Day 1-5: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
As I mentioned in the previous post, Siem Reap was my first stop. Angkor Wat has long been on my to do list and it made sense logistically that it would be my first stop. The plan was to fly into Siem Reap and head west to Phnom Penh to get my Thai visa from the embassy there. From Phonm Penh I would head north through Laos and make my way into Thailand by late October.
The flight from Singapore was short and simple and after disembarking I made my way to immigration. You are required to obtain a visa upon arrival and it will set you back $30. Also, make sure you are carrying USD as it is used everywhere in Cambodia. The local currency is too unstable.
Through immigration, I grabbed my backpacks and headed out to the arrival lobby. The hostel that I was staying at provided a free pickup at the airport and I noticed a guy holding a sign that said Mr. Tyler Moss.
His name was Boo-tahn (phonetic spelling, I’ve no idea how to spell it) and he was accompanied by his son, Kevin.
I was led to Boo-tahn’s tuk tuk and Kevin and I loaded up in the back. Off we went in the direction of town and my hostel for the next 4 nights.
Cambodia First Impressions
Poverty, Lots of It
My first impression of Cambodia was poverty, lots of it. Cambodia is a third world country; I knew that before I landed. Knowing that still doesn’t prepare you for the poverty that is everywhere.
Dirt roads, tarps as roofs and dilapidated buildings are rife. As you zoom down the road you’ll see unattended kids near the street, cows drifting in and out of traffic and peddlers trying to sell anything just to make money for their next meal.
You’ll see mansion style houses and development projects that have never been finished. This makes you wonder about the corruption that is rampant in third world countries and what kind of schemes developers and insurance issuers were up to that made them abandon all these projects.
Temples, Rice Fields and Markets
With that said, when you’re able to look past the poverty, Cambodia is a beautiful place steeped in centuries of history.
There are the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and rice fields as far as the eye can see.
Farmers toil all day in the fields and bring their goods to market where you can buy fresh produce.
The markets are full of fruits, vegetables, meats and fried insects and arachnids. I tried the fried tarantula and yes, it was disgusting and yes, I’m terrified of spiders…but when in Rome.
$2 Meals and $.50 Beers
After zig-zagging my way through town I arrived at my hostel and checked in. I paid the balance on my room. Four nights cost me a grand total of $15. Not bad, as I got a room upgrade (room with AC) and also got the free airport pickup.
I settled into the room, introduced myself to my roommates and I headed out to find some food. I walked in the direction of the main market and found a simple place to eat. The chicken and noodle dish I decided on was great and what was even better was the cost, $2. To top it off, the beer cost $.50. Now, that’s something I could get used to.
After dinner, I headed back to the hostel and met some people at the bar area. An Australian guy had also just arrived and we decided we would split the tuk tuk ride and see the sunrise at Angkor Wat in the morning.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
When Boo-tahn dropped my off the prior day he asked if I needed a tuk tuk for the following day. I told him I planned on going to watch the sunrise tomorrow and he said he would be there at 4:30 AM to pick me up.
True to his word, Boo-tahn was there when Andrew (the Australian dude) and I walked down. We loaded into his tuk tuk and away we went. Boo-tahn agreed to be our tuk tuk driver for the day; $25 total.
The first stop was at a street side vendor to grab some water bottles for the day. Always, always, always drink from a water bottle. The water cleanliness is lacking in Cambodia and you should NEVER drink tap water. Brushing your teeth, cleaning your hands and showering are fine but avoid tap water contact if possible. Keep in mind that water is extremely cheap in South East Asia. The 1500ml bottles should not cost you more than $.50.
After stocking up on water we headed to the ticket office. A 1-day ticket will cost you $20 and a 3-day ticket will cost you $40. I recommend going with the 3-day as you will definitely need at least 2 days in the massive complex.
From the ticket office, you have another 20 minutes or so in the tuk tuk before you get to Angkor Wat’s entrance.
Finding a Spot and Waiting for Sunrise
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination. This was immediately evident.
I thought getting up at 4:30 AM meant I wouldn’t be battling crowds. I was wrong.
Everyone heads to Angkor’s sunrise in hopes of snagging the coveted photo. The best spot to get this photo is from in front of the left pond. We got a fairly good spot and waited….and waited.
We were a bit early but necessarily so. The crowd was quickly getting bigger behind us. For a while, we thought we were going to be forced into the pond in front of us.
Amidst the sea of expensive cameras and tripods, I snagged this beauty with my trusty, hand me down iPhone 5.
