“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
I think it is fair to say that the majority of people couldn’t point out Cambodia’s location on a map…unless of course it was one that had all of the countries labelled and I gave you some time. I fully admit that I was one of those people until 2005. I knew nothing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge or Angkor Wat. Originally intending only to do a border run (to refresh my tourist visa) I had no intentions of spending anymore than an hour or two outside of Thailand. But with all of the organized trips to Siem Reap advertised in Bangkok, I quickly grew curious of what was there and what I was missing. To this day I couldn’t be happier that I decided to spend several days there and experience this hidden gem.
Siem Reap is a very long trip by bus. The road from Bangkok to the border is smooth, paved and quick, but from that point on, be prepared for an undeveloped dirt road which has become infamous in the backpacking community. I even recall having to wait for a bridge to be rebuilt so we could cross a small river. The small bus didn’t have A/C – so the windows were open the entire time, letting the hot dusty air circulate through the bus…it wasn’t all that pleasant. If I may be so bold as to suggest, please heed my words of wisdom. If money isn’t an issue, take the plane. And whatever you do, don’t change your money to the Cambodian Riel, no matter what. They will stiff you on the exchange almost everywhere and most places don’t even accept their own currency – it seemed like more of a hassle when trying to use their own money.
The lodging in Siem Reap was dirt cheap at $3 a night for a private room with two double beds and a personal bathroom. It was clean, large and spacious with a restaurant attached to the inn. Locals are available for hire to take you to the famous Temples. For just $12 you can have a chauffeur take you to watch the sunset over the valley in the evening and be up at 4am to make sure you don’t miss the sunrise behind Angkor Wat, the largest religious temple in the world. Travelling via tuk-tuk your driver will drop you off, let you explore and be ready to take you to the next site whenever you are ready to move on. If you are lucky, he might even sing on the way.
Built in the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat is now a protected Unesco World Heritage Site that hosts over 700,000 tourists every year. Guidebooks warn of King Cobras lurking in the cold dark shadows of the temples and instruct you to only enter the well lit areas. You might be thinking “WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO GO?”. The best way I can answer that, is show you. Take a look and see what it looks like to have the night disappear behind Angkor Wat as the sun rises. Some things in life are worth waking up at 4am for.
Even this early in the morning, the grounds of Angkor Wat are packed with tourists all wanting that majestic picture. It was cloudy enough that morning that I didn’t get that perfect picture, but the moments were beautiful nonetheless. There was something very special about seeing the temple for the first time reflect itself perfectly in the pools as the day lent just enough light to make out the majestic scene. The grounds surrounding this temple are just massive, complete with libraries, pools and even a moat 3.6 km long. You can literally explore this site all day if you wanted to. Large viper statues mark the entry to the main temple and the stairs to the towers are so steep you need to use all fours to reach the top safely. Angkor Wat is certainly one of my most favorite places on the planet.