I hitched a ride on an overnight bus once I got myself back on solid ground from Sihanoukville and found myself wandering the streets of Siem Reap the next morning. After a hellish sleeper bus (the worse I’ve yet to experience) ride I made sure to have all my ducks in a row for there was one reason why I came here: Angkor Wat. I chose Siem Reap as the last stop during my Cambodia leg because I wanted to savor my most anticipated temple and all of its glory.
Arguably the most famous and well known of all the temples in the world it draws millions of tourists annually. Angkor Wat is not just one temple, it’s actually comprised of many that creates the famous complex. Needless to say there is A LOT to see if you plan to come to this part of the world.
by now I was really getting burnt out on temples, but Angkor Wat just had to be seen.
I hopped into a tuk-tuk at 330am with a few hostel mates as our driver took us to where we can purchase tickets for the complex. Along the way you can see many others out in the dark of night for the same reasons you are. An all-day ticket to all the complex offers will run you $37 USD while locals are free (for good reasons.) There are multi day passes that are cheaper if you have more time on your hands to explore. I found what I purchased good value for money even if you compared it to past prices (this was the most expensive temple visit during my entire trip.)
Watching the sun rise over the five towers of Angkor Wat is just something you have to do for yourself. There in the mist of darkness, you are but one of thousands, all waiting with bated breath for those first rays to peak over the horizon. Believe me when I say a photo of the sunrise peaking over the center tower cannot express things you feel when you are watching it there.
A little background on the temple itself: Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat the oceans beyond.
The sheer size of the temple was completed in only about 30 years and it praised for its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, relief’s and sculpture make it one of the finest monuments in the world.
Come here early in the day because Cambodia’s heat in the afternoon is NO JOKE and there’s hardly any shade here! Bring a super comfortable pair of walking shoes and lots of water. The ground is vast and there is much you can explore and see on your own. Guides are readily available on premise that are more than happy to take you around, for a nominal fee of course.
Be weary of the monkeys as well, they are NOT SHY.
We spent a good portion of our morning here, exploring on our own, at our leisurely pace. The temple is breathtaking both architecturally and of course for being the religious magnitude that it represents. From carvings on the walls to stone archways, and up to the center tower (which you can ascend) everything has a reason and a story behind it.
It’s not uncommon to find young monks in one of the chambers ready to bless you on your life’s journey. Aside from visiting the temple this was one of the things I looked forward to doing myself. It’s a good experience if you don’t often get to interact with them or take part in such rituals and blessings.
NOTE: there that are rules when interacting with monks so please be aware of them before you go!
Angkor Thom – Bayon Temple
Our tuk-tuk driver rounded us up and brought us to our next temple destination: Angkor Thom – the capital of the Khmer Empire. The famous temple, Bayon, resides here – the temple of many faces. I will say Bayon happened to be my favorite of the bunch, even more than Angkor Wat. Prasat Bayon was built in late 12th century to early 13th century, by the King Jayavarman VII, dedicated to Buddhist.
Walking through the crowded passageways, minding my elbows, watching where I placed my feet, I couldn’t help but awe stricken at both the artistry and ingenuity. This much like the previous visited temple was aesthetically on a different level than temples I have visited before.
Each face was different, each statue having a distinct smile, grin, frown or upturn eyes. I found myself just gazing at the faces as many people just walked on by. Something about it was hypnotizing to me. You can’t tell what they were feeling, or if even their expression was what the sculpture truly wanted to covey. Visually it was mood evoking, this temple.
The layout was peculiar, the first and second level are square galleries featuring bas-reliefs. It felt as though you were walking in a large circle on the third level with a central sanctuary most prominent. Even though it sounded simple enough not to get lost it’s a hard feat to accomplish when there are many mazes and galleries about. When you do get lost make sure you notice are the mythical scenes depicted on the columns and walls. These depictions show what every day life was for the inhabitants of that period: markets, fishing, festivals with cockfights and jugglers and so on-and history scenes with battles and processions.
