“Tuk tuk Sally, I think you better slow your little tuk tuk down,” I sing, and this becomes the first of countless tuk tuk songs I’ll sing with my daughter Jessie and her friend Brenna during our time together in Cambodia. We’ve just landed in Siem Reap and we’re giddy to the point of hysteria. Five minutes ago we nearly tipped the tuk tuk over before we even got started, and now we’re hanging on for dear life as Narith, the driver from our hotel, takes corners like we’re in an Indiana Jones movie as we launch our Small Circuit tour of Angkor Archeological Park.
The park is commonly referred to by the name of its most famous temple, Angkor Wat, but the complex is actually a massive 700-year old city containing the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th – 15th century, with more than 1,000 temples, tombs, irrigation canals and communications routes spread over 400 km2.
Our tour begins at Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. It was built more than 1,000 years ago, and unlike most other abandoned temples in the complex, Angkor Wat is still being used as a place of worship today. This means that in addition to all the tourists, we also get to see real monks passing through the temple. Very cool.
Next we cover the Elephant Terrace, the Terrace of the Leper King, Baphoun temple, and Phimean Akas temple. It’s a bit overwhelming, especially with the heat and humidity, but there’s something unmistakably special about this place that makes it like no other UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before the 1990’s Cambodia’s decades of civil war and political upheaval made the country off-limits to the outside world, but today more than 2 million tourists visit the country each year, and Angkor is by far the most popular spot. Roads have been built throughout the complex, but they’re dirt and mud, and Narith loves to hear us squeal as he zips through a particularly rough spot. “You tuk me all night long,” Brenna sings, making us burst into laughter.
Just when we’re starting to feel like every temple looks the same, Narith drops us at Ta Prohm with the promise he’ll meet us at the other end in 30 minutes. If you’re wondering why the picture looks familiar, you’re not alone: tourism in Cambodia kicked into high gear after Angelina Jolie portrayed Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, filmed at Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is deliberately unrestored, and the ficus and silk tree roots growing over it give it the perfect “lost in the jungle” look. Because so few people remember the name Ta Prohm, it’s most commonly called “the one with the trees” or “Tomb Raider temple.” Unfortunately for us, we’ll remember it as the one where we got separated and spent a hot, sweaty hour looking for each other. The girls try to cheer me up by singing “you tuk it on the run, baby” in their best REO Speedwagon impression.
By this time I’m wilted like last week’s prom corsage. “Are we done yet?” I whine to Narith, and with a chuckle he tells me we have just one more temple on our Small Circuit tour. Boy oh boy, did we save the best for last! For me, it was love at first sight with the Bayon temple, and if I had only one temple I could see in all of Angkor, it would be this one. Maybe it’s because for me, travel is all about the people and Bayon is all about peoples’ faces. The temple has hundreds of faces of all sizes carved into the stones. There are depictions of men drinking together, of women in labor, of families eating together. It’s a stone representation of all the lives who came before me. It’s spectacular, and as tired and cranky as I was before, I could spend hours at this temple. I reluctantly leave it, singing, “I just met you and this is crazy, but here’s my tuk tuk. Call me maybe.”
Things to know:
- The Short Circuit takes about 8 hours and costs $15. You can arrange a tour through any hotel. It’s possible to do it yourself by bike, but unless you’re seriously hard-core, I recommend taking a tuk tuk. Trust me, it adds to the charm of the place.
- The Long Circuit takes you to outlying temples far from the center. Most people who take this tour do it in the two days following their Short Circuit tour, but since some are as far as 60km away it is not unheard of to take three or four days to fully explore the area. The Long Circuit is only $25.
- You need a ticket to enter the park. There are 3 ticketing options: 1 day ($20), 3 days ($40) and 7 days ($60). The 1-day will cover the Short Circuit tour.
- It’s very popular to get up at oh-dark-thirty to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. For sure it’s beautiful, but it’s also backlit, meaning that your photos will all be silhouettes. Keep this in mind when setting your alarm the night before.
- You can take a balloon ride, but it might not be what you expect. Angkor balloons are not hot air balloons, which explains why it’s so cheap at $20. In this version, you go straight up in a balloon that’s tethered to the ground. It’s actually pretty cool, but I suggest instead of sunrise, go at sunset for the same reason as in #4. At sunset the sun will be behind you and should bathe everything in a beautiful pink/orange glow. I wish I had known that when I went at 4 AM.
- Respect the culture and cover your knees and shoulders in every temple. Tip: carry a sarong in your day bag and throw it over your shoulders before entering a temple.
- Learn more here at the Cambodia Tourism site
Who has a tuk tuk song? Share it in the comments!