International Travel: Thailand Day 3, Siem Reap, Cambodia

The sun is barely up. The sky shines with hues of pinks and purples as I hit the streets of Bangkok to catch a ride to the airport. I am heading to Cambodia for the weekend. It’s not even close to enough time to spend in this country but being this close geographically, I can’t miss an opportunity to see Angkor Wat.

Catching a flight out of Suvarnabhumi Airport is fairly easy. The airlines are all relegated to specific stalls and there are rows upon rows of stalls labeled A – Z that have the airline names labeled at the top. Thailand has a bunch of choices when it comes to local airplane travel as well but, in my opinion, there is but one choice. During this 18 day trip I will travel on 12 planes. The first three and last three are how I make it from Denver to Thailand and back again. The other six are how I get from place to place while I am in country. The only time I didn’t fly Bangkok Airways was the only time I was sorely disappointed in my experience.

I find my row and check-in. Then it’s off to security and on to customs. All of this is a breeze. It’s almost too easy, which makes me nervous for when I arrive in Siem Reap. I have heard from numerous people that the customs and visa process can be difficult to navigate. Sometimes payment can go missing. Other times documentation can be lost. It’s even harder when crossing the border by bus or automobile which is why I have opted to spend the money on a flight. I push my fears out of my mind and wait for the plane to start boarding.

The gate opens and I and my fellow passengers follow the gangway. We walk out onto the tarmac and board a bus. After a short ride we arrive at our plane and climb the stairs to embark on the next part of my adventure. Everyone is on board and the doors close. In less than an hour I will be able to cross another country off the list of places I have traveled.

The Siem Reap airport is tiny. We are the only flight arriving so the line to get my visa is short. There are no smiles from the agents but a quick and efficient order to things. My turn comes. I hand in my documentation and wait. I pay my $30 and stand in another line. I see my passport being passed from officer to officer. I am passed in line by a few people behind me and again I start to get a little nervous. My name is called and my passport has the visa. I am free and clear.

With bags in hand I hail a tuk-tuk and am on my way to the hotel in Cambodia. 20 minutes down dirt roads, passing families on motorbikes, skinny cows, other tuk-tuks laden with baskets and food and before I know it,  I arrive. I have done my research. In Siem Reap there are two ways to get around affordably. One is to rent a motor bike. As I have never rode a scooter before, being in Cambodia for two days didn’t seem the time to learn. The other way to get around is to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the entirety of my trip.

I have arranged for such a driver and as I walk outside of my hotel he is already waiting for me. Mr. Lee Hour greets me with a smile and asks where I would like to go.

A side note here. I cannot say enough nice things about Lee. He is a kind man who cares for his family and makes his living by driving tourists, such as myself, around Siem Reap. During my time here Lee was always early for agreed upon times, he was always cracking jokes and telling stories and he always had bottled water in his cooler that he more than happily shared. The time I spent in Cambodia was made all the better by having Lee at the helm of his tuk-tuk. I plan on returning to Cambodia again soon and I will definitely be reaching out to Lee again. If you are planning a trip to Siem Reap I cannot recommend him enough. I got in touch with Lee through Facebook Messenger and here is a link to his profile. Hit him up if you are in need of a great driver!

The only thing I know I want to do, is to see sunset at one of the temples inside the Angkor Wat complex. That is still hours away so Lee suggests a stop off at the War Museum Cambodia. A short ride through town and we arrive. The museum contains relics from the past four decades including tanks, troop transports, guns, mines and even a helicopter and a MIG fighter jet. A guide greets me and a small group of other tourists at the gate. For the next 30 minutes, the war veteran leads us around the grounds of the museum telling personal stories and facts about the Vietnam and Cambodian Civil wars. There are piles of decommissioned artillery shells and landmines in one hut; another contains a plethora of different types of guns. On the walls of a third hut are hundreds of pictures of people who have lost limbs from landmines some as recently as last month. I find out that the museum itself is built on a cleared landmine field and that there are still over one million active landmines buried around the country. The tour ends and I am free to explore the museum more on my own. I find that I keep looking where I step as I traverse the overgrown paths around the two hectares that make up the museum.

