After a month in Thailand, including a week relaxing on the Thai Islands, I was excited to get to Cambodia and see what it had to offer. Although Siem Reap wasn’t on my Apocalyst, I did really want to visit Angkor Wat and see what this city had to offer. I’m really glad I managed to get a few days here, and even more glad that I was able to see more than just the temples. Read on to find out more.
I arrived in Siem Reap at around 7.30am, after an early morning flight from Phuket. In a way it was ideal because it meant I got a full day in my new destination, rather than travelling through the day. However, early morning flights offer their own problems – namely the fact you might still be half asleep when you order a coca cola mid-flight, then proceed to fall asleep, jerk, and spill the entire can over your crotch… not a great start! What was great was stepping off the plane in a new country. From the moment you step off the plane, it is abundantly clear you aren’t in Thailand anymore. Cambodia is markedly more eastern than Thailand, as will become clear throughout this post, and even in the airport this was apparent. Siem Reap is a small airport, and sorting out my visa was simple and quick. A tuk-tuk driver from my hostel was waiting, and for $4 took me door to door! Good times!
The journey to my hostel was my first chance to get a sense of Cambodia, and as I said before, it is a marked departure from Thailand. Cambodia is a poor country and whilst the cities do their best to hide that and show how the country is improving, as soon as you are on the country roads you can see this poverty. The roads are dusty, little shacks by the side of the road provide accommodation for entire families, and the landscape is barren. It is also a country tainted by its recent history, but you can see how Cambodia is beginning to bounce back and rise from those ashes.
I arrived at the hostel, dropped my bags and headed into town, again without a map or plan, just to get a sense of the area. I grabbed some breakfast and spoke to a travel agent about my plans for the next few days who was very helpful. I’m not sure of the name of the travel agent, but it was located at the Holy Guesthouse, and he was great, so if you are in Siem Reap, head there! After here, I wandered some more, discovered the market and ended up in a few art galleries. One of these galleries was a fantastic little place called Colors of Cambodia Gallery. I got talking to an employee there who told me that the art gallery was heavily involved in school projects in the local area, going into schools throughout the week to provide free art classes for the children. What’s more, children who can’t attend school can come to the art gallery whenever they want and artists will teach them how to draw and paint! How inspiring! They were even organising an exhibition where the children would show their work!
In the afternoon, I found a gym, checked into my hostel and then got speaking to a guy in my room called Adam. He kind of became my travel buddy over the next few days, and it was really cool to get to know him! It’s really nice the amount of people you meet travelling, and it’s strange how close you end up getting; you share a lot more than you would if you had just met someone at home. I think it has something to do with the traveller mind-set; a lot of the people you meet travelling are of a similar frame of mind, and normally that includes being against Brexit, and against Trump…!
Day two started early, as in 4am early! When I was on Koh Lanta, Mitch and Alex had told me that I needed to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, so that’s what I had booked. The trip to the temple wasn’t too long but the amount of people there was crazy. I expected it to be busy, but this was something else. When we arrived it was almost pitch black still, but there were at least 6 rows of Chinese people trying to get in the optimum position for the sunrise. I moved to a different position, and waited. Even though it was around 40 minutes before the sun rose, sitting there was just incredible; the landscape was constantly changing and being able to watch the world ‘wake up’ in such a symbolic location was mind blowing. The pictures below will not do it justice, believe me.
Once the sun was up, we headed inside the main temple, Angkor Wat, and we had a pretty decent guide who was able to give us quite a bit of information. The idea that the entire of Angkor Wat is around 1000 years old, and was completed in only 37 years is unbelievable. And then to think that the temple was abandoned and literally forgotten about for 500 years is even more crazy. It was only rediscovered in the 19th Century, when the French colonised Cambodia. When they discovered it, it was in the middle of the jungle, overgrown and had monkeys, tigers and elephants roaming its grounds. As we were walking around there were lots of statues of Buddhas with their heads missing. At first I wondered whether this had something to do with the temples switching between Buddhist and Hindu reign, but I was later informed that when the temples were rediscovered, thieves came in, chopped the heads off the Buddha statues and sold them on the black market! After the pristine and brilliant white temples of Thailand, Angkor Wat was a welcome change, and you could feel the history within its walls. The central temple provided some great views of the entire complex.
