The best week yet: Siem Reap, Cambodia


A few days spent in Kampot had me sold on Cambodia, but it was time to move north to see what Siem Reap had to offer.

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It’s home to iconic ancient temples and the largest religious site in the world—Angkor Wat. People travel to Cambodia from all over the world just to visit the temples and marvel in their rich history and craftsmanship.

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My friend and I met a tuk tuk driver outside of our hostel at 5am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, which is an event that draws hundreds if not thousands of visitors each morning. In the pre-dawn light I lugged my camera gear across the bridge over the giant mote that surrounds the complex, already sweating in the permanent muggy air. A sea of early rising spectators and photographers had already marked their territory, setting up tripods and crowding around the of the body of water in front of the temple to catch the reflection of the famous silhouette.

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I squeezed my way through an opening just as the sky was displaying its colorful twilight hue and stood around for another hour to catch the first glimpse of the sun as it rose behind Angkor Wat. spotted the silhouettes of monkeys running across the top of the temple, jumping and banging on rooftops, breaking the silence in between camera shutters.

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Shortly after sunrise the crowds cleared out and my friend and I entered the temple. It’s amazing how well preserved and intact this ancient structure is, despite the thousands of daily visitors who are free to roam around and touch anything they please.

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It feels as if you’re in a giant maze, with stairs and entrances and narrow hallways in every direction. There are religious shrines tucked away in hidden pockets and incense burning and groups of worshippers in robes praying.

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There’s a light haze that blankets the town, most prominent during the morning hours which makes for an ethereal-like experience when illuminated by the sunlight at the right angles. Just knowing how many generations have stood on this same ground and saw the same sights—though our modern lives today would be unfathomable to them, you can still feel and sense that human connection in the thick air.

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After a breakfast of Cambodian ginger chicken stir fry at one of the site’s many outdoor food joints, we had just enough energy for a second temple. Over a bridge lined with statues and across the river we went…

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Bayon is a smaller but equally as impressive temple with intricately detailed faces carved into stone. There are stacks of crumbling blocks surrounding the perimeter piled high that you can climb on and study up close. The amount of tourists can make it difficult to get a good photo but I gave it my best effort, despite the tricky lighting conditions of the late morning sun.

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It’s one of those places you must see in person to really appreciate. And I highly recommend you do.
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The following day we returned before sunset to continue our exploration. This day, however, was special. It just happened to be Halloween… which, as an American, is one of my favorite days of the year and not honoring it would be a betrayal to my country. Even in the middle of Cambodia where there are very few of us Americans to represent, we felt it was our mission to spread some holiday tradition to the rest of the world who doesn’t know what they are missing out on.

But finding resources to pull this off is tricky in a land that is not equipped to handle this occasion. There are no costume places or thrift shops or Walmart’s of course, so we had to get creative. A few days earlier my friend had joked that it would be funny if one of us went as Lara Croft, since we’d be at the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed that day. Not wanting to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity, I volunteered for the position.

I scoured the local market and ended up with men’s rubber boots, boxer briefs and black socks, dog collars, black duct tape, a hot glue gun, a heat gun and silver spray paint. All for under $20—done deal. My friend found red fabric, had a local seamstress sew her a cape, bought a cheap basket and went as Little Red Riding Hood.

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We found a secluded section in Ta Prohm for a quick photoshoot, where I had fun getting into character while my friend snapped a few shots.

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My costumes are normally more creative, but it’s hard to beat the setting of these photos, right?

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Ta Prohm also happened to be one of my favorite temples. Nature has taken over and there are sections with tree roots growing up through the walls, wrapped and twisted around the stone.

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Light and dust filter through the trees creating a serene, almost magical atmosphere.

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We finished at our last temple at sunset, climbing the steep and narrow steps to the top for sweeping views of the sun falling below the canopy of trees.
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If you’re considering a visit to Southeast Asia, Cambodia—specifically Siem Reap—is a must.

Especially on Halloween. I wasn’t expecting much as it’s an American holiday, but I can’t say that I’ve been in an environment this crazy in… possibly ever. It was right up there with the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan (except with much more clothing involved).

