How Siem Reap, Cambodia Will Irrevocably Steal Your Heart (And Hopefully Nothing Else...)
So perhaps you’re backpacking through Southeast Asia, and making the usual rounds- Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. Or maybe you’re like me, living in a Southeast Asian country and using every ounce of free time you have to discover a new one. There's also the possibility that you're sitting in a black swivel chair, somewhere in the Western world, daydreaming about days and nights getting lost in these exotic, foreign countries. Either way, I’m here to tell you that Siem Reap, Cambodia deserves a spot on your “must see” list. You will fall in love with the people. The coldest of hearts will find themselves completely wrapped up in their history. You will cherish every morsel of food that you discover. Lastly, you will feel like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Every single day.
The simple fact that I live in Bangkok, Thailand sometimes hits me like a ton of bricks. I'll be walking down a small soi (street) filled with food carts, a variety of smells, enjoying my elevated view amongst dark haired heads when it'll hit me, and blow my mind as if it’s brand new information. I never in a million years expected to see myself here. Southeast Asia was just never on my radar. It has come to my attention recently that there’s a pretty obvious reason for that: I never heard a damn thing about it growing up. There’s always the possibility that I wasn’t paying much attention, but I can pretty confidently say that my history classes in the US were not inclusive of the Southeast Asian region. That being said, when it came time to research a solo trip to Thailand's neighbor, Cambodia- my admittedly ignorant self was completely overwhelmed by the country’s unimaginably turbulent and violent history. The Khmer Rouge, mass genocide...I hadn't the slightest clue about any of it.
The weekend of October 23rd was a long weekend in Thailand, as the Friday marked Chulalongkorn Day (named for the King Chulalongkorn, 5th king of Siam, who passed in 1910.) This national holiday made a weekend trip to Cambodia feasible, so I booked a flight for 8 pm on Thursday night, trying to make the most of my time. I left work around 5 pm, when rush hour is at it's peak, and subsequently sat in a cab for an hour and a half. I think the cab moved all of 3 miles in this time, and I started to panic. I was still many miles from the airport, and my plane was taking off very, very soon. Cue what felt like an action movie for the next 75 minutes:
I handed the cab driver cash to cover the meter fare, and hopped out in the middle of the road. There was a sky train entrance nearby, so I flew up the stairs and took the next train to the end of the line, as far as it would go in the direction of the airport. When I got off, there was nothing but chaos and more cars. Knowing I had to figure something out and fast, I ran over to a group of motorbike drivers, in their signature bright orange vests. I made it very clear I was in a rush, bouncing around and directing the question "airport? airport? airport?" to each and every one. Finally, one agreed. I hopped on (luckily this was the lightest I've ever packed for a trip) and off we went, zig-zagging through traffic jams for what turned out to be about 9 miles. When he suddenly pulled into a gas station (which typically takes FOREVER) I tweaked. I turned myself into a human airplane and did my best to mime that my take off was in 25 minutes. The gas station attendants found this hilarious. And then, in the bizarre, serendipitous Thai way that I know all too well, I was at the airport by about 7:40 PM.
Naturally, the lines to get through immigration were long, so I did what any girl would do in my situation: I found the Westerner closest to the front of the line and begged him to let me cut. I was successful. As I was approaching the officer, I heard a voice behind me speaking to the same Westerner, saying his flight was leaving very soon and would he mind if he cut in line. Enter my fellow American, Joe. Naturally, I laughed and called him out in the moment, saying I'd just targeted the exact same white guy for the exact same reason. Even when I try to travel alone...I make friends.
So don't we make it to the gate with a few minutes to spare, only to find out our flight has been delayed an hour. All those Fast & Furious moves were in vain. But, this made time for Dairy Queen. Win win. So Joe sits with me on the plane, and I find out he's from Virginia, a bit older than I am, and a techy working for the US Embassy. After a quick hour-long flight, we arrive in Siem Reap where we obtain our Cambodian visas on arrival. I'd arranged a pick up from my hotel, and was eagerly anticipating a sign with my name on it upon exiting the airport. There it was, and I was greeted by a tall, thin Cambodian who looked roughly around my age. He told me to call him Arun. Turns out Arun is 27 and speaks pretty decent English. He led me to what turned out to be the world's slowest tuk tuk, and at the pace of molasses, we made our way through a sleepy Siem Reap to the hotel that he helps run with his brother- Pippeli Pensione. When we arrived, Arun gave me a map and asked me what I'd like to do the following day, as he would be my personal tuk tuk driver. We sketched out a basic plan, starting with the War Museum and ending with a few temples. He then escorted me up to my room, which, for lack of better words, was the best thing ever. On my bed, created with flowers and pieces of grass, were the words "Welcome to Pippeit Lauren Carey." Now the actual name of the hotel was spelled wrong, but it's the thought that counts. I'd walked into my own honeymoon suite for 1. The room was big, the bed was comfortable, and I had a large terrace with a deep soaking tub, as well as a table and chairs. I wanted my bed to bear my personalized greeting forever, but eventually I cleared the plants and flowers and crawled in, excited for my day of temple touring.
I woke up Friday morning and headed downstairs to order some breakfast, which was then ever so conveniently delivered to my room. I ate very happily outside on my terrace- my table full of french toast, fresh fruit, a fruit shake, and tea. I got ready, and off we went.