Not exactly the red and orange sunrise I was expecting but spectacular nonetheless. Also, it rained the next three mornings so I felt good about going when I did.
Angkor Wat, The Tomb Raider Temple and The Many Faced God
You’ve more than likely seen a picture of Angkor Wat. I’ve seen it both in film and on the internet and when I did I added it to my list. If you’re not familiar with Angkor Wat learn about it here.
In short, it’s a massive ancient temple complex that sits just outside of the city Siem Reap. The complex was built over many years by the Khmer empire as a Hindu temple and later transformed into a Buddist temple.
Angkor is the main attraction and rightfully so. It’s an impressive temple and after you take the sunrise photo make sure you take the time to go in and marvel at the ornate carvings and old architecture.
Note: Angkor Wat is still a religious site for many Buddhists. It’s important to adhere to the strict dress code that is enforced for both men and women. Men and women need to wear shorts that are at least knee length. Also, you must not have bare shoulders. This means no tank tops for the men or the women.
Cambodia is a conservative country and I saw multiple men and women get denied entry to the complex for what they were wearing.
To be safe, wear knee length shorts and a t-shirt. If you don’t have knee length shorts wear pants but be warned, temperatures will likely be in the 90’s.
The Tomb Raider Temple
After we finished up at Angkor we met back up with Boo-tahn and headed off again. Boo-tahn told us we were going to do the route backwards to avoid the crowds. I recommend you ask your tuk tuk driver to do the same.
There are two routes to take to see the temple complex. The aptly named ‘big circle’ and ‘small circle’. We chose the ‘small circle’ route as it contained the Tomb Raider Temple.
The Tomb Raider temple is named as it was featured in the Angelina Jolie film, “Tomb Raider”. It’s popular, not because it was in the movie but because it is in the middle of the jungle and the jungle has done a good job of reclaiming it. What you get is a temple with trees and vines that have seemingly taken back what was rightfully theirs.
The Bayon Temple was one of my favorites. It was a very intricate temple and had many ornate carvings and passageways.
The carvings that stood out the most were the statues with faces on every side.
I couldn’t help make a connection to the “Game of Thrones” deity, ‘The Many Faced God’.
Other Stops Along The Way
There are many other temples in the complex to visit. The temples I listed above are the main attractions but your tuk tuk driver should know of some hidden gems like Boo-tahn did when he dropped us off here.
There are plenty of places to stop and grab a bite to eat and you could easily spend the entire day going from temple to temple.
We made it to midday and called it quits from exhaustion and had Boo-tahn take us back.
Landmine Museum and Banteay Srei
The next day I woke and met Andrew for breakfast downstairs. We decided to make use of the day and head back out and see the Landmine Museum and the Banteay Srei.
Someone at breakfast had mentioned this temple about an hour ride north that was worth a visit. The Landmine Museum was on the way so we decided to kill two birds with one stone.
The Landmine Museum
The Museum is definitely worth a visit. It gives great insight into the warring history of Cambodia (yes, the US had a hand in this) and the millions of landmines that were set.
Landmines are a pretty gruesome weapon. That aren’t designed to kill, they are designed to maim. The thinking is a wounded soldier is more expensive than a dead soldier.
Millions upon millions of landmines were set during the conflicts. They were set in rice fields, near schools, on roads, everywhere.
As you may have guessed, civilians, not just soldiers were victims. Men, women and children would step on the mines having no idea that they were there.
One man set out to stop this. He has spent most of his life dismantling and disarming landmines using a stick, hammer and screwdriver.
It’s he that built the Landmine Museum to raise awareness. The Landmine Museum also acts as an orphanage for children victims.
I was underwhelmed by this temple. It didn’t have the grandeur of the others and it was an hour tuk tuk ride.
For the record, I don’t mind tuk tuk rides. They’re actually quite enjoyable. But while we were visiting the temple it started to rain, hard, and we got soaked. This made for a rather unenjoyable ride back to Siem Reap.
Avoid going to this temple unless you’re looking for some time to kill or to double up on the Landmine Museum.
Leaving For Phnom Penh
Over the next couple days I perused the streets and markets of Siem Reap, taking in the organized chaos of the city.
I also found a coffee shop with reliable internet to get some work done and work on my websites.
It came time to move on and I booked a bus ticket to my next stop, Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The bus costs about $15 and takes 6 hours. There is a $7 ‘bus’ but I think that entails sitting in an open air trailer hooked to a truck. I’ve heard stories of passengers riding with chickens, produce or anything else that may be making the trip to Phnom Penh.
I woke up early in the morning and was on my way…