Traveling Southeast Asia these past months has been an incredible whirlwind. Seven weeks seemed like enough to make the backpacker loop through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but that isn’t even remotely the case. I decided to adjust my itinerary and save Vietnam for another trip, which has allowed me to more deeply explore Laos. Once I finished ziplining at the Gibbon Experience in Laos, I didn’t have much time left. I only planned a few hard and fast days for these round the world trip, and meeting my cousin in India is one of them.
With that in mind, I hopped on a puddle-jumper flight out of Luang Prabang and landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia just an hour later. It would have been a gross oversight for me to leave Southeast Asia without a visit to one of the most recognizable UNESCO sites in the world: Angkor Wat.
Taking it Slow My First Days in Cambodia
Landing in Cambodia was a shock to my senses. Laos is widely regarded as the most laid-back and quiet of the Southeast Asian countries, and after more than a month in Laos, I wasn’t prepared for the bustle and energy of a big tourist city. It’s not just the traffic—although there is a lot of it—and it’s not just that the city is hopping with activity—although it is. It’s the sum total of everything that just crawls up your skin and lodges in your brain as you walk the streets. Siem Reap has aggressive child begging issues. That’s largely the fault of the tourists for funding the beggars, and a systemic Cambodian issue that there is enough poverty that begging needs to happen.
The entire change of pace both Luang Prabang and the peaceful quiet of the Bokeo Nature Reserve had me off kilter. Instead of jumping right into Angkor Wat, the key reason I was in town, my friend Laura and I decided to hole up in guesthouse and adjust, calibrate, and recharge. After all, this is one of those “main events” of backpacking the region and I wanted to be prepared to explore and enjoy!
In the first days, I shopped the markets and powered up with delicious vegetarian restaurants. The choice of veggie restaurants in Southeast Asia’s bigger cities is definitely a reason to visit. Though I love the charming towns, it’s nice to have a selection of interesting options!
The begging is hard not to avoid. Within a minute of leaving your hotel and guesthouse, you’ll likely discover the street kids and beggars in your area. Some approached and clasped my hand. Others followed with quiet pleas. I’ve been back to Siem Reap since, when traveling with my niece, and the vibe hadn’t much changed. One reason I find it overwhelming is because of the idea that it’s not always a good thing to pass money to the beggars—these children are sometimes run as a business and might not see much of the money.
Within walking distance of our guesthouse, Laura and I found a fabulous night-market and we were still quite close to the touristy areas of the city. I actually liked that we were in the thick of things after going off the grid and getting horribly ill in Laos.
Laura and I spent our first evening camped out at an exquisite gourmet vegetarian restaurant. The best part, it was affordable. The total price of dinner, drink, appetizer, and dessert: $7. And this restaurant had my favorite unique drink to-date, a cold and tasty Tamarind Ice Tea. It was bizarre and the first sip was face-scrunchingly tart, but after that it was wholly refreshing and just what I needed after a blisteringly hot day. And boy am I loving the warmth here! While others sweat profusely in the baking hot heat, my Florida-girl self is loving every second of it!
It didn’t take long to recharge. Tasty food, rampant free WiFi at nearly every restaurant, and I was in heaven. In fact, I managed to crank out some mad work while I was in Cambodia, which is topping up the travel fund nicely. I am not sure what I will face in India, so I wanted to log good hours for my client now, while I could.
Exploring Angkor Wat by Bike
The flight from Laos to Cambodia was very dear, but I came here to visit Angkor Wat. I’ve read National Geographic for most of my life, and this is one of the big items I’ve always wanted to explore in person. Laura and I woke up early and slathered ourselves in of sunscreen. I also rocked a large floppy hat, sunglasses, and a face mask to combat the dust and traffic pollution—I was the height of attractive let me assure you! Kitted out for an entire day out at the temples, she and I rented bicycles and headed out to the main temple complex at Angkor Wat.
We opted for the three-day pass to the temples and a wave of joy, excitement, and the thought finally rushed through me when I rounded the bend and first sighted the huge moat and iconic towers of Angkor Wat. The complex lies a bit outside Siem Reap, so we biked for a while, finally making a long shady stretch before we rounded a bend in the road. Then it was jus there. Huge, ancient, and humbling.
We secured our bikes in the large parking area, we flashed our passes, and then joined the heaps of other tourists with mouths shuffling across the long bridge. I admit, I gapped. I stopped and photographed it all. It was just impossible to take understand the magnitude of this beautiful ancient city.
I knew only a bit about Angkor Wat’s history before I arrived. King Suryavarman II built the temples in the 12th Century as a holy city by for his people. Even more though, is that Angkor Wat is just one of a dozen of pagodas in the area. Although the three spires of the main temple are most iconic and emblematic of this site, it’s spread across acres of land. This wasn’t just a temple, it was a thriving and active city.
