While tomorrow we start our tours of the very famous, ancient (really medieval, as we discovered) temples that Siem Reap and the surrounding area are known for, today we spent most of the day wandering among the various Wats within walking distance from our hotel and seeing other Siem Reap sights.
We got breakfast first, a really delicious Cambodian soup and other mixed Cambodian breakfast items, including a salt-egg, which pretty much tastes just like salt and has a strange texture (I can’t win with Asian fermented eggs, it seems). I also tried congee, which was an interesting breakfast choice.
First, we walked about a block from our hotel and toured the Angkor National Museum, which has a beautiful collection of Buddha statues and informative descriptions of the rulers behind the famous temple complexes and the Khmer religion. Their collection is impressive and really a great way to start any experience in Cambodia.
Next, we decided that we wanted to get a better feel for the area surrounding our hotel, so we wandered to six of the local Wats, or Buddist temples (as we noticed, most include living areas for monks, a practicing prayer room, and a school for primary-middle school aged children at the minimum).
The first Wat we went to actually had the most amazing decor that we saw over the course of the six Wats we visited- we were also able to look inside, and saw some kind of bone/burial area as we wandered around. I think that the majority of tourists forego all of these complexes, as most of the monks we saw smiled in greeting and looked happy to welcome us into their space, as did the children who happily practiced saying “hello” to us in very well developed American accents. For those who travel here and miss out on the current practice of Buddhism, I think skipping the short walking tour (seriously everything was within about 15-20 minutes of our hotel) would be a big mistake.
The first Wat was Wat Kesararam, an absolutely beautiful temple.
I wish that I knew more about the practice of Buddhism in order to describe fully what we saw, so I apologize for any mistakes in my commentary (and for any gates out of order). Then, we walked slightly down the road to Ya-Tep Shrine and Preah Ang Chak/Preah Ang Chop Shrine, which seemed to cater to a less monk/more pedestrian audience (if there is such a thing, it was the only one selling offerings outside and with beggars at the entrance, as well as with monetary collection stations).
We had to cross the river to get to the next several Wats, and ended up walking through some very interesting markets, homes, and otherwise non-tourist streets. Despite the heat, I enjoyed the walk.
Then, we went to Wat Pe Lanka, slightly off the main road and probably one of the largest complexes we saw. They had an interesting set of wall decorations and signs as well.
Then, we wandered up to Wat Preach An Kau Saa, which was much smaller and slightly less decorated than the previous Wats.
Finally, we finished our Wat circle with Wat Preah An Ku Sai, which was a fascinating combination of old and new architecture and worship spaces. Best of all, we met a very friendly monk who had just returned from a 10 day meditation class in Virginia (what are the odds), so he welcomed us to come in and explore the complex a little more fully than we had been able to at previous sites.
Then, we headed back to our hotel and enjoyed the pool and grabbed lunch. Perry had the traditional amok fish stew, and I had a seafood curry, both of which were excellent.
For dinner, we headed to one of the nearby hotels for a delicious Khmer tasting menu ($21 each for 3 full courses, drinks, and a free starter) which was incredibly good. We had a beef salad amuse-busche, a beef salad, shredded fish salad, a fish stew, roasted duck soup, lemongrass-skewered beef, and chicken curry. Overall, Khmer food is quite different from other southeast Asian cuisines, with a slight emphasis on the sour notes as opposed to spicy, sweet, or tangy. Either way, the food was delicious.
Tomorrow we head about an hour and a half away with our tuk tuk driver, Mr. Pha, to see a remote-ish (I wanted to see one several hours away but the hotel staff and waitstaff at the dinner restaurant both laughed at that ambition) temple complex. It should be a beautiful ride!