There weren’t any “non-stop” flights from Chiang Mai to Siem Reap, Cambodia. You had to head into Bangkok, change airports, and then go on. We were able to swing it so we didn’t have to stay a night in Bangkok, but it nearly took all day. It was funny how much more comfortable we got in Bangkok by then. Traveling around had truly set in and nothing phased us. Cambodia Air is really, really great. There were only 12 people on the flight, you’re treated to a moist towelette before takeoff, and a nice boxed meal before landing. All that in an hour flight. Heading into customs in Siem Reap at 10pm is interesting. They have their full staff on hand, a panel of seven or eight men sitting in a row. You give the first man your VISA application, passport, and $20 ($21 if you don’t have an extra photo). Then you wait. Your stuff is passed down the line in varying levels of scrutiny. Everyone has a laptop. Everyone seems to have a task. Eventually you get your passport back with VISA attached. It’s bizarre. Especially at 10pm.
Our hotel, Lucky Angkor, hooked us up with a driver for the entire trip. We didn’t know Mr. Chet would be our driver for the entire trip at this point, but we’re glad he was. We’re 99% sure he was drunk upon arrival. He was so giggly, eyes half closed, repeating himself over and over, “So happy. So happy. Thank you. Thank you.” It was hilarious. There wasn’t any craziness in the driving. You can only go so fast in a tuk tuk. It was evident, even at night, that we weren’t in Thailand anymore. It smelled much more rural–dirty and warm. We reached the hotel, and our driver was still babbling endlessly, telling us about the breakfast situation and how he’d be back in the morning to take us to the Angkor temple complex. The hotel staff was absolutely horrified that he was going on and on, but they didn’t dare interrupt and make a scene. They take hospitality to a whole new level. Their politeness borders on awkward for me, but that’s just what they do. Their social statuses are very hierarchical.
Our room was decked out in towel sculptures. “I <3 U” was written, along with two towel swans meeting to form another heart. Flower petals were scattered on the towels. It was sweet. The actual hotel quality was stellar. Easily one of the nicest hotels we stayed in the entire trip. It came complete with a gecko to help keep the bugs down. We woke up in the morning to see that our room overlooked the pool. Out in the hallway you could see that hotel backed up to what looked like farmland and residences despite being on the “main street.” Siem Reap is built up purely for tourism, so it doesn’t have a big city feel at all. We had to stop at an ATM on the way to the temples, and it dispenses US dollars. That’s their primary source of currency. They do have Cambodian Riels, but you only get them in change since they’re used as fractional dollars. The park passes you get for the temples go so far as to print your photo. You’re not going to be able to hand your pass to someone else. They have places to punch the dates into them so you can’t abuse the time frames on the passes. We opted for a three-day pass ($40), but only used it for two days.
The best way to get around to all of the temples is via tuk tuk. There are bicycles if you’re so inclined, but it’s a long haul. Walking seems almost out of the question with the distance and the heat. It’s heavily forested, and it’s not uncommon to see monkeys crossing the streets. You can create your own temple schedule or use any of the ones you can find in guide books or on the internet. Some are best seen at certain times of day, but that can make your trek around inefficient. We opted to let Mr. Chet guide the way. It would be a big loop one day, hitting all the bigger temples, and a smaller loop with smaller temples the next. This would prove to be more than enough to satiate the history nerd in me.
Angkor Wat was first. It’s considered the largest, most prominent of the wats. It’s what most people think of. It’s the most reconstructed of the bunch, too. The parking lot alone is huge, and then you cross the moat into the complex and the wat just looms in front of you. It’s indescribably big. If you have a tour guide, they’ll lead you around. Several guides hang out at the gate for those of us that didn’t book one. The intricacies of the details, the stories and the history behind it all, is truly overwhelming. We had a guide for the Angkor Wat, but that was it. It all started to blur together after awhile. We had read that the dress code was pretty strict in these temples, so we stuck to pants and long sleeves most of the time, but except for the top of Angkor Wat, it was never enforced. You can spend hours at each of these sites if you really wanted to explore every nook and cranny. Literally. There wasn’t any real guide on where you could and couldn’t go. Want to climb all over things? Go for it. At some point, you’ll run into a re-construction site. Each location seemed to have paired with some country where they infused cash and the means to recreate the original temple.
