We came to Cambodia for pretty much the same reason everyone visits Cambodia, to see the ancient Khmer ruins north of Siem Reap. The day before the guesthouse guy told us there was no way we could walk there (even after I told him we did 20 mile walks for fun at home), and if we did there would be no available tuk-tuks should we decide to bail. His feeble efforts at pitching tuk-tuk services failed. We were willing to take our chances with not getting transportation back, as I had checked the distances earlier and knew that at most we were looking at a 40 km day max with minimal elevation gain.
After an espresso/bakery stop we set out at 8:00 am. We took a road that paralleled the highway and came across one of the locals' markets, a pleasant change from the souvenir-laden tourist markets that dominate most of the town. After ~3 km we reached the entrance station where we paid our requisite $20 for a day's admission (the same price as a 7 day pass for Yosemite). I wouldn't have minded the hefty fee had a large percentage of it been allocated for the temple upkeep. I knew instead that ~90% would end up in the government coffers (or worse, officials' pockets). We continued down the dusty road for another 2 km past cleared mine fields until we reached the huge moat surrounding Angkor Wat.
The temple entrance is on the west side of the complex, and as we neared it we got a glimpse of the hoards of tourists we would encounter along the way, most of which rode around in air conditioned buses or tuk-tuks and were dropped off at each of the temple entrances. The temple was well preserved considering it was constructed from sandstone (supported by some type of porous volcanic rock) in the mid 12th century, although the upper levels were under construction and off-limits. The temple was transformed from Hindu to Buddhist in conjunction with the conversion of King Jayavarman VII (responsible for much of the secular and non-secular infrastructure at the time), and not surprisingly, much of the Hindu symbols were destroyed. Afterward we picked up excellent locally made mango and coconut sorbet and headed down the road to the ancient city of Angkor Thom.
At Angkor Thom we encountered the first of the massive gates, topped with giant heads. Large scowling stone figures hold up the many headed serpent that makes up the railing of the bridge that crosses the moat. Within the walls of Angkor Thom we passed through the Prasat Bayon temple, which contained some of the best preserved carvings we found on our tour. The Terrace of the Elephants was easy to recognize with its elephant buttresses. We had higher hopes for the small Terrace of the Leper King. Legend holds that at least two Cambodian kings suffered from leprosy; however, according to historians it is more likely that the statue that tops the terrace represents Yama, the god of death. Personally, I think the leper king story is much more intriguing.
From Angkor Thom we continued northward to Preah Khan, originally a monastery dedicated to the father of Jayavarman VII. The Buddhist imagery was vandalized during the reintroduction of Hinduism in Cambodia. The vendors at the less visited temples were eager for tourist dollars and every tourist exiting the temple was greeted with a chorus of “Sir/Lady, I have cold water for you. Only $1”. Even tiny children were out in full force pushing post cards and trinkets. After the 20th sales pitch, I had to remind myself that the region is very economically depressed and the vast bulk of the locals' income comes from the tourist trade. From Preah Khan we had two options: a) continue on the 26 km grand loop back to the turn-off to Siem Reap or b) head back to Angkor Thom and do the 17 km mini loop. We decided that the mini loop sounded more realistic given the remaining daylight hours.
From Angkor Thom we left the city through the eastern Victory gate and before long came across Ta Keo. Built in the late 10th/early 11th century in dedication to the Hindu god Shiva, it is the first temple in the region to be constructed entirely of sandstone. Unlike the other temples we visited Ta Keo is unfinished. A steep staircase (bordering on Class 3 with its uneven, narrow sandy ledges) led to the top of the highest tower. As we walked along the forested roads we were serenaded by the loud and strangely electronic-sounding drone of cicadas (I think), much like an alarm system. I couldn't imagine what it was like for the road maintenance workers to have to listen to that maddening noise all day long.
We (stupidly) skipped Ta Prohm, not realizing it is the famous overgrown temple complex (although we got a taste of it at Preah Khan), and headed back toward Siem Reap, passing cow fields and tiny villages on the way. One of the local riding a motorcycle asked us why we were walking (we never saw anyone else walking the loop) and couldn't understand Jascha's answer of “for exercise”. At the turn-off for Siem Reap with darkness falling we decided that it was time to cave after 30+ km. We took a tuk-tuk back for the last 5 km.