Cambodia,  SE Asia

Siem Reap

Walking down the plastic pathway that took us from the main road across the canal to the temple, I could hear the water swooshing underneath and see the first rays of daylight starting to peek behind the trees and this incredible, massive, ancient temple that we were about to visit. There was such silence and peace along with anticipation in the air, and all you could hear aside from the water swishing were the steps of everyone on this plastic platform heading to do the same thing: catch the sunrise over the temple.

The dark sky was starting to get some pink streaks. On the outside, I was calm and quiet, but on the inside I was excited and giddy like a little girl on Christmas morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I had woken up this early to see the sunrise. More often, though more in my 20s and early 30s, I’ve seen the sunrise from having stayed up all night. Instead, to wake up for it in a distant land to experience one of the largest religious monuments in the world, most incredible archaeological sites ever, and best preserved Buddhist temple: unreal and felt like a dream.

Having reached the site of the temple, we looked for the entrance to the gallery that takes you to the other side, walked through the dark corridor, and were met with the silhouette of the temple’s towers against the pink and blue skies. We continued walking down another long path to find the small reservoir on the left where people were gathering to take the famous photo of the temple with its reflection on the water.

This was Angkor Wat, what we had flown to Siem Reap for, a place that only a few months before I couldn’t have imagined ever visiting. We had woken up at 4 am to do this, had breakfast in our hotel room, and then gone outside to meet our taxi driver from the day before.

After having spent a few unforgettable days in Thailand, we had arrived in Siem Reap the day before. As soon as we stepped off the airplane, it was evident we were no longer in Thailand – a country that I had found to be surprisingly Western and modern. Flying in and staring out the window as I usually do, all I could see for miles were swamps and plains, then finally some buildings and civilization but nothing like what I’m used to. This was undoubtedly an underdeveloped country, a third-world country in all senses. I knew I was about to embark on an adventure, something unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

The airport was small and basic, which was hard to believe considering it’s a major destination in Southeast Asia. The air, calmness, and silence outside brought on a strange feeling of something remote.

Once we exchanged some money at the airport, and learned that they accept US dollars there, we called a taxi and met this sweet driver. He took us from the airport to our hotel and begged us to hire him for the next day to visit the temples. He explained that he had been waiting days to be called for a ride before getting us, telling us that it’s really slow and dead in the low season. Seeing the desperation for work in his face, we agreed to it, even though we had originally planned to get a tuk tuk to drive us around the temples. He seemed to really need the work and was nice enough, so we felt good being able to help him out by just taking him up on his offer. He told us that we should leave the hotel at 4:50 am to arrive at the temple in time to see the sunrise.

So here we were outside the hotel at exactly 4:50 expecting this desperate driver to already be there waiting eagerly for us yet he wasn’t, we were surprised to say the least. There were two tuk tuk drivers there ready for a spontaneous rider and they offered us a ride, which we kindly turned down explaining that we had someone coming to pick us up. We decided to give him a chance and wait until 5 am, the latest.

Five minutes later, some hotel guests walked out and got into one of the tuk tuks, leaving only one for us, should we need it. At this point, we looked at each other as everyone was thinking the same thing. How dare this man desperate for work that had begged us to hire him be even five minutes late? Maybe something had happened but we didn’t have his number, nor did he have ours. In any case, we’re only here for two days of temple-visiting, we’ve woken up before dawn to do this, and we are not risking not getting there on time or losing this lone tuk tuk.

This is how we met our saviour and buddy for the next three days: our tuk tuk driver Mr. Samet.

Mr. Samet drove us around everywhere. He took us to so many temples that by the end we were so tired and were begging him to take us back to the hotel. Bless him for convincing us to continue and showing us such beauty. He would even tell us a bit of history on the temples, who built it, and for whom. In the evening, he’d drive us to the supermarket to get food or to Pub Street to have dinner.

Going back to the temples, we spent a couple of hours exploring every corner of Angkor Wat. Everything was so unreal. I remembered seeing pictures of this place a few months back thinking that it was too far and foreign and I would never go there.

