My journey began when I arrived in Siem Reap (nearest town to the Angkor complex). After spending time in Thailand (land of smiles), where even the airport security are trying to please. I was taken aback by the stark difference as I stepped off the plane. Everyone looked stern and were wearing military dress. I started to wonder if I would even be allowed to enter at all. I had heard many horror stories from fellow travellers in Bangkok about the difficulties of crossing the Cambodian border. It was these stories that had influenced me to fly in the first place as most of them involved busses and scams on the border crossings. This was my first time arriving in a foreign land from a country that wasn’t my own and I had no return ticket booked. For Cambodia you buy your visa on arrival, not in advance and you need to have a passport photo with you. If you don’t they can refuse you but to be honest from what I saw they just ask you to pay extra. I approached the visa desk with a friendly smile, a polite hello and a bow. Taking care to had over my passport with both hands as is the custom in Cambodia. I received no hello and no emotion of any kind from the gentleman at the desk. He took my passport and gestured for me to stand to one side. After a few minutes and much to my relief he stood it on the counter for me to collect and progress through custom control. My passport was stamped by another emotionless officer and I was through to baggage reclaim. It turned out I had nothing to worry about. Looking back the whole process seemed very smooth and efficient.
As I left the airport the first thing that struck me was the heat. It was mid April when I arrived. Smack bang in the middle of the dry season. It was hot, all day everyday. Even at night the temperature never dropped below 35 degrees. Midday temperatures climbed into the 40s transforming the once lush flood plains into a dust bowl. I have since learnt that October is the best time to visit Cambodia. It’s after the rainy season but before the sun has had chance to parch the landscape.
As Uber did not exist in Cambodia I was unsure of the best way to get from the airport to my hostel but as I neared the exit I noticed a kieosk for tuk tuk rides to town. This was the most straight forward option.
The town itself is not very big and was built off the back of Angkor Wats tourism. I feel like it exists purely to cater to their needs as it was entirely made up of hotels, restaurants and many many bars. By day people visit the temples and by night they party.
Angkor is a UNESCO World Herritage Site spanning some 400km2. It contains remnants of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire dating from the 9th-15th century. It is filled with dozens of temples, reservoirs, roads and canals. Basically everything a great empire would need to function.
The cheapest and easiest way to see the temples is by tuk tuk. It’s very easy to arrange. Drivers hangout all accross the city desperate for customers. They are all familiar with the temple runs and can recommend the best ones to see if you haven’t done your homework. Just pick someone and haggle a price for the day.
Whilst being driven from the airport to town my driver said if I wanted to visit the temples tomorrow he would not charge me for this airport transfer and would be my temple driver for the whole day for 20 USD. I agreed and met him the next morning at 10am. I know many people like to get to Angkor Wat for 5am to see the sunrise but personally I wasn’t fusssed about this. My hostel later told me that they can usually organise tuk tuks to the temples for 15 USD. I didn’t begrudge paying the extra cash though. In my opinion the airport transfer was worth more than 5 USD anyway and I liked the show of trust. My driver had no money from me until after I had seen the temples the following day. He was very friendly and even talked with me about some of the history. I also found out that due to the intense tuk tuk competition within the city he usually only gets about 3 fares a week. Often these are short 2 USD trips.
I ended up only visiting 3 temples during my trip as I found it simply too hot. It doesn’t help that as a women I needed to have my legs and shoulders covered so was going round in a shirt and maxi skirt. I saw Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm (the tomb raider one). Each temple had its own unique style. My favourite was Bayon. It is covered in sculptures of large faces and great detail. Angkor Wat was also very impressive but was incredibly busy. You move accross the bridge in a herd of people and are part of a crowd through much of the temples exploration. It does not feel like a particularly personal experience. I guess I had a much more romanticised view of what I expected my temple experience to be. Ta Prohm was interesting and felt more personal. As it winds around you see less people during your journey through it. The space is also closely surrounded by trees making you feel like you are exploring in a jungle.
If you’re planning a visit to SE Asia I urge you to include Cambodia in your travels. It is not as developed as some of its surrounding countiries but it’s getting there. It has the most interesting, shocking and moving history of any country I have ever visited. It’s cultural identity is truly unique and not to be missed.