Before heading to the last temple of the day our driver brought us to Ta Keo. A rather small spectacle when compared in the grand schemes of temples that Siem Reap offered was nevertheless impressive. Its sandstone temple-mountain with 5 towers on top of a step-pyramid base that represents Mount Meru boast great details.
I warn you that the steps to walk up the temple are STEEP! I would say you are crawling rather than walking up. Once you’re on top you can see over the tree line for an amazing 360 degree view of the temple compound. You definitely could say you scale a small mountain when you visit Ta Keo.
Escaping the crowds we went to Ta Phrom after Angkor Tom. Made notably famous by the Tomb Raider movie, I looked forward to visiting this temple because nature has since taken it back into her arms while man has forgotten her.
Built at the height of the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and center of learning, Ta Prohm has a traditional Khmer structure consisting of a series of gradually smaller enclosures, the largest of which is about 1000 by 650 meters. This is all centered around the huge, elevated stone face of Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom, whose features were modeled after those of the king’s mother.
You will find massive overgrowth of trees all over grounds, branches encroaching on walls and archways, while stone rubble are stricken heavy with moss.
A sign that if left alone nature will always take over.
Heat soaked from being out in the sun all day I lost track of my mates and found shelter under the shade in the corner of the temple under a tree. I thought about my situation at that moment; walking through temples that have stood for a millennia, being a witness to a beauty that stood the test of time, the culture of a people so warm and welcoming despite such a troubled past. It filled my soul and my heart was full.
That scorching hot day proved not only to be culturally enriching, but also a moment of many that will stay with me forever from this trip.
Khmer New Year Celebration in Siem Reap
Don’t think Siem Reap is a one trick pony with only the temples to its name, far from it. During my visit to this city it also happened to Khmer New Year which they take very seriously in these parts! Khmer New Year marks the end of the traditional harvest season, a time of leisure for farmers who have toiled all year to plant and harvest rice. April represents a rare break from the hard work: the summer season reaches its peak in this month, making it all but impossible to work for long in the fields.
Back home during this festival period you can be expected to have people from friends to total stranger douse you with baby powder, water, and smear you with red lipstick.
I grew up learning about this tradition the hard way!
The streets of Siem Reap from dusk to midnight during the new year celebration is something out of this world. I saw countless trucks traversing the streets with a ton of people in the bed, on the roof, heck even hanging off the sides! They were harmed to the teeth with super soakers, hoses with hand pumps, and BARRELS UPON BARRELS of water as they stalked the streets. If you thought they were fully loaded the store owners and people walking the streets were on another level!
No one roaming the streets were safe at those time during the festivities (usually lasting about a week or two) and I certainly didn’t leave dry either. Music bumping, lights from every possible building turned on, it really became a big party out there with laughter and smiles around. It makes you forget your troubles to just enjoy things like shooting that kid with your puny water gun while he unloads a SuperSoaker 3000 on you, man I did not come prepared.
Take a Khmer Cooking Class
Cambodian cuisine has become one of my favorite types of food having all of my friends from home to thank for that. When arriving in this country I made sure to get a face full of all my favorites: salaw machu krouengs, bai sach chrouk, fish amok, bai loc lac, basically anything drenching in prahok, the stinkier the better for me! Simply eating it wasn’t enough as I set out to take a cooking class while stationed in the city.
If you have followed my blogs lately you know I took a cooking class in Chiang Rai, Thailand and had a fantastic experience, so I really wanted to repeat that here. Sad to say that experience in Thailand was really a one-off. Not saying this was a bad experience, but that left such a high standard that this simply didn’t compare, or I just picked a not so good one, we’ll never know.
We did get to go to market to check out the local action, but we didn’t get to buy our groceries there, rather everything was setup for us by the time we arrived. A small setback as I would have loved to see the instructor interact with the market sellers, something I always look forward to.
The experience was still a great one for me since I’ve been out of a kitchen for so long at this point. Our instructor explained to us each and every ingredient. Some I’ve used before while others were new in both smell and taste to me. She was very thorough in her explanations and dived into why such ingredients were used in Khmer cuisine. My ears were perked up at more cooking knowledge.