After that, we headed to Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, or otherwise known as the Mother Temple as it was built for the King’s mother. This one was so beautiful and magical with trees engulfing the temple, sometimes making it difficult to access certain parts. Surreal and absolutely insane!

Last one for today was Banteay Kdei. After having seen the last two, this one was less impressive although still beautiful. We were also so tired by then; it’s exhausting exploring the temples with the heat and humidity of summer in Cambodia, especially as midday arrives.

We were back at the hotel at 11:30 am, took a shower, and a much-needed nap. In the late afternoon, there was rainy weather and not much to do so we just hung out at the hotel pool bar, had some local beers, spring rolls, and plantain chips that I had happily found at the supermarket the day before.

We had learned the previous day that where our hotel was located was not the place to roam around. Even though our hotel was nice and fairly modern, it happened to be in the village, away from the touristy center. In fact, it was a shock to see when we arrived at the hotel because it seemed so out of place.

As I usually do after I’ve checked into my hotel and freshened up, we had gone for a walk around to check out the area. It took less than a block to realize we should probably not be exploring around there. Not only were we the only non-locals and stood out like crazy, but everything that was happening around us was overwhelming.

First, there was the chaos – there were so many people everywhere, some walking and others running past in motorbikes. I just didn’t feel safe; I kept thinking a motorbike would hit me or someone would steal my purse. Second was the dirt road – so much red dirt flying up in the air from the motorbikes rushing through, it was becoming difficult to breathe. Then, there were the sights – this was the local market selling all kinds of things for the community, mostly food. There were all kinds of meat everywhere hanging like in a butcher’s shop with no packaging whatsoever, just loose in the dirty, hot air and flies buzzing around it. Last was the smell – the smell of rotten meat. It hit me all at once and all of a sudden I got nauseous and it became unbearable.

Meanwhile, my friend had been filming us walking in this chaos. Once I noticed this and saw her holding up her iPhone, it quickly dawned on me that we’d better head back. I think we all came to that realization at the same time, and immediately went back to our safe Western world in the hotel.

What’s more, it was another shocker to see that among all that poverty, a level which I had never experienced before that day, there was a shop selling cell phones and SIM cards. Ironic it seemed.

After having witnessed (and smelled) that poverty, having dinner that first night in Siem Reap was very difficult for us. Nothing was appetizing, and definitely not meat! We all turned vegetarian for that night and had plain white rice and vegetables at a Korean restaurant we found in the touristy center.

Our second night, we went to Pub Street for a look around. This is where all the Westernized luxurious hotels are and of course the pubs for all the Westerners staying there. The contrast between the touristy area and the local area is insane. Being in more of a familiar setting this time around and having gotten over the initial trauma of the local food market from the day before, we found a nice looking restaurant here and were able to try some local food. I had Cambodian curry for dinner with Chilean wine, go figure.

I found it pretty annoying and arrogant of tourists having to feel like they’re at home and demand all the luxuries that they’re used to – fancy hotels with pool, non-local food options, and pubs to drink too much at. It seems as though people aren’t able to travel to a foreign country and really immerse themselves in the local culture while experiencing everything it has to offer and learning something along the way.

Meanwhile, I imagine having these facilities must put a strain on the local community. I can’t help but think that local residents are undoubtedly affected by seeing all these amenities that they quite possibly hadn’t even known existed prior to these hotels coming to their town. I wonder if it makes them feel inferior and brings more awareness to their devastating situation.

Thinking back on the experience of the local market and thereafter trying to have dinner that night, I feel a bit embarrassed at how I reacted to the whole thing, can laugh about it now, and even think “Well, what you’d expect?”. Nevertheless, I suppose it’d be difficult to visit one of the poorest countries in the world and not experience culture shock at some point.  In the end, I’m actually glad we got a glimpse into that aspect of local life because it gave me insight into just how poor Cambodia is.

