Back in September, I decided I was going to go on a spiritual journey through South East Asia for my birthday, and really connect with this world, that not so long ago brought me into it. I hadn’t planned much of the trip except for a few countries I was dying to visit, and in my typical style I hopped on a plane and left it open for any changes that may occur last-minute. (Back when I backpacked through Europe in college, I learned that sometimes you like a city so much that you would like to extend your time there and stay a few days longer; or sometimes a city is quite small or boring and you need less time there than originally allocated. By keeping your travel plans open, it allows you to be more flexible with your time.)
After I chose a few cities that I just so had to see, it was time to pick somewhere exotic that I could only dream of going to, and knew nothing about. I wanted to deeply immerse myself in ancient temples, rich culture, and beautiful history; and I couldn’t have found the more perfect place to do it then in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I remember telling my friends and family back home that I had chosen Cambodia as my next destination, and getting a multitude of weird mixed responses, and slight disbelief. No one I had known had ever been to Cambodia, or even really given it a second thought. But when you become a flight attendant, going to places that are off the beaten path, so to speak, become the norm.
I had previously spent the week in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai Thailand (that review to come soon), and I met many fellow backpackers along the way, some of which that had previously traveled to Siem Reap. Knowing nothing about this city, besides the legendary Angkor Wat Temple complex, where they filmed parts of Laura Croft: Tomb Raider (get the title of this post now?), it was a relief to have met people who could give me some insight into what I should expect.
After speaking to many backpackers including a girl from Queens, NY (that’s also where I live!) that I had met in my cooking class in Chiang Mai, and only hearing radiating positive reviews, I was now even more excited to begin my journey to Cambodia. I have to admit before I had met anyone who had visited there, I was a bit nervous to go to a country that I knew hardly anything about. I went to the United States embassy page, which I reference before I go anywhere exotic to see if there are any travel warnings, restrictions, health concerns, or safety issues that would make me change my mind about traveling to Cambodia. After reading only minimal warnings, I decided to give it a go and make it official so I bought a ticket on Air Asia, and headed over.
I had just recently, like the week before, discovered the gem of Air Asia, whose slogan just so happens to be, “Now everyone can fly.” It just so happened to be that buying a one-way ticket from CNX-BKK-REP full fare on Air Asia, was cheaper than me using my staff travel passes on a standby basis. So it was practically a no-brainer to have a confirmed ticket for less money, then a standby ticket for more money. If you don’t care about amenities such as leg room, WiFi, entertainment, food and beverage, or power-ports, and just need a seat from point A to point B, Air Asia is the way to go. And since both of these flights are less than an hour-long, I knew I could live with just my iPad.
For U.S. citizens Cambodia does require a visa, however you can get a visa on arrival, for 30 USD. You just have to show up with 2 copies of your passport photo, and don’t worry, if you forgot to bring or lost those they will just charge you $2 more to copy your picture for you. However, bring exact bills as they don’t give change, and make sure your bills and fresh with no tears, rips, folds, or markings on them. For some odd reason they are very particular about how they want the currency to look.
I had booked my accommodation the night before I had actually arrived in Siem Reap, still unsure of what my plans were going to be, and I noticed that hotels are relatively cheap. I chose a hotel that had amazing reviews on TripAdvisor, Retreat Villa boutique & Spa. I was met at the airport with a Tuk Tuk driver, a personal Tuk Tuk, and the general manager already there waiting for my flight to arrive. There the general manager greeted me, introduced me to the driver, and told me that he would meet me at the hotel to check me in. There he met me with a lemongrass drink, and some warm mixed nuts.
I was given the option when I booked my accommodation to pay a few extra dollars, and have a suite where my room had a door to the private garden, so of course I opted in for this. The hotel was gorgeous, spa was amazing, and the staff was extremely helpful and friendly for getting me settled in. I would definitely recommend this hotel to anyone looking for accommodation in Siem Reap!
While I was checking in, the manager had mentioned to me if I planned on seeing the Angkor Wat complex while I was there, and if I needed a driver to take me around the complex. Just to brief you if you plan on doing this in the future, the best way to get from temple to temple within the complex is to hire a driver. They drive you to each temple, wait for you while you explore, and then drive you to the next temple. If you have some time to kill before you plan on hitting the temples up, all the Tuk Tuk drivers that you grab on the street to go anywhere will ask you if you already have a driver to take you to see the temples, and if not they will offer their services for whatever their price is. If you are really limited on cash, you can shop around and get this price cheap for close to 10-12 USD a day. However, the manager had offered me a package combo of 18 USD which included the driver for almost two days, a ride back to the airport when I left, and a discount on all spa services. As I was planning on using the spa at the Villa and needed a ride back to the airport, this was a deal to me!
I met with my driver that evening, before I headed to Pub Street to meet a friend for drinks, to discuss my plans for the temples tomorrow. After I told him of all my hopes and ambitions for the next day, he basically told me I was embarking on a suicide mission, trying to see too many temples in one day. This only put me up to the challenge even more. On a side note, Siem Reap does have a nightlife/bar/restaurant area which I was shocked to learn from my friend. It seems like Siem Reap is a backpackers who like to go out and party kind-of-city and Pub Street is the place to do it. I was even more shocked to learn that there are a few gay pubs on this street as well, with one even offering spa services.
But the highlight of my trip, the reason why I had ventured into Cambodia in the first place, the Angkor Wat temple complex. My driver was waiting for me in the hotel lobby the net morning, way earlier then the time we had agreed upon. I quickly told him I was going to grab some breakfast, and then meet him for a long day of tomb raiding.
And just as my driver had warned me the day before, it was a suicide mission indeed. The temples were far apart from one another, the heat was scorching, the stone the temples were built with were scolding hot, walking through the unshaded temples was tiresome, and exerting all of your energy climbing the infinite steps within the ancient temples was unforgetful. I had originally brought four liters of water with me for the day, which proved to be not enough. Luckily my driver had experience with this before, and brought an entire case of water for me, and kept it cool in the Tuk Tuk, which turned out to be a lifesaver.
And many of you have asked me in the past if my tomb raiding mission proved to be a success. Judging by my selfie montage above, I am sure you can gather that it was! You see, the Angkor Wat complex is listed as a world heritage site, with pretty much unlimited access to all of the temples within the complex. You basically have the freedom to run wild, climb anywhere, sit wherever you like, and basically be on your tour guide, (or you can hire one). There are many people trying to sell you the Angkor Wat Tourism book along the way, which you can purchase for 1 USD (considering it costs over $20 in the States that’s a great deal), and self guide yourself, which I did. As we went from temple to temple, my driver in his broken English gave me great historical references and even brought me to some of his favorite secret places.
Turns out my drivers favorite place to go and clear his head when he has a rough day is the South Gate at Angkor Thom. And while this was on my original agenda of places I wanted to see within the complex, my driver showed me how you can climb that one ancient statue to the top, and sit down and overlook the bridge, in quiet loneliness. As I sat down on this ancient statue and looked down, I reflected on the day I had tomb raiding around the complex.
Here the laws were non-existent, no one to tell you what you can or can not do, no one to tell you not to climb, crawl, or jump. Just you, and this massive complex of ancient temples, and weird feeling of creepiness, as sometimes you approached a temple and were the sole individual tomb raider at that particular site. Every once in a while you would pass another tomb raider on your journey, and you would instantly the discuss the magic that lied ahead.