Visiting Angkor Wat had been a dream of mine for decades. The mystical ruins hold allure for many travelers, but Cambodia can seem remote and intimidating to navigate. Nevertheless, when I’d first hit on the idea of extending our trip from northern Asia to SE Asia via cruise ship, Angkor Wat was in my sights. And now, after all these years, I’d see it for myself.
We arrived at the modern Siem Reap airport via an AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur. Cambodia has a visa-on-arrival policy for Americans and many other travelers, payment due in cash only. The amount varies by country, but there’s a handy-dandy ATM machine that dispenses dollars (the preferred currency) just as you enter the terminal from the tarmac. (There’s no skywalk into the terminal; a guide leads debarking passenger on a walk across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal.) AirAsia is a classic low-budget airline where you choose and pay for each amenity, more cheaply if you do so in advance. Prices are cheap, so it’s worth the extra dollars to get a front seat (and a basic meal) just so you can be ahead of the crowd at the visa application line. The visa is $35pp, for Americans, plus an extra $2 apiece if you don’t have a passport photo for the application. (The fee varies by country ranging from $20-42pp.) After paying and handing in the application, you walk around the corner of the L-shaped counter and wait until yet another official holds up your passport, now sporting an official visa and exit card.
I’d opted to let our AirBnB host arrange the taxi. For $6, it was a good deal and spared us any hassles of explaining the location of our not-a-hotel accommodations to a cabbie who might not speak any English. Our taxi dropped us off on a partly-paved, pothole-filled road in front of a lovely Cambodian/colonial-style building.
A blonde, older woman who turned out to be our host’s Slovenian mother-in-law, Albina, was waiting for us. After a quick tour of the 2-bedroom/2.5-bath apartment and rooftop pool with a glimpse of Angkor Wat over the jungle of trees (!), we were on our own.
Our first night was taken up with settling in, finding a grocery store, negotiating with the tuk tuk drivers and families who seemed to perpetually occupy a sort of outdoor living room just across the dirt road from our apartment building, and eventually getting to a restaurant for dinner. [We enjoyed our Cambodian dinner at Café Mie, and time permitting, I’ll review it later.] A couple of messages with our AirBnB host and we were set with an air-conditioned “taxi” (actually the same unmarked tan Toyota Camry that had driven us from the airport, but this time driven by a younger, supposedly-English-speaking brother, Chantrea) for the next morning at 10am to spend the day shuttling us to and around the Angkor temple complex. Cost: $25/day.
Despite our AirBnB host, Roberto’s assurances that Chantrea was an English teacher, we quickly discovered that his English was limited and often hard to understand. Still, he was a cheerful guide with more than a passing knowledge of the temples. We started, of course, at the main temple, Angkor Wat. “Wat” merely means “temple,” and the 402 square acre Angkor temple complex contains many temples, dating from the 11th century. The main temple is surrounded by an enormous moat the banks of which serve as a popular picnicking spot for locals. The whole temple complex area, while requiring tickets for foreigners, is open to the locals and there are homes, small businesses, rice fields, grazing water buffalo, restaurants and innumerable vendor stalls selling sarongs, t-shirts, scarves and other souvenirs set up throughout. The roads are in great shape and make for a pleasant drive between the many temples.
Parking across from the main bridge spanning the wide moat, we walked across and through one of the three entry gates to the Angkor Wat grounds. This is the main attraction and crowds of tourists mingled in the heat. Chantrea did his best to navigate us to the less-crowded areas, explaining the function of buildings and the stories behind wall carvings as we went.
He moved too slow for me in the oppressive heat and humidity, and I found myself wandering ahead to plant myself wherever I found shade and a cross-breeze. Before we could mount the high central tower of Angkor Wat (which represents heaven), I had to change into more “decent” long pants, my shorts being inappropriate for the most holy spot in Cambodia. I knew this going in and had brought a skirt to pull on over my shorts, but Chantrea thought the skirt, at mid-shin, was still too short. While David and Chantrea waited, I hiked to a restroom to change. Later, I found that my originally-planned skirt would have been just fine (although we did see a couple of women turned away for uncovered shoulders and a too-short skirt). Oh well, not the end of the world, but I’d hoped for more insight from Chantrea. The upper tower contains several shrines and we wandered among other tourists from many countries to admire the famous site.
Descending back to ground level, we exited across the main bridge again and, nixing Chantrea’s restaurant choice, we opted for an air-conditioned spot. Only moderately cooled, it was still a welcome relief from the heat. We asked Chantrea to join us and had to smile at his enthusiasm and statement that we were dining as “rich men.” He took me up on an offer of a 2nd lunch and we sipped water while we waited for him to finish, enjoying the pleasure he took in the meal.
After lunch, Chantrea drove us across a bridge lined with statues through a Buddha-topped gate to our next stop: Bayon Wat (Bayon Temple), famed for the many large stone faces that adorn its walls. I found it enchanting. Chantrea dropped us off in somewhat of a hurry, saying we had two hours to wander the temple alone. We protested that 2 hours was way too much, but he only responded that “maybe” we’d see another temple, too. I stated that 1 hour was fine and asked where to meet him. He said to just wander through and he’d wait at “the only other parking lot.” I knew all this was vague, but let him go, thereby setting us up for later problems.
Bayon was as beautiful as it appeared from the outside, offering one spectacular view and great photo op after another. It was also just as hot or hotter than Angkor Wat and I self-air-conditioned by tucking the iced water bottle Chantrea had given me into the front of my bra, totally unashamed of the strange look and the condensate dripping down my belly along with the sweat. It inspired a sentence from David I never thought I’d hear: “I wish I had a bra, too!” Context for that one is really important. 🙂
Making our way through Bayon in 30 minutes, we then spent time watching girls, fully-dressed and chest-deep in the pond beside Bayon, laugh and giggle as they plucked snails from beneath the water.
We strolled across the street to an open-air shrine housing a large Buddha and several women beckoning us to come by overpriced incense sticks. No, thanks. We hurried past to find Baphuon Temple, across a low stone bridge. Figuring this must be the other temple we “maybe” might visit, we walked across, in the merciless sun and climbed atop a rather plain temple to admire the view before descending to search for shade and that “only other parking lot” Chantrea had spoken about.
We arrived at a smoke-filled parking lot behind Bayon where a few vendors hawked their wares and several cars, minivans and tuk tuks were parked. We perched our sweaty selves on a rock to wait for Chantrea. Attempts to call him resulted only in a recording. Alas, no Chantrea. We called Roberto, our AirBnB host, who tried also, but no luck. We moved to sit near yet another Buddha shrine, frowning as worshippers planted more and more incense around us, added to the thick cloud of smoke. We bought an Angkor beer from a passing scooter vendor and waited some more.
Over an hour later, Chantrea pulled up, saying he’d been at another parking lot. Tired and hot, I bit my tongue. Not the best ending to a memorable day, but not the end of the world either. Just southeast Asia.
We brought the day back to awesome level with a really excellent meal at a pretty little open-air restaurant called Touich, a short tuk tuk ride from our apartment. Touich is a family-owned business with wonderful service as well as food. A “Khmer mojito,” made with rice wine, lots of key limes and fresh ginger started things off perfectly. We chose beef and shrimp fresh rolls and a green mango chicken salad for appetizers. Huge grilled tiger prawns and sea bass baked in a banana leaf underground, then expertly filleted tableside, made delicious main courses.