We made a three course meal which surmised of an appetizer, a main, and dessert. Spring rolls were on the ticket first, something I am VERY familiar with. A basic starter that is both fresh and refreshing, these were to be filled with carrots, mint, cucumbers, shrimp, pork and long stem onions all rolled into a rice paper. I was very quick with the rolling of mine that impress my fellow classmates, until I burst their bubble that I am also a cook By this point I’d wager I’ve rolled 40,000 spring rolls!
Amok is a curry base soup that is bursting with flavors and can be made with anything you want be it fish, beef, pork, poultry, vegetarian… you get the idea. I have eaten SO MUCH amok that I was very interested in knowing how to make this for myself. It had almost the same process as the green Thai curry Nickle and I learned back in Chiang Rai, but because I got to make this amok it tasted better than the stuff I was ordering at restaurants!
Our last dish was a simple dessert dish consisting of caramelized bananas in a coconut sauce. Cue the heavy breathing! This simple dish took minutes to prepare and even less time to consume. She had us quickly caramelize the bananas in a hot wok then on the side bring a cup of coconut milk a boil. Once heat levels were attained pour the sugar into the coconut milk, reduce to a thick sauce and throw in your bananas. Plate and voila dessert in minutes.
I left the class very full, happy, and thrilled I got to be back in a kitchen as I walked to my hostel. Although it wasn’t like the experience I had in Thailand that doesn’t take away from the experience of this one at all. By taking this class I feel closer to my friends both at home and those who I met while in Cambodia. What better way to understand a culture better than to cook and break bread together.
Infamous Pub Street
Pub Street is also a famous landmark you should visit while you are in Siem Reap. The name is a little misleading as there are more than JUST bars here. You can find cheap massage establishments for a nice foot rub, souvenir shops with everything you can possibly want to bring home, endless restaurants to fill your palate, and fish tanks with fish that will peel dead skin off your feet!
A real one stop shop for a Friday evening and that’s exactly where I found myself with a couple of Dutch peeps. Home to the $0.50 beers, yes $0.50 beers, we spent a couple of hours relaxing at a bar, playing a few rounds of the card game Shit Head, while people watching. Of course we also test our luck with the fish tanks seeing who can last the longest without laughing. I of course lost in less than a minute while Reuben came in a solid second and Joey came out the stone faced winner.
The later the day got the livelier this street became with everyone coming out of the woodwork. I noticed a lot of expats working the bars here as bartenders or host/hostess, there’s something about Cambodia that brings you here and keeps you around. Oh remember those $0.50 beers? Well if you drink enough of those being brandished at you from said expats you would be brave enough to get a tattoo on Pub Street! Not me of course, by this point I had enough ink from this trip already!
Reuben, Joey and I stumbled into a peculiar tattoo parlor and both of them asked for a memento to remember their time in Cambodia by. Reuben a gecko with the reasoning that the first sound you hear in the mornings are the bellows from geckos. The sound is so distinct that only those who’ve been here and heard it can appreciate, or not depending if you’re still hungover in bed! Joey on the other hand was getting his first tattoo done and quite frankly I will just show you a photo.
Yes he done and got himself that! What a champ.
This ultimately marked the end of my stay in Cambodia as I packed up my bag and boarded a flight back into Thailand. The morning tuk-tuk ride to the airport had me looking back on my more than three week stay in Cambodia, all the adventures I had, the places I’ve seen, the groups of people I met. I thought about my friends back home and whether or not I did right by them.
By the end of it all I was both happy and sad to leave. My journey was continuing onward while a sense of unfinished business was looming overhead. I found the country to be an amazing culturally enriching experience. I learned and felt so much more than I thought humanly possible in such a short span of time. I’ll never truly be one of the people, but I certainly felt their warmth and hospitality.
Thank you for having me in your beautiful land, I hope one day soon I can come back and enjoy you as I did before, Cambodia.