I meet back up with Lee and we are off again. This time he navigates us through the streets of town to the Royal Gardens. I climb out of the tuk-tuk and it looks like we have arrived at a giant park. There are people walking around and street vendors selling items. I am a little confused as to why this is on the list of stops. I think Lee sees my confusion and tells me to look up.

My eyes follow the trunk of the huge tree whose canopy is providing some much needed shade from the heat. The leaves are large and lush green. I follow the lines of the trunk all the way to the top where I see the biggest pine cones I’ve ever encountered. That is, until one moves. They aren’t pine cones or flowers or leaves. They’re bats. Huge bats and there are hundreds of them. They’re fruit bats but locally they’re known as flying foxes because of their size.  Lee tells me that in the evenings the entire group will leave the trees in search of food.

I spend some time taking pictures of the bats as they stir from their perches. As I come out of my shock and excitement I notice that Lee is playing some sort of game with some of the other tuk-tuk drivers. Saiee, a cross between soccer and hacky sack with a “ball” that is a longer, thinner badminton birdie with a spring at one end that you kick back and forth between players. I join in for a few minutes trying to will the nimble soccer player of my youth into existence. Back and forth, back and forth, it’s a team effort to keep the birdie in the air.

We finish playing and say goodbye. Back on the road, we make our way to the Ankgor Conservation Area Ticket Booth. This structure is outside and away from the temple complex itself. This year prices went up and you’ll pay $37 USD for a one day ticket. There are also three day and seven day passes available. If you only have a day I would suggest doing what I did and wait till 5 p.m. the day before you want to visit to purchase your tickets. After 5p.m. you can then visit Angkor Wat for a gorgeous sunset from the temples. Just so you know there are numerous points throughout your time at Angkor that you will be asked to provide your ticket. They are non-transferable as they have your photo printed on them as well.

My pass in hand, I hop in Lee’s tuk-tuk and we race the sun to Angkor proper. We arrive as the sun is starting to dip below the tree line. Lee has taken me to Phnom Bakheng, one of the most popular temples to view the sunset from. If I had another evening to view the sunset I probably would choose somewhere else. The popularity of this spot means lots of crowds, people vie for open spots and it’s a noisy, hot mess. Next time I’ll try for a three day pass so that I don’t have to hurry and can pick another, quieter, more peaceful spot. But as it stands I have this moment so I make the most of it. I race up steep and uneven stone steps to the top of the temple. The orange fire ball hangs low in the sky as I move from one spot to the next, around the temple and finally away from said crowds. I walk back down another set of the steep stone steps to the grounds where half walls and open doorways lead to the jungle. The last light of day provides a soft glow on the temple from my perspective and I find myself, at least for a few brief moments, alone. Twilight comes and goes as I carefully make my way back to the front of the temple.

Again Lee is waiting on me with a smile on his face. We leave Angkor behind, at least for the evening. My belly starts to rumble and I realize I haven’t had any food since my plane ride in to Cambodia. Lee says that you can’t come to Siem Reap without seeing one of the traditional dinner shows and with that we shoot off into the night towards Amazon Ankgor.

There are lots of tourists that come to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and with the influx of people local establishments have come up with a solution. Dinner shows. A large outdoor hall filled with rows of tables with a stage at the very front. The mixed smell of curries, fried meats, fresh fruit, stews, vegetarian dishes and more greets my nose as I walk in. It’s a buffet style dinner so I que the line and make some selections. I’m not sure if there are any traditional Cambodian dishes, which is what I was hoping for, but the curry is steaming and hot and my fruit is cool, sweet and delicious. I find my seat and after a few short minutes the show begins. Music and dancing fills the hall for the next hour as musicians and dancers whirl and play.

I am full and happy and in love with Cambodia. Lee drops me off at my hotel and we discuss the plan for the next day. Tomorrow will be a long day filled with exploring Angkor Wat and some of the temples inside its complex. The start time is set for 4:45 a.m. The sun rises early and I don’t want to miss the light show!