Now I am not going to lie and say that leaving the safety and cleanliness of Singapore to jet off to Cambodia wasn’t a little nerve-racking. Just like Bangkok, a range of thoughts were trailing through my mind on the short 2hr flight to Siem Reap, about the water, getting ill, what would I eat? However, I was more relaxed than Thailand because we had an airport transfer to the hotel so the only thing we really had to worry about was immigration when we arrived.
When we did land, we soon discovered that Siem Reap International airport is tiny. So small in fact that when you get off the plane, you simply walk across the tarmac into the arrivals building. There, you are expected to fill out an inordinate amount of paperwork (on top of the forms you filled out on the plane) to get your visa on arrival. It cost us $30 each and we had to provide a passport photo as well. We stood to the side patiently waiting whilst it was being processed before we could then join the immigration line. It was lengthy and again, by the time we got through, our suitcases were the last ones circling the conveyor-belt.
Once out the door there was a well-dressed young man with a sign that had our names on it. He took our luggage and called the driver to come and collect us. For some reason, I was expecting a tuk tuk but was pleasantly surprised when a nice looking minivan turned up. We got in, pleased to get out of the humidity and was handed a cold bottle of water each.
As we headed towards the hotel the driver and the young man, who both spoke exceptional English, chatted to us pretty much all the way there, putting us at ease straight away. It took no more than 20mins to arrive at the hotel and I was pleased to see it wasn’t in the city centre but just outside on a quiet street. The hotel was called Damrei Residence and Spa and it was a well maintained hotel that was small but had all the amenities that you would want; a pool, spa, restaurant on site, and a tour desk. It was perfect!
The manager Pin and his colleague Dine greeted us as soon as we entered with a cold hand towel and some iced tea. We sorted the room rate and were taken straight up to our room which was a large spacious double room overlooking the swimming pool. Dine came with us to explain all the features such as the air-conditioning, bathroom facilities, etc… then we were left to relax.
We decided that to overcome any anxiety that could manifest itself quite quickly in an undeveloped country for a nervous traveller, we would hit the temple complex of Angkor Wat straight away the next day. We headed down to the front desk who arranged it all for us once we had chosen our desired tour from quite a number of selections. We had opted for the small tour via tuk tuk to get a more authentic feel and it only cost $20 for both of us.
The next morning we were collected by Sambat, our tuk tuk driver who looked after us for the day. He spoke pretty good English and was very helpful. Tuk tuks in Siem reap are very different from those in Thailand, they are effectively a cart attached to a moped. When in a tuk tuk, you are very aware of the traffic around you and with limited road rules applied in Siem Reap, it was a little bit of a shock when we first started riding in one. However you don’t go very fast and we soon got used to it. In fact by the end, I was sad not to use them any more.
Our first stop on the tour was the ticket office where you need to purchase your pass for the complex. You can choose between a 1 day, 3 day or 5 day pass- we chose to go for the 3 day pass so we didn’t feel pressured to do everything in one day. It cost $62 each and we had to have our photograph taken which is printed on the pass. After that Sambat took us on the small tour in the traditional order, which meant it was very busy but not so much that it spoilt it. I have heard that going in reverse, works better. The first place on the small tour route was the famous Angkor Wat temple.
This building is the iconic symbol of Cambodia’s UNESCO world heritage site and also a symbol of Cambodia itself displayed proudly on their national flag. It is certainly a sight to behold when you first see it and despite the crowds and the annoying instagram posers, the grounds are huge and there was so much to see and explore.
We entered from the East side which was not what I expected at all. It didn’t look like the pictures I had seen…
But as you walk through one of the doorways, it opens out into a large open space with a long pathway leading up to the building you did expect but filled with people.
As you get closer to the main building, I thought that was all there was to see but once inside, it is like a maze of tunnels and stairwells to explore. The carvings and statues, covering the walls are just amazing and there is so much of it.
Unfortunately there is nothing to read or listen to as you go around the site. There are many guys stood around in yellow polo shirts that advertise themselves as guides to take you around at a price. We considered it but once committed to a tour, you are tied to their pace and we wanted to go around at our own. For that reason we declined but many tourists appeared to be learning a lot from these local people.
There was so much to do and take photos of, that we must have spent at least 1hr and 30mins in that one place.
As we circled back towards the East exit, where Sambat was waiting for us, we needed the bathroom so we headed towards the food stalls on the grounds. There we saw a handmade sign and followed it to a rather genki looking old man with a limited number of teeth asking for 1000 Riel to use the bathroom. (Cambodia uses a mix of US dollars and Riel as their currency. Riel is only used when the change given is less than $1 so 1000 Riel was around 25cents). We handed him the money then tried to find the most useable bathroom. Mine was terrifying! There were six thin, long legged spiders hanging from the ceiling but high enough not to be too much of an issue as long as I was quick but the sweat from the humidity made it difficult to pull my shorts back up and that caused some panic! Reading how there is often no toilet roll in many public toilets, I came prepared but was baffled when I couldn’t find the flush. It was only when I turned to my right to see a large bath of water and a handled bucket floating in it, that I realised you had to wash it away by pouring water down it! It was a good job it was a quick toilet stop or that would have been really interesting and I could not reach for my antibacterial wipes quick enough when I came out, a little scarred by the whole event, However, it turns out that every bathroom encounter for the remainder of our Cambodian stay was perfectly fine. We were just very, very unlucky.
