When I googled “best places to visit in Southeast Asia,” Cambodia often came up at the top of every list. The main reason for this overwhelming favoritism was for the Ultimate Wonder of the World, Angkor Wat. Before I studied abroad in Spain, my mom got me a book of the Travel Guide’s Top 500 things to see in the world. And Number 1 on the list? Angkor Wat. I always assumed it was too far away for me to ever see. And going to Cambodia, I got the chance!
Katie, Brad and I headed there for our very last trip, in our last week in Southeast Asia. We spent the first half of the trip in Siem Reap, to see Angkor Wat. We stayed in a gorgeous resort, that ended up being completely empty except for us. The staff was extremely welcoming and friendly, and it was a great place to stay while we explored the area.
Right as we arrived we booked a tour of Angkor Wat and other surrounding temples. We actually signed up for the sunrise tour, so our day started at about 3am. But it was worth it! Our tour guide’s name was Curly, and he had some informative and funny stories at each of the locations. We had a tour full of some characters, that’s for sure. It felt like we were in the middle of the book, with how different and intriguing these people were. There was a quiet older French man (he left the pack right at the beginning), a middle aged Indian couple, a mysterious young Spanish photographer, an older eccentric American woman, and us. The Indian man and American woman asked the majority of the questions, which was great because they brought up things I that would have never occurred to me. We learned a lot more that way.
As we watched the sun rise up behind Angkor Wat, it was an incredible feeling. I felt so blessed to be in such a renowned place for the sunrise with so many other travelers. All going through the same experience together but each taking our own feelings and memories from it. What a cool concept!
Throughout the sunrise, a lot of the local people came up to us, wanting to sell scarves or bring us in to their shops. They all had code names – Agent 007, James Bond, Harry Potter, Mr. John, etc. Mr. John chatted with us for awhile and airdropped some photos to my phone of the past 30 sunrises at Angkor Wat, and each was so different! The man 007 really wanted us to try his coffee, and kept shouting “COffee” and “breakfast!” at us. It was an interesting atmosphere.
Angkor Wat has a lot of history. Curly told us about the war between Cambodia and Thailand, when Thailand took a majority of Cambodia’s land, which still harbors tense feelings to this day. However, the Vietnamese came to Cambodia’s aid, and now Vietnam citizens can come and go freely to and from Cambodia. We also learned about how they built the temple and moved the stones. It was a truly inspiring place to explore.
So I actually don’t love this picture very much (straight up is not my angle) but I need to include it for the purpose of a story. Apparently this is the point in the temple in which the 4 corners of each section of the temple meet. It is called “the center of the universe.” We were going in groups to get a photo with it, and Curly would crouch on the ground and snap the photo. When it was the Indian couple’s turn, the Indian man couldn’t find his wife. He goes, “Where is the center of my universe?” It was just about the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. Look for love like that!
After Angkor Wat, we lost the French man. Had to leave him behind (this decision was strongly fought by the eccentric American woman). If this were a novel, we would drop like flies off of the pack, one by one at each temple. Had to stay extra close to Curly from then on out!
We saw 2 other temples: Bayon and Ta Prohm. Each had its own unique features. Bayon is known as the temple of smiling faces, because every statue in the temple is of a smiling god. This is because it was originally a Hindu temple, featuring four Hindu gods, but was later taken over by Buddhists. There is also a smiling god in Buddhism, so those statues were kept, and all of the others were destroyed.
The last temple was Ta Prohm, also known as the temple featured in Tomb Raider! It was completely overgrown with huge trees, and it was so fascinating to look at how the trunk had completely grown through roofs and caused some of these ancient temples to crumble. Curly told us that they can’t remove the trees to prevent future damage because the temples would collapse. So the trees are holding the temples together but will inevitably cause them to fall. How crazy.
On the way out from this temple, I had a run in with a tree. In that I actually walked right into a tree. In my defense, it was more like a very thick tree branch that was in a U-shape, hanging down over the path. AND I had been up since 3am. Anyways, I smashed my head right against the tree right in front of our entire group. What a great end to the tour…
After our exhausting tour, it was only noon. So we decided to spend some time by the pool and get some sun! Might as well soak it up before we go back to the miserable cold.
