Cambodia

The World I Saw

 

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“Where Should I Go?”

Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.

So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.

So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:

I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:

  • Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
  • The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
  • Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
  • The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
  • Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.

Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:

  • The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
  • Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
  • I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
  • Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
  • Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.

Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.

If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.

Cities in Southeast Asia

As I come to the end of my three months exploring Southeast Asia, I’ve noticed a few things that the cities here seem to have in common.

1) Sidewalks are not for people. If sidewalks even exist, which is a big if, they are there for motorcycle parking and street stalls. Want a snack? T-shirt? Knock-off electronic? Souvenir knickknacks? Head to the sidewalks where you can find all you could ever want and not want blocking your path. Get used to walking on the road if you want to walk around most of these cities.

2) Traffic lights are few and far between. Once in a while you can get lucky and find a light, although being able to predict when you get to walk is not likely. Mostly though traffic lights or signs are absent. This contributes to the real life Frogger experience that is trying to cross the street. Walk forth with confidence and you will most likely make it. If you’re a thrill seeker you can try to ride through this chaos on a motorcycle.

3) Temples pop up out of nowhere. Unlike European cathedrals which tend to be surrounded by open space, temples and pagodas are in the middle of it all. One minute you’re walking past 7/11 and the next a shiny gold stupa or tiered-roofed wat has appeared alongside you. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, although I’m guessing the temples were there first. And it’s never just one temple; these cities have tons of them. Just try to walk around a Southeast Asian city without running into one. I dare you.

4) No one minds being barefoot. Take off your shoes at the entrance to the temple. Take off your shoes to go into the tattoo parlor. Take off your shoes at the bar. Take off your shoes to enter your hostel. Take off your shoes to climb over 700 feet to the top of a hill because there’s half a dozen pagodas on the way. This is why cutting my foot on a rock in a river was such a problem.

5) Honking means everything. It’s hi I’m behind you. Watch out I’m going to pass you. Ok you can pass me. Thanks I’m past you. I’m going to turn in front of you. You turn first. Thanks for letting me turn first. I swear drivers from Southeast Asia must think New York City is full of the friendliest, most polite drivers.

6) If it’s from a cart, it’s probably cheap and delicious. Food carts are everywhere, and despite all the warnings about street food, they’re often the source of tasty cheap bites. It’s like the original food truck, just without the strict sanitary regulations. Eat at your own risk.

7) Someone made a killing in the beer sign industry. Plastered on the side of buildings or used to advertise an establishment, whether it’s a restaurant or hotel, there’s a good chance a sign will have the local beer logo above the name of whatever it is. I actually got used to looking for “Angkor” signs in Cambodia to find somewhere to eat. And it’s usually a beer named after where you are: Hanoi and Saigon, Angkor and Cambodia, Beerlao, and Mandalay and Myanmar are all beer names. If only Chang was spelled Chiang, then it could be linked to Northern Thailand.

8) Southeast Asia is in serious need of electrical engineers. Power lines hang like vines that have been allowed to grow wild, clinging to the corners of buildings in huge clusters. And while interior lighting and internet may be dim, sparkling, flashing lights adorn the exterior of hotels, restaurants and bars like year-long Christmas decorations.

Taxis, Vans, Trains, and Buses: How Many Modes of Transportation Does it Take to Get to Khao Lak?

The trip from Battambang, Cambodia to Khao Lak, Thailand took 29 hours.

I started at 8 am December 22nd with a shared taxi from Battambang to the border. 7 people shoved into a Toyota Camry for 2 hours. Somehow I slept against the window.

The line to get my exit stamp from Cambodia was less than 10 minutes. I walked across the border past casinos and street stands. I wasn’t even in a country right now and I could buy all sorts of things. The line to get my entry stamp for Thailand was much longer; I made it out in 45 minutes.

I hadn’t even had my bag scanned yet when a man asked if I needed transport to Bangkok. I was ushered to a shared van. This time we all had seats at least. The van stopped for gas and we all had to get out. They told us we’d have to wait an hour for another bus. 10 minutes later we all got back in the same van. Don’t ask me to explain this, I can’t. We stopped again for gas, got out, back in the same van. We were in Bangkok in 4 hours.

