Siem Reap has been one of our favorite stops. Not only does it offer fantastic Angkor temples, but the culture, attitudes of locals and food made it such an enjoyable experience. Cambodia’s unique and difficult history has been one of curiosity for me. Did you know that Cambodia had just as many bombs dropped on them as Vietnam during the Vietnam War? Have you read about the Khmer Rouge? Even with its volatile history, Cambodians today are moving forward, progressing into a better future.
Cambodia is a place I have wanted to go to for so long. Our friend Tola, set us up with her family who we now consider our family. We had the privilege of staying with them for a week, and feel so honored to have shared such great moments with them including family birthdays, spiritual holidays, English lessons and weekend outings. We had so much fun
How We Got There & Around
Our trip to Cambodia started off with some drama. I had not been feeling well that morning when leaving Laos. When we arrived to Bangkok from our first leg of the flight I felt even worse and had to lay down in the airport until our next flight. Our next flight was dramatic – it was the first time I have ever thrown up on a plane. Don’t worry folks, I made it to the bathroom, but was so sick the flight attendant had to get Steve to help me out of the bathroom. I felt terrible. When we landed in Siem Reap, seeing Tola’s brother, Kompheak, made me smile and feel a little better. In fact, the entire family came to greet us at the airport. It was fantastic. When we got home they cooked us dinner, but I only ate rice. That was – the most DRAMATIC flight I had been on – with me being the cause of the drama.
Around Siem Reap, we were lucky to have, Rangsey & Nob, be our personal tour guides and drive us around town. Similar to other South East Asian countries, scooters run the road, so it was nice to have a comfortable car to sit in.
Where We Stayed
Like I mentioned earlier, we stayed with our Cambodian family. Steve and I were given a room with a bathroom, and an AIR CONDITIONER! In Laos, our A/C didn’t really work, so it felt heavenly to have one in Siem Reap.
What We Ate
We learned that Kompheak is quite the cook in the family. He is the patriarch of the family, police officer, but his love of cooking won Steve over instantly. I can’t do justice to how much we really loved his food, but I will tell you this – we miss his cooking every day. Our guide in Siem Reap, Nob, told us Cambodians eat anything – bugs, eels, snakes, anything. I wasn’t sure what we had in store for us. I would say our favorite dishes included fried rice, his grilled meat, but we really enjoyed the eel. It was a bit chewy, but tasty.
Our Time with Family
Spending time with the family was fun. I felt like I was back home with my family. I also feel instantly in love with Nya Nya, Kompheak’s 5-year-old daughter. The love wasn’t shared immediately, but once we brought home a new puzzle for her and played with her dolls, we were inseparable. Also – she has some pretty epic dance moves. Let’s just say the kids had no love for Steve’s beard and Kimhan would cry instantly when Steve was around.
We also got to celebrate Sophea’s birthday! Singing Happy Birthday, and eating cake – what’s not to like!
Wedding season was in full bloom during our visit and we got to watch family prep, get dressed up and head on out to various wedding functions. Weddings in Cambodia last two days and can have 500-1,000 people in attendance!
We enjoyed a Sunday heading up to Kulen Mountain. The drive was about 2 hours but the sights and nature were fantastic. We visited the temple, Preah Ang Thom and the Kbal Spean archaeological site (“Valley of the thousand Lingas”). We were able to picnic with the family which was nothing like an “American picnic”. The family brought out two small stoves and added vegetables and butter. They also had tubs of cooked white rice. Then came out the meat, we had raw thin slices of pork we would add to the stove and cook, similar to hot pot style. After just a few minutes, the meat was cooked and with rice, was DELICIOUS. My only wish was that I felt better to eat more. I mostly stuck with rice. We also drank fresh coconut juice and Steve enjoyed the local Angkor Beer. After lunch, we enjoyed swimming in the river, and loved swimming under the waterfalls.
That night, we took a tour of Kompheak’s farm, which was an hour outside Siem Reap. The farm is new in the family, he only bought it last year. They already have planted citrus trees which should first produce fruit in three years. The farm was massive, and walking around took some time. There were cute puppies at the farm, so of course my attention was limited. We were at the farm during sunset, which was just magnificent.
Our visit coincided with Buddha Day, Buddha’s birthday! That was a big day in the house. The family did lots of cleaning to prep for visits from local nuns and monks. On that morning, the house hosted 5 monks for breakfast, as well as local nuns. They provided the monks with a care package to take back. The monks also performed a ceremony in their Buddha room, blessing the house and all the people in it. Steve and I felt honored to be able to participate in the ceremony!
On our last night with the family, we were treated to a big meal which included eel. Steve and I were able to get to a bakery to buy a cake, which was a small gesture compared to what the family had in store for us. After our lovely dinner, the family gave us small gifts including “I Love Cambodia” shirts, a dress with elephants for me, an elephant shirt for Steve and two traditional Cambodian scarfs. All were such lovely gifts. We felt truly humbled by their generosity.
What We Did
For the first few days in Siem Reap, I didn’t do much. I was still vomiting and my stomach hurt a lot. My energy level was really low. In fact, the first full day there I slept all day, only leaving the room a few times to eat rice and then I would go back to sleep. Luckily we had planned on spending a week there, so we never felt really rushed to see it all.