Our second day of temple-hopping required another early start, though not as early as the day before: 5:45 am wake up time. While waking up at the crack of dawn is tough, it’s better to get an early start and avoid the unbearable heat and crowds of midday. We had breakfast in our room, then met Mr. Samet at 6:30 am and trusted him to take us on his suggested itinerary for the day.

First stop today was Angkor Thom, where we visited the Terrace of the Elephants and Bayon Temple. What I liked about this one was the peaceful landscape. The temple itself is not as impressive as yesterday’s but all the faces throughout were interesting and gave the place an odd atmosphere.

Second stop was Preah Khan, aka the Father Temple having been built in honor of the King’s father. This one gets prettier and prettier as you go further in and get lost in its maze. At one point, we found an exit out of the temple into the woods, and it felt like we had stepped into a different dimension. All of a sudden, there was complete silence and we just stood there quietly admiring the woods and appreciating the surrealism of it all.

Next, we went to Neak Pean, where you have to go through a forested area, then down a long, narrow, wooden walkway to cross the swamp and get to the temple.  The best part of this stop is not the temple itself but the long, peaceful walk through the swamp where time seems to stand still in a long lost, dead world. At the end of the path, you go through another small forested area and arrive at a water reservoir with an artificial island and a small Buddhist temple in the center.

However, the difficult part of this spot was going through the initial forest because there were so many kids pestering everyone trying to sell things. We even started talking to some of them and asked why they weren’t in school. One woman, desperate to sell us something, started talking to us in different languages trying to figure out what language we spoke. I was impressed at how this poor woman with probably little education could somehow speak several languages, even if just at a basic level, just to be able to speak to tourists from different parts of the world and get them to buy things – it’s survival. We each ended up buying random small things to help the children out.

We then dragged ourselves to Ta Sohm. By then we were so tired, we started asking Samet if this was the last temple. He said three more, we disputed it a bit and came to the agreement of doing two more. To regain some energy, we stopped outside the temple to buy some fresh coconuts and sat for a bit. The lady selling the coconuts started talking to us and explained how this year there’s been little tourism and this is why they’re struggling. This explained our experience at the previous temple, and it left me sad to see so many people desperate for work, money, and food. She sat with us for a while talking to us about her family, was kind and not pushy, which could have just been her selling technique. Either way, it worked because we each ended up buying a painting from her to help her and her family out.

As for the temple, this one really was nothing to talk about, except for the big tree in the back which did blow me away actually.

Last stop was Pre Rup, the oldest temple on our entire visit, which is why Samet convinced us to go. This one was really nice because of how ancient it is and its surroundings, especially once you climb the steep stairs to the top.

By the end, we were dead tired so headed back to the hotel at about 1:00 pm passing by the supermarket on the way to get some goodies. We had lunch at the hotel: I had noodles with chicken and Angkor beer. Then, we relaxed by the pool and went for a swim. At this time, I reflected back to our little time in this country and all the temple-hopping we did.  It’s incredible to see how culturally rich yet financially poor Cambodia is. Visiting places like this always reminds me how fortunate we are and don’t even realize or appreciate it enough. This could possibly be what makes us arrogant sometimes: not so much that we have it easy but that we take it for granted, even consider it a given.

It left me with a strong impression and questioning just how exactly we should measure richness. In the US, we measure success and wealth by the numbers in our bank accounts and property values. However, has that brought us the happiness or peace that I’ve witnessed and experienced in my limited time in Asia so far?

Finally, it started to dawn on me that we’d be leaving the next day and got a little sad because I figured Siem Reap is something you do once in your life, therefore may not ever come back. But who knows…

At night, we headed back to Pub Street, as it’s the only place here with nightlife. We had drinks at Asana Bar, a really nice, cozy bar with comfortable chairs and beds in a wooden house. We were very nostalgic from our few unforgettable days in Siem Reap and even made a video to remember our last night there. And so our time in Cambodia has come to an end, and tomorrow we fly back to Thailand.

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