After a few days in Bangkok, we were off to Siem Reap. Traveling from Thailand to Cambodia by bus was mostly uneventful. It took about 12 hours from the time we left our hostel in Bangkok and arrived at our hostel in Siem Reap.While traveling overnight is a good way to save time, we made this trip during the day because 1) the agency where we made the booking only had one option, and 2) we preferred to cross the border in the daytime.
I say the trip was mostly uneventful because on the Cambodian side of the border I got slapped by a $15 “processing fee” (read: I had to bribe the customs official) for my visa. My passport had one or two empty half-pages left, but the Cambodian visa is a full-page visa. That was my bad, I should have done better research. According to the gentleman who was in charge of processing visas for everybody on our bus I had two options: I could either try to reason with the customs guy from the front side–the “official” side–of the desk, “Or you could give me $15 and I can go around the back end and guarantee you a visa.” So I handed over the $15 and got my visa stuck to one of the instruction pages on my passport. Well, it could have been worse.
We arrived at Siem Reap in the evening, during a mild rainstorm. The town is a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to Angkor Wat, a temple complex that used to be the capital of the Khmer Empire and is the largest religious monument in the world. We purposely chose a hostel located farther from the city center (still only a 10 minute walk away), and loved how peaceful it was, with fewer tourists and noise.
We had two full days in Siem Reap, which honestly felt a little short; I think 3-4 would have been nicer and less hectic. The first day we explored the Angkor National Museum, took a short bike ride through the city, and found a swimming pool where we cooled off (despite the rain it was still really hot).
The museum was absolutely fascinating, well curated, meticulously organized, and a real treat. I 100% recommend spending time there before visiting Angkor Wat because it gives you explanations of everything you’ll see there. There were about eight exhibits, each presenting a different topic, including the origin of the Khmer Empire, the religion and beliefs of the Khmer people, and introductions to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. What I found most intriguing was learning about the influence of Hinduism on Khmer culture. Even in Thailand many names and stories were familiar to me because I had heard them often growing up. Seeing them presented outside of India felt odd at first, but made more and more sense as I made my way through the museum.
My favorite was the Gallery of the 1000 Buddhas. It’s an entire room full of—can you guess?—1000 Buddha sculptures in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. There were towering Buddhas made from sandstone, wooden Buddhas sheltered by a Naga snake while meditating, and hundreds of Buddhas about the size of my palm, holding lit candles, nestled in tiny niches in the wall. It was a breathtaking sight.
The next day we got up around 4:30 AM to make it to Angkor Wat by sunrise. This had been on my travel bucket list for a while, so I was really, really excited. We hired a tuk-tuk driver through our hostel to take us around the temple complex for the day (it’s a huge place) for $20.
Despite the large crowd, walking into Angkor Wat that morning felt really special. There was a cool breeze wafting from the ponds around the complex, and it was early enough that all you could hear was the sound of crickets. The ruins had this amazing, impressive presence that was oddly calming. We sat atop a smaller ruin facing the main temple, and ate some fruit waiting for the sun to rise.
We spent the next seven hours exploring Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and other smaller temples in the area. I was surprised by how close we were allowed to get to everything; you could sit or lean on the stone foundations, climb to the very top of precarious structures, even touch most of the fading wall carvings.
Even though centuries had passed since the Western world first laid eyes on Angkor Wat, and in fact there were thousands of people there with me that day, it felt like I was the only one. Walking over upturned rocks and stepping over tree trunks that had broken through stone and ground made it easy to imagine that I was “discovering” these ruins for the first time. And in a way I was I guess; it was all new to me.
As silly as it sounds to mention this, today was the closest I’d felt to being Nathan Drake, the protagonist of the Uncharted video game series. I’m not really gonna explain what I mean by that haha, but those familiar with the game will know what I’m talking about!
That night we spent a few hours walking around the Old and Night Markets in downtown Siem Reap. The temperature had cooled though it was still mildly sweltering, and hundreds of food stalls and spilled from the sidewalks into the streets, offering everything from barbecued meat to fried ice cream.
If you can, I’d recommend spending 3-4 days in Siem Reap. It’ll give you enough time to explore Angkor Wat (they have a 3-day pass) and enjoy the small town without feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. The next morning we were off to…Phnom Penh!