Cambodia – Siem Reap

Posted on January 19, 2020

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I touched down in Siem Reap three weeks ago. This was meant to be a straight forward visa run, but no surprises with the developing world, nothing goes to plan.

The first five days were spent at a very cute yoga shala where classes are run throughout the day. It was like a small community hidden away from the chaos and dusty roads of this resort town. Great food, laid back vibe and everyone sharing meal times together on communal tables.

I met some interesting people from all over the globe of all ages. And it was a nice way to ease into new surroundings.

The main reason for coming here first before hitting the capital Phnom Penh, was to visit Angkor Wat. The visa could wait five days. After all in early January everyone moves at a slower pace.

Angkor Wat (AW) is more of an archeological site now rather than a functioning temple. Although monks do still use it.

The ruins are staggering and utterly mind-blowing dating back as early as the 9th Century. What once began as a Hindu shrine to Shiva and other deities, was later transformed into a Buddhist temple.

It’s a place I feel I should know about given my semi-religious upbringing, but it just isn’t on the mainstream Hindu radar. I’ve never heard anyone in my family or in my community talk about the significance of Hinduism in Cambodia or mention the beauty these temples once commanded during the 9th and 10th Century outside of India. How has that been forgotten or not been realised?!

I left very humbled to be able to freely explore. Tourists clamber all over the relics. There are few restrictions about access or even dress code. You still get some idiots turning up baring flesh at what was, and to some, probably still is a religious Mecca in SE Asia – all cultural sensitivity lost in modern day ignorance.

The site has to be seen to be believed. If you’re savvy enough and like walking, you don’t need a guide. I visited the national museum the day before to educate myself about its history and then planned my visit taking in the main gateways and the temples that were most revered. I must have covered 15km, umbrella in tow. The temperature here is around 34°, skin frying! Most people will hire a Tuk Tuk driver to ferry them around for the day. But AW is neither cheap to visit ($37) or small, so if you can cope with heat and distance you’ll be ok.

Siem Reap itself reminds me a lot of a dusty African town. It has power cuts, it’s raw, music blares out of speakers on street corners and is a bit of a backwater in some places. You literally wash your day off you when you shower at night. Few roads are tarmac-d and there are more motorcycles than space on the road.

The centre of town is geared towards international tourists with street markets selling art, fabric, trinkets, crafts and deep fried everything. There are a wide variety of restaurants to entertain your tastebuds but it is a complete misnomer to think Cambodia is cheap. Even your bog standard plastic chair and table establishment has the nerve to charge at least $6 for a meagre very average main course, that will leave you eyeing up the next table’s meal. But I managed to source some hidden gems and ate well and within budget.

When you live life on a shoe-string every penny counts. It’s a careful balancing act living this way, and tipping the scales the wrong way can be disastrous! I saw thousands of pounds drain out of my account in January paying London bills and my yoga tuition fees, plane and train tickets, a month of yoga membership, my Thai university tuition fees and luggage storage! It took me six months to save that cash. Trying to live with less is not easy and some days I want to put my head through a glass window. But I know I have to keep going, I believe the tables will turn, no idea when, but I have to believe they will.

After five days in Siem Reap I was ready to leave. I took an overnight bus to Phnom Penh which took seven hours and cost $10. It was an experience I won’t forget. I took it the same day I walked AW so that I would pass out. And good job too. The so-called bed is a small platform raised off the floor of the bus with a piece of sponge for a mattress. You feel every bump in the road to the capital and it’s not a calm journey. There’s a thin curtain which of course doesn’t stretch the full length of the mattress. If you need to pee, the driver pulls over on the highway and you squat and go. Half asleep and mooning at on coming cars. I’ve travelled worse, but only marginally. Haha. I am an Olympian when it comes to sleeping so slept pretty much the whole way. My bus pulled into Phnom Penh at 0600 just as dawn was breaking. Now time to sort the visa!