Short Travels in Siem Reap, Cambodia: The City of Temples and Smiles
With our return to work dates looming in the near future and just enough time to keep the adventure going a little bit longer, we decided on a quick jaunt to Cambodia.
While our time in Cambodia was brief, it was certainly short but sweet! Siem Reap, an absolute mecca for temples and ruins, is just a 1 hour flight from Bangkok and an easy add on to just about any adventure in South East Asia. How could we be so close to one of the great wonders of the world and not pay it a visit?
We had just less than a week and felt we had an appropriate amount of time to explore the region. Our visit was largely about seeing Angkor Wat and various ruin sites, but it was also a great place to enjoy the local food, markets and interact with some of the nicest people we encountered on our travels.
Reflecting on our time in Siem Reap I often think of it as the land of smiles. From tuk tuk drivers, to shop owners, to children on the street, every one smiled and exuded a sense of friendliness. Perhaps it is a country that understands friendliness goes a long way in attracting tourism. Or perhaps it is their fairly recent violent history that has created a true sense of happiness and gratitude in day to day living. Either way, we truly cherished our time spent there.
The young people running the hotel we stayed at made us smile and laugh everyday. It was often young women at the front desk who would giggle sweetly as they practiced their English. They would say ‘welcome back!’ every time we came and went, whether we were gone all day or for one hour. I think they may have had a crush on Bryan as they giggled much more when he was around, but it was all very endearing.
We spent about three days visiting various temples ($72 for a 3 day pass) and worked with a tuk tuk driver associated with our hotel. Son was our driver and he made a plan to keep us busy visiting various sites over the course of a few days. To be honest, many of the temples kind of mush together in my mind and I am not really sure what is what when I look back at pictures. I would recommend doing a better job of recording or keeping track of where you are going, as I certainly did not do this well!
Our first day included most of the well known temples of the Angkor Complex, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Neak Poan, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. We were up at 4:30am on out first day to pick up our passes and find a spot to enjoy the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Going for sunrise is not a secret as there are hundreds of others doing the same thing. The idea is that the sun rises behind the temple and if the ponds in front of the entrance are still, you get a perfect reflection of the pillars in the water. It was cloudy on the morning we were there, and I have also heard that it often is. It was still beautiful and worth it, in my opinion.
TIP: Covering shoulders and knees is always required at these sites, but Angkor Wat in particular was very strict. It is not enough to wear shorts and wrap a scarf around your waist or wear a tank top and bring a scarf for over your shoulders. They won’t allow it. Wear a long skirt of light full length pants and a t-shirt at minimum.
Angkor Wat is every bit as impressive as you can imagine and it is a massive site with much to explore. That being said, my favourite temples were the ones like Ta Prohm (made famous from Tombraider). The ruins were overrun with roots, trees and the like. You can really see the power and destructive force of nature as the jungle has started to take over the temple – it’s so beautiful!
Our second day took us further from town with more time spent in the tuk tuk getting from place to place. That in and of itself was enjoyable, driving through the countryside and passing small towns and homes along the way.
We headed out to see Banteay Srey about 40 km from town. With its pink sandstone and intricate detailing, it was also one of my favourite temples. We finished off the day with a sunset viewing at one of the temples in Siem Reap, though the name escapes me. I am always a big fan of anything sunrise or sunset related.
Of course, on the last days of such a grand journey it is always nice to lounge by the pool, take naps and wander the markets looking for souvenirs. The National Museum in town is also quite good. If anything, it is worth checking out before visiting the temples, so you have a little more knowledge on the history – it really helps bring the place to life.
When I look back at my short time in Siem Reap, while the temples were beautiful, my thoughts always come back to the little things. The kindness of our driver, Son, who was so pleasant and thoughtful. He shared stories about the war and the losses he experienced, he invited us to meet his family and always had cold drinks ready for us – this is not something every driver did! Do not underestimate the power of a cold beer in the middle of a hot sunny day. Most people are only spending a day visiting temples, so to have four days with him and his tuk tuk was likely financially significant to him. Depending on what you are doing, working with a tuk tuk driver can vary between $20-40 USD a day.
The food was also insanely delicious. We admittedly didn’t eat at too many different places, because we happened upon a small family restaurant serving amazing food at cheap prices and were hooked. With delicious local dishes and fresh ingredients, it was hard to beat. The $1 smoothies and .50 draft beers certainly helped too. We would have smoothies, beer, spring rolls and a main dish for $12.
What I particularly loved about this little place were the kids. They had a table at the back where they played, did homework and ate dinner as a family. The washroom we used was the same washroom the family used and the kids would come in and out with towels on their heads. We ate there every day. I wish I could tell you the name of it.
Rides in the tuk tuk were probably my favourite thing; driving through the city seeing the local comings and goings, passing through the country and seeing farms, small towns, field burnings, kids playing, cats and dogs – just local life. With a 360 degree view and the wind in your hair it is a lovely break from the heat and surprisingly refreshing.
Having only spent a week in Siem Reap and loving just about every minute of it, seeing the rest of Cambodia continues to be on the bucket list. If the temples of Angkor Wat don’t attract you enough, then be excited for the lovely people and delicious food!
And just like that, the adventure came to a close. Getting home was quite the process with multiple flights, a night in Bangkok and a very long haul from Hong Kong. Reflecting back on it, it is sad to talk about the trip finishing, but in the moment I was ready for it. The last month or so of travel had me very homesick and I was really missing my family. I was eager for exercise, vegetables, cooking, the ease of having a car to get around and being able to cross the street without fear of dying. Honestly, crossing the street in South East Asia can be a challenging and scary thing!
People often as if we could have kept going. The answer is yes. I was ready for a break, to slow down and be stagnant for a bit and most of all, see my family. But I also think a month break would have been enough to recharge the body and spirit to continue the adventure. This trip did spark a desire in us for a type of travel that hasn’t gone away.
It’s funny that before this started I had it in my mind that perhaps once I had the ‘long-term travel experience’ out of my system, then I would be good! The reality is, it fuelled a whole new fire inside of me! Long-term travel is kind of the best travel.
The adventures aren’t over. Nor are they likely to stop happening! But we are realistic and know that our amazing five-month adventure was possible because we worked hard and saved our money.
Our adventures are looking a little different these days; camping trips, weekends away and short week and two-week breaks from work, and this is okay too!
This will tide us by while save and prepare for the next one.. hmmm, where to do you think?