Sometimes international travel can be a pain. You apply for a visa and then arrive in country and wait in a ridiculous line to get through passport control. After passport control there’s another ridiculous line for customs where you have to hand in the forms you hurriedly filled out on the plane and submit your bag for screening. This was not the case in Siem Reap. The passport control line was three people deep. “Customs” was a little box where you drop your form on your way out of the airport. It took us all of 10 minutes to get from the plane to our driver.
The friendly driver sent by our hotel collected the three of us (my husband Michael, my brother Zach, and me) and led us to his late-90’s Toyota Camry. His steering wheel was on the left. The car parked next to us had theirs on the right. At the time I didn’t recognize it, but now I see that that was an indication of the rules of the road: there aren’t any. The car rattled along a back road and passed tuk-tuks, motos, and water buffalo alike. We weren’t confined to the right side of the road – if the left was smoother, that’s where he drove. Traffic lights were few and far between and stop signs nonexistent.
We unexpectedly turned on what I assumed was a muddy side road but was actually the entrance to our hotel. More than a little nervous, we gathered up our belongings and peered through the main entrance to the hotel. I stopped holding my breath when I saw that behind the wall the Pavillion D’Orient opened up to lush gardens, landscaped Koi ponds, and a charming outdoor restaurant. We were greeted with ice-cold jasmine tea and vouchers for a 30-minute massage at the hotel’s private spa. Upon checking in, we were assigned a tuk-tuk driver for the duration of our visit.
Our tuk-tuk driver, Saret, picked us up and drove us to downtown Siem Reap to have dinner and explore. Even though it was a Monday night, downtown Siem Reap was buzzing. Tourists tanned from a day at the temples sat down for a drink wearing their newly acquired “Same Same But Different” t-shirts and locals and tourists alike visited the night market and haggled in USD over handmade crafts.
The following morning we called Saret and tuk-tuked off to the temples. Touted as the 8th wonder of the world, the Angkor temples in Cambodia are truly remarkable. The giant stone structures are intricately carved in the fashion of the ancient Khmer Empire that existed more than 600 years ago. Their size is hard to imagine without seeing them in person – the maze-like halls and chambers of a single temple could be explored for hours on end. There are more than a thousand of these temples in the Angkor region whose scale can range from a small pile of stones (waiting to be restored) to the grandiose Angkor Wat (one of the largest religious monuments in the world).
After a day at the temples we headed to town for dinner with the Bullwinkels! Michael and Kristy are friends from Houston who currently live in South Korea and just happened to be visiting Cambodia at the same time as us. It was so nice to catch up with old friends half way across the world from where we’d seen each other last. It was also fun to share the experience of having our feet nibbled by little fish while drinking beer :)
The next day Saret drove us through traditional Cambodian villages to an area 15 miles past the main temples in Angkor for a hike through the jungle to Kbal Spean. Also known as the “The River of a Thousand Lingas”, Kbal Spean is a stretch of carved riverbed depicting symbols of the Hindu god Shiva as well as other images from Hindu mythology believed to be from the 11th century. We followed the carvings downstream to the base of a waterfall and relaxed a moment before returning to the trail. Saret was waiting in the sandy parking lot with a soccer ball and flip-flops set up as goal posts. Zach, Michael, Saret, and another driver started a friendly match and were soon joined by group of local kids. While the carved riverbed was impressive, I’d have to say my favorite part of the day was watching these young kids put down the souvenirs they were selling and just be kids for 30 minutes. High fives were foreign to the kids, but with a little help from Zach they caught on in no time.
In a way, I wish we had visited Cambodia last. This was my first experience traveling to a “Third World” country and I’m afraid the initial shock of seeing the how incredibly poor and undeveloped the area was temporarily blinded me from how resilient and friendly the local Khmer (Cambodian) population is. Their friendliness is especially admirable considering the violent recent history of the nation. It’s a location I would encourage anyone to visit on a SE Asia vacation. The roads, amenities, and buildings may not be what we’re used to in the US, but the hospitality is definitely a level above.
Hundreds of Cambodia photos here!