Cambodia was the fourth stop on the South East Asia trip Steve and I took in 2017. We arrived at the airport and it reminded me of Cancun, being swarmed by taxi and private car services, but instead, these were all Tuk Tuk drivers! These drivers are aggressive because they know that more than likely, we will pick a driver who will then be our personal Tuk Tuk driver for the duration of our stay in Siem Reap. Ours was a great salesman, had pretty decent English, and made himself available to us for our whole stay.
When we arrived at the Lotus Blanc Hotel, we were greeted by the staff in Cambodian. As often happens to me when I travel in Asia, hotel and restaurant staff will claim me as their own by speaking to me first in their native language. If only I’d paid more attention (and been a bit more sober!) when my Cambodian friends were trying to teach me some basic words! Cambodia had always been high on my travel bucket list because of everything I’d heard from close friends who had immigrated from there, most of them as infant-age refugees escaping genocide or the subsequent famine. The country is still poor, and still healing, but I’d heard about the beautiful landscape and the incredible people and culture (and food!)
The hotel was very nice and touristy, with different restaurants inside- which was lucky because it was quite late when we arrived. We had a small dinner and cocktails at the restaurant bar while we chatted with the concierge to refer a tour guide for us to properly explore the temples. Angkor Wat literally means “City of Temples” and our goal was to see as many as we could! We met up with our tour guide bright and early for our first day of exploring. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember in which order we visited, because they run together a bit in my memory, but here are a few I recommend:
Ta Prohm Temple - This is the one you’ll probably recognize from film and photos- the 2001 Tomb Raider was filmed here, and it really gives you the feeling of discovering something hidden and truly ancient, with that real Indiana Jones vibe. Many of the walls and structures have been smothered by huge silk-cotton trees and strangler figs, which grow over, around, and through the ancient stone blocks, which hold the ruins together and also cause them to collapse.
Angkor Thom- This temple is one of the largest sites in the Angkor Archeological Park, was the last great capital of the Angkorian Empire, and is the location of the famous temple of Bayon.
Prea Khan - This is definitely one of the most distinct temples. It’s a large, linear complex surrounded by dense jungle and a moat! It has a two story pavilion, but it’s mostly unrestored and is maintained by keeping the vegetation at bay.
We ended the afternoon at Jayatataka, also called Neak Pean, which is an artificial island with a Buddhist temple on a circular island in Jayatataka Baray, which they believed was a medical center rather than a temple. While these temples are beautiful though maybe a bit overrun by jungle, almost 95% of Cambodia’s Hindu-Buddhist temples were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
TRAVEL TIP: Make sure to pack a shawl as some temples require that you cover your bare shoulders in order to enter
As we Tuk Tuk’d around town, it was really interesting to see the huge disparities in living conditions of the locals. I remember seeing a boy bathing in a canal that had dual purposes for gutters and bathing, then passing by ornately decorated, two story gated homes on the same block. Wealth hasn’t been evenly distributed in the aftermath of decades of war, political corruption, and genocide. There were many beggars in the touristy areas, and some spots were definitely pretty rough. But the people we encountered were lovely, and there is a push for local goods and crafts to be sold at the markets.
TRAVEL TIP: You will be inundated from all corners of children begging for money. Some even sell little trinkets or postcards. They’re probably the most aggressive panhandlers I’ve come in contact with. I’ve had this debate with many friends who prefer to just give them a dollar here or there, thinking it’ll go a long way for them (and easing their conscience). However, I don’t necessarily agree. Here’s an article about how giving money can negatively impact poverty within Cambodia. It’s a topic I’m still struggling with, and I’d love to hear your opinion.
Steve and I decided to hit up the Siem Reap night market, which consisted of over 200 bamboo huts selling a wide range of clothing and handicrafts by local communities and non-governmental organizations- outdoor, one of a kind goods, created to spur small economies and improve lives of Cambodian people. We grabbed dinner, drinks and some "appetizers" from a kiosk cart. We each agreed to pick a skewer sampling of the most adventurous item on the cart...I chose scorpions and Steve chose crickets. Probably not the most adventurous items to choose from, but hey, we tried!
The night market was great, but we had to call it an early evening to prepare for a busy day. The plan was to wake up super early to catch the 5am sunrise at Angkor Wat. I’m not a morning person, but I’d read that this was an experience worth having. So before dawn, our faithful Tuk Tuk and tour guide took us to the temple where we followed a small herd of folks like sleepy sheep through the ruins. We stood in line, not knowing exactly what to expect, but somehow found this really perfect little spot on the edge of a pond filled with lily pads. Off to the side was the temple itself, a dark silhouette as the sun rose behind it, changing colors across the sky as it became morning. I can’t even begin to describe the emotions I was feeling at that moment, but it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. The ancient spiritual monument and the immense jungle surrounding it was indescribably beautiful, bathed in the early morning colors. Our majestic morning turned into a downpour later that afternoon, cutting our tour short. But even crouched under stone beams soaked through, it was an amazing experience.
TRAVEL TIP & INFO: Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a must see, even if it means waking up early! There are 1,200 square meters of carved bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, representing eight different Hindu stories. Perhaps the most important narrative represented at Angkor Wat is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which depicts a story about the beginning of time and the creation of the universe. It is also a story about the victory of good over evil. Source
Later in the day, I was hit with one of my pho cravings that sent me on a desperate search for what I thought was the perfect restaurant. Now Steve will be the first to tell you that I am geographically challenged, so while our hotel was surrounded by shops and restaurants, I was sure I knew exactly where one was. Turns out, I was wrong. So we hopped into an unknown tuk tuk and asked the driver to take us to a pho restaurant. He took us to a part of town that was busy and congested, and it turned into one of the craziest tuk tuk rides I’ve been on! He weaved us in and around traffic, and while we never hit anything there were some close calls! In the end, I got my pho...because I'm such a huge pho connoisseur, it wasn't the greatest pho I've ever eaten, but it did the job.
The next morning, we gratefully hopped into our trusty Tuk Tuk to finish our rained-out tour. After three days with the same tour guide, we’d established a bit of a rapport, so in the process of telling us about the temples, and the ancient history of his country, he began to share more about recent history and his personal experience surviving the Khmer Rouge. He and his family were displaced from their village, torn from their lives, separated from each other. He spent years not knowing if his family was still alive or if they’d been killed. But he and his family were lucky, and made it through alive and found each other. Having heard some horrific stories from my friends who made it out, I asked him how they all found each other again. His answer still makes me choke back tears, because it’s so profound it will stay with me forever: “We went home” he said.
Steve and I made a conscious decision to not visit the Killing Fields. We had an idea of the painful history, and we wanted to take in the beauty, charm and rawness of Cambodia as it is today- eat the food, appreciate the beauty, and experience the people and the culture. They’ve come a long way in such a short period of time, and despite the recent horrors, everyone we met was gentle, happy and accommodating.
Lastly, I have to give a shout-out to our hotel. This is the first time EVER we’ve stayed anywhere that we received a gift. In the process of checking out, a few of their team members came by, stood in a line and offered us gifts. The whole experience just made my wandering heart so full, and and I cannot wait to return!
Last Travel Tip: Don’t bring up the Khmer Rouge unless you feel that your tour guide or other companions feel up to talking about it.