It was then that we headed back to Sambat for the next stop on our tour. We were completely unaware (or naive for not realising) that the Angkor Temple Complex is actually made up of many different temples that span a huge area of land. There was a considerable distance travelled to our next stop taking around 10mins to get there on the tuk tuk from Angkor Wat through the gateways of Angkor Thom.
This next stop was my favourite, called The Bayon Temple or otherwise known as the temple of faces. It is incredible and an amazing place to take photographs.
By this point we were feeling pretty hot, tired and hungry so we asked Sambat if we could stop for some food. He took us to a restaurant on the complex site that clearly paid tuk tuk drivers to bring tourists to them but we didn’t mind. Not wanting to risk food from a tent set up on the side of the road, we were happy to eat in an air conditioned building with a working toilet. We opted for something simple, spring rolls and Loklak which is fried pieces of beef in a tasty sauce. It was good and we were then ready to get on our way to what would be our final stop. It was temple made famous by the Tomb Raider movies called Ta Phrom. It has been left in its original state of disrepair with trees growing in and around the ruins becoming part of the structure itself. It is impressive and you can certainly see why they chose it as the setting for Lara Croft’s adventures.
That was the end of our first day but we returned two days later to explore the other temples we hadn’t seen. Instead of going through the hotel, this time we arranged directly with Sambat. By doing so we had more say in which temples we visited but it also made sure that Sambat received all the money instead of a cut from the hotel. This time he took us on a segment of the Grand Tour which started much further out visiting Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som and East Mebon. It was another hot and humid day but it was nice to be out exploring the temples, each one different and unique in its own way.
Exploring the Angkor Wat temples had been high on my bucket list for a very long time and they completely lived up to my expectations. I was surprised that tourists are allowed to clamber over ruins on low levels and it was easy to get lost in some places but I thoroughly enjoyed roaming around each of them and listening to some interesting facts from the security guards for a small tip. It is difficult not to admire this place and the symbols of power and wealth they once were. I am truly pleased I got to see them in person.
One down side to visiting this UNESCO site is the hawkers that are everywhere trying to get you to buy things. It can get quite tiring by the end but it is no different to any other popular tourist attraction around the world and I understand that this is their way of making a living so I continued to smile politely and say ‘No thank you’ if there was nothing that struck my fancy. What I found particularly difficult was when I was approached by children sent out to sell to tourists. I found it almost unbearable saying no but by not buying from the children, I read I hoped we were reinforcing the need for them to be in school instead. At least that is what we were advised when planning this trip. Apart from that, the visits were everything I hoped they would be and more.
When not visiting the temples we relaxed by the swimming pool, visited the National History Museum and explored the local area, often choosing to eat in and around our hotel instead of the infamous pub street. We came across it one day and within seconds realised that this was not the place for us and steered clear at night. We are not drinkers and I detest talking to drunk people I don’t know so I think I made the right choice.
Whenever we ventured into town, I was surprised by how many travellers and tourists there were and they were great guinea pigs for people watching. I list travellers and tourists separately because I came to see them as distinctly different during my time in Siem Reap. The travellers were the younger, slightly rugged looking non-native who often wore the classic elephant baggy pants or barely anything at all clearly on a long term exploration. Their dress suggested little research into the country they had chosen to visit and they treated Cambodia like any other country, a place to drink, eat and tick off their map. The tourists on the other hand were the people who were clearly on a short term holiday. They had money to spend and often looked immaculate (or all the best gear) and stayed in the more expensive or modest hotels. Without realising it, they had that aura of ‘western’ superiority but many would be horrified if they knew. They treated local people with respect when it called for it but there was just a hint of patronisation in their voices and I found that interesting. Which one was I? I know I wasn’t the traveller… we are not well travelled and a little too old and anxious to be one, but was I the tourist? Was I being patronising without realising it? I really hope not but it is difficult to know for sure. Of course these are simple generalisations and not every non-native I came across could be categorised into these two groups, we came across some very nice tourists and travellers whose main goal was to really understand and learn from the people around them but these stereotypes were formed over numerous encounters throughout our trip both in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Anyway, Cambodia is a developing country and as a result there is a huge difference in the general quality of things compared to Japan, England and Singapore. Roads, buildings, water quality and technology, etc… but it has a certain charm to it that I really fell in love with during our stay.
I never felt unsafe in Siem Reap and every encounter I had with the local people was always friendly and warm. The staff at our hotel were genuinely kind and always spoke to us by name. They would ask us about our day and were always there to help if we needed it without being overbearing. Dine even came in on on his day off to wave us goodbye on our last day which made me very emotional. It was such a kind gesture and one I will not forget easily.
Cambodia completely and utterly surprised us in every way. I thought I would find it difficult visiting a developing country with a history of past corruption and poor health care facilities. I should have hit a metaphorical anxiety brick wall but at no point did I feel that way. I fell in love with Cambodia, with its culture, its charm but most of all the people. On the day we left, I genuinely felt sad and gutted to be leaving but it was time to move on.
Next stop… Vietnam.