Right after finishing up the semester in Tha Wang Pha, Ben and I headed to Bangkok to start our trip through Southeast Asia. We planned to stop in Bangkok for a couple days to store some luggage and get Vietnamese visas, since you cannot get them on arrival via bus which is how we planned to enter the country.
Being pretty familiar with Bangkok, we decided to forgo any sightseeing and quickly get things done before heading off on our travels. We also took the opportunity to stuff ourselves with different types of Western and non-Thai foods that we had been missing since the midterm vacation.
Bangkok was muggy and extremely hot as usual, and with all of the running around that we were doing in a short period of time we both started to feel a little sick, but managed to get everything done with only a small hiccup (the Vietnamese visa took two days to process even with ‘express’ service, so we decided to cut a day from our time in Phnom Penh).
So with everything finished, we bought bus tickets to Siem Reap and prepared to finally start our travels.
When we researched buses to Siem Reap, we found lots of stories of tourists getting scammed at the border, typically paying much more than necessary to different ‘agents’ in order to get their Cambodian visas. We even read people jokingly refer to it as ‘Scambodia’ because of the numerous scams. However, one of the bus lines had decent reviews, and was actually run by the Thai government (although that would normally make me wary). We bought tickets for that bus line and caught the early morning bus to Siem Reap.
The bus, while far from the nicest bus we rode in Thailand, was decently comfortable and provided us with coffee and a small snack. The ride to the border was unremarkable – passing what seemed like urban offshoots of Bangkok for a while before countryside with the occasional rice paddy. Soon we approached the border, where we gave our passports to the bus agent (I was wary to do this and asked him about it before hand), with the fee for the Cambodian visa.
After stopping at a nondescript building near the border, the agent returned and gave us our passports with our Cambodian visas. Next, we filed out of the bus and officially stamped out of Thailand. At this point everything was going fairly quickly and I was pleasantly surprised.
However, after exiting the building onto the Cambodian side of the border, I saw no signs eliciting where to go, and instead was greeted by honking motorbikes and trashy casinos. It reminded me a little of the California/Nevada border, just with more rickshaws and street vendors, and made me hope that Cambodia would not be as unpleasant as Nevada.
Soon enough I found a small building with a massive line for people to get stamped into Cambodia. An elderly gentleman in front of me was quite irked by the wait, and soon found an agent who helped him ‘bypass’ the line for the small fee of $10. I was tempted to do the same, but knew that our bus would wait for everyone to get through anyway, so there really was no point.
Finally I got stamped into Cambodia, and made my way back to the bus. As we continued into Cambodia, I noticed we switched sides, and were now driving on the right side of the road (Thailand drives on the left side). We soon left paved roads behind and had rough passage over bumpy dirt roads. I was a little surprised that one of the main highways in the country is still not wholly paved, and it was readily apparent that Cambodia was nowhere near as developed as Thailand. The dirt roads also made for slow going, turning our medium distance journey into a full seven hours.
Eventually, we arrived in Siem Reap outside the bus office (there is no bus station in the city so buses just pick up and drop off passengers at their respective offices). I had arranged for a free pick up via tuk-tuk from our hostel, but soon realized that no one had come, and was unable to use my phone to call them. Fortunately, the bus service offered a free tuk-tuk service to nearby hostels, you just had to vie off the endless offers from the tuk-tuk driver for tours of Angkor Wat and probing questions of what you were doing and seeing the next couple of days.
Our hostel turned out to be very nice, almost more of a hotel than a hostel. It was located in the Wat Bo area, slightly outside the main tourist area, and had a nice outdoor courtyard with a restaurant. It included a free breakfast also, and every morning Ben and I indulged in delicious banana pancakes, something I hadn’t eaten for at least a year.
Something that I soon found interesting about Cambodia was that they preferred using US currency over the Cambodian riel. However, when you paid for something that was say $1.50 with $2, you would get the $0.50 back in the form of riel (in this case 2000 riel, as 4000 riel = 1 USD). I was glad that I didn’t exchange any money for riel before arriving to Cambodia, but I still ended up with thousands of extra, useless riel by the end.
We wanted to hire a guide to show us through the different Angkor ruins (supposedly the best Angkor guides were booked out of a hotel near the ruins), but were just encouraged by our hostel to hire a tuk-tuk tour through them. It was convenient booking a driver through the hostel and definitely cheaper than a real guide, but we definitely could have benefitted from explanations of the various temples.
The first day, we did the ‘small circuit’ of temples, which just meant that we would see a bunch of temples spread over a large area (compared to the ‘big circuit’ which included the most famous temples, but covered a smaller area).
As we drove out to the Angkor ruins, it was cool to see that the ancient city was outside of Siem Reap, composing its own area. I was disappointed when other sites like Ayutthaya and the White Temple in Thailand were smack dab in the middle of everything which I felt killed their ambiance, so it was nice to drive out to the middle of nowhere to the Angkor ruins.
