Wow. If there was one thing I was not expecting, it was how much I would enjoy Cambodia. After an eight-hour bus ride from Bangkok, we finally made it to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Sunday, October 21st.
The drive to the Cambodian border mostly consisted of the lush green countryside. We passed through several small towns and rice farms. Every once in a while we spotted temples located in seemingly remote places. The small towns pretty much all looked the same: a couple of gas stations and several markets lining a long stretch of road.
Halfway through the trip, we arrived at the Thai/Cambodian border. Crossing the border between Thailand and Cambodia at Poi Phet station was an insightful experience. The station appeared to be a crossroads of sorts for merchants and tourists alike. It was a bustling town with locals moving in every direction. Trucks and carts loaded with products, people zipping by on personal motorbikes, and pop-up markets everywhere. What immediately struck us upon arrival, however, were the clear signs of poverty; I won’t sugar coat it. The air reeked of sewage and garbage in the hot sun. A nearby river turned a dark blue-gray color from all of the pollution, and the shoreline was covered in garbage and plastic. Groups of people stared at us foreigners as we got off our busses; desperation was evident in their eyes. Hungry children and their mothers lined the ground of our pathway. Skinny and sometimes naked children were everywhere. One kid could be seen playing with garbage. Madison saw a kid chewing hungrily on a stick. These poor Cambodians positioning themselves in our line of sight like this was very deliberate. Most of these people undoubtedly expected some charity from all of these foreigners passing by. Unfortunately, we were warned about this before arriving at SEA. The sad reality is that any charity we were to give these people would probably first go to whatever boss man sent them out to these streets in the first place. We really had no choice but to keep moving.
Another thing about this situation that kind of irked us were the multiple luxury hotel-casinos everywhere around us. We were urged to go into one of them to use the bathroom before getting back on the bus. There was something distasteful about seeing people (locals and tourists alike) dumping money into slot machines and card tables while people were starving outside.
This was our first glimpse of Cambodia and it contrasted heavily with the beautifully lush countryside just a few miles outside of Poi Phet station. Can’t say we didn’t expect this though.
The bus company that we chose to ride with (Giant Ibis) was very accommodating and offered to guide us through the Visa On Arrival process for a small fee. This was helpful because the process proved to be a little chaotic what with all of the visa scammers lining the pathway and the lack of clear direction. The station was however marked with many signs pointing people in the correct general direction. It definitely would’ve been possible for us to navigate the station alone, but it would’ve taken much longer.
Pulling into the Siem Reap bus station was a far different experience than Poi Phet. In Siem Reap, people seemed much more cheerful. With its red dirt roads and small buildings, Siem Reap had a special charm that we hadn’t seen anywhere else. Unlike Bangkok, there were no skyscrapers or paved roads. Madison and I finally felt like we were clear of any Western influence and were immersed into something culturally unique.
Our hotel — called Cambana Residence — where we’d be staying for the next four nights was a five-minute walk from the bus station. We were truly impressed with our accommodation. The hotel lobby was semi-outdoors and vegetation was allowed to grow somewhat freely inside. The inside of our room was full of character. Artwork inspired by the famous Angkor Wat (I’ll explain what this is later) lined the walls, and the personal balcony had its own little pool! The whole jungle and temple theme of the hotel filled me with joy.
We rested at our hotel for a few hours before deciding to eat and explore the city a bit. When it got dark we headed to a restaurant called Try Me where we had delicious food and a $0.75 Cambodian beer. Outside of the restaurant, we flagged down a Tuk Tuk to take us to Pub Street.
Note: Tuk Tuks are a very popular mode of transportation in Cambodia. They are basically carriages pulled by motorbikes that usually cost between $1-$5 when riding around the city. Cambodia doesn’t have the Grab app service like Bangkok which makes Tuk Tuks that much more common.
Pub Street is the main tourist area of Siem Reap. It’s usually super populated and full of shops and bars. Many foreigners gravitate here because of the cheap drinks and entertainment. It also runs perpendicular to the popular Night Market. Madison and I walked around here for about 30 minutes before heading back to our hotel. Pub Street is kind of pointless if you don’t plan on shopping or drinking. We hailed a Tuk Tuk back to our place; the driver turned out to be quite chatty and entertaining. He even offered to be our private driver around Angkor Wat since we planned on going there the next day. We took him up on his offer and made arrangements to meet him outside of our hotel the next morning.
Angkor Wat is, arguably, the main reason to visit Siem Reap. It’s a massive temple complex located just north of the city. The temples were originally built by a god-king around 900 years ago and represent the powerful heritage of the Cambodian people. Angkor Wat itself is the largest religious monument ever built. I was surprised to learn that the temple complex surrounding Angkor Wat was once a sprawling metropolis the size of London during the same time, and even rivaled it in its civil engineering. What’s left of Angkor Wat now are scattered temple ruins that have been reclaimed by the jungle. Restoration efforts have been made in some parts, but from what I’ve learned, it is nothing compared to their original glory. Still, Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are a must-see if visiting Cambodia.
Madison and I walked outside of our hotel at 8:30am to see our trusty Tuk Tuk from the night before standing there happily waiting for us as planned. We agreed to have him give us the essential Angkor Wat tour for $20. This meant that he’d take us to all of the main touristy temple sites and patiently wait for us at each one. He even made efforts to give us quick history lessons and fun facts throughout the tour. Our Tuk Tuk first drove us to the ticket office to buy a day pass which cost us $37 each. There were also options for three and seven-day passes, but those seemed more for the hardcore tourists. At the time, we couldn’t imagine why anyone would need more than a day to explore Angkor Wat, but after learning more about it I can see how someone may need a week to get the true experience. We arrived at the main temple of Angkor Wat around 9am and spent about two hours exploring the massive temple. Then we met up again with our Tuk Tuk who took us to the next site, Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with the giant face sculptures. Here we even saw a couple of wild monkeys, the first I’ve ever seen! Finally, we visited Ta Prohm, a temple where massive tree roots can be seen wrapped around crumbling temple structures. This was also a section of the temple complex where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed. And that was the last stop of our Angkor Wat adventure. We only saw a fraction of what this place had to offer. Like mentioned before, we had the option for multiple day passes which would’ve allowed us to explore some of the lesser known areas. We also had the option of hiring a personal tour guide that would actually go into the temples with us and explain things in depth. But we had spent around five hours in sweltering heat and dust and were happy to call it a day.
After coming back into town I began to realize just how significant Angkor Wat has been in shaping Cambodian culture, especially within Siem Reap. Cambodians living in this city must feel profound pride knowing what their ancestors created. I took fresh notice to the Angkor Wat symbolism all over the city representing the intricate carvings and statues that can be seen at the temples. I gained even more appreciation for the theme and artwork of our hotel which felt like a tiny extension of the temples. It was then we decided that Siem Reap, Cambodia is our favorite place so far, and will likely remain a highlight for the rest of our trip.
Goodbye Siem Reap!
Our final few days in the beautiful Siem Reap were mostly spent lounging around our hotel pool, eating, and doing a little shopping at Pub Street. We also decided to rent personal bicycles for $2/day (through Angkor Cycling Tours) and explore the city some more. This allowed us to venture a bit away from the downtown area and find a few little roads that we felt captured the Siem Reap aesthetic perfectly.
At the time of writing this, we are taking yet another Giant Ibis bus on a seven-hour ride to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We departed from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. My next post will briefly cover the two nights we spent in Phnom Penh.