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The entire population of Siem Reap it seemed were out in full force. It was 95% locals and just a handful of westerners, with an even smaller number actually in costume. They must have been tipped off about what Americans do on this day and came out to witness our antics. I had to push my way through the crowds who filled the streets packed like sardines—at one point a group of them grabbed me and sucked me in, not letting go, and I had to be rescued by my friends (not in a malicious way… just picture groups of preteens at a Justin Bieber concert getting within arms reach).

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We did manage to find a few ladyboys who took full advantage of the opportunity to dress up…

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Trick or treating is a foreign concept to locals, so my friend filled her basket with candy and we walked along the street passing it out to the children and teaching them about our tradition. The sheer joy and excitement on their faces was priceless, and even the adults couldn’t resist. Easily one of the best memories of this trip.

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Outside of one bar I spotted another westerner dressed as Where’s Waldo, who immediately recognized my Lara Croft attire since he just so happened to fly her (Angelina Jolie, not Lara) around Cambodia in his helicopter recently. After photo evidence had confirmed this fact, he invited me to join in on a tour and, after some consideration (yeah, right) I accepted the offer.

A couple days later I took off from Siem Reap airport, hovering above Angkor Wat, taking aerial photos of the temples from the sky. It was quite stunning.

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As soon as I returned to my hostel, I went to retrieve the images off my SD card and… they weren’t there. Gone. Missing. They had been there while on the helicopter as I’d double checked, but something malfunctioned (cheap Vietnamese card) and the data didn’t save. All I was able to get is this one shot from my phone as we were taking off…

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To make matters worse, my pilot informed me that minutes after I’d left, Leonardo DiCaprio showed up and he took him for a ride. Talk about a missed opportunity… sigh. But it’s okay, I still had a great time, great memories and a great story from this encounter. Life is all about being in the right place at the right time (a Lara Croft outfit doesn’t hurt, either).

The rest of my time in Siem Reap was spent shopping at the insanely good local markets exploring the charming city. I stocked up on gifts for family and friends and ate heaps of delicious freshly dried exotic fruits and coconut ice cream. We rented bikes one day and rode past quiet tree lined streets, along the river, and found ourselves in local neighborhoods where they looked at us as if they’d never seen westerners in that part of town. But they were still so friendly, waving and saying Hello. Laughing and smiling as I waved “Sues-Day”, trying my best not to butcher the pronunciation.

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My love for Cambodia strengthened each day, and the nights were a far cry from Vietnam. My guard has been way up since Hoi An and Saigon, and I’ve always felt uneasy walking around at night. But Cambodia is different. The overwhelming number of motorbikes is replaced with friendly tuk tuk drivers who chauffeur you around for $1 and don’t try to rip you off (at least in my experience). I never once felt unsafe walking around, even alone at night. Of course I still clutch my belongings tight and am constantly aware of my surroundings, but the atmosphere is much more light hearted here. There’s no lingering sense of danger and harm that seemed to permeate the air and follow me around through Vietnam. It feels like home.

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And Siem Reap, out of every city I’ve traveled to, would be home if I ever decided to move to Asia. I arrived thinking that maybe I’d stay for Halloween and visit another city via bus on my way back to Bangkok, but hours after settling in I knew right away that I’d be here as long as I could. I met so many interesting people, got my fill of everything from magnificent temples to wild street celebrations to rest and relaxation to seeing the city by bike and helicopter. It was, quite possibly, my best and most memorable week on this trip overall.

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Also, there’s definitely a period of culture shock when visiting Southeast Asia for the first time, but nowhere perhaps more than Cambodia. It’s constant entertainment and another reason why it may be my favorite country. I joined an Only in Cambodia Facebook for better insight on day to day life… here are just some of the gems found by expats.

Only the finest ingredients here.

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You do what you’ve gotta do to get around.

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Creative solutions for real problems.

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Safety first, always.

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Who needs stuffed animals when you can win cigarettes? Start em young…

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Cambodia, you take the cake.

On Halloween night I said a tearful goodbye to my American friend who I had met way back at the airport in Vietnam. I enjoyed traveling alone but I didn’t realize how much fun it would be to have a travel buddy, and since meeting her I’ve made the best memories on this trip. She went off to another country while I stayed in Siem Reap for a few days to rest up for my return to Bangkok. I’m alone again, as I finish up this post on a plane descending into Manila.

