After spending time checking out temples and dancing in the streets, it was time to pack our bags once again and head to our next destination: Siem Reap, Cambodia. Now, I am going to be completely honest with you in that I would probably not go back to Cambodia again. That being said, simply because I did not enjoy my time there to the fullest, does not mean you will not enjoy yours. And so, before I delve into my experience and the positive points of my travel, I will leave you with some tips about Cambodia to prepare you for your visit to Cambodia. As a result, this post will be split into two parts: practical knowledge (things I wish people told me before visiting) and my experience in Cambodia.
- First and foremost, the country is one which is quite conservative. This is reflected not only in mannerisms but in attire. As a result, for women especially, it is important to remain covered and ensure your shoulders are not exposed and that you refrain from wearing short skirts or shirts during your stay. This, especially true when visiting the temples. Whether or not you agree with this, it is important to respect the modest customs of Cambodia.
- Be mindful of Cambodia’s troubled history. Cambodia is a country which is just beginning to recover from a past of violence, including massacres of the Cambodian public during the Khmer Rouge regime (click here for a brief timeline of Cambodia’s history). As a result, the first thing that struck me when arriving to Siem Reap was the poverty that surrounds the city. The farther away you got from the downtown core, the more this poverty was evident. Due to staying at a hotel slightly farther from the center, the poverty in Siem Reap was more evident to us than it would be to someone staying in the core. It is important to keep this in mind when planning where to stay as places further from the center will also have less choices of food to eat and less resources. Do not let the history of violence and the presence of poverty keep you from visiting Siem Reap. Rather, to see how the Khmer people have persevered in light of these atrocities, is something remarkable and the resilience of these people and their ability to celebrate despite these conditions is admirable. However, I strongly suggest you remain in the downtown core.
- Like Thailand in April, Cambodia is very hot. However, the main difference being is that not only do you face the heat in Cambodia, you are faced with a mixture of dust and heat. The red dust sticking to your body and getting in your eyes, nose and mouth. Therefore, when if you are visiting Cambodia during this time, make sure you stay incredibly hydrated, bring a thin scarf to cover your face, and most of all limit your exposure to the direct heat and wear a wide brimmed hat to protect your head.
- If you are visiting the temples of Angkor which I assume is one of the main reasons you have come to Siem Reap, opt for the three day pass instead. These temples are scattered within the city and there is no possible way to get the most of your visit if you attempt to do them within one day. In addition, to get the most out of your visit, book your tour guide in advance especially during the month of April. It will definitely add to your appreciation of these structures.
The Adventure (The Good and the Bad)
Upon arrival to Cambodia and getting settled into our hotel, our quest began on the hunt for food. As we walked the streets what immediately became evident was the level of poverty. Streets were littered with garbage, there was very little commercial establishments as we walked, and some establishments nearby were very rundown in appearance. It took us approximately 25 minutes walking and seeing a restaurant that caught our eye, we finally sat down to order food. Something to note about Cambodia, is when dining in it is common for them to leave an array of drinks on the table. From there, you can choose your beverage of choice and will only be charged for the refreshments you consumed. I cannot stress the importance of dressing modestly especially the further away you get from the downtown core, as not doing so will create unwanted judgemental stares from locals or refusal of service(trust me on this one).
So after finally filling our bellies and refueling our bodies, we decided to continue walking the rest of the way to the downtown core ( Pub Street), another 30 minutes by foot. As the sun began to descend, we finally made it to the city core and were greeted with the start of Cambodian New Year celebrations. Before us, was a circle performers dancing traditional Khmer dances for the crowd. The movements of the dance were graceful and soft, one dance incorporating coconut shells and another with the two dancers dressed as peacocks. It was these moments in Cambodia I thoroughly enjoyed, the peaceful atmosphere temporarily erasing the hardships that they endure even as a nation today.
After watching the traditional dances, the festivities shifted in tone and what ensued was a performance of a well known Cambodian pop singer singing popular English songs partly in English and Khmer, as well as some original content. As the night went on, it was filled with games for the crowd and giveaways including a scarf resembling the Cambodian krama (traditional Cambodian scarf). It was a joyous evening and it was great to witness traditional Khmer dances and be a part of an event which brought both locals and tourists together, evident in the singing of songs in both English and Khmer. As we headed back to our hotel that night, like Thailand, kids also participated in spraying passerbys with water in celebration of the Thai New Year.
Visiting the Temples
Heads up, everyone! If you think you can see the temples in one day, you are incredibly mistaken. Trust me, we tried! And 15 cups of water later, we still did not see everything. And so, my advice to you is to get the three day pass. You can thank me later. The next morning, we went on our quest to see the temples of Angkor. We hiked up steep steps, traversed temple corridors, saw monkeys playing in the distance, and most of all took lots of selfies. While we did find ourselves having trouble with our tuk tuk driver during this trip, the issue with our visit to the temples was spreading ourselves too thin in trying to see so much in one day. The beginning of our temple visits went smoothly, and we saw so much beautiful things. However, with the lack of a tour guide I truly believe one misses out on the significance of these structures and their amount of effort put into them. Due to planning last minute, our only source of information was a book detailing the temples and attributes but it was a book which was not accessible enough with my lack of knowledge of Cambodian history. Also, if you are visiting the temples bear in mind the time that they close. It is a shame that we could not truly appreciate the temples due to all these combined factors and so I write with the intent of hoping to prepare you with more information so that you are able to make the best of your trip in Cambodia.
One part of the trip that truly stuck out to me was sitting in the back of a large pickup truck with tourists and locals alike to travel from one temple complex to another. It was a quick ride but one which felt so right and that all the struggles of the past two days, made me appreciate Cambodia for what it was. I constantly go back to this theme of breaking barriers when writing about my experiences, and it is something I felt quite often during my travels in Asia, probably amplified due to the spirit of the New Year. It was something so small and yet helped dissolve the frustrations faced during our time there as if these people sitting in the truck with me could find happiness in a place plagued with poverty, I surely could find my own.
After the extensive trek the day before, our final day in Cambodia was spent relaxing by the pool in our hotel. We were exhausted and absolutely worn out. In my other life, I was definitely a mermaid. As a result, the gods have made me a very mediocre swimmer in this one. That aside, I mediocrely swam laps in the pool, provided some free swimming lessons to my friend, and just kicked back and relax. After letting our skin get pruny, we went to get food and spent the rest of that night relaxing. It was a great way to end our experience and simply just be.
I believe that Siem Reap,Cambodia definitely provides valuable experience to travellers visiting and to dismiss it entirely would be a dishonor to the country. However, to make the most of it, follow my tips when visiting and I assure that you will not be disappointed with the grandeur of theses temples and the resilience of its people. That’s all for now! Stay tuned for the final leg of my Asia tour coming soon.