We spent the rest of the morning wandering around the temples in the area, even in the rain at one point. That made it all a bit more magical. It would take the heat down a notch and scatter some of the tourists. It was already a little slower anyway, but at times it felt like we were the only ones in the area. One thing we were expecting was to be hit up to buy things. This happens a lot, and when there aren’t a lot of tourists, you’re much more likely to be the only target. While Cambodia has free education, many parents pull their children out of school to go beg/sell things at the temples. You’re much more likely to
be guilted say yes to a small child than their mother. You have to give them props for their persistence. That’s all they know. The second you get near a temple gate, you’re going to be asked. Sometimes they’ll follow you for a long time in hopes you’ll say yes. Once someone gives up, you’ll turn a corner and be asked to buy something else. Tour guides. Magnets. Bracelets. Postcards. Shirts. Art. Incense. Every “no” gets you a better deal. Andrew was offered 10 magnets for $1 at one point. I was left alone most of the time after I said firm no or three. Andrew wasn’t as lucky. I think partially because he liked talking to them, so that gave them hope that he might actually buy something, and partially because he was the man, and the men have the money in the relationship.
Every wat had it’s own story and architecture. Some had faces carved into the faces of rocks. Others had intricate stories telling the tales of battles between gods and goddesses. There was no shortage of things to look at. The center of many corridors still had buddhas in them. Next to Angkor Wat, the others looked in shambles. You could still walk through many of the passage ways, but you had to watch your step for uneven surfaces and holes. Ta Prohm was probably my favorite temple. This is the one that has many huge trees growing out of the structure. If there was ever a way to show you just how old something is, this was it. The restoration efforts at Ta Prohm wasn’t as organized yet. Many passageways were still caved in and impassable.
Lunch was had at a restaurant at our driver’s suggestion. I believe he got a free meal out of the deal, and our food was super good, so everyone won. There were Thai and Western foods in most of the menu. To find the Cambodian food, you had to dig to the back. Khmer Amok for me. It came in a friggan’ coconut. How could I not order this? Service was over the top. You’re thanked a million times with so much sincerity. They are so thankful that you chose to eat in their restaurant. It was such an incredible experience.
We hit up a few more temples in the afternoon before heading back to the hotel. I’d list off where we went, but like I said, it started to blur together after awhile. Every stop was impressive, though, I promise. We stayed at the hotel for the rest of the evening. We had tried to get into a restaurant called Haven that hires orphaned young adults, and teaches them vital job skills, but the restaurant was booked for several days. We wouldn’t be getting in before we left. There is also apparently a nice night market in town, but we were far too exhausted from climbing over temples all day to try very hard for a restaurant. The hotel was only operating at half capacity, so we had the dining room to ourselves. Plenty of Cambodian options. It also gave the staff a chance to let their guard down once they realized all we wanted to do was chat with them. The bartender (Mr. Chen) out by the pool and one of the maintenance/cleaning kids had picked up on our desire to talk and were practically waiting for us to finish eating. We spent the rest of the night talking with them at the bar, hearing all about their lives and what they wanted to do with their future. It sounds cheesy, but it’s so fascinating. Life is so utterly different. Their lack of history due to the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian genocide is really apparent just driving around, but talking with them really brings it home. It’s rare to see anyone over the age of 40 since so many people were killed. Their history is virtually erased. All they want is to support their families, and tourism is their only way to do that.
After talking with them until their shifts ended, we went up to bed to get some rest before another day of temples. Heads and hearts were a whole lot heavier after a day spent in Cambodia. Siem Reap would definitely be one of the best and hardest places I visited the whole trip.