After a 4am wake up call for an early morning flight, we landed in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. By 9 am we were in a taxi to the Mad Monkey Hostel, where we would be spending the next three nights.
The Siem Reap airport was well organized, upscale and easy to navigate through. There are ATMs that disperse local currency or USD as soon as you exit the plane. The customs officials will craft a visa on arrival for $30 USD. If you do not have an extra passport sized photo to attach to your visa, they charge $2 dollars and not only don’t take a photo of you but don’t seem to use the one you give them.
Getting into town is simple. There is one taxi booth and a set price of $7 USD into town. I have never traveled to a foreign country that relied on US currency as its main source of transactions, even between locals. They only use Cambodian money to replace coins. For example, you buy something listed as $2.50 with a $5 US bill, they will give you 2 US singles and 2 Cambodian $1000 bills.
The Mad Monkey Hostel was recommended by our friends Peggy and Eric and we could see why when we first arrived. It had a great atmosphere, a nice pool and a friendly staff. We still had hours before we could check in so we just rested poolside on a day bed.
We grew restless after a while and decided to get a poolside workout in before eating Num Pang (Cambodian sandwich) and jumping in the pool. No doubt the hungover guests just making it out to the pool were rolling their eyes!
After lunch and exploring the town some, the rest of our day was spent poolside, meeting fellow travelers, asking for advice and planning our upcoming days. The reason most people visit Siem Reap is to explore the nearby temple complex of Angkor Wat. One of two remaining items on my South East Asia bucket list.
Why is this on our list? What is it??
1000 years ago, Northwest Cambodia was home to a thriving civilization and Angkor was the largest city in the world with over 1 million inhabitants. After being conquered and abandoned in the 15th century, the city along with the history of its people were forgotten. They lived on but only in myth and legend while the rainforest reclaimed the land. The temples were rediscovered in the 1800’s. Since then, some of the temples have undergone major restoration and they at least resemble their former selves. You can imagine the grand scale of the civilization that once stood. Other temples are left in the condition that explorers found them in and have become an iconic mixture of jungle and ruins.
Needless to say, we were excited for the two days of sightseeing ahead. We had dinner at a local Cambodian restaurant that had good reviews. Our tuk tuk driver kept telling us we were not going to the right place because it was not in the “touristy area”. The owner greeted us warmly and seemed excited that we had chosen his restaurant probably because we were the only non locals in the joint.
On day two we arranged a private tuk tuk through our hostel to take us around for the day for $50 USD. The journey would start at temples in the nearby Angkor Wat complex then make the journey to Beng Mea Lea, which is a temple far off the beaten tourist path.
We started with Pre Rup, a 150 foot tall pyramid-like temple that you can climb to the top terrace.
The third stop which was only another five minutes away was Ta Som. Ta Som was the first temple we saw with both the iconic Angkor Wat overgrowth and stone faces.
We jumped back in the tuk tuk for nearly a two hour journey to Beng Mealea. While the thought of a two hour tuk tuk ride might make you cringe, we had a blast and found it pleasant and enjoyable.
Every country in SEA has their own version of tuk tuks and Siem Reap’s are the most comfortable but more importantly offer a close up view into local life, opposed to a car. We were waved at by every little kid, passed through markets and even a roadside dentist office.
We were only two miles from our final destination when we heard a loud pop noise! Tom (our driver) pulled over to the side of the road to see that he had busted a tire.
Tom smiled, apologized and gestured to us to get out. Through the language barrier we gathered that we should wait there while he did something to remedy the situation. Liz and I looked at each other with minor panic and reluctantly got out of the tuk tuk. Waiting on the side of a country road in Cambodia with no means of travel or communication was not the solution we had in mind.
After some more hand gesturing and a few words, we realized that we happened to get a flat tire within 100 feet of a roadside repair shop (basically someone’s humble home). In retrospect, I am really doubting the pure coincidence of it and think that the tire blow was premeditated by a savvy local roadside businessman.
We waited outside the “shop” with the kids and dogs, while the owner and Tom assessed the damage. During their communications, the owner allowed Tom to borrow his motorcycle while he worked on the flat. We hopped on the back of the bike and Tom took us to the park entrance while he finished handling the repair.
I must say, the two hour drive was well worth it. Beng Mealea is a great Angkor Wat ruin and gets limited tourists. And the best part, at least in 2016, is they let you climb all through the rubble. As you manage your way through the place, you can feel what it must have been like to be the first person in 500 years to rediscover the magnificent temple.
After over an hour of exploring, we found Tom and made our way back to Siem Reap. We made a much needed pitstop for some thirst quenching “roadies”. The two of us reflected on our day and laughed the whole ride back.