The Angkor Temples are the main attraction in Siem Reap. A 3-day pass costs us $62 USD. Angkor was once the capital city of the Khmer Empire and as a result several temples were built by the kings in this region between 900-1220. By end of the 1400s, most of the temples were abandoned and left for ruin except for one temple, Angkor Wat. During our travels we utilized a tour guide: Nob from Angkor Smiling Tour. He was extremely knowledgeable, spoke perfect English and was a lot of fun! We would recommend our friends check out his company. Here are the highlights from our sightseeing:
Beng Mealea – This temple was not included on the ticket and has a separate ticket. It is actually 40KM outside the city, which is why they do not include it on the main ticket. Based on the architecture, they believe it was built during the same Angkor period. It was originally a Hindu temple, but looks like Buddhist motifs were added later (similar to other temples in the area, as the different Kings had different religions). The temple today is in ruins, with trees growing out of the rocks. I found it to be beautiful.
Angkor Wat – Arguably the most famous temple in Cambodia and is even on their national flag. Built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple, it was later converted into a Buddhist temple. For us, seeing the various reliefs retelling stories were fascinating. The climb up the middle tower, although a bit scary, is a must as the views are breathtaking.
Wat Thmei (killing field) – This pagoda today, was once the scene of a horrific place. This was one of many killing fields during the Khmer Rouge regime.
South Gate of Angkor Thom – Angkor Thom was the last capital city for the Khmer Empire. There are five gates total to get into the city, one for each direction, and a special victory gate for warriors after battle. The bridge to the gate here shows the Naga snake on both sides, one side with demons and one side with Gods.
Bayon Temple – Located in the center of Angkor Thom. This temple is known for its many smiling faces. This temple is believed to have been built in late 12th century. And like many temples, was converted into Hindu then back to Buddhist based on who was ruling.
Baphuon Temple – Also located in Angkor Thom, built in 11th century. Today, ongoing restoration efforts are in progress. Our favorite part was the “hidden” reclining Buddha in the rocks on the back of the temple.
Ta Keo – Built around the year 1000 and the first with sandstone by the Khmer Empire. It once also had a moat around it, which no longer exists today.
Ta Prohm – You may recognize this one from the movie, Tomb Raider. The temple foundation dates back to 1186 and was built to honor the King’s mother. After years of abandonment, the temple has been somewhat taken over by the local jungle, which leads to a very cool effect. Ongoing efforts are underway to restore the temple.
Banteay Kdei Temple – Built in late 12th century, and housed monks for several years until the 1960s.
Sra Srang Reservoir – Dug out in the mid-10th century, there may have been a temple in the middle of the water.
Pre Rup Temple – This brick temple was built in 961, dedicated to the Hindu God, Shiva.
East Mebon – Built in 10th century, by King Rajendravarman, dedicated to his parents. Our favorite feature are the big elephants on the corners of the temples.
Neak Pean Temple – This temple composes five ponds, 4 small and 1 large. Each representing a different chapel: Horse, Lion, Elephant & Human. It is believed people would come to these chapels to find cures for illnesses. Today, the only statue remaining is the Horse.
Preah Khan Temple – This 12th century temple is in need of a lot restoration. They are currently working on restoring different sections, but some of the temple today is overtaken by trees and other plants.
Angkor National Museum – This museum has artifacts from the temples that are not able to be properly restored at the temple. They also have interactive exhibits, and history exhibits about the Angkor temples and Khmer Empire. No pictures are allowed inside.
War Remnants Museum – Steve and I love war museums, and was excited to visit this one. When we arrived we realized it was really small, and ran by a small group (possibly family). Our tour guide and his father collected many of the artifacts. His father is also a land mine survivor and lost his leg. The tour was interesting as it covered Vietnam War (Cambodia’s bombing), the use of land mines, agent orange, and the Khmer Rouge regime. The tour lasted about 30 minutes, but we felt our tour guide was very engaged. They also run an English school for locals for free. What intrigued me most was the huge campaign to make Cambodia land mine free and Princess Diana even came here to clear mines!
The War Museum – We didn’t have enough, so we decided to check out the more popular museum. This museum was much larger, but our tour was a little disappointing. The tour guide didn’t have as much passion as the previous museum. We did like looking at the artifacts, but most were in poor condition.
Bakong Temple – Built in the late 9th century and is often compared to the Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia.
Preah Ko Temple – Built in 861, and nicked named the “Holy Cow Temple” because of the three large cow statues facing the temple. The cows represent Nandi, a Hindu God. Across the way, they had small models of the major temples which we thought were cool.
Lolei Temple – This temple was under major repair so we weren’t really able to see much. We do know it was built in 9th century and is part of Bakong and Preah Ko “family”. Next to the temple we found a classroom used to teach English to local kids. We thought that was neat.
Siem Reap Night Market – Steve and I now feel we are night market experts. We have been to so many in Asia, however, Siem Reap’s night market was by far the largest one we have been to. We spent hours roaming around, checking out the shops, the foods and people.