I am on my way home from a wonderful trip to Cambodia. In the last five days I was lucky enough to visit Siem Reap for Easter and visit with some American friends, who happen to be my former manager from Adecco and his wife. I then continued on for my first solo journey to Phnom Penh, to learn the incredible, tragic history this country has endured and see The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, S21. Although both fantastic, the trips themselves were very different. And being that I am now officially in love with Cambodia, I would like to dedicate two posts to it. So here it is, part one, Siem Reap.
When I tell you I knew nothing about Cambodia when I set off on this journey 5+ months ago, it would be an understatement. I had heard of this wonder, Angkor Wat, and that I should visit it being I would be rather close. I didn’t know where Cambodia was let alone where Angkor Wat was located in the country. The only thing I knew was Angelina Jolie adopted her first child from Cambodia. Talk about knowledgable.
However, regardless of ignorance, I knew I wanted to go and I knew I had to see this Wat. So the planning began. It just so happened Anthony and his wonderful wife, Laura, were going to be traveling there to begin their Southeast Asian vacation from their jobs at IBM in Shanghai. And it just so happened they would be there when my Thai visa expired meaning I had to leave the country, right after my friends left, and right before my parents came. Talk about timing.
After a lovely Easter breakfast with my friend Esther and her mother, I boarded a puddle jumper at BKK to Siem Reap. Like a plane you have to walk onto with propellers. I was less than impressed by the equipment for my first international journey since getting to Thailand. There were about 15 people on it though so at least I knew we weren’t going down due to weight reasons.
The flight went smoothly and we arrived in less than an hour to the Siem Reap international airport. Which has no terminals and is basically a Teak style house you walk through. Very nice and fast. Got myself a $20 visa on arrival (bring a passport photo!) and was ready to take on the country. In a heat similar to Thailand’s. My guesthouse, Seven Candles, picked me up for free in a tuk tuk and off we went to the city. My first impressions were…dusty. Many of the paved roads in the country are rather new and most are dirt. And being its dry season they were very, very dusty. Kind of felt like I was driving through Arizona or Mexico. I hadn’t been expected that type of landscape. It made me realize I was in a different country and place, yahoo!
The guesthouse I stayed at was pretty basic, but clean, affordable, and had a great story and cause. Here is a link to the website and a brief description:
Ponheary Ly, the owner of Seven Candles, has an amazing history. As a young woman, she survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and decades of civil war to become a respected leader for the rights and education of Cambodian children.
A “CNN Hero” Ponheary believes that education is the key to overcoming the cycle of poverty brought on by decades of genocide and has made it her life’s mission to be of service to the children of the rural poor in the villages of Siem Reap Province. The Ponheary Ly Foundation was formed in 2006 to fund this mission.
You may find teachers studying in the guest house as part of a “Teach-the-Teachers” program in which we facilitate advanced training to improve their English skills. A second language, especially English, is extremely valuable in Cambodia both personally and professionally. Many of our teachers love to practice with the guests and we encourage participation in their conversational English classes.
I didn’t meet any teachers but met members of the Ly family. They couldn’t do enough to help you and the kids were adorable. The only downside of the guesthouse was there was no pool. When you visit Cambodia in the summer, where it’s 100+ degrees and 100% humidity, you need a pool. Thankfully, Anthony and Laura were staying at the Sojourn, another great hotel, that had a pool. And swim up bar. Win-win.
Shortly after arriving I met up with Anthony and Laura and we went for a dip in their beloved pool before getting ready to see the infamous Angkor Wat at sunset for Easter Sunday. A brief history on Angkor Wat for those who know as little as me besides it being the “8th” wonder of the world.
Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. The temple was built by a king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, in the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaivism tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation – first Hindu, then Buddhist. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.
It was a bit hazy and we didn’t see the sunset really but regardless, Angkor was an impressive site to behold. There is a huge moat that surrounds it and these gates you walk through and then BAM the 5 iconic towers. It’s a massive, massive structure that was all made by hand. Hundreds of years ago. It’s difficult to wrap your mind around. And a great thing about Angkor Wat is you pay $20 for a 24 hour pass, good for sunset and sunrise, and access to the plethora of other wats (temples) on the grounds. Which I didn’t even know existed either.
