After traveling through Vietnam and Laos we had a couple of different perspectives on what was in store for us when we traveled into Cambodia. Some loved it completely, others were put off by its slimy underbelly. In retrospect, I guess it was no different than the story we received before we went into Laos. The scene is a couple who is disembarking from a tuk tuk. The boyfriend departs first, and the girl is left in the tuk tuk. All the sudden, the tuk tuk hits full throttle and speeds off with girl still on it. Boyfriend drops bags and runs. He runs fast. He jumps on top of the tuk tuk and he hangs on like some sort of super hero, kicking the driver until he stops and allows both to leave. Did that stop us from boarding tuk tuks? No. Did it change our boarding patterns to every tuk tuk from then on? Uhhh yep. Bags and lady off first on departure. Despite that harrowing tale, we loved our time in Laos. Don’t put too much stock in what others say online or in person. It is always best to enter things with an open mind and see them for what they are. We loved our time in Cambodia starting in Siem Reap the home of the eighth wonder of the world, Angkor Wat.
On arrival to our Airbnb, we had a, “oh crap what did I do” moment. When in Don Det, we spoke to a lifelong traveler who had characterized the options for women in Cambodia as a being a masseuse or a prostitute. As we headed towards our location, we passed brothel after brothel and we had to wonder if that characterization wasn’t entirely accurate. We pulled down a dark alley with aggressive dogs barking as our driver navigated the pot holes, finally arriving into an apartment complex. There was no one to greet us, we didn’t have SIM cards yet, and had no WIFI password or instructions on how to check in. So, what do you do? I start knocking on every door that has its light on and trying to see if someone can help. After a couple swings and misses we talked to a nice lady watching TV with her daughter who called the owner to come out and get us checked in. Finally checked in, we had another travel sheet night as we were greeted by the tingle of bed bugs at our ankles when we got under the covers. After a couple nights here, we transferred to another hotel that was the exact opposite. Nice folks waiting to greet us, laundry service available, a swimming pool, all for only an extra $15 per night. In our opinion, money well spent.
Aside from our first lodging situation we loved Siem Reap. The town is a lively mix of tourists and locals, housing roughly 120,000 permanent residents with 2 million tourists who visit the town every year.
The town lights up at night on Pub Street. Dance circles break out in the street and $.50 beer flows liberally. Also available was an amazing Night market that had all sorts of textiles, jewelry, and street food. I of course, the one with the sharpest sweet tooth, found some ice cream, but we did find some other local savory treats.
The main attraction in Siem Reap is Angkor Wat, a 12th century temple complex that stretches an eye popping 402 acres. Originally built by the king of the Khmer Empire as his state capital, many different cultures have been blown away by the unique and awe-inspiring architecture. From the Khmer Empire, to Siam (Thai) and French occupiers, to the country of Cambodia, every culture who rediscovers its beauty knows these sites must be protected. Angkor Wat has become such an intricate part of the Cambodian identity that an image of the temple resides in their national flag. The photos simply do not do justice to the sheer size and scale of Angkor Wat. It was truly one of the most amazing pieces of living history I have ever seen.
For our visit to the temples we did some basic research on when the best time to go would be. We decided to take the sunrise approach. Piling into our tuk tuk at 4:45am we figured that we would be one of the first to the complex. How wrong were we! There was an insane number of tourists, best estimate near a thousand people, that came here for our sunrise. As usual with this kind of scenario people tend to crowd around one specific spot hoping to get that magical shot. The result is your perfect shot is ruined by a hoard of people.
We decided that wasn’t going to be us. We immediately walked into the temple complex past the pools that are in front of the main temples. As the sun rose and hit the towers the jungle came alive at the same moment. Cicadas started their white noise symphony, followed by the birds diverse and shrill cries, leading to the gibbon crescendo. With all the hundreds of people there Mandy and I were the ONLY people that choose the path we did, and I would say it was entirely worth it.
After Angkor Wat, we were taken to 5 other temples that are in the area and some of those ended up being our favorites even over the famed Angkor Wat. Prepare for patience if you visit. It will be crowded, in some cases suffocating. Don’t expect people to stop jumping in front of you so they can get a good picture even if you politely are waiting.
For the entire day we paid our tuk tuk driver $20 for a pick up in the morning, tour of all the temples, then back to our bed bug Airbnb to pick up our bags, and a drop off at our new hotel.
Siem Reap was one of our favorites towns we visited. Its unique ancient architecture, its lively nightlife, a great circus experience at Phare, and amazing food, all left us with a desire to come back soon. Avoid the red light district north west of city center and you will have an amazing time!