That night we had dinner out in a very interesting part of Siem Reap! We ate at a restaurant called Easy Speaking. Katie and I were being vegetarians for the week, to lower risks of food poisoning, so we got a mushroom pasta dish and some white wine. Brad was much more adventurous – literally the most adventurous he could be. He got a mix of “exotic meats” – kangaroo, ostrich, frog, crocodile… and they cooked it on a metal burner right on the table! Apparently they were good! We joked that Brad does exactly was people say you’re not supposed to do in Cambodia. But so far, so good for him!
The next day, we got breakfast at the resort and then headed off to Sihanoukville! Because I was being a vegetarian for the week, my breakfast was not very well-rounded. There was a buffet table of breads, and I said “I’m going to take one of everything.” I wasn’t kidding:
I couldn’t get on the same flight as Brad and Katie, because they had booked the trip a few days before I did, so I was on a later flight on my own. It was pretty funny because the waiting area was separated from the boarding gate by just a pane of glass, so while I was waiting Brad came over to visit and we had a miming convo through the glass. Suffice to say it was a very simple conversation. I’ve never been afraid of flying, but this flight was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been on a plane. It was so small, that I could feel and hear every little movement, and I kept imagining the headlines about a single American girl studying abroad who flew alone and ended up dying in a Cambodia plane crash. Not the best mindset to have in the middle of a flight! I’m always this dramatic, by the way, no getting around it. But luckily I landed safely and found my friends waiting for me in the airport.
We stayed at the Sea Breeze Resort, and it was a very cute little place. We had our own bungalow along the pool, we got vouchers for breakfast every day, and we were steps away from the beach!
This was one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been on. All along the shore there were restaurants and bars with beach chairs. We spent the next few days lounging, eating, drinking, and walking along the sand. I couldn’t imagine anything better! Perfect place with the perfect people.
One night we ventured out in a tuk tuk to a very cool little place called Otres Market. It was a mix of food stalls, jewelry stands, a bar, and live music. There were a lot of people there that I would describe as “crunchy,” which I explained to Katie by pointing certain people out. Baggy tie-dye pants, dreadlocks, loose tank tops, sandals, large jewelry… you get the idea. Basically these people could live from place to place and probably spend a lot of time hiking with their dogs and sleeping under the stars. Pretty neat, right? It was a cool night and the live music was very enjoyable.
I also got the chance to get to know some of the locals. Herenda was a very nice woman who ended up threading my legs on the first day. We talked for awhile while she did it and got to know each other. She even gave me a free handmade bracelet after the threading was over. She’s such a kind lady! I also met Simon, who was trying to sell us a trip to a nearby island, and even though we didn’t buy it he was very friendly. He made me laugh with so many jokes and had the widest smile in the world.
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous coming to Cambodia. There is a negative connotation associated with this country, based on its history in wars and genocide, and current issues like hidden land mines and disease. Without knowing anything besides these vague understandings, I made some strong assumptions about the country. I know many other people in the US feel the same. But Cambodia surprised me more than any other country I have visited. Yes, I did see extreme poverty. On the car ride from the airport to our resort, we passed huts made out of sheets of metal, with nothing but a few hammocks and drying laundry inside. It was heartbreaking to see. Not only because my heart went out to those living in these conditions, but also because so many people in the world, including myself, take so much for granted. But after that car ride, Cambodia surprised me in other ways. There are some of the most stunning temples in the world there, with so much history. There are some of the most beautiful beaches, with the cleanest, blue water. And there are also some of the nicest people I have ever met. I’m so glad I got to go there and see it for myself. This is why I travel. There are so many places for me to see, so many people to meet, and so many things that I have yet to learn.
So now I’m signing off! Thanks for reading and in a way going on this journey with me. For now, until my next adventure! (which shouldn’t be too far off…)