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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
My costumes are normally more creative, but it’s hard to beat the setting of these photos, right?
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.
Light and dust filter through the trees creating a serene, almost magical atmosphere.
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).
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).
We did manage to find a few ladyboys who took full advantage of the opportunity to dress up…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
You do what you’ve gotta do to get around.
Creative solutions for real problems.
Safety first, always.
Who needs stuffed animals when you can win cigarettes? Start em young…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.