Travel Diary: Holiday in Cambodia

 

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” – Moslih Eddin Saadi

To be totally honest, I did not know much when I decided to travel to Cambodia. Following my month long stay in Thailand, my visa had expired and I needed to “flee” the country in order to avoid any additional charges due to an overstayed visa.

And I only really wanted to see Siem Reap, Cambodia for the same reason nearly everyone else does: Angkor Wat.

The guards of Angkor Thom

HISTORY LESSON!

Angkor Wat is this massive temple built in the 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman II and was the capital of the Khmer Empire. (Roughly the same time as Rome was built!) Originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, the temple was transformed to a Buddhist temple by the end of the 12th century.

The Khmer Empire lasted SIX centuries.

The significance of this temple is how well preserved it is, even to this day. Most of the temples in the area have crumbled walls, and are barely a representation of how grand they were. Scholars claim Angkor Wat’s preservation is due to it’s massive moat surrounding the temple – keeping the jungle at bay. It was also never completely abandoned – with monks practicing Buddhism there for centuries afterward.

Angkor Wat underwent major reconstruction during the 20th century, bringing to life the structure we see today.

There were over a thousand temples throughout the city of Angkor. Although most now can not be recognized as more than a pile of bricks or rubble.

The meaning of Angkor Wat? “City of Temples”. I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description.

From the top of Phimeanakas

Okay – before I get ahead of myself. The day I left for Siem Reap from Bangkok – I was relatively emotional (as mentioned last diary entry). I was worked up over leaving people I cared about and babies. The airport in Siem Reap was actually quite small – and we were kicked off the plane on the landing strip (a thing I’m starting to like a lot). We walked from the plane to the airport. Customs took maybe five minutes to buzz through and I was out – with NO Cambodian currency. There were also ZERO ATMs at the airport.

I was – in the immortal words of Cher from Clueless – “totally buggin”.

I briefly remember reading how taxi’s were more reliable than tuk-tuk’s or maybe that was my Thailand thinking coming out. So I made my way to to taxi stand and gave them the address to my hostel. It was getting dark but I remember looking around seeing what life was like for the people of that region. There were some dinner parties going on. Some fireworks shooting off in the distance. Everything was quiet.

Luckily there was an ATM five feet from my hostel. I was able to take out some Cambodian cash. My taxi driver didn’t even seem annoyed that I was delaying him.

From that point, I checked in to my hostel – where a girl tinier than me tried to help me carry my extra large bags. I decided now was as good of time as ever and booked a trip for the next morning to go see the famous temple of the area.

Which means I would have to be up and ready to go at 5:00 am.

Game. Set. Match. 

The easiest way to break down by trip would be through this map:

Temples of this area are spotted all over the place. It is hard to imagine their location without a map. (Trust me, I spent A LOT of time staring at maps while there!)

Outside of Angkor Wat

Day One Itinerary:

Now, there are different ways to get around Angkor Wat. The most common is to hire a tuk-tuk and have your driver take you and some buddies (or strangers – whatever suits your fancy) through different courses depending on pricing.

Here’s how my course went:

  • Get tourist ticket to go inside of Angkor (this is only applicable to tourists – not people that live there)
  • Watched sunrise at Angkor Wat (religious complex built in 12th century)
  • Head through the gate of Angkor Thom (last surviving capital city of the Khmer empire)
  • Temple of Bayon (Known as the Buddha head temple built in early 13th century)
  • Walk Terrace of Elephants (Within Angkor Thom – Where the king would stand to watch is returning victorious army)
  • Climb to the top of Phimeanakas (built at the end of the 10th century – was said the king would spend the first watch of the night with a woman thought to represent a Naga or snake to keep the empire safe)
  • Explore the smaller temples of Prasat Suor Prat (12 temples spanning through Angkor Thom)
  • Leave Angkor Thom to see Ta Keo (massive and unfinished temple built in the 11th century)
  • Ta Prohm (built in late 12th century – known for it’s massive trees growing through the temple walls)
  • We had the option to go see Bantaey Kdei, but each of us were too tired to continue to see this, and honestly, no regrets.

I would love to do a write up about each of these temples – because every single one was amazing in it’s own way with a deep history and cultural relevance. Yet, that would take a TON of time and space – so instead I linked you to their wiki bios.

Interior of Angkor Wat

To break it down, day one was a total see-everything-I-can see moment. By that afternoon I was wiped. After a much needed nap, I went out to the hip downtown district with some hostel friends. This district is filled with bars and clubs, cheap drinks, and lots of people trying to scam you out of your money. To say the least, it was a blast.

