Once upon a time, in a part of the world fairly far far away, my best friend Jack and I landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
By once upon a time, I mean last Saturday.
A 6am flight from Phuket, Thailand landed at the Siem Reap International Airport at 7:25am. If you’re a United States citizen, a trip to Cambodia is straightforward. Upon arrival, Jack and I each paid $30 for a thirty-day tourist visa. We each needed to provide a passport sized photo, which we had already brought from the US, and completed an application. Within half an hour the immigration official stamped our passports and we were granted permission to enjoy Cambodia.
Why did we go there?
The first reason why we opted to spend four days in this Southeast Asian country was simple. Cambodia is sandwiched between two neighbors that were very high on our list of destinations: Thailand and Vietnam. Continuing east from Thailand, it was sensible for us to dedicate a few days to discover another country before visiting Vietnam. The second reason why we stayed in Cambodia was thanks to numerous positive accounts in regard to the temples of Angkor Wat. Stepping foot in Angkor Wat was an important personal goal for this journey, so a stopover didn’t require much debating.
Angkor Wat (Capital Temple) is the most iconic temple in what is a massive complex of temples (Angkor Thom) constructed in the 12th century in Siem Reap, by Khmer King Suryavarman II. The Khmer Empire was the predecessor state of what is currently Cambodia. They were originally Hindu, however over the course of hundreds of years they converted to Buddhism. Their empire ruled in this region of Asia for over six hundred years. Angkor Wat was built to be a dedication to Vishnu, the Hindu God, and serves as a proud modern-day symbol for Cambodians. I’m not really a historian nor do I have the capacity to remember such facts; all of this data has been gathered with the wonderful help of Wikipedia. One of the temples in Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, was used as a set in the original “Tomb Raider” film, starring Angelina Jolie.
Ok, so back to the story. Jack and I arrived early on Saturday and we had to wait about six hours before being able to officially check-in to our hostel called Lub D. The price here was very affordable, and the hostel came equipped with a pool, bar, cafe, and a friendly team of staff members.
We didn’t come to Siem Reap to do anything except visit Angkor Wat, so once we got settled we learned a few necessary details: The best (and most affordable) way to visit Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom is to hire a personal tuk-tuk driver and have him or her transport you between temples. We also learned that a single day Angkor Pass costs $37 and that the majority of visitors start their experience by witnessing Angkor Wat at sunrise or at sunset. We discovered that the city of Siem Reap is a car trip away from Angkor Wat, about twenty minutes in a rural zone of the region.
A girl at our hostel referred us to a driver named Peng, an independent tuk-tuk driver who runs an enterprise by driving tourists around the famed temples. Based on our previous experiences with tuk-tuk’s and taxi’s in general in Thailand, I felt slightly unsure about trusting a stranger to drive around and wait for us as we explored the ruins. Peng ended up being a wonderful guy, with above average English, who was willing to drive us between the various sites and wait while Jack and I took in the visual flavors of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. In the end, we spent ten hours walking through various temples. Eventually, the heavy heat from the sun left us completely gassed by 3pm. It’s hard to describe Angkor Wat other than it’s an experience that is hard to match. If you’re thinking of going to Angkor Wat, definitely come prepared with sunscreen, a hat, and decent walking shoes. Absolutely consider hiring a personal tuk-tuk driver, then check out Peng’s Facebook page. The sunrise was spectacular and it’s worth waking up at 4am.
In total, Jack and I stayed two nights in Siem Reap, as well as two in the countries’ capital of Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is a medium sized city with heavy motorbike traffic, a beautiful waterfront that hugs along the Ton Le Sap river, and a handful of interesting landmarks such as the Royal Palace. Phnom Penh was purely just a layover for Jack and me. We stayed two nights at a hostel called Mad Monkey and the consensus among the fellow backpackers we encountered was same: Phnom Penh is an interesting city, however, it’s best served as a quick stopover before going to Vietnam or Siem Reap.
I can’t say much about Cambodia, as our stay in the country lasted exactly four days. Four days in an entire country is insufficient; it simply wasn’t a high priority destination for us, so we kept it short. What I can say, despite this, is that Cambodia has left a lasting positive impression on me. Between our friend Peng, to the hostel staff, to even just random people on the street, it was evident that Cambodians are kind people. They are generous, polite, and proud of their country. The food was fantastic. We tried some incredible curry, beef lok lak, among other dishes. Compared to Thailand, it was clear that Cambodia’s tourism industry wasn’t as polished, nor was it accustomed to many foreigners. We weren’t treated like walking moneybags, at least that’s how it felt. The Cambodians we encountered seemed very grateful for our visit and business. The only place in Thailand where I left with a similar feeling was in Krabi, and for this reason it became our favorite stomping ground in that country.
Cambodia, for all the beauty that we witnessed, also has a somber side. It’s classified as a third-world nation, and it was apparent in all the homeless families we saw while driving in Peng’s tuk-tuk. More than once, we were approached by young children to either buy a pack of postcards or simply just give a dollar. Even security guards at Angkor Wat expected tips for any minute piece of information that they offered. We were told to avoid giving anyone money, especially children, as these kids are often being exploited by others who weren’t always their parents. It was a sobering reality that there exists a completely different world from what Jack and I are used to. Cambodia is developing, but we saw that there’s a still deep gap between those who live stable lives, those who struggle on a daily basis, and those who are in a near hopeless set of circumstances.
At 6am, at the gates of Angkor Wat and before the ever-so-popular sunrise above the temples, two nine-year-old kids tried to cajole us into buying some postcards. Jack needed postcards and bought ten for one dollar, but I initially refused and tried to ignore them. The first kid ran off with her score, while the other started to pout at me in broken English: “Be fair, be fair.” This was all part of the game they were playing, but who was I to deny a Cambodian child of a dollar, which to me had very little value but to her probably so much more? I played fair, gave her a dollar, and let her keep the postcards. I don’t know if this donation helped anyone, but it made me grateful to have grown up with a loving family and in a first world country. Sometimes you feel helpless in a situation that’s greater than yourself, and this was one of those instances.
Despite seeing the both good and not-so-good, Cambodia is filled with history, delightful people, and is ideal for anyone looking for adventure.
Have you been to Cambodia before? Comment below, I’d love to hear about it!
Also, if you have any questions about specific restaurants, cafés, or general information about our time in Cambodia, feel free to message me any time. 🙂
Have a nice day, thank you for reading, you’re a great human being.
More updates about Jack’s and my trip are coming in the not so far away future.
The mom of one of my best friends is from Cambodia! We’re hoping to take a trip soon and she wants to start learning Khmer. Glad y’all were able to see this beautiful country and that it’s starting to pick itself up after the genocide, although I’m sure there’s much work to be done.
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