Cambodia has rightfully earned a place among the top 5 countries I’ve ever been to. Everything from the people, to the sights, to the vibe, was absolutely enchanting and I already can’t wait to go back.
Amanda and I arrived in Siem Reap early in the morning and our hotel picked us up in the most badass old-school Mercedes where the driver had lemon-grass scented cold towels and fresh lemon juice waiting for us- exactly what we needed after pulling an all-nighter before our early morning flight! We stayed in the Heritage Suites Hotel which is a really special place with the friendliest staff. We had a spacious suite with an indoor and outdoor shower, plus a private steam room, perfectly fitted with Asian-inspired décor. The suite also had its own private garden where we saw all kinds of frogs, butterflies, millipedes and other bugs- it was like Nat Geo out there, ha.
The best thing about Siem Reap is that anywhere you want to go is just a $2 tuk tuk ride away, which is officially my favorite method of travel, if only they had them in San Diego. Cambodia is a budget traveler’s paradise and probably the cheapest place I’ve ever been, even beating Mexico in affordability. Beer costs 60 cents and a delicious curry is less than $2. I was actually really surprised that the preferred currency in Cambodia is the American dollar- it’s the first country I’ve been to in Asia that actually accepts American currency.
We happened to be in Cambodia on the first day of Pchum Ben Festival, also called Ancestors’ Day or Festival of the Dead, a 15-day Cambodian religious ceremony where it is believed that the spirits of deceased relatives and ancestors walk the earth. As part of the festival, the Cambodian people dress up in traditional clothing to visit their local temples and pay respects to their ancestors. Monks also chant religious prayers in the early morning starting around 5am, which the hotel apologized for profusely, although we were not bothered by it and appreciated the cultural experience!
The first day we woke up before dawn (before the monks even started their chants!) to see the sunrise over Cambodia’s most iconic symbol: Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. It was a bit cloudy so not quite as breathtaking as we anticipated, but it was still an undoubtedly spiritual moment, and worth it to beat the crowds and the heat. Despite Cambodia being a Buddhist state, Angkor Wat is actually a Hindu temple. dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu by King Suryavarman II. Built in the 12th century, myths say the temple was constructed mathematically to be in harmony with the universe, and its remains are as mysterious as they are beautiful.
As the masses started to pour into Angkor Wat, we hired a tuk tuk to take us around to some of the more underrated temples, starting with The Bayon temple at Angkor Thom. This striking temple features spectacular faces carved into the stone, serenely smiling for eternity. I was also blown away by Ta Prohm, which has massive trees growing out of the ancient ruins – the film Tomb Raider was actually shot at this temple.
I loved how unrestricted the temples were- you could explore virtually ever inch of them. I couldn’t help but think that it would be the ultimate setting for a game of laser tag (haha). It was also interesting seeing the local people- from young boys playing in the temples’ moats, to Buddhist monks, and older women called mae chi who shave their heads and eyebrows and choose to live at the pagodas, cleaning and preparing the altars for ceremonies. Because of Pchum Ben Festival, there was lively music playing everywhere we went, which really added to the ambiance.
Apart from Angkor, there was plenty to explore in Siem Reap. We saw a few other temples right in the town, most notably Wat Bo which was a very quiet and peaceful pagoda with lots of monks walking around. We also went to the Silk Farm to see how silk is produced, and a liquor distiller Sombai where we got to try rice wine distilled with all kinds of flavors. At night we explored the tourist honeypot of Pub Street which is exactly what it sounds like- a strip of trendy bars and happening clubs serving up cheap beers and $1 shots. We grabbed a bite at the Beatles themed bar (full of Brits, of course), and stopped briefly at Pub Street’s most infamous bar Angkor What?, whose tagline is proudly “Promoting Irresponsible Drinking Since 1998” (we felt a little old among the young backpackers there). I was shocked to see you can get whiskey and other spirits with full-on snakes and scorpions in the actual bottles- no thanks!
I think what stole my heart the most about Cambodia was its relaxed culture. Especially after being in fast-paced Singapore the weekend before, I really appreciate a more laid-back atmosphere, and a country that is somewhat undeveloped and unaffected by westernization (relatively speaking). Cambodians, called Khmers, are also among the friendliest, most genuine people I have ever encountered. Despite rampant poverty and the country’s dark history, they have maintained an infectious optimism and peaceful way of living that I can only aspire to.
Thanks for the hospitality, Cambodia. I’ll be back soon.