Cambodia Kingdom of Wonder
Cambodia is resilient, dusty, kind, hot, hustling, smelly, heart wrenching and happy that you are here. Before we arrived in Siem Reap, we had been warned about how we'd be approached often by people trying to sell us their services whether it be a tuk tuk ride, food at their restaurant, trinkets or souvenirs but we had no idea that it would literally be every 15 seconds. A person could be exhausted by this bombardment but we've both found that a smile and a "no thank you" can do wonders. We've also found that asking someone how their day has been or actually engaging them in conversation can make your experience completely different. It's never easy to turn away a child selling a bracelet or an amputee begging for less than a dollar. We've opted instead for visiting NGO cafes where the proceeds go towards educating these children and helping the disabled community. Still, it's hard to witness the Cambodian's daily struggle for survival.
Our journey from Cambodia began with a five-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Bangkok and our first overland border crossing. Before we began our trip we decided that our goal throughout Southeast Asia would be to take buses and trains whenever possible instead of flying to help keep costs down. It’s also a much more authentic backpacking experience and while more challenging, it’s something we both wanted to try and do. The crossing from Thailand to Cambodia through Poipet is notorious for its visa scams and so we decided to pay the extra seven dollars ahead of time for an e-visa in order to make the crossing smoother. We also did a ton of research about what bus to take and found a post on Live Collar Free with amazing details all the way from purchasing your e-visa to finding the correct website to purchase a bus ticket that will take you all the way from Bangkok straight to Siem Reap. We were lucky that all our research paid off and that the border guard was in a good mood as we didn’t have any problems getting stamped out of Thailand and into Cambodia with our e-visas.
We had arranged to have a tuk tuk driver from our hotel pick us up at the bus station ahead of time so we could avoid having a random driver try and take us to a guesthouse or hotel they had a deal with. Even though we arrived ahead of schedule (woohoo) our driver was there waiting for us with my name on a sign making him super easy to find. He seemed like a nice guy, and we arranged for him to pick us up the next morning for our first day of touring the temples of Angkor Wat as well as visit a floating village. We discovered that our hotel had a really amazing pool with lots of spots in the shade and seemed to be the hotel of choice among a lot of the Southeast Asia tours coming through town. At 20 dollars a night, with a large buffet breakfast included, it really was quite a steal!
After settling in we decided to explore the night market and found some dinner at a local Khmer restaurant. We chose a place popular with locals and tourists alike and had the best grilled fish so far on the trip; what was best was that instead of the overpriced fish at beach front restaurants in Thailand this one was only 5 dollars. It will be pretty hard to pay the prices in Chicago for the whole grilled fish there when we’ve eaten the same dish for a fifth of the price (and lived to tell the tale). We also had some great kebabs and 50 cent beers. We quickly walked up and down Pub Street to check out the scene before retiring early as we were getting picked up at 6:00am the next day for our first day of temple exploration.
Our tuk tuk driver whose name was Rami was waiting for us when we got downstairs to take us to Banteay Srei, which would come to be one of my favorite temple visits. The temple, built in the 10th century, is mainly constructed of red sandstone which really made all of the elaborate carvings stand out. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Siva and was the only major temple at Angkor not built by a monarch. You could spend hours poring over the intricate carved designs and poking your head through the endless arches and doorways.
On our way to the floating village of Kompong Phluk, we stopped at several more Angkorian temples: Pre Kup, Sras Srang and Banteay Kdei. I’ll let the photos do the talking…
Our trip out to Kompong Phluk was a bit longer than we expected, bumping along in our tuk tuk down unpaved roads. We’d heard such great things about visiting a floating village I was initially very excited, but upon arrival we learned that it was a $20pp fee for a boat ride down the river and into Tonle Sap Lake which was more than we’d be paying our tuk tuk driver for an entire day. My FOMO in full force, we eventually conceded to paying the fee and hopped into a boat sitting in no more than just a few inches of water. Yes, inches. We hadn’t taken into account that May is one of the driest months of the year in Cambodia and the floating village wasn’t really floating at all.
It consisted mostly of houses on stilts and there wasn’t a lot of action happening mid-day in 110F heat either. After getting out of the boat several times on the brown sloppy banks of the river (and getting sprayed multiple times by other passing boats motors in the shallow water), we finally arrived at the lake expecting a bustling floating market and again were disappointed by the quietness of everything. While it was certainly an “experience” it’s not something we’d recommend doing in the dry season in Cambodia.
The next day we decided to take a day off from temples and enjoy getting to know the city of Siem Reap a bit better, as well as take advantage of the hotel pool! We started the day off by walking around the city center, visiting some local markets and two of the modern temples in the area, Wat Bo and Wat Damnak. When it got too hot we decided it was time to hit the pool and ended up meeting a really nice couple from Texas. We don’t meet a lot of American’s on our travels, so we often get excited when we meet someone from the States! For lunch we decided to check out one of Siem Reap’s many pizza joints and then catch a movie at one of new favorite Cambodia concepts, a tourist movie house. For $5 a person, you can enjoy one of 500+ different movies in a private air conditioned room that would remind you a lot of your parent’s basement. Sure there may have been a sign on the door prohibiting sex, drugs, and smoking, so it may not have been the cleanest establishment, but it was perfect to escape the heat for an afternoon. Afterwards we decided to try out one of the famous “fish massage” places. Basically you dunk your feet and ankles into a fish tank filled with tiny fish and then they eat away at the dead skin on your feet. It may sound disgusting, but it was actually a really fun (and tickly) experience and afterwards my feet felt great! Sometimes our favorite days of traveling are the ones where we give ourselves a free pass to just explore a city and relax without having to check anything off the sightseeing list. The next day we planned to start at 6:00am again in order to get in the four temples we really wanted to see before it became scorching outside.
Visualize how you look and feel after taking one of those 105-degree hot yoga classes and then imagine living your life for the foreseeable future in that kind of heat, welcome to our life! All sense of fashion and caring about how you look goes out the window and it’s actually kind of nice. Jeremy has now accumulated four different man tank tops and I’ve worn the same two pairs of shorts every day for the past two months. Also because laundry is so cheap we could have survived with about half of the clothes that we brought. In fact, if we were to take another backpacking trip in the future we could honestly get away with sharing one large big backpack and then bringing two smaller (than we have now) daypacks and we’d be fine. I have a feeling that when we get back to America we’re going to be completely overwhelmed by the amount of material things that we own.
The temples of Angkor Wat are the largest religious monuments in the world spanning XX acres built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. Instead of writing about each of the temples we visited I thought I’d do a photo gallery for each one instead.
After a day of temples, we both needed a good foot massage ($3/half hour) as well as some great 25 cent draft beers! We also decided to splurge on Cambodian BBQ where we got to try crocodile and various other exotic meats. And while it was a cool experience it probably wasn’t worth the expense. Overall we really loved visiting Siem Reap both for the cultural history and for it’s fun atmosphere. The next day we were off to Battambang where we’d get a taste of Cambodian countryside and then Phnom Penh to learn about Cambodia’s dark and recent history.