Siem Reap, Cambodia

Vietnam & Cambodia Trip – Stop Nine – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor WatOn the 17th we had our last early morning flight of the trip. Unfortunately, once we were on the plane there was a delay. We sat for two hours on the plane with no air circulation waiting to fly to Siem Reap. It was completely unpleasant to say the least, especially since the flight itself was less than an hour.

We drove from the airport to the hotel along very dusty, red dirt roads. We appeared to be traveling away from any sort of modern hotel but our car finally pulled up to a gated resort. Since this was our last stop on the trip, we picked a higher end hotel. Once inside the gated area, it was as if we had stepped into another lush green world. We went from the open air lobby to a open air restaurant near the lap pool while waiting for our room to be ready.

After lunch and a shower, our guide took us to get our Angkor Pass; the entry ticket we would need to enter all the temples. We then passed by Angkor Wat and started exploring at the larger Angkor Thom. We entered the complex at the South gate and drove through the jungle to Bayon, the main temple, at the center. Built in the 12th or 13th century, the temple is known for its face-towers and long narrative bas-reliefs. Currently there are 37 towers, each with faces pointing in the cardinal directions. Looking at the photographs now, often the faced disappear into the stone whereas in person they felt more defined.

Walking around, our guide pointed out all sorts of interesting images in the bas-relief. Many of the segments show battles or armies marching, but other segments illustrate a range of daily activities. It is hard to imagine what these looked like when they were first carved given that much of it is still very clear and readable. Exiting Bayon, we walked  further into Angkor Thom to the Terrace of the Elephants.

The Terrace of the Elephants is a platform built for King Jayavarman VII to review his army. It is named for the carved Elephants which decorate it. There were other structures and gates at one point in time, however most are now in ruins. Unfortunately for us, it was not always easy to understand everything the tour guide was telling us. He had a lot of information, but we found that he did not seem to use punctuation so all the sentences ran together. I felt that it took a lot of concentration to understand when he was explaining the historical elements, so sadly I don’t remember much of the interesting details he shared.

On our way out of Angkor Thom we stopped to see the monkeys. I honestly was a little scared of them and almost elected not to stop. The once in a lifetime element of it took over and we were able to get very close. I, in fact, got a little too close for one of the mama monkeys who was not pleased with my proximity and chased me away.

Our final stop of the evening was Angkor Wat as the sun was setting. The temple complex was crowded with tourists like us in search of a beautiful sunset over the temple. We stood by a pond as the sun set, watching the reflection of the temple in the water. The colors were not too impressive that evening, so before it really got dark we returned to the hotel for the evening.

Chris’ Comments: Of all the things in the Angor Wat complex, I was most interested in seeing the place where the trees had grown for hundreds of years in the ruins. I have to admit that I was surprised when I realized that, what was called, Angkor Thom wasn’t part of the same main complex that we’ve all seen on TV and travel magazines. I was also surprised at the sheer number of tourists we dealt with at all the sights. I’m not sure what I expected, but there were A LOT of people. I absolutely recommend going because the sheer scale and *detail* of it all is something you will never get in pictures, just understand you will have to really search for that moment of quiet reflection you may be looking for. I’ll be back when I’m a movie star that can clear it for a set or am rich enough to rent some private time from the Cambodian government. Random fun fact: The Cambodian Royal Family liked one of my photos on Instagram. I’m well on my way!

Angkor Thom

Elephant Terrace


Angkor Thom South Gate and Bridge

Angkor Wat at Sunset

The next morning we returned to Angkor Wat, entering the complex through the East. We had been given the option to arrive for sunrise, but elected to skip another early morning. Unlike the West entrance, the East entrance is only a dirt embankment. According to our guide, this entrance was built for access to the temple during the restoration effort. After looking at the bas-reliefs in the outer galleries, we made our way into the center of the temple. There was a line to climb some unbelievably steep stairs to the base of the main tower and I had to make sure that my shoulders were covered before we could go up, but I was glad that the area had been reopened to visitors.

Going up the stairs was scary, but going down was worse. I was so glad that there were handrails and temporary stairs installed to make it easier. At this point we exited out of the complex through the West Gate and went to have lunch. All over the sites were young children selling books and postcards. They have worked out responses to every reason why a person would not buy from them. When Chris told one girl that he did not want to carry the book she responded that she would carry it for him. She offered to carry it all the way back to Seattle if he got her a VISA.

After lunch we drove out to Tonle Sap, a large fresh water river/lake. February is the end of the dry season, meaning the river was pretty low and muddy when we went. A boat took us out past men fishing on the banks to a larger floating village. Unlike in the Mekong Delta, it was not possible to see land while moving through the village. We stopped at one tourist market on the lake. They had a cage with crocodiles and a young girl walking around with a large snake. We climbed up to the roof and looked out over the village. In total it was kind of depressing.