Then we drove around in Bangkok traffic for over an hour to our drop-off point. We never made it to the drop-off point because we all got so frustrated that we told them to just let us out, we’d get in cabs. I was trying to get to the Southern Bus Station to get an overnight bus to Khao Lak. I asked how far it was. “Far.” “Ok but how far?” “Very far.” “Like 15 minutes? An hour?” “Very far.” So helpful.

A Russian girl was trying to get down to Koh Phangan and was headed for the overnight train. I knew this was an option so I made a snap decision and jumped in a tuktuk with her to the train station. We got tickets in the sitting cabin; sleepers were all full. We had Thai food in the train station for dinner and she grabbed a couple beers to help us sleep better.

Overnight train to Surat Thani. Our cabin was full of backpackers. The conductor told us we couldn’t drink our beers; I hid mine behind me when he came to check my ticket, it spilled, and I spent the rest of the ride in beer-soaked pants. The windows weren’t all closed and they never turned the lights off. It was loud and cold. Somehow I slept.

We arrived in Surat Thani an hour late so I missed the first bus. The next one left at 9:30, it was 8, so I had an awful breakfast in some cafe near the station. At least there was wifi so I could get out a blog post and tell the guys I was at least closer than Cambodia, the last time they’d heard from me.

I got on the bus. A friendly mother and child were going the same direction. She had lived there 9 years ago and was back for the 10 year anniversary of the tsunami. She looked like a giddy child returning home. A friendly Brit sat next to me for a while, and we passed the time in conversation.

I arrived in Khao Lak shortly after 1 pm on December 23rd. The bus dropped me off just outside the hostel. Thank god. I showered immediately.

Pascal and Chris arrived half an hour later. I gave them huge hugs. Reunited!

29 hours of pure transportation to see these boys. Lucky for them I felt like it was worth it.

Guess how much all that cost me.

$28.

My Day with Sokoma

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. The main part of town was manageable to walk around and the rest is easily accessible as long as you don’t mind a bumpy motorbike ride on uneven dirt roads.

When the boat was pulling up to Battambang I was shocked to see two dozen men on the sloped shore holding up signs for accommodation and tuktuks. “You need tuktuk? Anywhere in the city 50 cents!” “Need accommodation? So-and-so-hotel, best rooms, cheap!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the site and then walk straight past it. I had no accommodation but the map looked like I could walk to the few options in my Lonely Planet, which was right. It was no more than 10 minutes from the boat to the guesthouses. First one, full. Second, full. Shit. Do you have a recommendation? Try 333 around the corner. Dorms are full, but there’s a private available. How much? $4. Good enough.

My private room in 333 was not as luxurious as it sounds, nor as private. I had a roommate: a gecko. The bathroom had a shower head on the wall with just two options – on or off, no hot water here – and the toilet flushed by pouring water into it from the bucket sitting under a tap on the floor. It smelled awful. The hard bed had an old fleece blanket with an unfamiliar cartoon on it for warmth, which was pretty unnecessary given the constant heat in Battambang. I opted to sleep in my sleep-sack with the fan pointed directly at me. I did have a TV! A generous 10-inch TV from the 80’s. I managed to find some English channels so I got all caught up on The Voice and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (they really went downhill after 1).

I had two days in Battambang between the social days of Siem Reap and seeing my sister in Thailand so I wanted to spend these alone. Meeting people traveling is great, but I sometimes miss the alone time that I expected to have so much of when I decided to travel alone for so long. This was one of those times I made sure to get in some me time. Except for the 8 hours I spent with a 60-year-old Cambodian man. That kind of break in alone time though is exactly what I like when I take days in towns by myself like this.

My first morning in Battambang I was on my way to find food when a man on a motorbike pulled up asking if I wanted a driver for the day. $10. I said I was going to rent my own bike, I did actually want to get out and see the temples around the city that day, but he had some good points about gas and potential for the bike to break and he was also a guide. When I said I needed food first he said he would take me somewhere to eat, then we’d go. Alright sir I was convinced.

Great decision. I had a fantastic day with Sokoma. He was more of a guide than I ever would have expected. As we drove around he pointed out typical Cambodian architecture – house on stilts for the floods, many windows around the one floor above, the underneath serving as a living space in the dry season – and showed me things that were not just the main highlights. He took me to Cambodia’s only vineyard for some wine, brandy, grape juice, and ginger juice tasting (it wasn’t even 11 am yet; the wine was like fruit juice but the brandy was pretty strong); we stopped at a rice factory so I could see how rice kernels get separated from the plant; he told me all the crops that were growing from rice to peanuts and showed me how two kinds of plants close their leaves when you touch them; he pointed out chili’s growing on the side of the road; he stopped so I could try a fried cricket from a street-side stand (really really crunchy, not much flavor).

