Siem Reap, Cambodia
Our flight to Cambodia departed from Changi Airport in Singapore–the top rated airport in the world. We rested in the fancy lounges after visiting the beautifully landscaped Cactus Garden and Lily Garden. The Siem Reap airport was just a smidgen different.
Siem Reap airport is so tiny that you have to walk down a set of stairs off the plane, and then along the paved tarmac. You enter a single-room building that feels more like a DMV than an airport. The airport staff were much friendlier than DMV clerks, and chatted with us while we obtained our visas. I don’t even remember there being a Customs checkpoint.
The next odd part about backpacking in Cambodia is taking money out of the ATM. Instead of using Cambodian Realiels, they use US Dollars!! After the country was decimated under the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1950-1980, the economy was in ruins. To encourage stability and trust in the economy, the US dollar bill was introduced and is now widely used. After not seeing a USD for ten months, it was pretty damn weird to see it here. Not needing to calculate conversion rates was pretty sweet too.
Shan and I walked out of the front door of the airport (yes, there was only one front door), and walked out to the dusty road to meet our tuk tuk. It seemed unnatural to simply waltz out the door, across the parking lot, and into a wooden cart being pulled by a 150cc scooter.
Our driver expertly maneuvered the hectic streets, past ladies pulling carts of vegetables and men working on the road. The stifling heat along our trip from the airport to White Rabbit Hostel had sapped the energy from us. We walked right past the beer pong game occurring in the pool and relished the cool air of our private air conditioned room until dark. Now that the sun was down, walking along the streets of Siem Reap was much more enjoyable. We were ready to explore the city’s nightlife.
In Siem Reap, the hub of all the action for people backpacking in Cambodia is the legendary Pub Street. I’ll let another backpacker blog sum it up:
“As the name suggests, Pub Street is a short alley flanked by clubs, bars, and restaurants, offering a wide variety of culinary treats from Khmer specialties to Western favorites. All these under the glowing neon signs of the establishments that have redefined the tourism culture in the city while providing what travelers look for — a happy hour after an exhausting day of touring.
Most of the customers here are backpackers ready for a drink or two (or twenty). Two of the most popular are Angkor What? and Temple Club, both seem to be on a neck-and-neck race for the award for who’s got the louder speakers. But the amped up music filling the air sets the party mood, with some tourists even dancing in the street.”
This Sunday night was particularly crazy with the World Cup on every TV, 50 cent beers at every restaurant, children running around selling fried tarantulas, vendors drawing you in to shop and a chorus of “tuk tuk, tuk tuk” every time you left a bar. All this was accompanied by thumping base reverberating in our bones underneath strings of twinkling neon lights.
Still too hot to be hungry, we ducked into a spa advertising $1 massages. Too good to be true? Nope. We sat back in the plush chairs and inhaled calming Tiger Balm while two Cambodian boys rubbed our feet. They seemed no older than 16 and bashfully smiled whenever they made eye contact with us. It was all lovely until they pulled out wooden dowels and dug with all their might into sensitive pressure points. Apparently, this was Cambodian reflexology so we chalked it up to valuable cultural experience and endured the pain. We emerged from the tranquility of the spa and into the pandemonium outside, ready for beers, curry soup, shopping and dancing for the rest of then night.
Angkor Wat in 98 Degree Heat
“Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world, on a site measuring 402 acres. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. It was built in the early 12th century and has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag.”
With our one full day in Siem Reap, we were determined to see the infamous Angkor Wat–on our own terms. The thought of being on a mega coach bus following a guide waving an umbrella like herds of cows sounded miserable. However, the alternative of hiring our own private tuk tuk driver for the day was a bit of a challenge.
We strategized over a breakfast of pork and rice. It was literally the only thing on the restaurant’s menu. For some reason, they felt the need to list it four times, changing the wording slightly each time. We mapped out all the temples we wanted to visit and agreed on a budget, and I volunteered to do the negotiating. It felt a bit uncomfortable trying to suss out each tuk tuk driver we passed by, trying to make a snap judgement on whether they’d scam us, kidnap us, or just be good guys.
We found one that seemed like a good guy (probably because he was the only one NOT trying to get us to ride with him) and agreed on a price of $15 for the whole day. All seemed to be going well as we scooted along the streets until he pulled over and said,
“This my friend. You go with him.”
Shan and I looked at each other warily. We climbed into his friend’s tuk tuk and prayed for the best. In my head I thought, here we go, this is what we get for trying to avoid the big mega tour buses.
I could at least discern that he was telling our new driver which temples we wanted to go to–definitely a good sign. Mr. San (our new driver) scooted us off in the sweltering heat to Angkor Wat Temple, as promised. I exhaled a sigh of relief.
Angkor Wat is the largest within the temple complex, and the most famous. Upon entry, we realized that our tank tops revealed our scandalous shoulders and we would be forbidden to enter. Despite the fact that our shirts were adhered to our backs with copious amounts of sweat, we required another layer of clothes. Luckily, there were a dozen vendors just outside the temple selling sarongs and shirts just for our demographic of indecent Western tourists.
For the next few hours, we wandered through ancient stone arches, climbed impossibly steep stone steps, and imagined the meticulous handiwork of the people that built these temples 10,000 years ago. Despite Angkor Wat being the most popular of the temples, I liked our next stop, Angkor Thom and Bayoun Temple, better. These had far fewer tourists and provided some shade walking through the jungle growth. Each temple had distinct features–one with giant wise stone faces, one with doorways seeming to lead to heaven, and one with a view stretching for miles.
We carried on after a refreshing coconut to a handful of other temples, including Ta Keo (basically the old school StairMaster) Bantea Kadai, and Ta Phrom. Anyone who’s seen Tomb Raiders will recognize this last one, which is why it was congested with Chinese tourists perfecting the angle of their selfies. We scooted in to take a quick photo next to the massive tree trunk that appeared to be spilling over the temple walls. This temple hasn’t been reclaimed from nature, which allows you to imagine what it’d be like stumbling upon these ancient walls in the dense jungle.
By the tenth temple, we were exhausted and ready for Mr. San to scoot us back to town. Back out on Pub Street, we enjoyed cheap massages and beers. Instead of eating at one of the clubs, we took a seat in front of a street cart, smushing into plastic children’s chairs that threatened to give in at any moment. Luckily, the food was much better than their seating. We finished off the night with some local happy pizza and enjoyed the comfort of our air conditioned room.
The whole next morning I was pretty tired from our big day, and it was another scorching hot day. We took it easy on ourselves and had fancy iced lattes (for a whopping $2) and wandered around the hundreds of Buddha statues in the chilled halls of the Angkor Wat Museum. With tummies full of fresh spring rolls, bags full of souvenirs, and bodies relaxed from another massage, we tuk tuk-ed to the airport for our flight to Bangkok.