After the tour we returned to the hotel and cooled of by the pool before taking a Tuk Tuk to dinner at George’s.

We had one day left on our Angkor pass so we took a Tuk Tuk from the hotel out to Ta Prohm temple. The temple is located East of the Angkor Thom and is much smaller. Unlike the other two temples we visited, the preservationists have not removed most of the trees and plants which have grown up through the structures. They have put walkways and closed off areas to tourists, but the jungle has started to take the area back. Since we did not have a guide we turned down whichever path or hall had the least amount of tourists. It was remarkable to see what nature can do and to think about what the other sites would look like if they had been left alone.

After about an hour of walking around in the heat and crowds we had our Tuk Tuk driver take us to get something to eat, then back to the hotel. In the evening we had our second Vespa tour. The tour in HCMC had been so much fun that we signed up with the same company to tour Siem Reap at night.

The tour was only eight of us: an English couple that were uncomfortable with riding on Vespas who took a Tuk Tuk, an American family of four that were now living in Hong Kong, and us. It was one of those small world moments when they said that they had lived in Seattle; in fact they still owned their house southeast of the city. After meeting at a bar in the tourist area of the city, Pub Street, we walked to where stalls selling spices are normally set up. Unfortunately due to the holiday, many stalls were closed.

From there we rode around the city on the Vespas, stopping at the Shrine to Preah Ang Chek and  Preah Ang Chorm. The shrine was busy with people worshiping and it was a nice change to see a site busy with non-tourists. From there the tour group went to the night street market along the highway. We walked in the crowds of locals buying food and sitting on blankets eating. The first stall we stopped at was selling bugs. There were large trays piled with different kinds of prepared insects. I have always said that I would try crickets or other insects if they were cooked and here was my chance. I tried one type of cricket, which was very crunchy and not really remarkable. Chris sampled all the different offerings including water beetles and a larva of some sort.

The next stall we stopped at had jackfruit; next to it was a stall with sour sugar fruit, which was very interesting. It was a bunch of large trays of cut fruit covered in a sour sugar. Sort of like eating sour patch kids candy but also slightly spicy. Further down the road we stopped at a fruit stall and the tour guide named all the different type of fruit. Most of the fruit I had seen before, like tamarind, but never had it so fresh. After getting grilled corn at one cart we all sat down on blankets on the river bank. The stall in front sold grilled meat and we sampled fish, chicken and pork stuffed frog. It was all great to experience something authentic and simple.

When we had eaten way too much, the tour continued to a restaurant with live music and few other Cambodian dishes to try. Then on the way back to the hotel we stopped at an infusion “store” to sample the spirits and have some Cambodian sweets. We did not sample the infusions but were given small bottles to bring home.

Angkor Wat

Tonle Sap

Evening Adventures

Ta Prohm

Vespa Tour

For our last day in Cambodia, the plan was to sleep in and relax until our late flight home. Unfortunately, someone in the neighborhood was celebrating the new year by playing chanting over loud speakers very early in the morning. The music and chanting did not stop until three in the afternoon. Meanwhile there was no where at the hotel you could escape the sound. We both had massages and when it was finally quiet, took a nap before checking out of the hotel in the evening.

Our flight to South Korea was uneventful but it was about six in the morning when we arrived. We had a 12 hour layover and wanted to explore the city, but were too exhausted to think straight… much less travel around a new city. Instead to slept. We rented a hotel room in the airport for six hours, the maximum the hotel allows, and were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. It was great because we were able to sleep and shower before wandering around the airport. While in search of Korean food, we ended up in the wrong area of the airport and were unable to get back on our own. We had to be escorted by security back to the correct area. I felt better that at least one other English speaking visitor (a young Canadian woman) had done the same thing and was being lead back with us. After some more napping in the terminal, we were on our last flight and heading home to Seattle.


Note to our readers:
If you are interested many of the photographs are captioned, just select the individual images to open them in a new window. Also, we were surprised how large the country was for a small country. I have put together a Travel Map with the places we visited to give an idea of how we managed to cover a good portion of the country during our trip.


Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Vietnam & Cambodia Trip – Stop Eight – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom PenhOn February 15th, we said good-bye to Vietnam and flew to Cambodia, arriving in Phnom Penh in the evening. On arrival we had to complete the VISA paperwork. It was a crazy scene with a lot of people confused as to what papers were needed and language barriers. It was a bit overwhelming but luckily there were no issues and we quickly exited the airport.

On the short ride from the airport to our hotel, it was clear that we were in a very different country. The guide explained that Cambodia is still heavily influenced by the Khmer Rouge and it was not always safe to answer our questions in public. At times during our visit we may need to wait until we returned to the car to discuss some things. This sort of control made it clear, to me, the idea of freedom of speech we have in the U.S. and what that really means. A little unsettled, we arrived at our hotel.