Along the way we talked about Cambodia: religion of the area and his own beliefs; how people lived and farmed outside of the city, with so little water around; the fact that they eat dog and apparently it is quite tasty, although I still couldn’t bring myself to try it; and most interestingly what it was like to live during the Khmer Rouge. He has seen decades of life in Cambodia and asked me if I wanted to know more. I did. It was a fascinating conversation that was unfortunately cut short by the spectacle of the bats, but I feel so lucky to have had it.

And of course he took me to the main sites: the Wat Banan temple, where I climbed up over 300 stairs to see what temples really look like when they’re not preserved like they are at Angkor Wat; the supposedly oldest temple in the area (whose name I completely forget); the Killing Caves, the site where thousands of Cambodians were murdered by being dropped into a cave; and above it the Phnom Sampeau temple complex, where I helped a monk practice his English. This is also where the bats made a mass exodus at dusk in search of food. We watched for 15 minutes then chased them down the road on the bike so I could see the groups of bats weaving their search patterns. Truly majestic, if a bit creepy. We also made a bonus stop because we had some extra time (apparently I move faster than most people he takes around) – a Buddhist shrine deep inside a cave, which I descended into alone. It was silent, dark, eerie, and only by the light of a flashlight could I see the giant reclining Buddha against the wall. I was proud of myself for making it there but the images of the robbery attempt just a day and a half before made me paranoid so I got out pretty quick. Not many people see this place though so again I felt lucky have had Sokoma as my guide.

We got back after dark and I felt like I had seen everything and way more than I set out to see. I thanked Sokoma. He was truly fantastic. Also don’t worry, I filmed pretty much the entire day on my GoPro. Watch out for the video in the next few months (tons of footage to edit).

The rest of my time in Battambang was pretty relaxed. I did a self-guided walking tour of the architectural history of the city based on a map by Khmer Architecture Tours. I sat at a cafe in the air conditioning blogging and backing up pictures. I had a final Cambodian meal at White Rose, the place Sokoma had taken me for breakfast, on a balcony overlooking the night activity on the street below. The next day I would leave at 8 am for a lengthy land trip down to the coast of Thailand.

I reflected on my time in Cambodia. I loved it. I felt sad to leave, there was so much more to see there. I knew I had to get to Thailand to meet up with friends but wished I had more time. It felt very different from leaving Vietnam, a place I knew I had missed things but felt okay with departing. I still haven’t ripped the Cambodia pages out of my guidebook just in case I end up back there. One day Cambodia, I’ll see you again.

The Most Scenic Boat Ride in Cambodia: Siem Reap to Battambang

When I left Siem Reap I was deciding between 2 options: 1) Go south to Koh Rong, an island that was highly recommended by more than one backpacker friend, and Ben’s next stop; 2) Take a river ride to Battambang, a town between Siem Reap and the border of Thailand that was known for its French Colonial architecture and nearby temples, and my original plan.

This was a tough one because Koh Rong was such a tempting option since it was supposedly a chill, beautiful backpacker haven, and I had a friend to go with. In the end though I had to go with Battambang. I have already said how I prefer mountains to beaches, and knowing that I had a few weeks of beaches coming up in Thailand and Indonesia I needed one last inland fix. Plus the Lonely Planet description called to me:

“There’s something about Battambang that visitors just love… The colonial architecture, the riverside setting, the laid-back cafes… It’s the perfect blend of relatively urban modernity and small-town friendliness. Outside the city’s confines, meanwhile, timeless hilltop temples and bucolic villages await.”

That sounded like my kind of town. And the way I chose to get there was an adventure in itself: Cambodia’s most scenic boat journey.

I woke up when it was still dark out and was picked up by a van that fit more people than should be allowed, but that didn’t stop me from sleeping the whole ride to the boat (I had gotten about an hour of sleep after the near-robbery). We made it to the dock shortly after dawn. I don’t know why I was expecting it to run smoothly, this is local transportation in Cambodia after all. We were loaded onto a smallish wooden boat that has clearly made this trip thousands of times and there we sat for an hour. How I managed to sleep sitting on that wooden bench I will never know. Finally it was time to go, so we pushed off from the boat next to us and puttered out into the wide river.