The first temple we arrived at was Preah Khan, which also turned out to be one of my favorites. Preah Khan was a good start to the Angkor ruins because it was large, mostly unrestored, semi-ruinous/overgrown, and also fairly devoid of people. Again, it would have been nice to have a guide to explain the significance of the ruins, as most of the carvings and etchings had little to no significance to our untrained eyes.
Towards the middle of the temple, a middle-aged guy in a uniform offered to give us an explanation of the temple so I accepted. Annoyingly enough, it turned out to be more of a ploy for money than anything else, as he vaguely explained a few things and sort of rushed us through most of the temple before asking for a large tip, which I grudgingly gave him. Similar ‘guides’ were at many of the other temples, but after that first experience I declined their future advances.
After Preah Khan, we saw a very small pagoda situated in a small pond which was rather unimpressive and bizarre. We shrugged our shoulders before moving on.
The next temple we saw was very cool, although similar to Preah Khan (which soon would become a pattern). It was also somewhat overgrown and unrestored, which I definitely prefer over the temples with artificially perfect cross-sections that were glaringly restored.
As the day wore on and the sun became more intense, we became very drained and stopped for lunch outside one of the ruins before continuing on. It was interesting how many people were trying to sell us various trinkets and tourist goods as we wandered from site to site. I was not really surprised that there were so many vendors, I was just curious what kind of business arrangement they had with the historical park in order to be able to sell their goods, as most of them at least seemed to respect the temples and waited until you exited the complexes to bombard you with their goods.
There were a bunch of children selling stuff at the various sites which was both cute and depressing at the same time. Clearly many of them had been coached as to how to approach and talk to tourists which was sad because I wanted to interact with them, but knew that there conversation starters were really just artificial ways to get me sucked in and to buy their stuff.
Nonetheless, we continued on and saw a few more temples before we finally finished the circuit, exhausted and somewhat temple weary already. Preah Khan had easily been the highlight of the day, so after seeing more and more temples of the same style that were less impressive, we became less and less intrigued, which wasn’t helped by our state of dehydrated, heatstroke delirium.
After arriving back at our hotel, we rested and showered off our dust-covered bodies before setting out for dinner. Half-starved and impatient, we walked most of the way towards Pub Street (the heart of the tourist area), before stopping at a restaurant just short of the area that overlooked the river. Most of the restaurants in Siem Reap tended to have similar menus, featuring traditional Cambodian dishes (i.e. amok, curries, lok lak) as well as classic Western dishes (i.e. pasta carbonara, hamburgers, pizza).
I ordered fish amok, which is unofficially considered the national dish of Cambodia. The fish is cooked in a sauce of lemongrass, kaffir lime, garlic, shallots, coconut milk, and egg, and served over rice. Although the version I had the first night wasn’t the best version I had, I found the dish kind of disappointing as it was less potent and assertively flavored than Thai cuisine, but more just vaguely flavored by the various ingredients in the sauce.
However, I was very pleased by the prices of the beer in the restaurant as well as throughout Cambodia. The restaurant served draft beer for $0.50 a glass, which turned out to be more expensive than many other places (although still ridiculously cheap). The national beer, Angkor, also turned out to be pretty good and much more drinkable than Thai beer, which didn’t hurt considering I was weary from the heat of the day and ready to parch my thirst with vats of any cold substance.
After coming back to our hostel, we decided to do the sunrise tour of the main temples the next day. At 5 AM, we packed into our tuk-tuk, and headed to the main temple, Angkor Wat. As I was pounding coffee along the way, I couldn’t help but notice how many other tourists were also headed to see the sunrise as we passed their small army of tuk-tuks.
The spot everyone went to take sunrise pictures was in front of a lake near the entrance to the main temple. As more and more people arrived, it became very cramped, and I became worried that I would be unable to get a picture of the sunrise without a thousand people in it. Although we arrived at about 5:15, the sun did not actually start rising until about 6:50, after the area was packed with hordes of tourists. I got one half-decent picture of the sunrise before giving up as tons of people started obstructing the view or just blatantly walking into everyone’s frames towards the temple.
After taking our crappy sunrise pictures, we headed towards the temple to check it out. Although the main temple was large, it was not quite as interesting to me as some of the temples that we saw the day before because I preferred the temples that were more hidden and partially ruined. The main temple did have large sections of fairly intricate carvings, but as we had no guide we had no idea what the carvings depicted.
After seeing Angkor Wat, we headed to Bayon temple. Bayon temple was pretty cool as it had tons of different Buddha faces incorporated into stupas. The sun also shone across some of the Buddha faces making them look more pronounced.
After Bayon temple, we saw a couple more temples before finishing the large circuit, including ‘Ta Prohm’ or the Tomb Raider temple which we thought was overrated and rather unimpressive. Although our second day at Angkor Wat was filled with the more famous temples of the area, we both agreed that we enjoyed the temples we saw on the first day more.
