The journey from Hanoi to Siem Reap is one-eighth the length of a Vietnamese sleeper bus ride. I’ve barely managed to get into my usual rhythm of quiet sleepless desperation and tablet fiddling before the captain announces our imminent arrival and I must repack my back for the umpteenth time.
Admin note for Cambodia – it’s easy to get a tourist visa to enter the country, but do yourself a favour and do it online in advance. You can absolutely fill out a form after getting off the plane, but you’ll be among hundreds of like-minded passengers and will have to queue up to do so. It’s the same price either way ($30) but it’s way easier to just smugly waltz through passport control.
After a brief moment of soul-chilling panic when my bag didn’t arrive (it had fallen off the bloody conveyor belt) we stepped out into the steam-room air of Siem Reap and got a taxi into town. A few notes on money and taxis in Cambodia: here they use their own currency (the Riep) as well as US Dollars, which is a bit confusing. Essentially, 4000KHR = $1, and anything less than a dollar is converted to KHR. For example, if a drink is $1.50, that’s either $1 + 2000KHR, or 6000KHR outright. It takes a bit of on-the-spot maths, which is why I almost always get it wrong, but the system does work.
On the taxi front: something I’ve noted since being in Cambodia is that people are far less likely to try and rip you off for journeys, or even overcharge you much in the first place. Instead, what people are more likely to do is try to pitch their services to you for the length of your stay, as a recurring driver. There’s still a certain amount of awkward shuffling of feet if you don’t fancy it, but it does at least come off as more honest than many tourist experiences. Our driver from the airport pitched us his brother’s tuk-tuk services for exploring Angkor Wat ($20 for one day, or $27 for sunset plus half the following day). Initially we declined the offer, but after looking up prices via our hostel we realised that he actually charged pretty reasonably, and we ended up booking him anyway.
Siem Reap is one of the most-visited spots in Cambodia, but outside of the capital Phnom Penh there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘large’ city; even as a small country with a population of 16 million everywhere has a relatively ‘small’ feel, even cities. The local night market in Siem Reap is a busy collection of traditional stores and smoking barbecues, offering the usual tourist memorabilia as well as locally-made fabrics and clothes.
The main draw of Siem Reap is possibly the most famous feature of Cambodia: the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat. The complex is vast. When tour guides assure you that you need a driver to visit, that’s not just a hard sell; Angkor is five times the size of Manhattan, spread over 153 square kilometres of dense jungle. Any like-minded children of films like The Jungle Book, Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider will spend the entire time gawping at the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm and eerie carvings of Bayon Temple.
Even if your heart is totally devoid of interest for history or architecture, each temple is swarmed with families of monkeys doing exactly as they please with little to no regard for the humans Instagramming them. One particularly mischievous chap managed to drop an entire tree branch within millimetres of a Korean family, followed by much elated screeching and defecating (on the monkey’s part).
There simply isn’t enough blog space (or, even charitably, reader concentration) to go into detail every facet of Angkor City; we visited eight temples and didn’t even scratch the surface. We left for the complex at 5am to do The Tourist Thing and await the sunrise over Angkor Wat itself, as many before and after have done. This is during the off-season, but even so expect a fair crowd of like-minded people watching/instagramming/vlogging the event. This particular dawn – perhaps luckily – was rather overcast, which did decrease the vibrancy of the sunrise somewhat but also made for a cooler, less crowded day.
Each temple has its own distinctive flavour. The central Angkor Wat building is a grand, palatial structure with its distinctive ‘pineapple’ towers and foreboding half-kilometre approaching road; following that, Bayon Temple is a looming stack of grey, weathered faces staring down at you through scrambled, Rubik’s cube-like stonework, dotted with monkeys scratching themselves amidst the historic structure.
Baphuon is off-limits to children, pregnant women and the elderly, primarily because the steps involved to reach its peak are far closer to climbing than walking; while I was there, a number of tourists turned back rather than take the stairs. Ta Prohm is one of the most recognisable structures, featuring in the first Tomb Raider film. Somehow more so than the other temples, it has been absolutely reclaimed by nature, with towering silk-cotton trees bursting through the tonnage of stonework and reaching into the canopy above.
Angkor Wat, being as famous as it is (and responsible for a huge percentage of Cambodian tourism), is likely the most expensive single thing you’ll do on a trip at $35 for a single-day pass – but you simply have to do it. It’s absolutely not the only thing to go to Cambodia for, but rather like going to Paris and skipping Notre Dame, you’d be missing out. I’d argue that it’s worth it even just to tell people you did.
It could be the sunstroke talking (hydrate, people) but after six or seven hours of exploring the ancient ruins the monkeys started looking at me weird and I needed to retire with some air-con. Having officially struck off something that *would* have been on my bucket list if I was organised enough to do things like write bucket lists, it was time to head on to the country’s second-biggest city, Battambang.
It’s the half-way point on the journey and there’s a nice lady selling spicy-fried grasshoppers. I instead went for a fish-cheese sandwich and will spend the rest of the journey wondering what the hell fish-cheese is.