This weekend, I took my first international trip to one of Thailand’s neighbors, Cambodia. Specifically, we went to Siem Reap, which is the center for all of the tourism surrounding Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat. The journey to get there is not exactly quick; it began with a four-hour minivan ride to the Cambodian border, then about one hour spent actually crossing the border, an hour spent waiting at the bus station, a two-hour minivan ride to Siem Reap, and then a 20-minute tuk tuk ride to our hostel. All in all, about a ten-hour journey door to door. We arrived in Siem Reap Saturday afternoon and left early Monday afternoon – it may seem crazy to some of you to travel to Cambodia for such a short time, but a) with the very strict attendance policy at Thammasat it is the only way I can travel, and b) we really felt we did not need any more time in Siem Reap. So here are the notable highlights:
1) Cambodia is not Thailand. It may seem obvious, yes, but I have always had a magical view of Southeast Asian countries – friendly, smiling people always willing to help you, greenery everywhere, rice fields lining both sides of the road. I assumed that the hospitality and kindness that are normal in Thailand would also be present in Cambodia. But from the second that we stamped out of Thailand and started the visa/entry process into Cambodia we immediately noticed a change in atmosphere. The guards at the border were not friendly whatsoever, and immediately after officially entering Cambodia we were overwhelmed by men trying to get us to go into their taxi, or in their minivan to Siem Reap. We have very much become accustomed to Thai courtesy and friendliness; in Thailand I never have to worry about being scammed. But Cambodia is known for its scams, particularly at the border, so we had to be extremely cautious. There is even a “fake” border that has been set up. Literally, a building was built complete with guards, and signs, and visas. They bribe tuktuk and minivan drivers to bring tourists to the fake border, who then pay a lot of money for what may or may not be a valid visa.
2) Siem Reap is essentially the main city where tourists go in order to see Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. The city provides a stark contrast between wealth and poverty – while there are five-star hotels lining both sides of the streets, between those manicured lawns and marble entryways are dirt roads filled with children, running around begging tourists for money. It was a surprising and uncomfortable reality. Despite the hotels everywhere, we opted for a much more modest accommodation in a fantastic hostel near the old town, for only $3 USD per night. Saturday evening we had traditional Khmer red curry for dinner, which was easily the most delicious curry I have had since landing in Southeast Asia.
3) The temples. The temples of Angkor Wat are located about a 20-30min tuktuk ride from Siem Reap. The area surrounding the temples has been well preserved, so instead of endless hotels and restaurants, Ankor Wat is surrounded by beautiful forest. We hired a tuktuk for the whole day (only $15) and left Siem Reap at 5am to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We were joined by many tourists, but the early start was completely worth it – Angkor Wat is incredible and utterly breathtaking. It is an expansive structure (only pictures can do it justice) that is considered to be the largest religious structure on earth; some place Angkor Wat in the same category as Machu Picchu and other wonders of the world. It is this fact that I could not get over. Construction of the temple was started in the year 1112 by the king of the Khmer empire at the time. It is thought that he created the Hindu temple, which ended up being changed to a Buddhist temple, in dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu. It took 37 years to complete. The thing is, in my lifetime, I have visited many castles that immediately strike any visitor by their opulence and grandeur. For example, the Château de Versailles, in France, created by King Louis XIV, is just ridiculously extravagant. But Angkor Wat was not created for the purpose of living, it was purely in dedication to a Hindu god. It is purely religious — that’s just hard to fathom, because it is so big! Though commoners used it for prayer throughout the year, our tour guide explained that the king usually only visited it once per year.
4) Angkor Wat is not the only temple to see. We also visited Ta Prohm, which is the only temple in the area that has not been protected against the jungle. It is therefore covered with trees and roots that have wound their way around the ruins. Fun Fact: Ta Prohm was featured in the film “Tomb Raider.” We then visited Ta Keo, and Bayon, and ended our day by going back to Angkor Wat and having a guided tour of the temple. I am definitely glad we spent the $3 for a tour guide, because it is not easy to understand the meaning of the temple without some history and explanation. We spent nine hours, from 5:30 am to 2:30pm on our feet visiting temples. And it was completely worth it.
All in all, Cambodia was incredible – once I realized that Cambodia has only been out of Civil War since 1998, it became very clear as to why there is such a stark contrast between wealth and poverty in Siem Reap. Cambodia is very much still recovering from the Khmer Rouge regime, and as of now the country relies heavily on tourism, which is why so much money has been poured into hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap, but nowhere else. I would have loved one more day to travel the six hours to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to learn more about the history of the country as well as to see some of the museums there chronicling Cambodia’s recent history. But otherwise, by the end of our stay we felt we had seen all there was to see in Siem Reap. I have to say, after a nine-hour trip back to Bangkok which included one very offensive, drunk Irish man, who didn’t stop talking for our four hour-minivan ride, offended every race and religion represented in the van, swore every other word, smoked in the van, threatened to kill most of us, and almost assaulted one of the guys in our minivan – it certainly felt good to be back “home” in Bangkok!