The final day in Siem Reap we decided to go see Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei was further out of town than the other temples at the Angkor complex, but was renowned for its intricate carvings. Although it was not built by a king, like the Angkor temples, a rich nobleman decided to construct the temple out of a different, higher quality stone (red sandstone) than the Angkor temples, which helped both accentuate and preserve the detailed carvings.
Banteay Srei was easily our favorite of the temples because the carvings were amazingly well preserved. Although the site was very small, we spent a lot of time just looking at all of the small details of each façade, and picking up minute details of the carvings that we couldn’t at the previous temples.
After seeing that temple, we felt satisfied with all of the different areas of Angkor Wat that we saw, and called it a day.
Since that was our final night in Siem Reap, I wanted to have a memorable dinner. As I was browsing various restaurant guides, I noticed an advertisement for Bug’s Café, a restaurant specializing in insect tapas. Immediately piquing my interest, I told Ben and we decided to give it a shot.
The restaurant was actually a very cool concept. Unlike the street stands selling bugs and insects, Bug’s Café was a high-class introduction to insect cuisine, and the recipes were all designed by the French owner. His goal was to showcase bugs and insects through sophisticated cooking techniques, to show that they could be delicious just like any other ingredients when prepared in the right way. He even sourced his bugs from a local organic farm, to further dispel of the notion of bugs and insects as only being low-class food.
We decided to split a sampler plate, which consisted of two ant spring rolls, an ant pesto pastry, a tarantula samosa, a skewer with a scorpion, tarantula, and water bug, and a cricket & silk worm stir-fry. Everything was very good, especially the cricket & silk worm stir-fry, which was delicious. Overall, the owner did a great job of showcasing how to cook insects, as Ben and I both enjoyed the meal very much and found it to be a great experience.
The next day we took the bus to Phnom Penh, satisfied with our temple adventures but ready to see something new. The bus ride took about seven hours and was once again slowed down by long sections of unpaved, dirt road along the main highway. We finally arrived in Phnom Penh in the evening, only to be bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers trying to make a quick buck off of naïve tourists.
We managed to find a tuk-tuk driver to take us to our hostel, but he was incredibly aggressive and would not stop asking us our plans for the next couple days, trying to arrange for us to take more rides with him the following days. Fortunately, he finally let us off safe and sound at our hostel, and we prayed to never see him again.
On our first full day in the city, we decided to just explore the city and see some of the sights including the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom. After a leisurely breakfast, we took a tuk-tuk to the Royal Palace, only to be bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers who told us that the Royal Palace was closed for lunchtime and we couldn’t get in. We were somewhat skeptical, as the gates to the palace were open, and we thought that the tuk-tuk drivers were just trying to scam us into riding with them, but then we found a guard who corroborated their remarks.
Frustrated, we walked towards the Sisowath Quay along the river, and followed the river towards Wat Phnom. As we walked, I was surprised to find the city cleaner than most parts of Bangkok, although not exactly pretty. Eventually we made it to Wat Phnom, which was alright, but far from the most interesting or impressive temple we had seen.
After walking around the temple and taking some pictures we headed towards the nearby Central Market. The Central Market building was incredibly ugly and the market inside was unremarkable. Again, after seeing many markets that all sell the same tourist trinkets, it all starts to look the same so we quickly finished browsing.
Feeling hungry at this point, we stopped for a quick lunch before heading to the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace itself was not the most interesting or impressive place, as it was fairly small and all of the buildings were not very old, having only been built in the 1800s. We quickly walked through the Royal Palace before retiring back to our hotel.
The next day, we decided to see the two depressing sites of Phnom Penh, the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S-21). We first made our way to the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh.
One of many killing fields during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek was the site where many of the high-profile prisoners from S-21 were killed, as well as other civilians. There was an in-depth audio tour, explaining the history of both the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, with various stops throughout the site. It made the area that much more somber, as everyone there was listening to their own audio tour via headphones, so there was no chatter or noise from anyone. There were even interviews with survivors of the killing fields, as well as former guards.
Some of the stops were particularly horrifying. One tree was used by guards to smash babies against, and another was used to hang speakers playing music to drown out the screams and wails of prisoners being executed.
It was really surreal to be in the location where such horrible acts were committed not too long ago. Also, not having known much about the Khmer Rouge before the tour, it was amazing to me how much destruction and horrid acts Pol Pot and his comrades managed to commit in just their short three year reign. I was also surprised that many of the officials of the Khmer Rouge were still on trial in international courts, as it seemed that the amount of evidence and witnesses overwhelmingly implicated their crimes.
After the tour, Ben and I had a quiet lunch before bracing ourselves for the next stop, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Back in downtown Phnom Penh, the museum was actually an old school that was used to imprison some of the highest profile civilians during the Khmer Rouge. It was sad to see the pictures of people being tortured and killed, and after walking through the various buildings I felt very drained.
Overall, the time I spent in Cambodia was very worthwhile and interesting. While I grew annoyed by the constant scam attempts and aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, I loved exploring the various temples of Angkor Wat, and appreciated learning about the Khmer Rouge, as horrifying as their crimes were.