Ta Prohm – the Tomb Raider Temple

The next day I took it easy and relaxed. Wandered around the city and tried to get to know more from a local’s perspective. Ate Cambodian pizza (which isn’t as bad as it sounds!).

It wasn’t until the following day that I made my way to Bantaey Srei.

Now, me being who I am – after doing some research, I just HAD to see Bantaey Srei (Citadel of the women) which I dedicated an ENTIRE day to – because it was something like 36 km from Siem Reap- or TWO HOURS by tuk-tuk. But also – 100% worth all the hassle.

Bantaey Srei Temple

Built in 967, Bantaey Srei is still relatively well preserved. It is known for it’s red sandstone structure (giving it a charming pink hue). The carvings on the face of this building are so intricate that it truly gives the perspective of what a temple would have looked like in its hay day. Almost every surface of the temple is covered in small carvings. It is believed due to the delicacy of the carvings – that they were more than likely carved by women.

Bantaey Srei was the only temple not built for the king. After the 14th century, it was lost – buried until 1914 when it was rediscovered by an archaeologist. Remember, that Angkor was the capital of the LARGEST EMPIRE at the time – the city spanned for miles and many temples were simply lost after the fall of the empire.

Ta Keo Temple

That day, I ate weird side cart food. Drank Cambodian coffee from a mug sold at another side street cart. My tuk-tuk driver seemed crazy bored but would stop at any temples I asked him to. I think I paid something like $20 for the whole day with him.  I made sure to get a nice 30-minute Cambodian foot massage after all this adventuring.

With only two days left in Siem Reap, I really was at a loss of what to do. I had seen all the temples I wanted to see. And with the craziest turn of events – I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. A girl I met at breakfast met the owner of a zip-lining company. He invited her out for a free tour and said she could bring a friend – lucky little me happened to be that friend she chose!

Rebecca and I right before our Ziplining adventure!

In the beginning, climbing higher and higher, ziplining seemed like it could be one of the more terrifying things I’ve done. But I soon found I was a natural at being held up by a rope hundreds of feet in the air. Although I didn’t see any monkeys, I did have zipline guide teach me how to each berries from the forest!

Afterwards, we hired a tuk-tuk (after some negotiations of course) and watched the sunset at the temple Ta Prohm.

I had signed up for another once-in-a-lifetime event to see the Phare Circus that night. I was picked up by a tuk-tuk (naturally at this point) and taken to the outskirts of Siem Reap around 8:00 pm (definitely not as scary as it sounds!). If I could recommend one thing to do (other than Angkor Wat at sunrise and Bantaey Srei temple, this event would be it.)

The performers are trained professionals from impoverished families. They are given an education and something they didn’t have before: opportunity. Not only do the ticket sales go to a good cause, but the performance happens to be amazing and humorous. A great show for any age group.

Phare Circus performers

My Final Day in Cambodia

I feel like my story hasn’t had enough chaos – but don’t worry. It’s coming. The day I travel of course.

My last day in Siem Reap was the day I planned on leaving for a day trip to a nearby fishing village. I was told I would be back by 1:00 pm no problem – and with my flight out at 3:00 pm it seemed like a no brainer.

Entering the floating village

Touring this village was another big highlight. It got me out of the tourist center to see a completely way of life. I chose to go to Kampong Phluk, a village not too far from Siem Reap but not as tourist-heavy as the infamous Chong Khneas. First we drove, then hoped on a boat that floated us around the village. We stopped to eat at a local restaurant and our tour guide even showed us the home he grew up in.

Then I saw it. The thing that broke my heart more than most things I had seen in Cambodia – a child. She was smiling at me and probably no more than eight years old. Most children should be in school at this time, but she wasn’t. All things assumed, her family probably couldn’t afford it. Text her her was another child holding the hands of her parents and nearly the same age – in this place out of choice and not birth, having a lovely vacation. Poverty verses Privilege staring me right in the face.

Smiling Cambodian child

What makes these villages significant is that they are located on a lake. Their way of life is centered around fishing. Yet, half the year the lake retreats and disappears (it’s river fed). This is usually the time children go to school – or parents take up jobs in neighboring towns.

Of course the boat took forever to get us back – and I had to beg the guide to drop me off at my hostel soon or I would miss my flight. We did not get back to Siem Reap until 2:00 pm! I nearly missed my tuk-tuk!

Luckily, once again customs was a breeze and although I had almost no time to eat once at the airport, I was on my way back to Thailand – if only for a moment until I got to my final destination: Myanmar.

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