Angkor Wat is a labyrinth of intricately carved walls, over-hangings, and statues. When Laura and I entered, we both noted that there was a strange energy in the temple complex. It’s hard not to sound new-agey, but there was an odd vibe when we entered and we both felt it enough to turn to each other and note it. It wasn’t negative or unwelcoming, just odd.
And who knows, perhaps we’re off our rockers, but our initial inauspicious comment about the energy lead to a thoroughly frustrating visit. Within a few minutes of arriving, we lost sight of each other in the twisting hallways. Then we each spent the next four hours looking for each other. How you can lose someone for four hours in just one single location I do not know, but we were both dehydrated and exhausted by the time we found one-another by the food-stalls. Without a cell phone, we had resorted to asking the local children and vendors to keep watch for one another. (In fact, Laura’s description was “a tall girl with an ugly brown floppy hat”—apparently they knew exactly what she meant as they helped bring me to her). It wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but our bikes were locked together (and yes we both checked at the bikes) and it was all a tad overwhelming.
Anyhow, even in the mad hunt for my traveling companion, I managed to see a great deal of the complex. At times, I lost myself when I would pass the intricate carvings of dancing ladies carved into the walls. As I passed throughout the different areas, I would often pop into the back of groups guided in English or Spanish. Then, as they belabored a point I would drift off to find other fascinating parts of the complex.
The long wall of images are Bas Relief carvings that circle the perimeter of the temple and tell the story of various battles. I loved the description of the carvings dedicated to the story of the Ramayana. I’ll admit that I first dove into this story when I had a brief but heartfelt obsession with the movie The Little Princess. The guides nearby explained how some of the fading reliefs represented various aspects of Rama’s journey. So neat.
On my search for Laura, I sat down at one point for about an hour—I figured if I stopped moving she might pass by me. And in that decision to take it slow, I found myself in a long chat with a handful of Cambodian monks. They spoke basic English, and after the standard pleasantries of my age, marital status, and the number of siblings (everyone asks you these three questions), I was able to probe them about their education and life. It was interesting, strange, and fun. They laughed a lot when I said something, I was never sure how much of the laughter was from a lack of comprehension and how much was because they were talking alone with a Western woman.
Once Laura and I reunited we bought some bracelets from the children who had found me and brought me to Laura. Then we took their advice and biked to a sunset spot just down the road. The sunset temples are set about 15 minutes into the hills, and we dodged slow-moving tourists who were clogging the hiking paths. And even after the long day, somehow we arrived at the spot—and it was perfect—just in time to watch the sun take its last bow.
We explored other areas too—from the Tomb Raider temple to far out and dusty temples. Angkor Wat delivered in terms of fascinating history and a lot to see and explore independently.
Quick Tips: Angkor Wat Travel Guide
When: Seeing a perfect sunrise or sunset is coveted by Southeast Asian travelers, and even though the temples are crazy-busy, it can be a beautiful experience. Arrive to the temples by 5:30am for sunrise, and between 5:15pm and 6pm for sunset. For a general sightseeing day, plan on leaving around 8am, so you catch the cooler morning hours to start. Hot tip: Enter the Angkor complex after 5pm and you don’t need to use a day on your pass. If you time it right, you can watch sunset on your first night, and then use your following day to fully explore.
How: Rent a bike for $2/day if you like to ride and/or if you’re on a tight budget. Tuk-tuk drivers cost $20 to $25 for a full day and this is ideal if it’s too hot for bikes, or if you’re venturing to the further temples. On my second trip through Angkor Wat, my niece and I booked a day tour with Urban Adventures for our first day exploring, and this was a fascinating and fun way to learn the history and ask all the questions from a local who knew the answers.
Temples I loved: Angkor Wat, Ta Prom, Banteay Srei, Bayon, Srah Srang, Preah Khan, and East Mebon (in that order).
Sleep: Agoda is the best booking website in Southeast Asia, bar none, so start your research there. I also always check Airbnb as there are often affordable boutique options that are ideal for multiple travelers or couples. My niece and I stayed at the Cashew Nut, and the pool is a real highlight—when it’s hot, you’ll be glad for it. Siem Reap is a well-traveled city, so you can find budget dorms for as little as $2/night, but spend in the $15-$25 range and you really get a lot more for your money.
Guidebook: Download a copy of Cambodia: The Temples of Angkor is perfect if you’re keen to know a deep history of the temple complex and you’d like a DIY.
Responsible travel: There are a lot of things you should know before you go to Cambodia to make sure you have a responsible, ethical trip. This free Guide to Responsible Travel in Cambodia outlines the best practices of travelers, including how to support Siem Reap’s thriving social enterprise scene, and how to give back and volunteer, too.
Update from the road: I arrived in India and have joined forces with my cousin. I was sad to say adieu to Laura, we had incredible adventures these past two months. Everything from our surprising, random meeting in Bangkok to tubing to rock climbing and ziplining. I will surely miss that lady. For now, it’s onward to the Indian adventures.