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After nearly three months of travel, I’ve learned that I don’t necessarily prefer being alone. I love the freedom and spontaneity and solitude… but sometimes there are moments you just want to share with others. Sometimes you don’t have the energy or strength to deal with life on your own and need someone there to help.

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Sometimes being alone means being lonely. I wanted to do this for myself—to be more independent and not have to rely on others for anything. I’ve accomplished that, but I’ve also realized that I do need others to be at my happiest. And maybe that’s okay.

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I’ll be in the Philippines for 17 days until I make my return home in time for Thanksgiving. Yes, my trip now has a confirmed end date. Booking that plane ticket was difficult, and I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that I have a finite time left here and can’t just pick up and hop on a bus or plane the next day to wherever feels right.

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As much as I’d truly like to start over and be completely free, I still have ties back home. There’s a business that needs my full attention during the holiday season and a house that needs to be sold (and potentially remodeled a bit more first) and family and friends that I rarely talk to anymore.

I’ll let you in on my plans as soon as I figure them out myself, but you can be certain that I will continue to travel. I will take care of my responsibilities back home and continue to explore this crazy, wonderful world—one country at a time.

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23 thoughts on “The best week yet: Siem Reap, Cambodia

  1. Dear Jenna,
    I really love your travel reports! Unfortunately, I had the complete opposite experience in Siem Reap, I loved the temples but hated the vibe of the City. It started with scams at the border from Thailand to Cambodia and continued with taxi drivers and tuk tuk drivers who tried to rip off money, to the point I was hit by a little kid that begged for money. After that I felt so bad that all I wanted to do is lock myself in my room and leave the city. But it’s good to read from someone who had a totally other, better experiences. I might should give it a second chance. Wish you all the best for your last part of your journey.

    1. Oh, no! I’m so sorry to hear you had a poor experience. That kid is still there and pulls that stunt every night! It was the only thing I encountered like that. That’s the thing about traveling — our impressions of anywhere are largely shaped by who we meet and our own individual experiences more than the actual place itself.

  2. Jenna there is an app that will allow you to find the photos on that card just as long as you haven’t taken photos over them. It happened to me and a friend recovered them for me.
    On a different note, don’t be sad when done of those friends and family treat you differently now and not in a nice way.

  3. Oh my. And here I tought “crap” food existed only next to my home – there’s a restaurant here that translated their menu into english and “crap soup” is a thing for some years now. I guess nobody ever said to them it’s CRAB soup.

    It’s my first comment, I’m loving your trip stories! It makes me want to travel the world, too. Greetings from Brazil!

  4. Love following you travels and read your article in Do it yourself magazine. You are such a beautiful, smart & talented person that I feel like I know but have never met. You will do fabulous in whatever your future brings

  5. JennaSue,
    Good to hear about our adventures again.
    As for that malfunctioning memory card … Keep it. Don’t take pics over it or throw it away.
    That same thing happened to us on a recent trip to Europe. ALL of the pictures from the first half of our trip, (12 days) were just l-o-s-t 🙁
    The app someone suggested did not work. But back home, the local photography store was able to retrieve all 1500 pictures. It cost about $100 but so worth it.
    Like your family, your readers will all be counting the days till you are safely back home again. Please be aware and stay safe. Safe travels in the Philippines.

  6. I have so enjoyed reading about your travels. I know there is probably a mix of excitement and sadness about returning home. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

  7. Hi Jenna,

    It is going to be hard to be home again after your wonderful experiences in Asia.
    Enjoy your last days there.

    I have a question about the Siem Reap. Are those huge stones/ bricks
    lying on top of each other or do they have mortar in them? I wonder how long it took to make them all???

    Hugs, Candy

  8. Best wishes, Jenna, for more amazing memories before you return home. May you pick up your travels again as soon as possible—as it obviously tugs at your heart to do so. Cheers, Ardith.

  9. Jenna,

    This is my first post, but I have been following you since you first announced your trip. I heard about you via Instagram for your design work and just happened to find you at the time you started to travel. I have so loved following your journey and I sincerely appreciate your openness. Many people have said this, but you truly are an inspiration. I was secretly hoping you’d stay in one of the countries you’ve visited, but completely understand your need/desire to return home. All I can really say is THANK YOU for being you and sharing your amazing experiences with us. Safe travels!