Siem Reap is a major stop for the tens of thousands of backpackers trekking through SEA every year. Thus, the pace of life in Siem Reap is to see temples in the morning, nap, then go out and party until four in the morning. When we returned to the hostel with a slight buzz and a happening poolside party, we joined in.
After a few more cocktails and dinner on Pub Street, we headed to bed early. The next morning would come fast for our last sunrise adventure of our trip.
Our last day to explore was by car, we hired a private driver who goes by Mr. Smarty for $45 USD. The day started at 4:30 AM for the famous Angkor Wat temple for sunrise.
While the sunrise was a bit crowded and it didn’t match the beauty of the sunrises we caught in Java, it is still worth the minimal effort.
The main temple at Angkor Wat is most crowded in the morning so after sunrise, we skipped exploring with plans to come back at the end of our day but not before picking up some fresh fruit shakes for the ride!
Mr. Smarty drove us about 45 minutes to Banteay Srei. I took advantage of the drive to get to know Mr. Smarty better and to learn more about his country. Cambodia is home to the largest genocide in the last 50 years under the Khmer Rouge. Millions of Cambodians lost their lives when the leader attempted to socially engineer the society to a strictly agrarian way of life. Cambodia has rebounded and Mr. Smarty’s self made success story is proof of it.
The ancient ruin at Banteay Srei is not as big as some of the others but the statues and carvings are more intricate and intact. It is known for its reddish color and features many carvings of women, so historians believe this temple was built by and for women. Liz especially liked this temple, but I didn’t think it was worth the drive and the extra expense.
On the way back we drove by palm village and watched as locals made palm sugar from coconuts which is widely used in Thai recipes.
Ta Prohm was next. This temple was made famous as a location used in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie. At that time, tourists didn’t come to Cambodia and Siem Reap but in the last ten years tourism has skyrocketed. Now, Ta Prohm is a popular place to visit, but it wasn’t as crowded as I had expected based on what I had read online.
Mr. Smarty suggested Ta Keo, which was not on our list but it was great. You can climb the stairs to the top but they are so steep it feels more like rock climbing.
After a stop for a quick bite, we continued on to Preah Khan. It was most memorable for its long stretches of pathways with consecutive doorways.
We then entered Angkor Thom. It is a massive complex with several attractions including the grand bridge over a moat entry with a giant face on the gate. We loved our time at Bayon. It is crowded but for good reason. Bayon has hundreds of massive stone faces built into the temple of Ankor Thom.
We began to lose steam after 7 hours of temple stalking but with only two temples left on the itinerary we decided to soldier on and grab a Coca Cola.
The next stop was Phonm Bakheng. Built on the top of a very steep hill, it was originally reached via a massive staircase. Time has eroded the staircase away and now to get to this temple you need to hike for about 20 minutes on a path that wraps up the hill on a steady incline. While the temple itself is not much to see compared to the others, the vantage point allows for a great view of the ancient Angkor city, allowing you to appreciate its size. You can also understand the massive reservoirs that made a city of that size possible. Ultimately, the failure of that water system lead to its demise.
While we were enjoying the views it began to drizzle and we thought it would be best to head back to the car before it got too bad. We made it off the temple and about 15 seconds along the path before the drizzle became a torrential downpour. The weather could soak us to the bone but not drown our spirits, we jogged down the hill completely drenched by the end of it. We ran past a group of local kids sharing the same fun and slapped high fives. It was just one of those moments where you forget that being caught in the rain can be frustrating and instead you play and laugh with your best friend smiling back at you.
In high spirits, we made our way back to the main temple at Angkor Wat where we had caught the sunrise nine hours earlier.
The rain and lighting storm delightfully cleared out most visitors except a courageous few. Getting into the temple requires a long walk down an ancient bridge above a 1000 foot long moat, which had an inch of rain water to trod through. The entire way we were badgered by hawkers trying to sell us ponchos. Due to our last hike, we were so wet that I think wearing the ponchos would have just kept the air dry from us and not the other way around.
The temple took on the wonderful mysterious characteristics that I imagine would be lost with better weather. We spent over an hour exploring the temple before making our way back to Mr. Smarty and finally back to our hostel.
After a long day of activity, we treated ourselves to a date at Paris Saigon, a French/Vietnamese restaurant with white line table cloths and classical music in the background. It was a 180 degree change from being soaked and muddy inside temples.
On our last morning, we ate lunch and breakfast at The Little Cafe (which had great food and prices). The traditional dish Amok Curry is a must try.
I got a local haircut for two bucks that seemed more professional than my last one in Cebu however not as friendly, since he didn’t call me handsome when I paid.
Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport and all of a sudden we were on our way to the last country of this amazing trip, Thailand.
The adventure in Thailand starts and ends in Bangkok.
Check out our video of Siem Reap here.