It was cold. The first time I felt cold in Cambodia. I was in and out of consciousness, recognizing that we were on a river but not yet seeing why it was such a recommended ride. Then the boat slowed down and we approached a floating village. The village on Tonle Sap lake is well-known throughout Cambodia; it’s advertised in travel guides as a must-do trip from Siem Reap, and it’s a pretty impressive place. Houses and markets are built simply, out of wood and plants, on flotation devices that bob with the current. Small motorboats are the only means of transport.

This being Cambodia – safety third – I climbed out from my seat to stand along the few inches of wood on the side of the boat. I noticed all the people sitting on the roof of our boat for the first time. I hung on with one hand and took pictures with the other, waving to kids as we passed. A boat approached ours and a few people and some supplies were transferred between boats as we drifted downstream.

Throughout the boat ride we saw smaller versions of this floating village, including one where we stopped for snacks and refreshments. I got a cold can of coke and finally felt awake. I sat on the front of the boat for a while until we reached the tricky part of the journey. For the next couple of hours we wound around tight turns, using a combination of the motor and a huge paddle to navigate the snakelike river. We passed houses that were no longer floating but were made out of old boats sitting on the riverbank. I wondered how people live in them. Every turn had a giant fishing apparatus in the water; it worked like scale, with a large circular net submerged on one side of a pole, and a rope on the other side that could be pulled down to raise the net. I assumed that fishing and some farming were how people here survived.

It took 9 hours to reach Battambang. Admittedly I was in and out of sleep for the first 4 or 5, but once I reached shore I was happy to have experienced the ride. I was able to see a different side of Cambodia, where life revolves in, around, and on the river. It was a quiet life, and it didn’t look like an easy life, but that didn’t stop the kids from flashing us big smiles and enthusiastically waving as we passed. I couldn’t help but wave back to every single one of them. I wasn’t alone in doing this, most of the boat must have waved at nearly a hundred children. Something about kids running on shore waving at you as your boat glides by just makes you smile. I smiled a lot that day.

Fried Toofoo

Spending all day in a tuktuk with someone really accelerates the getting-to-know-you process. I only spent 3 days with Ben and Alex but the amount of inside jokes, depth of conversation, and feeling of comfort I had with them made it feel like much longer.

I met Ben (from England) as soon as I got to European Guesthouse and we spent the next day exploring all the major temples together. It was great to have a companion for the day to discuss our impressions of each place, and a bonus that we happened to get along really well. That night we met Alex (from Canada) who had the same goal as me: “I just want to go to Angkor What?” More on that in a bit. The next day Alex and I explored the outer ring of temples, including the far away Banteay Srei. Like the day before with Ben, we covered a range of topics in our day, and fulfilling the stereotype of our North Americanness devoted a solid half an hour to pizza and wings, which led to a disappointing but necessary pizza and “wings” dinner at the hostel; the wings were actually two entire chicken wings, plain roasted, but when doused in chili sauce they did the trick. The third day all three of us spent together, exploring town with lunch at the market and ice creams at Swensens – the San Francisco Swensens! – and chilling at a temple for the afternoon. The day I left Alex and Ben had their alone time, which I hear was mainly spent in a movie theater.

This mixture of time with each other in pairs and then all together, in a different combination of places, did something special for my relationship with them, and I’d venture to say they feel the same way. The one thing that we always did all together: explore the nightlife of Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a small town that knows how to have a good time. Our first night we did a little bar crawl – nice cocktails at Miss Wong, beers at Beatles-themed Yellow Submarine (the Brit’s choice) – before reaching the bar we wanted to see most and site of the next few nights of debauchery: Angkor What? Angkor What? has a deal that if you order 2 buckets you get a t-shirt for free. Naturally we all wanted these shirts. The first night we decided it wasn’t time yet, since we had already hopped around we would just stick to beers, and we had 2 more nights to get the buckets. Already, just a few hours after all meeting, we were talking about spending our Siem Reap time together like it was a long-acknowledged fact, even if we hadn’t exactly had that conversation.

