Siem Reap, Cambodia – 01/21
Our early morning flight into Siem Reap arrived at the airport and we spent the next hour going through the visa and customs lines before finally setting foot into the city. The first thing we noticed in the taxi was the sheer amount of Korean tour buses and Korean resorts and restaurants close to the airport. That initial stretch felt closer to Koreatown than Cambodia, but soon the local buildings and restaurants took over the scenery as we arrived at our hostel at the very end of a bustling single-lane roadway.
I had reached the point of the trip where I needed to wash my clothes, and I definitely wasn’t expecting a full-on wash-dry-fold laundry service when the front desk clerk pointed to the building next door. I saw the laundry sign and walked past the gate entrance, finding myself at a local family’s home. The following ten minutes consisted of charades as we tried to communicate in two different languages. Eventually we figured things out and later that evening I got my clothes back clean and perfectly folded. The entire service cost $2.
Around dinnertime, we left the hostel to check out the restaurants and bars on our lively street. The dusty lane was filled with lit-up store signs and open-air seating. We spotted a promising restaurant with a huge crowd standing outside called Genevieve’s Restaurant and found out the wait would be about an hour. The food looked really good so we put our names down and grabbed some appetizers, $1 beers, and $2 cocktails at another restaurant nearby before heading back to Genevieve’s.
It was well worth the wait. The local Khmer food (Khmer curry, amok, stir-fried noodles) was freshly prepped and delicious. The restaurant was named after the Australian owner’s late wife and was committed to hiring local cooks, sharing a percentage of the profits with all employees, and donating to the local community. The food and service were so good we knew we’d be back the next evening.
After dinner we strolled by the Angkor Noon Night Market to admire the colorful silk scarves, souvenir shirts, and various trinkets displayed on the stands. We had a fun time haggling with several local shop workers who tried to flirt with us to get us to pay more. I’d say we did a pretty decent job and snagged some good deals. We made a final stop on the famous Pub Street, which was absolutely poppin’ with people using the street between bars as a giant dance floor.
On our way back I realized that by now we’d been traveling for a week, but it felt like we’d been on the road for months. We were excited for what lay ahead of us in the final few days of travel!
Angkor Wat, Cambodia – 01/22
Today was the day. We’d booked a special tour for Angkor Wat several months in advance at a friend’s recommendation, and we met our guide Mr. Sok Som at the crack of dawn, 5 am sharp outside our hostel. It was still dark as we bounced along the road in our car toward the ancient temples, and along with several other folks from the US, we stepped out into the chilly early morning air as the guide led us through the dark into the ancient Angkor Thom complex of buildings and temples.
I couldn’t see much in the pitch blackness but my flashlight caught occasional glimpses of towering rock structures, carvings of mysterious faces, and dark rooms as we walked deeper into the temple grounds. In all the rooms we walked through we could hear the squeaks of mice, and I thought of movies such as The Mummy and Indiana Jones only to realize that this was the real deal. Our guide stopped us at a courtyard overlooking some ancient statues and the sky. As he went into a room to pray and meditate, we experienced twenty minutes of silent meditation ourselves as we stared at the brightening sky.
Finally the sunlight came and lit up what seemed to be a new world surrounding us. The limestone rocks of the structures changed color as the golden light reflected off of carved faces. Our guide reappeared and launched into a half-hour introduction of the history of the city and temple ruins we were standing on. Angkor Thom was built in the 12th century on top of previous cities, and served as the final capital of the Khmer empire. It was fascinating seeing all the intricate carvings and imagining what the city must have been like in all its splendor.
We continued on our way to the Terrace of the Elephants, which served as the king’s platform whenever he wanted to view his returning army. Much of the terrace and the palace itself was gone, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine a beautiful palace rising behind the platform and the king staring out at a vast crowd of people in the rising sun. To give an idea of the size of the platform, there were life-sized elephants carved into the terrace foundations. As we walked on top of the terrace we encountered a family of monkeys and watched them play in the trees.
Much of the ruins weren’t open to tourists until the late 1970s and were overgrown with trees from the surrounding jungle. Up to this point we had seen ruins that had been cleared of trees and cleaned up over the past 40 years. Our next stop at Ta Prohm was special because much of the plants and trees had been left growing among the buildings. The result was an awe-inducing combination of ancient trees and tree roots growing into and out of various buildings, forming what I’ll describe as broken beauty. Our guide mentioned an added bonus – the temple was used as a location in the movie Tomb Raider.
We paused for brunch at a local restaurant and enjoyed some much-needed food while watching a group of tuk tuk drivers on their break playing a game similar to hacky sack except they were kicking around a bag of coins and doing some crazy over-the-shoulder back kicks and other trick kicks. Before meeting back up with the group, our driver recommended a quick stop at a pyramid temple near Angkor Thom called Phimeanakas, and we got the chance of a lifetime to climb up the original steps of the ancient temple. The steps were so steep and unchanged that we had to actually climb up and down, with no handrails or supports. The top of the temple had a small room where a lone monk was sitting and praying, and there were no other souls in sight. It was a real treat and one of the highlights of my visit.
And then it was time. Back with the group, we approached the looming Angkor Wat, a massive Hindu & Buddhist temple complex, literally the “Temple City.” Crossing the moat, we could see the famous five towers rising out of the largest religious monument in the world. A giant statue of the Hindu god Vishnu greeted us as we entered the main front building, and we spent the entirety of our visit here exploring the various rooms, courtyards, and towers all preserved as best they could from the 12th century.
None of the rooms were painted or had decorations, but I could imagine just how beautiful the temples must have been in their heyday. We climbed up to the famous towers located in the central structure to explore the highest portion of the city and admire the nice view of surrounding buildings. Sok showed us more ancient carvings and we took some last pictures before finishing up our visit.
Since we’d started around 5am it was still early in the afternoon, so we chose to continue the day with Sok to visit the Chong Kneas village on Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we boarded an old-looking motorboat and floated through some muddy and dirty lake water. But after ten minutes or so the most amazing scene came into view. There was an entire village of floating buildings stretching out as far as the eye could see, and we passed by homes, schools, general stores, and even temples bobbing on the water.
The Chong Kneas and other groups that live on the lake spend part of the year at one location and physically move their floating homes and buildings further out when the waters rise during the wet season. The villages are supported by fishing in the lake, and we caught a glimpse of some fishermen wading into the waters and casting their nets. After stopping by a floating visitor center, it hit me how different day-to-day life must be for the villagers. Kids would ride boats to school, adults would need to worry about building maintenance as well as boat maintenance, and the only places to gather were in floating buildings. It reminded me of Water World.
And with that we finished our two days in Cambodia, crossing off a bucket item (Angkor Wat) on my list and having a blast overall in the process!
Addendum: We didn’t realize it at first but it was an honor to have toured with Sok Som. At the start of the trip he told us a bit about himself, and we were all surprised when he told us he was tour guide number one, back when Cambodia first opened its doors to tourism in the late 70s/early 80s. He was super knowledgeable about the history and made the visit both fun and educational. Sok was also a baller – everywhere we went people said hi to him (from monks to workers to other guides) and we even got preferential treatment, such as being able to view Angkor Wat from the rear exit, which is normally reserved for employees. And the best part was that the tour was a great deal – if any of you plan on visiting Siem Reap I’d highly recommend booking a tour with Sok. Message me and I’ll provide his contact info!