After every trip, no matter the magnitude, my custom is to feverishly scribble down the details of my adventure on the flight home. I desperately try to recount the sights, the sounds, the tastes of whatever wonderful corner of the earth I have just left. But with Cambodia? Well, it has just been different.
I am having difficulty digesting and articulating my time in Cambodia. On the one hand there is Angkor Wat, which is absolutely mesmerizing in every sense of the word. There are the floating villages, the coconut soups, the vast jungle and the pristine beaches. On the other hand there is a dark and dirty side of corruption that leaves me squeamish and uncomfortable. Yet at the end of the day, Cambodia is a place I feel truly grateful for having visited… and one I strongly recommend you move up on your bucket list. The history of Cambodia is peculiar, the people resilient and the landscape breathtaking… put it all together and you’ve got a destination worth shaking the piggy bank for.
For most, Cambodia is a stop on a southeast Asia tour for one reason, and one reason alone: Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. So let’s start there, shall we?
<<|| Siem Reap: An Overview ||>>
Angkor Wat was virtually undiscovered for centuries, so as you can imagine, when one unearths the LARGEST RELIGIOUS MONUMENT IN THE WORLD, it turns into quite the spectacle.Siem Reap is a tourist city, built for the tourists by the tourists. If you are looking to experience Khmer culture, you are going to be sorely disappointed. But, if you go into the experience knowing that the hotels and food are painfully Americanized, the souvenir pushing is overwhelming and the hoards of tourists are downright obnoxious, well then you’ll be in the right frame of mind ….to have your MIND BLOWN by Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. No really, that’s why the city is so devoid of culture, it only exists to accommodate the never-ending busloads of heathens (uh, tourists) that get dropped off daily.
But worry not. I’m going to share with you how to do Siem Reap right… and how to sneak in a bit of real cambodian culture along the way too.
Plus who wouldn’t want to a visit a place crawling with monkeys?
<<|| Where to Stay ||>>
Coming from the airport, you will run into hotel row, with a dozen or so of similar priced accommodations. We stayed at the Angkor Miracle. It was clean and spacious with a gorgeous lobby and pool. My only complaint is that we were there for Christmas and they forced every guest to purchase a $100 ticket to the mandatory Christmas Gala Dinner and Show. The spread of food was the most impressive I have ever seen, but I loathe the idea of being obliged to attend. And I am exceptionally sore that I consciously missed Christmas by going to Asia… only for it to be shoved down my throat at this hotel. Unfortunately, all of the surrounding hotels had enormous Christmas displays as well, so I imagine they practice similar exploitative holiday cheer.
<<|| What to Do ||>>
First things first, hire a tour guide for two days with a car. You will need help navigating between temples and you really want to maximize your time here. We went with David because he was recommended… and he has his own trip advisor page with excellent reviews. Take his suggestion for buying the 3 day park-hopper (ok it’s not really called that) pass (even though nearly all of the proceeds from the sale are stolen by the Chinese government).
Start with the crown jewel and head straight for Angkor Wat! At one point during your stay, you have to come here for sunrise, it’s a must! You will also want to spend ample time exploringTa Prohm Temple (the one from Tomb Raider), Bayon and Angkor Thom. There are dozens of other notable temples sprinkled throughout the area, but these three left the biggest impression on me.
Make sure to reserve a day to venture to a floating village. We went to Chong Kneas, which was an hour and change drive through the scenic countryside. The drive was wonderful in it’s own right. It provided a real glimpse of Cambodian life outside of the tourist industry. Now, when we visited Chong Kneas it was Christmas Day… and there were very few other tourists. Everything I had read warned me that we would be over-run by the busloads, but we were fortunate to have found a sweet spot in the calendar. If I return, I will visit the (supposedly) more authentic and less touristy Kompong Khleang floating village, but I was overjoyed with my experience at Chong Kneas. I’ll never forget puttering by children dancing inside of a floating school house. The locals were friendly but kept to their own. For them, it was just another day of preparing fresh fish for their family or tidying up their floating home.
Take a tuktuk into downtown… and admire the backpacker’s paradise that is pub street. Sip an ice cold Angkor beer while you abandon all sanitation and let fish bite the dead skin from your tired feet. Graze the street food and stock up on cheap souvenirs.. and perhaps even score a pair of elephant pants for yourself. In the Old Market, head to street 9 for relief from the tourists. Here you can find a few locals to share a more culturally appealing cuisine with.
We didn’t have time, but there’s a company called Beyond Unique Escapes that offers ‘a day in the life’ tours where you can experience a full day with a Cambodian family, helping them weave baskets, tend the garden, prepare meals and perhaps even drive an ox cart.
<<|| Food ||>>
Alright, now I know that I previously said all of the food is Americanized… but with a bit of hunting you can find a great traditional dish. I recommend coaxing your tour guide to take you to where he eats lunch… not where he gets a kickback to bring you. I was exhausted, sweltering and cramped… but I had one of the best meals of my life in Cambodia from a little place David took us to. The dish was called amok, and it was heaven served inside a coconut. It is basically flaky white fish, coconut milk and curry spices. I also thoroughly enjoyed the khmer red curry, which is nearly overpowering with fresh and delicious lemongrass. Don’t forget to wash down every meal (and then some) with a fresh coconut. Cambodia is also home to some of the world’s most delectable fruits. Every time that you see jackfruit, buy it. I can’t even comprehend how a fruit tastes this euphoric. Also make sure to get your dare-devil fill of street food. Specialities include, but are not limited to: spiders, snakes, scorpions and squids. 🙂
<<|| What you’ll need to know ||>>
-The dollar is accepted everywhere. No need to change over any money.
-The air is hot and sticky.. just about all of the time, but especially October through March. The good news is that hotel prices and volume of tourists drops during these months if you don’t mind feeling like you are living out a nightmare that you are trapped in a sauna.
-You will need to have your shoulders and legs covered while visiting the temples.
-Stay hydrated… but not with tap water.
-Be mindful of corrupt police, especially outside of Siem Reap’s main tourist attractions.
-Do not wander off the path/road ANYWHERE. You will notice many handicapped people on your trip… they are victims to the still active landmines that liter the country.
<<|| Closing Thoughts ||>>
Don’t forget to put your camera down, gather your thoughts and take it all in. The sheer vastness and complexity of these temples can be overwhelming when you consider the context of how and when they were built. It is humbling, to say the least. And as for all the tourists… sure they can be pushy and rude and you might toy with the idea of popping their bus tires… but at the end of the day, they are here for the same reason as you. Don’t be afraid to extend an Angkor beer on pub street or share a tuktuk ride home with a new friend.
I still haven’t completely grasped my journey across the world, but I know that I am a better.. and more complete, person as a result of it. It’s moments like hearing the stories of corruption in a long car ride to a village floating in poverty that can make us feel a little more grateful for our origins. Don’t lose sight of your new found humbleness when you return home with your souvenirs. Tourism can do ugly things to a sacred place… but it also has the ability to inspire lasting change if you’re willing to look past the postcards.
“We travel not to escape life, but for life to not escape us.”