Just got back to Bangkok from Malaysia and Cambodia. Meant to post this when I landed in Malaysia but the budget guest house we booked had nonexistent wifi. So be prepared for a flood of posts this week!
First up, Cambodia. We made a short trip to Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat.
Three days was enough to see just about all the major temples, take a cooking class, visit the museum and take an afternoon off. We were running out of things to do by the end.
Couple of initial observations: As soon as you step out of the airport, there’s no mistaking how very rural Cambodia is. It is the definition of a “developing” country. The road from the airport to Siem Reap town is lined with farms on both sides, plus a few emaciated cows.
The town itself has one main street for tourists lined with bars and restaurants on one side, a street market with knick knacks on the other. There are two or three other major thoroughfares locals use to commute to jobs in the city from the country, but that’s it. Very few stoplights. There are virtually no roads with more than one lane in each direction, and there’s usually a large open dirt ditch with several feet of standing water on either side. Mosquito repellent is highly recommended here.
Imagine a dusty Cancun, but smaller and no beach. Siem Reap, population 120,000, has sprung to life almost purely to serve tourists visiting the temples. Beer is cheap (50 cents a glass) but everything else is about twice as expensive as Thailand. Read: It’s a tourist trap.
Business is done in U.S. dollars, although it’s common to get change in Riel. The exchange rate is 4,000 Cambodian Riel to the dollar. However, unlike in Myanmar, no one cares if your bills are folded or slightly worn.
Traffic is organized chaos, but it’s not so scary because there are very few cars or trucks on the road — it’s mostly motorbikes, bicycles and tuk tuks at less than 20 mph. Cambodian tuk tuks resemble mini-carriages, larger than Thai tuk tuks, with two bench seats that can seat three or four people facing each other. Thai tuk tuks carry a max of two passengers.
The main cluster of temples are about 10 minutes by tuk tuk from Siem Reap. It’s called the “small circuit” — there are three recommended temple routes that tourists follow.
The night before our small circuit tour, I panicked because the hotel informed me there was a dress code to visit the temples: pants below the knees for women. I didn’t read anything about this in the guidebooks (or else I skimmed over it). I felt rather foolish since I did have light pants back in Bangkok, but left them behind thinking it’d be unbearably hot here. As it turned out, since we’re traveling in monsoon season, the heat wasn’t so bad given we had overcast skies and downpours in the afternoons.
Karl had a great suggestion and the next morning I wore his giant baggy basketball shorts. They did cover my knees. We showed my costume to our private tour guide and he said that would be fine.
Here was our agenda for the three and a half days we were in Siem Reap, most of it decided the day we landed:
Sunday: Land at 1pm, settle into hotel, hit “Pub Street” main street for dinner
Monday: Hire a guide and tour the Small Temple Circuit (including Angkor Wat), beginning early at 7am to miss the crowds and heat.
Tuesday: Take a break from the temples, take a Cambodian cooking class in the morning to learn to make fish amok curry, a Cambodian specialty. Visit Angkor National Museum in the afternoon.
Wednesday: Hire a car to visit two far-off temple gems of Bataey Srei (intricately carved 10th century temple made with pink sandstone) and Batang Mealea (100 percent overtaken by nature). Both temples are a little over an hour’s drive from Siem Reap. Flight out at 4pm.
If I were to do it all over again, I’d see the museum first. Comments from visitors in the museum guest book say the same thing. The guidebooks really get it wrong advising people to hit the temple trail right away.
At the museum, the three eras of Cambodian history are broken down for you and the styles of different temples explained. It gives you so much more context and background for visiting the temples.
I had a richer experience seeing the two temples on Wednesday simply because we had visited the museum the day before. I understood where the temples belonged in the temple timeline continuum. I knew very little about Hinduism or Buddhism when we arrived, but after visiting the museum I could recognize a few important Hindu stories depicted in numerous carvings, the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” for example, and the role of the turtle and the serpent. And I got why there were statues of bulls in front of different temples, or serpents at every entrance. The bull is named Nandi, he’s Shiva’s mount.
We spent a lot of time with our guide, who I heard about through friends of friends. He charged an insanely reasonable $30 for two people and a full day of touring. Our tuk tuk cost $20 for the day. The car was a little steep, $60 for the faraway temples tour, but it’s impossible to see those by tuk tuk. (We were told that a car is usually $70 for the faraway tour during high season, but who knows?)
Our guide told us a lot about Cambodian culture, way of life and the country’s agrarian economy. Topics for another post to come. I took hundreds of photos, haven’t had time to weed through all of them yet. Another post to come for those too. Meantime, here are just a few.