Ah Cambodia, where do I even begin? Well, when I arrived in Cambodia, I had minimal expectations. For better or worse, I’ve found that the less I plan, the better time I have. It frees me up to explore whatever happens to pique my curiosity. And quite honestly, when you’re sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, it was easy to overlook Cambodia. I knew an Angkor Wat sunrise was on my must-see list and that was about it. I was excited at the prospect of taking in some great sights, spot a monk or two and truly begin my solo journey!
Well, maybe there was a little planning. I hired a Tuk Tuk driver to pick me up from the Siem Reap airport. A tuk tuk is a form of motorbike taxi and can take many different forms depending on what country or city you are in. A tuk tuk in Siem Reap, Cambodia is comprised of a motorcycle attached to a trailer of sorts. It’s usually very colourful and nicely decorated with benches facing each other. A friend of mine made the introduction to her tuk tuk “guy” and arrangements were made to meet at the airport. This was a double treat, first, it was comforting to know I could land in an unfamiliar country and just provide my hotel address and I’d be taken there without hassle. And secondly, I have never landed at an airport and had my name on a piece of paper waiting for me! And sure enough, there was Meas, the friendliest tuk tuk driver in all of Cambodia holding that sheet of paper that read “Ethan Adeland.” After a full day of travel, there is no better sight! And of course, only afterwards did it occur to me to take a photo of it!
When you’re in Siem Reap, you visit Angkor Wat and surrounding temples. If you really want the full experience, you wake up before 4:30 am, head over by tuk tuk and witness the sun starting a new day over the ruins. Angkor Wat translates to “Temple City” which is appropriate considering it is the crown jewel of Angkor. The quick history lesson is that this 1,000+ square kilometer area was home to the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. And empire is the right word considering it ruled what is today Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Angkor is said to have over 1,000 temples of various sizes with Angkor Wat being the showstopper!
My plan was to do two half days. I’d start with a sunrise and see as much as I could in six or seven hours and the next day would start in the afternoon and culminate with a sunset. I had heard it’s very easy to get “templed-out.” I know it sounds somewhat bratty and selfish, but it’s true. Although each one is impressive and photo-worthy, after a while they do start to all look the same, especially when visiting them on your own. It’s similar to visiting churches in Europe. Every single one is amazing, but they do tend to blend into each other after a while! So with that said, I wanted to share a mix of Angkor culture that isn’t only temples, so this is two days combined into one post.
So, back to the sunrise. Although it’s a moment you share with thousands of other tourists, it was still a very intimate and solemn moment. I think it was a combination of it being ridiculously early in the morning but mostly, simply being in awe. Knowing that all this was man-made along with the reflection on the water is enough to leave you speechless.
Having had my fill of sunrise and knowing there was 1,000 kilometers to cover, it was time to begin exploring. After standing in front of Angkor Wat, I finally stepped inside and was again in awe. To say it’s sprawling would be an understatement. It just goes on forever. I was really taken by the doors and shadows. One door just leads to another door and that door opens up to another door.
It would be easy to spend a day alone just walking Angkor Wat but with many more sights to see, I headed back to find Meas and head over to the next temple. But I couldn’t help but notice how many people were still shooting the sunrise! I’m going to go out on a limb and guess these weren’t the folks that woke up before 5am to get the money shot! Although, it made for a cool contrast of how the same setting looked about an hour later, albeit a different angle.
Not surprisingly, artists and vendors could be found outside and inside the temples. Understandably, but still frustrating, I spent a lot my time was saying “No thank you” to guidebooks, miniature statues, water and about 200 other things I didn’t need. Sadly, I quickly learned that by acknowledging the offer and being polite in turning it down just fuels the vendors and gives them more reason to pester you. I think their logic is that they can eventually wear you down by asking you again and again.
It’s not my nature and I didn’t feel very good about it, but I realized my best plan of action for my sanity and enjoyment is to just walk by with a quick halfhearted dismissal type of hand gesture and keep walking.
With all that said, I was struck by this artist doing watercolour paintings. He was in a little corner that wasn’t very well trafficked and was just in his own little world. He had a really nice portfolio of various temples and landscapes and never once asked me to buy anything. I knew one of his paintings would never make it back to Canada in one piece, so asking him permission to take a photo seemed like a good consolation prize.
A few times, I just had to take a seat and take in my surroundings. The history, the setting and knowing that whatever I was looking at was not much different than those that lived here thousands of years ago!
And I had mentioned being in awe of the shadows that the temples provided. I had to attempt a timer selfie, but I won’t tell you how many shots it took to get the right angle and time it so no one was walking behind me!
Can’t forget about the monks! I was pretty excited to see some monks somewhat up close and personable, but I was not expecting a scene like this! These two were just chilling out and chatting in front of the paparazzi. It was so bizarre to see a row of tourists with tripods photographing them, so of course it only seemed logical to take a photo of it.
After many hours of temples, it was finally time to walk up a hill and a bunch of very steep stairs and take in a sunset. And although the sunset wasn’t as spectacular as the sunrise I had the day before, it was more rewarding.
You see, I met three other travelers while walking up the hill. I honestly can’t remember how the conversation began, but the four of us ended up watching the sunset together. It’s always great to experience those types of things with other people, especially as a solo traveler. But it wasn’t only that, but we made plans for the next day to go for a bike ride outside of the city into some smaller villages. I had talked about busting out of that introvert shell a bit and I’m so glad I did. I made three new amazing friends and it was the reason this instantly became one of the highlights of my entire trip! As I wrap up my two days around Angkor Wat, consider this the shrimp toast cliffhanger…