Goodbye, Thailand. Hello, Cambodia.
Leaving Elephant Hills was a little emotional; the only things we weren’t going to miss were the constant damp and the termites that had found a way into our tent the night before. (Don’t worry, we told the staff.)
Our driver brought us to Phuket (poo-ket, not foo-ket like I was saying) airport a couple of hours away, then we flew back to Bangkok and on to Siem Reap. A direct flight would have been quite a bit easier and shorter, but I told Backyard Travel we wanted the cheapest flight options.
Arriving in Cambodia – What You Need to Know
Visas: Unlike Thailand, you have to get a visa to visit Cambodia. You can get them online too, but many forums I read said it was actually easier to do it in person. Getting a visa is pretty simple. You’ll fill out a few small papers, including an arrival and departure card. Don’t lose your departure card – you’ll need it for when you leave. You hand your passport and papers to a dude behind a desk, then pick it up at another desk with your shiny new visa. Visas cost $30 per person. Yes, that’s right, dollars.
Currency, ATMs, and Spending: Cambodia uses US dollars! Despite everything I’d read, somehow I didn’t know that. I knew you could pay for your visa in USD, but I figured that was the only instance. According to our guide, almost everywhere in Cambodia uses the almighty dollar, even rural places. The Cambodian Riel is worth so little that they only use it when they need to break a dollar – a 1000 riel note is worth a meager 25¢, so you’ll often get them as change. ATMs: All ATMs (at least in Siem Reap) will give you dollars, and be prepared for high fees. All ATMs we used charged us $4 or $5 per transaction. While you obviously don’t want to carry a lot of cash at once, there’s something to be said for taking out larger amounts to avoid these fees over and over. Spending: Cambodia is cheap, but of course things still add up. We consistently spent about $15 per meal when we went out to eat on Pub Street (the main tourist thoroughfare), which is hardly anything for dinner and drinks (lots of drinks – 50¢ pints all night!) for two people. You can also get an hour-long Khmer massage in the Pub Street area for $10-$15.
The Language and the People: Cambodian people are Khmer, and they speak Khmer. Unless you’re moving there I don’t recommend trying to learn more than a few words. Much like Thai, it’s a very difficult language, and everyone speaks English anyway. Cambodia has a history of changing back and forth between Buddhism and Hinduism depending on who was ruling, but are now chiefly Buddhist and have been for a long time.
It was almost immediately clear to us that Cambodia is a very poor country – significantly poorer than Thailand. Unfortunately this means a lot more begging and some very persistent children trying to sell you junk at every corner. A couple even followed us to the car and stood outside the door after we’d closed it. A word of advice – watch your pockets and ignore them. Any engaging, even to say “no,” just fans the fire.
Since we got in late (I think it was about 8pm) we were brought right to our hotel by our new guide, Sokha. (Sokha means “happiness” in Khmer, so you’ll see it everywhere.) I wanted to mention our hotel because it was lovely, and like most things in Cambodia, cheap. We looked it up online and found that rooms there start at about $50/night.
They have a restaurant on the top floor, a gorgeous pool, spa services (we got aromatherapy massages), and excellent service. They’re also located about halfway between the Old Town tourist hub and the famous ruins of Angkor Wat – a $2 or $3 tuk-tuk ride in either direction.
On to the Temples!
I never knew there were so many temples just in Siem Reap. Seriously, there are a ton. If you want proof, check out the list here. Everyone has heard of Angkor Wat, and a lot of people have heard of Ta Phrom because it was in Tomb Raider. But there are many many more scattered around. It would take a long time to explore them all, and new ones are constantly being discovered outside the town. If you consider the whole country… who knows how many exist.
The ruins of Siem Reap had been swallowed by the jungle and all but forgotten about until the French “discovered” them in the late 1800s. Sokha told us that the Khmer people always knew the ruins were there, but they were too poor to do anything about it. Into the 1900s the French worked to clear the temples, and today there are conservation efforts sponsored by countries all over the world. Parts of the destroyed temples are even being rebuilt.
Angkor Thom, Baphuon Temple, and the Bayon
Angkor Thom is a massive complex covering an area of nine square kilometers. Baphuon temple is located inside, while the Bayon is in the exact center. Angkor Thom was built in the late 1100s, and is the largest Wat or walled temple complex in Siem Reap.
Baphuon temple is noteworthy for two reasons – 1.) On the back side is a massive reclining Buddha built into the temple’s stonework, a bit like those “pin art” things we all had as kids. And 2.) WE FOUND KITTIES.
The Bayon temple might look a little familiar to you in the stone faces that look in every direction. The faces are those of the Buddha of Compassion.
Perhaps my favorite part of the Bayon was the bas-relief all along the outer wall. Part of the bas-reliefs depict epic and heroic battles, while another section shows everyday Khmer life. The day-to-day carvings sound boring, but look at this picture below – the woman on the left is holding a turtle, which is biting the derriere of the man in front of her. The man, who is her husband, is understandably looking back angrily. It made my day when Sokha showed us that scene. The other reason these everyday depictions are interesting is because they show women as being just as important as men. Usually women would have been considered the lesser sex, but not with the ancient Khmer people.
You know this one, I’m sure. Angkor Wat was started before 1150, making it slightly older than the other temples we saw, and took about 30 years to build. It was originally a Hindu temple, but was transformed to Buddhist in the early 1200s. It’s the largest religious temple in the world.
One thing you’ll notice when exploring Angkor Wat (and some of the other temples too) is that it is terraced, and the climb up to each is incredibly steep. This is by design, because it forces the climber to bow their head in respect as they ascend toward heaven. Even the new wooden steps that have been built over the original stone ones are nerve-wrackingly steep. Keep your eyes forward, hold onto the railing for dear life, and don’t stop climbing.
The view from the top of Angkor Wat was pretty gorgeous, although I’m sure that looking at it from another high vantage point would have been even better. I’ve read that there are places where you can get a good view of the complex, but we didn’t get to see them.
As we were leaving, we got to watch this little boy and his grandfather playing tag between the columns. I barely got the shot, but it felt like a Kodak moment to me.
Ta Phrom (prom) is the “Tomb Raider Temple.” I guess I really need to watch that movie again because when Sokha mentioned it I drew a total blank. Hopefully you don’t too. Ta Phrom’s construction began in 1186 and it was finished in the early 1200s, making it about 800 years old when we got to see it. That’s kind of staggering.
Ta Phrom is well-known for its overgrown jungle atmosphere. The roots of banyan trees intertwine throughout the walls and create surreal, fairytale-like surroundings. The tree roots are both a blessing and a curse for these old ruins – while their eerie beauty is iconic of Ta Phrom and draws tourists from all over the world, the roots also slowly break the buildings apart with their weight and growth.
While all the temples we saw were amazing, Ta Phrom was probably our favorite. Sokha even took us down some paths-less-traveled-by, where no other tourists were exploring. It was an amazing and unique experience to say the least.
That was the end of our temple experience – it was an incredible one and part of me still can’t believe I got to set foot in such amazing places. Stay tuned for our LAST DAY IN ASIA where we get to visit a floating village, hunt down a geocache, and drink too much in the Old Market.