Angkor What? was playing some good tunes but we did not see what was coming… Directly across the street is Temple Club. Both bars offer buckets, tshirts, and very loud music, so what happens is that people get stuck in between them not knowing which one to choose. Instead of going inside, the party simply happens on the street. It reminded me of Rio during the World Cup or Buenos Aires after La Bamba – the street was filled with happy people dancing without a care. We felt compelled to join but still had our beers, so the helpful employees of Angkor What? gave us plastic cups to take with us into the street. And thanks to our enthusiastic friend Malaysian guy, these cups never went empty. It was a long joyful night, and despite the fact that it was a Tuesday we never saw the street party get to such a huge number of people again.

The following night we made a crucial decision: straight to Angkor What? We walked to town with an overshadowing feeling of doom thinking about the buckets in our future. We had a plan: do a few tonight and a few the next night. A few hours later all three of us had t-shirts. It turns out that when you just order rum and coke buckets it’s not so hard to get all six in one night. And it’s even easier when you find some new Belgian friends to play 21 with. Success! Now that we knew the drill, we were one of the first tables up and dancing, ready and waiting for the street party to begin so we could join. And we did.

Night three was our last night so we couldn’t give in to the lingering hangover feelings from the bucket night before. We started with trivia at a new bar, surprisingly finishing second despite some seriously tough questions (thanks man from Florida who ran trivia). We told ourselves there were other places to go, the night was still young, and then we walked up to Angkor What? Our Belgian friends were there waiting for us. Round two of 21, round three of the street party, and then a first: we went into Temple Club! And we discovered the magic of the music inside. The Macarena, YMCA, Venga Boys – we flashed back to Bat Mitsvah’s and loved every minute of it. I had a 7 am boat departure the next morning, so at 4 am I called it quits.

It was almost a perfect three days and nights in our new best friendship and love of Siem Reap, but then the walk back happened. After a run-walk down the main street to get away from the tuktuk driver who was poking Ben and the women who had almost robbed Alex the night before, we were relieved to get to our street. Too soon. A few doors down from our guesthouse a man quietly mounted his motorbike and quickly turned it on once we reached him, simultaneously grabbing my bag. Generally the advice given when someone on a motorbike tries to steal your bag is to let them have it. I did not listen to this advice. I held on, planted my feet and didn’t let him get away, delaying his bike from moving just long enough for Alex to tackle him and his bike to the ground. We were all in shock. Ben and Alex made sure I was ok while the almost-theif tried to run his bike down the street; it wasn’t starting. I had all my stuff and we were all fine, so Ben grabbed the taillight that had fallen off his bike and chased him down the street, throwing it at him when his bike finally let him get away. The other tuktuk drivers heard the commotion and came running. They were surprised, but also too late.

I was thankful I had Alex and Ben there with me. Alex played doctor to my pinky finger, which had been pretty badly ripped up by the strap of my bag. It’s still healing but at least the layers of skin that had been removed are starting to grow back. It was an unfortunate way to have to say bye after a fantastic three days together, but I know for sure that when we reunite in Bangkok I don’t have to worry about anything, the three of us have already proven we can fight off grabby prostitutes and motorcycle thieves.

Regardless of the ending, Siem Reap showed us all that it has more to offer than just Angkor Wat, even if most of it revolves around a bar jokingly named after this attraction. It also led to a friendship that I hope never dies, and judging by our constant group message updates and already confirmed plans to meet up in Bangkok at the end of the month I don’t think it will. Plus there’s still Burning Man 2016. The camp is growing.

Safety Third at Angkor Wat

I found what I was missing in Siem Reap. The magical mixture of history, culture, nightlife, and people made me fall in love with Cambodia, even if it was only my second location in that country. The days I spent in Siem Reap have made it to my “highlights of the trip” list.

Angkor Wat was one of the pillars of my trip and it deserved to be. The entire Angkor complex is one of the best places I’ve been. It’s a massive collection of temples that expands well beyond just Angkor Wat, the largest and most well-known. There are different opinions on how best to visit the temples, depending on order and time of day, but really any way you do it will you will be impressed. I was happy with how things worked out for my three days there (entry tickets are 1 day, 3 days or 1 week; I opted for the 3-day US$40 pass, which seemed to be the most popular one).

I started big: Angkor Wat at sunrise. I’d read to work my way up, save the best for last, but I decided instead to go big or go home. Plus I had met Ben the night before and we decided to share a tuktuk for the day, seriously helping reduce the cost of getting around. We were joined by hundreds of our closest friends (read: obnoxious tourists) to witness the spectacle of the sun rising behind the temple. Instead we got total cloud cover. It was still impressive to see the temple slowly reveal itself to us as the morning went from dark to light, but I was more distracted by all the people around us trying to get the perfect image on their iPads and selfie-stick-secured camera phones. We broke away from the crowd when we were sure the sun was up, even if we couldn’t see it, and and went into the temple.

