A visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor Wat should be on everyone’s list of adventures. We were not sure how we would like Cambodia in general and had fears that Siem Reap would be similar to Agra, India or Athens, Greece – a place where most people come to see one thing and then escape as quickly as they came.
We had booked four nights in Siem Reap and we are so thankful that we did. Cambodia is a country still just getting on its feet from the Khmer Rouge and the country’s civil war which officially ended in 1975 but people here say it really wrapped up finally in the 1990s. As you can imagine with a purge of millions of citizens, most targeted because they were educated or teachers or not with the agrarian utopia vision of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia, it is having to organically recreate its entire entrepreneur class. They say here that the movie, “The Killing Fields,” is sadly accurate and part of their history.
Everywhere Siem Reap is booming. People are amazingly friendly, level of service is high, the food is excellent (organic and fresh – we have said before that it will be impossible for us to return to the American meal trade off of less flavors for greater portion sizes) and everything is ridiculously cheap. Drinks at the bar are between $.50-2; our two private double rooms with ensuite bathrooms, free t-shirt, complimentary breakfast from the menu, and package of toiletries was $60 per night total; a usual meal for the four of us was under $20; a tuk tuk ride anywhere is $2-3. And interestingly, everything is in US Dollars. The ATMs dispense $100 bills as a rule and for the most part we only got local currency for change under a few dollars (all bills, no coins – 1000 riels = $.25).
The owner of the Hostel International Siem Reap Deluxe picked us up at the airport. On the way back he was nice enough to take us to an ATM and then to a cellular store to buy our SIM cards (including coming in to help me translate). This was before we knew he was the owner but there was never a rush and the answer was always, “yes, happy to help you.” The staff was fantastic and it was wonderful – from beds to pool table to pool on the roof.
We arranged to go to the temples of Angkor Wat with a tuk tuk driver and guide. After a lot of research we decided to start with only one day of the temples – our focus being to see the big three: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom / Bayon (faces temple) and Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider / Indian Jones temple). Before you go you will certainly read lots of people saying that they loved every temple (and there are hundreds), that the sunrise pictures are magical and that a three day pass is a must. But, as we mentioned in our last post about the Cardinal Rule of traveling – being true to your mission for the trip and way of travel – we think a one day adventure was just right for us.
Our guide was fantastic with the history, letting us set the pace that worked for us on a very hot and muggy day, and for taking amazingtures of us all. We all liked Angkor Thom / Bayon the best – in part because of it is so large that the crush of tourists is not nearly as bad but also because the features of the entire complex are so amazing (from entrance gates where the good forces and the demons are each pulling on a snake – representing the push and pull of good and evil to the 54 towers of faces representing the 54 provinces of the empire). It was easy here to imagine what this was like 1000 years ago, at the time when it was the capital city of the Cambodian empire (which at the time included such of Vietnam and Thailand) and held 1,000,000 people at the same time London was about 50,000 people.
Our hostel was an easy walk to the big market square and to Pub Street, the three block pedestrian street of restaurants that spill out on to the street. The first night in Siem Reap we found a drug store to restock some supplies and John found Goldfish crackers! We splurged on a bag (the only thing here priced like at home) and said we would come back for the pizza flavored ones later. Sadly, someone beat us to the last bag when we returned a few days later. Dinner out on or near Pub Street was excellent each time.
Since we decided to not push for temple fatigue, we had time to visit the Pa Sao School, a good thirty minutes by tuk tuk outside of Siem Reap. Sao is a tuk tuk driver who has made creating a school for the rural children of his area his mission. He is doing an amazing job. We were able to see the school that he is personally building (and by this I mean like a lot of construction work in developing countries – the man is actually doing the hammering and nailing). Kids get half day school six days a week learning math, english and other skills. He has kids from 5 years old to 17. School was soon to be out for their wet season when the kids all work on farms planting rice. We stopped at a local store in Sao’s village to buy pens, pencils and notebooks for the kids. Kate brought her polaroid camera and handed out pictures to kids bringing huge smiles. It was inspiring to see what a vision and lots of small steps can do. His family’s outdoor kitchen (two charcoal burners and a few pots) is just fine, but he needs to build a cover at the school for the stairs to make them safe in the rainy season. We have no doubt that this visit forever changed John and Kate in how they look at their own opportunities and in wanting to make a difference for others – and that one person with a vision can make things better for others. Pictures show the first school (in his barn) and the new school just getting finished.
We enjoyed an easy pace in Siem Reap playing pool, going to play the Great Escape game (where you are locked in a room for an hour to try and solve clues and escape), swimming in the pool and getting caught up on school work. Judi and Kate did a cooking class (although her certificate reads, “Fudi”, she still loves it).
Flights from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City all required changes in Bangkok when we looked so we decided to go to Phnom Penh by bus and fly from there. The Giant Ibis bus was top notch and had all the air conditioning, wi-fi and comfort as promised. At our hostel staff mentioned how crazy expensive it is – $15 per person one way. I try to remember that in Cambodia a laborer on the hostel’s construction project (they are building two new dorm rooms at the back of the property) makes $160 a month for 8 hours days, six days a week, so paying $15 for a bus ride probably does seem a little crazy.
The Sla Boutique Hostel in Phnom Penh was fantastic also. The staff was wonderfully helpful with everything from printing boarding passes to cooking either breakfast or dinner meals here in the communal kitchen. We only had 48 hours in the capital city but since we decided not to do the war museum – we had read the graphic descriptions of the skulls on display and stories that are depicted of babies killed by bashing them on the trees in the courtyard in front of their mothers – and decided it was too much for the kids at this time.
So while the kids met another family with kids from Germany staying the hostel, Judi and I ventured out to just walk around. The next day the kids played more Monopoly and then we explored around by foot (constantly telling the tuk tuk drivers we were fine walking) down to the Palace and park area along the river in front of the palace. We found a wonderful French / Khmer cafe and had sandwiches and amazing coffee and chocolate drinks. We tried to prep ourselves that eating like this in Paris will be triple the cost and then just sat back and enjoyed. John found a new book to read in a book shop. Judi found some silk pearls to wear with suits back home that will always make us smile and remember how far beyond our expectations Cambodia went.
Sure, Phnom Penh has more trash on the streets than Siem Reap, the sidewalks are either nonexistent or broken and we saw some poor or disabled people begging in the both big cities. But Cambodia touched us – it amazed us with its history, ancient and recent; it treated us with wonderful food; and we were warmed by the constant smiles and helpfulness of its people. We have had lots of fun and will certainly be back, and maybe Judi can join this Specialist Law Firm in Phnom Penh.