After walking around the magnificent structure we went to Abacus for Easter dinner. It was delicious! We shared some appetizers and a bottle of wine, and I got the duck for dinner which was recommended. Definitely a good place for a nicer meal in Siem. The owner is French so it’s a bit more western but great food none the less. The French influence in the country and city is apparent but not overwhelming. Two things I noticed was there is a bit of European architecture influence and they are on board with wine and cheese. This alone made me like Cambodia immediately. Good wine. Access to cheese. And on the American dollar? Definitely has my vote for a top world destination.
After that it was time for bed since we were getting picked up at 4:45AM for the popular sunrise visit. I couldn’t sleep very well and needless to say just tossed and turned for 5 hours. Not fun. We arrived at the grounds in the dark, with probably 100’s of other people. Not sure, couldn’t really see. You walk in and follow the masses and camp out in front of a shallow pool in front of the Wat. Anthony aptly described it as having lawn seats at a summer concert. But a very Asian concert. Then, we waited. Slowly but surely the sun came up. Again, it was hazy, but it was very cool to just see the sky get lighter and lighter and lighter behind the towers, and causing them to reflect brighter in the pool below. I think sunrise is better than sunset and definitely worth the early wake up call. If you visit and can only do one, do sunrise.
Many pictures later (which I will upload at a later date, I don’t have my computer or adapter with me as I am living out of a backpack) we went to visit two more temples. The Bayon Temple and the “Tomb Raider” temple made famous by the movie. The Bayon temple is really cool because it has all of these little towers with faces carved into them, 52 to be exact I think. Again, it will be cooler once you see a photo. The “Tomb Raider” temple or Ta Prohm is the temple where the movie was filmed. And it is really cool. Largely in tact but with many ruins- its like a natural jungle gym. Trees jut out of parts of it and boulders and stones litter the grounds. You could not build a better movie set. I have never seen the movie but now am dying to having walked around this thing. It’s very cool.
Three temples and a sunrise later and it was only 8am. Time for breakfast and for Anthony and Laura to do some work and set their “Out Of Office” since they have real jobs. I was going to set one for my gmail, “Out of Real Life for the moment. Please check back in May. Unless you have a job for me. Or would like to wire me funds. Only serious inquiries need apply” – but decided against it. After breakfast and some work (Facebook for me) we were ready for a cocktail. But it was only 9:30, so we decided to visit a few more temples instead and then do a cooking class. Thanks to Laura’s trusty guide we saw two more really cool temples which names I don’t remember. We also almost sweat to death. Then we went to the cooking class. Which I don’t recommend. It was at the restaurant Le Tigre restaurant on pub street. We didn’t really cook as much as chop everything and then watch a lady make our food. It took forever and we were hungry and hot. And then the food wasn’t that great. I like Thai food and curries better. The best dish were these fried spring rolls the Australian 10 year olds made.
Then it was time to compare a Thai massage to a Khmer massage. Try and regain some energy since we had been up for an entire day already and needed to try and stay awake until dinner time. I can say Khmer massages are very similar to Thai massages. Except when I opted for a foot massage she had me lay on a bed and put on the massage pants instead of just sit in a reclining chair, which I wasn’t used to. She was great though and put me right to sleep.
Another dip in the pool and we were ready to hit pub street for some cocktails. I had read about this watering hole, Miss Wong, a 1920s Shanghai themed joint with creative concoctions. A little hard to find being it was down an alley off pub street but was worth the hunt. For starters the street it was on was a little pedestrian alley with cute shops and restaurants that felt like Europe. Then they had some great bar food, a very cool vintage vibe, and good drinks for $4. I opted for the Indochine Martini or something which was good in theory, but turns out I don’t like ginger in my liquor. Not a flavor for me.
From there we were pooped and it was unfortunately time for us to say our goodbyes. Laura and Anthony were off to Laos the next day and I had a 6 hour bus ticket to Phnom Penh with my name on it. After saying goodbye to my college friends and waiting for my parents to arrive, I had gotten a wave of homesickness. So it really was a treat to spend time in an amazing place with American friendly faces. And being that they got there a day ahead of me, they planned dinner and transportation to the temples and Laura was in charge of the guidebook and facts, which I normally supply, so it was great to have a break from travel responsibility. In a place of natural and ancient wonders, sometimes you need to just step back and take it all in, and I did just that. Appreciate the beauty, the impressive sites, and my lack of unemployment for the time being.
Next up, a light trip to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum and the wonderful city of Phnom Penh. But first! I have to go get my parents from the airport. I cannot believe they are here! To be continued…