The hotel looked like nothing special from the dusty street, but once we walked through the gate it was a green garden. There was an open lobby and dining area next to an infinity pool. It was rather late so we just walked a few blocks to have dinner and then went to bed.

We met our guide early the next morning. The goal was to tour the city while it was still somewhat cool out and then spend the hot hours of the day at the hotel pool. The first stop was the Royal Palace complex. The kings residence is located in the complex, and much of the area is closed to tourists. We were able to enter two of the buildings but were not permitted to take photographs inside. That did not matter much since it was the exterior, the architecture, that was impressive. Some of the buildings show evidence of the French but the influence of Thai culture is also very evident in most of the architecture. This was the first time I had seen any of this type of architecture and it was amazing.

The main building in the complex is the Throne Hall,  which due to an event later in the day, we were unable to enter. We did visit the Bronze Palace, which is a smaller building were royal gifts and costumes were displayed. From there we went to the Silver Pagoda and court yard. The name Silver Pagoda is in reference to the silver tiles used on the floor, however it is formally named the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Inside most of the tiled area is covered with rugs so that you cannot really see the silver tiles. On display  were numerous other Buddha sculptures in addition to the Emerald Buddha. Outside in the courtyard there were several large Stupas and long mural painted with scenes from the Ramayana Epic. Only some of the mural was visible, as much of it was being cleaned. When leaving the complex, we passed by where processional mounts for elephants were displayed and an example of a traditional Khmer house.

Our next stop was a block away; the National Museum of Cambodia. Our guide was not permitted to show us around the museum, however there was enough English descriptions to understand the displays. The museum holds a large collection of Khmer sculpture and, like many of the buildings in the country, is mostly open to the outside. What I found interesting was an exhibit of several sculptures recently returned to Cambodia. The pieces are believed to have been looted during the political turmoil in the 1960s and ’70s.

The mood of the touring shifted at this point and we visited the Tuol Sleg Genocide Museum. I don’t believe either of us knew a lot about the events in Cambodian history prior to our trip. We had watched The Killing Fields, but I know I did not really understand how recent the genocide was.

We sat under the trees in the compound that held an estimated 17,000 prisoners while our guide, a few years younger than us, told us about the horrible things that happened to his family. He explained the history of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Knowing that this happened within my lifetime is very frightening. The museum included photographs of many victims and paintings by one of the few survivors detailing the horrors. In fact only 12 individuals are known to have survived the prison. One of the survivors, Chum Mey, was there when we visited, signing his autobiography.

It was emotionally draining and, before we went to the Killing Fields, we stopped for lunch. We ate and processed everything we had seen so far. After, we drove outside the city to Choeung Ek; one of the sites known as the Killing Fields. It is thought that over a million people were executed at these sites during the Khmer Rouge rule. Currently the site is a memorial and reminder of the horrors that occurred in the 1970s. The visit put what we hard learned into perspective. In addition to pits that had been excavated, much of the property has not been touched. This meant that was we walked around we could see bones and clothes under our feet.

After the site, we returned to our hotel. By that time it was incredibly hot and it has been an emotionally draining day, so we went and sat by the pool for a few hours. When it cooled off a bit we then walked to dinner, passing near the Independence Monument on our way back for the night.

Chris’ Comments: I always tell people the mood in Cambodia is more somber than other places I’ve visited. We met many strong people, however the wounds of the Khmer Rouge are very, very fresh. There are two things I’ll remember Phnom Penh for: stepping over bones and clothes resurfacing through the ground at the Killing Fields, and the pain and tears of our guide recounting his family being tortured while visiting Tuol Sleg. I cannot imagine telling that story and living the pain every single time. It was more important for the world to understand than any personal comfort. His choice was not lost on us. In hindsight, it’s sad we were only there long enough to experience the ugliness.

Royal Palace Complex

National Museum of Cambodia

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The Killing Fields

Hotel Pool and Last Night in Phnom Penh



Khmer Surin – A lush, tropical garden of a restaurant. The food was pretty good and it was clear the restaurant was designed for tourists with a bit of money. Food prices were considerably higher in Cambodia, but still quite reasonable. This is one of those places you have a bit too much wine with friends while enjoying the atmosphere.

Malis – This was a very upscale restaurant a short walk from our hotel. I in fact felt very under dressed when we arrived. The prime seating is in the lower open air courtyard area but  since we did not have a reservation we were seated upstairs in an air conditioned events room with a few other tables. The food was good, but not necessarily worth the price. It felt as if you were paying for the experience more than the food, which may be worth it if we were at one of the better tables with a more attentive server.

Note to our readers:
If you are interested, many of the photographs are captioned, just select the individual images to open them in a new window. Also, we were surprised how large the country was for a small country. I have put together a Travel Map with the places we visited to give an idea of how we managed to cover a good portion of the country during our trip.