  10. Hi, I don’t know you, I just read your blog. But I been prayng for you.
    Os teus olhos viram o meu corpo ainda informe; e no teu livro todas estas coisas foram escritas; as quais em continuação foram formadas, quando nem ainda uma delas havia.
    Salmos 139:16

  11. I have absolutely LOVED reading about your adventures. I’ve followed your blog for a couple of years and loved your design style but the direction that your blog has taken has made it a complete joy when I see that you have a new blog post.

    I’m sorry to hear that your experience is coming to an end. I have absolutely no doubt that once you get your affairs in order back home you will be back out on another journey.

    As I’m sure you know through your own self reflection and your journey that your life has completely changed. When you get home, you are going to see things in such a different light that a lot will look foreign to you. My completely unsolicited advice is to take it in stride and live in the moment. You may very well feel the most “alone” that you have ever felt once you are back surrounded by people and things that were once a great comfort to you.

    I have no clue why I felt the need to write this to you but it was as if my fingers had a mind of their own and just started to comment!

    Good luck to you for the rest of your time in the Philippines and safe travels home!

    I am so excited to read more of your stories and see where your life takes you!

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful response, Brandi! I can already sense how different things will be when I return. I have a feeling it’s going to be quite a struggle, with everything in my life so up in the air. I’m worried. Trying to mentally prepare myself–living in the moment is the best (and only) thing I can do! Thank you for the reminder <3

  12. Jenna, I think Ankor Wat is so awe-inspiring because it’s situated exactly 72 degrees east of the Pyramids in Egypt, as well as it’s exactly 72 degrees west of Rapa Nui on Easter Island. Google: “Ancient Alien Theory and Ankor Wat” to learn more about this mystical wonder of the world. Fantastic photos, especially those redneck urnals!! Hehe, they remind me of that “Mouse Trap” board game I used to play as a kid.

  13. Jenna, love your stories! Yes, like Brandi, I was going to say it will probably be culture shock for you when you get back. If you expect that at first and roll with it, it might help. It is hard to come down off a “high”, back to reality sometimes. If I don’t have expectations for a perfect time with relatives, perfect holiday times, etc. but just purpose to be happy with whatever happens, I think I am much better off. I used to be that way, but it hasn’t been worth the energy. Hope those thoughts help; I know you are not the same person as me, but some of this seems to work sometimes. Things will look different now, priorities will change, but what is important to you is what matters. Natalie S.

  14. This is another favorite post! What a great experience!! One day i want to see these temples your pictures are amazing and I loved reading about all your fun! Hugs I miss you!!

  15. I’m spending my solo Christmas break reading all of your Southeast Asia posts (recovering from back surgery at home in Santa Cruz while my husband and toddler are in park city, Utah)… I love how you transport me back to these places that I have been but with a little bit of a different edge and such a brilliant perspective. Your writing is really incredible, you’re very gifted in your ability. Truly.
    I love and miss Cambodia especially, and those posts have been such a treat for me. Thank you for sharing so much of this piece of your life. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas (the video is so cute! Your family looks so fun 🙂
    Peace.

    1. You’re so sweet, thank you Clare! I’m glad I could provide some content to help you pass the time while you rest. Happy holidays and new year to you and your family–I hope the recovery process is speedy! Take care 😉

  16. beautiful pictures! loved the lara croft costume and the on-site photoshoot haha.

    xo,
    malaysia.

  17. Hey!
    Currently I´m also traveling through Cambodia and was at Angkor Wat last week. It is a really increadible place! I have one a tipp for you: In case that you had a local tour guide, you should know that they oftentimes are taught not quiet correctly. With this I´m referring to the following: The ones of you who know the difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, Angkor Wat was originally built when Mahayana Buddhism was the dominant religion in in this region. This is now being veiled and the faces of the Mahayana god either destroyed or told that they show the king which reigned in the time when Angkor Wat was constructed. But since the Theravada Buddhism (in which women are humans o second class and where you can buy yourself to „heaven“) is the dominant religion in Cambodia this is being done on purpose in order to keep Theravada´s dominance, often becuase of self-serving reasons. If you want to learn more about that, I can recommend you to visit the Wayist Center in Siem Reap. There are daily free workshops on Cambodian spirituality and many other spiritual activities and workshops in which I learned a lot. It´s really worth a visit.
    Enjoy your journey! 🙂

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