were cremated, and marvel at the expanse of jungle and tumbling down stones. This is human mastery being conquered by nature.
Our first glimpse of the temples was Angkor Wat in the distance as we rumbled toward the outer walls of the Bayon complex. The guards on the balustrades of the river – they are magnificent. Some are intact, untouched by the culturally destructive Khmer Rouge. Others are missing heads and faces, stone flesh scarred by a battle they could not win. Yet others are slathered over by lichen and mold.
We putter through the Bayon complex, as massive as it is, and through a second gate, out toward the more northerly temples and smaller complexes. Elephants bearing tourists lumber on by, looking quite annoyed by their job.
Preah Khan, Neak pean (a multi-layered fountain complex), Ta Som (old, melting trees like its more famous cousin, Ta Phrom), Pre Rup (loads of stairs and a cremation site), East Mebon, and Bantrey Kdai – we know these names from a plastic map in the roof of our tuk-tuk. More than once, when I tried to look at the map, it slapped me across the face as the wind forced it back.
The once-imperial royal bathing site is now rather quiet and calm and flanked by a bunch of Cambodian restaurants where tuk-tuks are commissioned to stop. We have a small lunch with a pineapple curry, Angkor beer, and a spicy beef dish, all the while wondering what other wonders the Grand Tour will evoke.
Most people come for Angkor Wat or Bayon, the major leaguers. I would recommend spending time roaming the lesser trod corridors of the smaller temples, listening to their stories.
And they have some beautiful and tragic things to say.