When I first got into Cambodia, nothing was going right. My bus was a few hours late, I was dropped off in the dark, and I didn’t have a clue on how to get to my hostel.
The bus station that I was dropped off at was more like a dusty gas station with a few English signs, and there were no cars around. The only means of transportation into town were a few tuk tuk drivers, and even they looked annoyed that they had to work this late. But as the tuk tuk drivers started to diminish, I quickly approached the two German girls near me and asked if they would like to split the fare for a ride into town. They agreed.
The tuk tuk ride into town was slow but cheap. Between the three of us I think I only spent $2usd. On the way into town there was not much to see except a few small, brightly lit shops along the road. The entire town of Siem Reap seemed to consist of stores, hostels, and markets catering to tourists.
I was the first one to be dropped off at my hostel. I bid my my fellow passengers goodbye and thanked them for allowing me to ride with them. My hostel was right next to a convenience store. I entered through the glass doors and the first thing I noticed were rows and rows of shoes neatly organized on a multilevel shelve with hundreds of cubicles for each pair of shoes. “They’re organized,” I thought, “that’s a good sign.”
It was probably around 10pm when I got to the registration desk, manned by a young guy who was probably still under 20. I handed over my passport and he quickly checked me in and explained all the hostel rules to me. His English was better than most of the hostels clerks that I met in Thailand and Vietnam. He instructed his colleague, another young man, to carry my backpack upstairs for me and show me my room. The hostel was hip and trendy. The walls were white, very white, and the floors were dark mahogany wood. It reminded me of a nicer version of a college dorm. The lounge was furnished with comfy cushions, books, and a tv.
After getting into my room, I ended up sitting on the floor for thirty minutes unpacking and reorganizing the things that I would need for the next couple of days. Living out of a backpack has taught me the key to finding anything easily was organization. I was exhausted. At this point packing and unpacking became very much a chore, and I was too tired to climb up my bunk bed, because I knew that the very moment I got up there I would realize I forgot something. And let me tell you, climbing up and down a bunk bed ten times a day gets tiresome real fast.
My bunk mate, a really tall German guy with a lot of facial hair was reading on his bed next to me. We exchanged glances as I slumped onto the floor right next to him. I sighed and said, “long trip” and thus began a conversation about my agonizing bus journey. I didn’t really care if he was listening or not, I was thinking out loud and you get use to it when traveling alone. Luckily he reciprocated and was friendly. Turns out my bunk mate, Flo, was from Germany and he was biking through Southeast Asia! Naturally being the curious person that I am, I asked him a hundred questions about everything he has seen so far, and which places were his favorite, questions that I’m sure he had been asked a thousand times by now. But that didn’t stop me, and it was fascinating to hear all of his stories. He actually has his own blog in German with lots of beautiful pictures.
After a half and hour of chit chatting and unpacking later, I finally was able to drag myself to the shower and get ready for bed. That night I slept like a log.
The next day I went downstairs to the lounge to grab breakfast. I got a plateful of fruits with toast and eggs for $2USD. I was happy. I made conversations with the hostel staff and found out there were tours to the Angkor Wat sites daily. I signed up for the 1 day tour, because I knew that with my patience and stamina, anything more than that would just feel like a drag. I signed up for my second day in town, which meant I had the whole day ahead of me to do whatever I wanted. Ah, freedom.
Siem Reap (or at least the immediate center) is actually pretty small. You can walk around the whole thing in about an hour or so by foot so that’s what I did. I walked to the river, to the market, stopped at a few stores selling handcrafted soaps, to the famous pub street (lots of touristy bars), took some pictures of graffiti, and walked back to my hostel. Other than the street art and handcrafted stores though, nothing in particular really stood out to me. What I really did enjoy were seeing the locals going about their everyday lives. With the exception of tuk tuk drivers, everyone else didn’t seem a bit interested in tourists, which I loved.
The people of Siem Reap were diverse. I saw many Indian residents, some Thai locals, and of course lots of Cambodian locals, and probably lots of others from surrounding areas I’m unaware of. In many ways this was reflected in its culture and food. The Cambodian language was especially interesting to me. I tried to learn a few phrases from my hostel staff, but could barely remember any of them because the sounds were so different from anything I’ve heard of before. The written characters looked a bit like Thai characters, but it didn’t sound anything like it nor did it sound like the Vietnamese, their neighboring country to the north..
Cambodian food, which consists of lots of rice and noodle dishes were unique from all the food I’ve had in Vietnam and Thailand. It was sort of like a blend of both. They had both the clear broths and lighter noodle dishes like the ones in Vietnam, as well as the heavier curry and spicier dishes like in Thailand. It was a happy medium for me.
The next day was the day of my Angkor Wat tour. I woke up to the sound of pouring rain. I was not happy because I was planning to go see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, but also secretly happy that I could sleep some more. Since it was raining and foggy there was no point in going that early. I groaned, but was glad to go back to bed for a few more hours. At eleven, I went downstairs and met the other two travelers who signed up for the same tour as me. One of was from South Korea and the other from China.
We went out with our hired tuktuk driver and headed out to tour the Angkor World Heritage Site! I wasn’t really sure what to expect but even after walking in the rain, the gloom, and the mud, I was…speechless when I first saw the first temple in its entirety. There was no better way to describe it than “grand.” The temples were GRAND. Huge, elegant, splendid, mysterious, and mesmerizing. The five hours we spent in the temples flew by. As I wandered through the different halls of each temple, I couldn’t help but feel like I was walking back in time, imagining all the different footsteps that must have gone through those halls. Buddhist monks, kings, queens, warriors, peasants from thousands of years ago of the Khmer Kingdom all once walked in those halls. It blew my mind.
In between our tour we also had some lunch at a roadside restaurant that tried to charge us $6 for each entree (which is three times the amount of restaurants outside the tour site). When we declined they quickly latched on and asked how much we would like to pay. We said “$2” and they obliged. As I’m writing this now I feel kind of silly for bargaining down a $6 meal, but the reality is when you are traveling every dollar counts. It’s also just a matter of principle when they try to charge you three times the amount just because you are from somewhere else.
That night I went back to my hostel exhausted. Grabbed some delicious Indian food for dinner with Flo and his friend from the hostel and went to sleep. I woke up at 7am the next day to catch the bus back to Thailand. The time for that ride was suppose to be 8-10 hours. My ride ended up to be 16 hours, but that’s a story for another time.
Even though my stay in Cambodia was short, I really enjoyed it. From what I saw on the bus the country was pretty bare, but in a hauntingly beautiful sort of way, and I’m pretty sure I only caught a small glimpse of it. The locals were friendly, but the town of Siem Reap felt a bit set up to me, but hey, tourism is the backbone of their economy there. Needless to say, Angkor Wat is a must if you’re here. I think most visitors tend to stay a bit longer in Cambodia, but for my time and budget, three days and two nights was just the perfect amount of time. If I’m there again, I would be excited to see how this country will develop in the next few years.
Thank you to all whom I met along the way, you’ve all enriched my experience.