This was the best part about getting to Angkor Wat for sunrise: the temple was nearly empty. We had two hours to wander around with just a handful of other people, leisurely exploring the different levels, taking tons of pictures, and ooing and awwing at the incredible level of detail of the carvings. The entirety of Angkor Wat is carved relief. There are walls of stories with thousands of figures at first intertwined and later perfectly organized. Ceilings, columns, platforms, walls – everything is decorated. It was extraordinary. The huge size of Angkor Wat also contributed to the sense of awe. After our initial 2 hours of exploring we took a much-needed breakfast break (surprisingly delicious pancakes, fruit and coffee right next to the temple) before going back in for another hour or so to finish the top level. At that point the tour groups had arrived and our peaceful time was over, but with just the one level left we weren’t too bothered. I was thrilled with my experience at Angkor Wat and the decision to start with this temple. The morning timing was perfect and something about getting the big one over-with let me relax about the rest of my time there.

As impressive as Angkor Wat was, I don’t think I could say it was my favorite. Academically I feel obliged to say that it was, but experientially Bayon and Ta Prohm were tied for favorite, perhaps with Bayon slightly in the lead.

Bayon is hard to describe. The reason it had such an impact was the experience of walking around. It is a towering temple with oversized stone faces all around. You circumambulate the temple on a narrow pathway that almost feels claustrophobic in between the stone walls. It is this dwarfed feeling that leads to the impressive nature of the experience of Bayon.

Ta Prohm was a totally difference experience that was impressive in its own right. This is known as the temple that nature has taken over. Massive trees claw over the edges of walls and grow out of piles of rubble. We wandered through parts where no one else was, feeling like we were discovering the temple for the first time. I could’ve wandered around in the quiet parts all day. I heard it was magical at sunrise when no one else was there; I believe it. It is eerie, it is man versus nature, it is fantastical.

There are tons of smaller temples in various states of preservation around Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The second day was mainly filled with these and I was happily surprised that I was still amazed by them even after seeing the big three on day 1. It’s hard to not feel wonder when walking down a narrow wooden path hovering over an expansive lake with barren trees and at the end finding a solo temple structure in a circular pond.

My highlight of day 2 has to be Banteay Srei. It was a long tuktuk ride to get there but totally worth it. The carvings were the most delicate, detailed, gorgeous reliefs I saw. Angkor Wat had impressive art but Banteay Srei was a different level of ornate. The small temple didn’t take long to walk around, so we walked the nature path back out, stopping at all the Points of View overlooking the landscape of Cambodia. It was beautiful.

It is hard to keep the energy up when seeing so many temples in a day, but I’m so glad I packed in as much as possible on the first two days. Day three was a highlight in a totally different way. Ben, Alex and I (more on them in the next post) had done two days of intense temple exploring but knew we had one more day left on our ticket, so we decided to experience Angkor Thom in an alternative way. We picked a corner of Angkor Thom that wasn’t one of the highlighted temples on the tourist map and took a tuktuk straight there. We were the only three people at this temple. We climbed to the top and each took an alcove. For the next hour and a half it was like I was the only person in this ancient site. I stared out at the scenery around me, I meditated, I reflected on my week. It was perfect. When the temple was closing it was time to go, and we all left relaxed and happy to have had some quiet time in such a remarkable place.

I can’t say enough how incredible the temples at Angkor are, and I even if I never stopped this blog post it would not do them justice. You just have to go. These temples are monumental feats of architecture, important in art, history, and culture. But apart from that, I couldn’t help but be amazed at one thing: we were allowed to climb all over them. At one point a policeman even took us climbing over rubble and up onto a wall so we could get the best view (for a small tip of course). There are no rails next to huge drops, uneven stone steps, some places are still under construction, and no place is made tourist-friendly. I appreciated it, but also wondered at it. At one place Ben and I wandered into a hallway that was being held up by wooden posts. I felt like we shouldn’t be there so we turned around. Sure enough after leaving we saw a sign on the other side: dangerous area. Oops. But oh well, it’s Cambodia, so Safety Third.