If you're A. completely uneducated on Cambodian history (like myself) or B. are a history buff, I'd suggest your first stop be to the War Museum of Cambodia. I gave it a pretty thorough review on Trip Advisor, which you can check out here, along with many other visitor's insightful reviews. So why go? Because it'll give you a good foundation and understanding of the country you're about to explore. The museum is a little off the beaten path and I was taken by Arun's tuk tuk. We stopped at a tourism office in town to purchase my $5 USD ticket beforehand, and when I arrived, I was surprised to find practically no one there. I entered the outdoor museum and was greeted by a guide. The guides are free and very informative (albeit mine was slightly difficult to understand.) He escorted me around the property, which is filled with planes, helicopters, tanks, guns, land mines, grenades, and every other weapon you can possibly think of. The stories I was told absolutely broke my heart. My guide was pointing out particular kinds of land mines that killed his friends, talking about his parents’ passing, and going into detail about the fear of bombs- bombs that were being dropped by my own country. The intimacy of a one on one tour and the sensitive nature of the topic had me literally choking back tears. He spoke about several of the other tour guides, and it seems everyone that works there has been directly affected by the Khmer Rouge. There’s nothing particularly wonderful about this museum in terms of aesthetics, but if you want to educate yourself and get personalized treatment, the museum could really use support. Give them a small tip at the end of the tour and they’ll be really grateful.
From there, we made our way to the Angkor complex. At the entrance, I purchased a 3 day pass, having only Friday-Sunday to spend touring the temples. Passes are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. When you purchase a ticket, they will take a photo of you that goes on the pass. Also note that the complex is open from 5 am to 6 pm.
Prepare to be absolutely awed. Here are the temples I visited, and a few words/photos on each:
Bayon - (within Angkor Thom) One of my favorites. This expansive temple is most noted for a rather impressive array of stone faces.
Banteay Kdei - Not a typical tourist stop. I wanted something a little less packed, and it's also smaller than most temples and doesn't take up too much of your time. Up until the 60's it served as a Buddhist monastic complex. It also houses a stunning Banyan tree, photographed below.
Angkor Wat - Go for sunrise, they say. Well, guess I picked a bad day because my sunrise was severely disappointing. However...take the risk. Even if your sunrise sucks, you're up and you've beaten the majority of the crowds. Get in early and get out. I was able to spend a few hours frolicking around this amazing religious site, and there were some incredible areas that I had all to myself (and this, my friends, is how I was able to shamelessly set up my camera and take pictures that actually had myself in them. )
Ta Prohm - More popularly known as the "Tomb Raider" temple. Ta Prohm is worthy in it's own right. With trees growing out of the ruins and it's jungle setting, it's as photogenic as it is enchanting.
Baphuon - (within Angkor Thom) I had a blast at this particular temple for two reasons: there were monkeys everywhere and there was hardly anyone around. Almost in an Angkor Wat like style, there's a long pathway leading up to the temple's entrance. I went in the late afternoon and the lighting was just stunning.
Phnom Bakheng - This temple sits atop a mountain (be prepared to hike a bit to get there) and is the perfect place to soak in a Cambodian sunset. Get there a hell of a lot earlier than I did (which was about 4:30 PM), because the line was horrendous and I didn't make it into the actual temple in time. Regardless, the sunset was beautiful- I just didn't get the vantage point I was hoping for.
Aside from the temples, I'd like to offer a few suggestions when milling about town. Siem Reap is filled with AMAZING international restaurants and cafes. Some places I can recommend include:
Sister Srey Cafe - the vibe is wonderful, and the food even better. Not only that, but the business stands for a wonderful cause: to help and support Khmer students and to make a sustainable impact into the community.
The Sun - I love me some mac and cheese, and this place had some of the best I've ever had. That's kind of saying a lot.
La Cabane La Cuisine des Filles - Feeling some French? I didn't have a clue what half the stuff on the menu was- but, just pick something and run with it.
Il Forno - authentic,homemade pasta? Yes, please.
...and for dessert: I actually had some of the best gelato ever (and I just got back from Rome, so I feel like I can say this with some authority) from a spot called Gelato Lab (grazie, Giada.)
Hit up Pub Street for a night out, and don't miss Angor Wat? and Temple Club. Beer is about as cheap as beer can be, so drink up, and dance.
Definitely pay the Old Market a visit- whether you want to shop for souvenirs or just get a taste of the local color, it's worth exploring. I found myself in strange parts of this market, watching the locals chopping up their fish and cutting up their vegetables.
If you're into photography at all, as I am, swing by the McDermott Gallery. An American living in Siem Reap, John McDermott has some unique, inspiring images- all done in black and white.
Since returning from Siem Reap, I've been incredibly interested in learning more about the history (a task I wish I'd undertaken prior to going.) I've watched The Killing Fields, a 1984 film based on the true story of a New York Times reporter and Cambodian interpreter that won 3 Oscars. I also picked up the historical memoir "First They Killed My Father" by Loung Ung. It tells her story, from her then 5 year old perspective, as she endures the takeover of the Khmer Rouge with her family. If you can't make it to the actual country in the near future, I recommend both of these. The latter, "First They Killed My Father" is actually being turned into a film directed by Angelia Jolie. She was in town when I was there, but sadly, we didn't bump into each other.
So, there you have it. Loads of pictures, places to go, things to read, and films to see. Cambodia's an incredible country, and one that did in fact steal my heart. As with anywhere, watch your shit and be careful! Thanks for reading!