From here we moved on to the second temple, Tha Phrom. This is where Tomb Raider was filmed and again the temple was incredible. This temple is still overgrown, with trees actually growing through and around some of the buildings. In fact some of the buildings were being held up by the growth of the trees, which were magnificent. There was work going on to preserve the temple as some of the trees are becoming dangerous to the temple, but this didn’t get in the way or take away from the beauty of the place. It was like something out of Indiana Jones, and you were free to explore where you wanted. Again though, the amount of Chinese people may be a little overwhelming.
My last stop for the morning was Angkor Thom, the old capital city of Cambodia. There, I visited the Bayon Temple, or the temple of the faces. It was originally a Buddhist temple, but when it was taken over by Hindus, they destroyed all the Buddhist images, and added a third eye to each of the faces on the towers so they represented a Hindu god instead. This was maybe my favourite temple of the morning, the towers are absolutely breath taking, and the sounds from the bats just completes the mood.
I got the one day ticket to Angkor Wat, and with the guide I think this was enough for me. For those people who love their temples and architecture, there is a 3 day pass available, however at the start of February 2017, the Cambodian government almost doubled the ticket prices here, pricing it out of my range. A one day ticket, once $20 will now cost you $37, and the three day pass has gone from $40 to $62 (prices correct as of Feb 2017). You have to visit Angor Wat, and with my one day ticket, I could have returned later in the day, either by booking a tuk-tuk or even a bicycle, so that could also be an option for you.
I had a lazy morning today after my early morning the day before. A nice bit of breakfast just off Pub Street, bought some new sunglasses and generally just mooched about taking in the Siem Reap vibe. I really liked how much more Asian it felt here compared to Thailand and how much you can feel the city breathing as you wander its streets.
In the afternoon, Adam and I booked on a tour to see the floating village on the edge of the Tonle Sap lake. The journey to the village gave me another chance to see the country outside of the hustle and bustle of the city. We arrived at the village and got straight onto a boat down the river. The river was super dirty, and basically the village survives on the fishing trade. According to our guide there were around 1000 people living in this village and it is called the floating village because during the rainy season, the land around them is underwater. All the houses are on 5m high stilts, high in the trees that surround them. However, being the dry season at the moment, there was just the small river running down the middle, and dry land. We were able to get off, wander through the village and meet the locals, which was really nice. A lot of the adults were just going about their day to day life, but the children wanted to be around you, say hello and invite you to play football or another game with them. At the same time though, I couldn’t shake this awkward feeling; we were sort of just invading their lives, taking our snapshots and then moving on. What continued to strike as we moved through the village was how happy these children were. They have so little and they are still so happy. It makes you wonder how much we have in our lives that we don’t actually need, and how happy we might be if we focused on what actually matters.
From here we got back into the boat and continued down to the lake. This was seriously one of the biggest, most incredible lakes I have ever seen, you couldn’t see the edge on three sides, just a few floating restaurants in the middle. We hired a lady in a small boat to take us through the flooded forest, which was really serene and beautiful. Over the course of half an hour, you slalom your way between the trees poking up through the water, seeing bits of wildlife, but mainly just being able to relax. We returned to the restaurant, where I sampled some roast snake(!) and watched the sunset. Hopefully the pictures do it justice, because it was pretty beautiful. Sunrise and sunset in Siem Reap, pretty good if you ask me! The floating villages were a great glimpse into one aspect of local life here and I would really recommend it if you get a chance.
I stayed one more night in Siem Reap before heading to Phnom Penh the next morning via minibus in order to complete the three of clubs and visit the Killing Fields. I will try and get that post up in the next few days, but it was a really hard experience, and one that I am taking my time to process.
Siem Reap has so much more to offer than just the temples of Angkor Wat, and I would thoroughly recommend spending some extra time there just to soak up the vibe. Much like Chiang Mai in Thailand, I think I could have spent a lot more time here, not necessarily doing anything, just enjoying the atmosphere. The nights out are pretty wild, from the bars on Pub street to the incredible cocktail tuk-tuks where you can choose your own music, and the reggae bar is pretty awesome as well. Be sure to eat some of the local cuisine, especially the fish Amok; I think I had it every day whilst I was there! There are also lots of options for good western cuisine at affordable prices in the restaurants around Pub street.
Until next time,
Carpe That Diem!