August 13-15, 2016
Chris and I are entertaining some of our first visitors– it’s family vacation 2016! My mother and father in law, and one of Chris’ brothers, spent five days visiting us in Singapore. After showing them around the Little Red Dot, we’re off to explore the ancient temples of Cambodia.
We fly into Siem Reap airport and are greeted by a bubbly young woman. She tells us her name is Sunflower, but we can call her Alice, like Alice in Wonderland. I’m certain she assumed (correctly) we couldn’t pronounce her given name, so she told us it meant Sunflower and gave us an easy option for Alice. She met us with a beautifully genuine smile, which lasted the duration of our trip. Alice did everything for us that week, anticipating the smallest request before it could be made. She made sure we knew where to go and how to get there. She arranged transportation, packed us snacks, and organized a picnic for all of us on the long day of temple wandering.
We came to learn that Alice, at 21 years old, took care of her parents and three younger brothers. Her days started with two hour English lessons, before beginning her nine hour shift at the Golden Temple Resort. Once her shift ended, Alice was off to spend three more hours working on her college degree. Life in Cambodia isn’t easy, but Alice is a bright yellow sunflower yearning to get closer to the sun.
If you’re wondering why I’m not telling you about Angkor Wat and the temples, I promise I’ll get there. I would be remiss not to credit Alice for making this trip so memorable. She cried when we had to leave, which made us all cry, but we’re still friends and will always be. I’m so lucky to have met people like Sunflower in my life.
Did I mention Alice worked at the Golden Temple Resort? I highly recommend this stunning gem. By now you can assume the staff is incredible, but the property is magnificent.
The staff arranged a driver and local guide for us, and we set out to see the famed temples from the ancient kingdom. For the guys, you can wear just about anything within reason. For us ladies, you better cover up if you want admission. Make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. Short sleeves are fine and the locals will be happy to sell you a pair of elephant pants if you didn’t come prepared. Even though I have a few from previous travels, I always bargain for another pair at each destination. They don’t stretch so I always end up ripping them. But they are soooo comfy for lazing and lounging.
Our guide Sopha (pronounced Soap-ah) did his best to transfer a lifetime of knowledge and centuries of history into our minds. The sprawling grounds of Angkor Wat, built during the 12th century under the Khmer empire, comprise the largest religious site in the world. Built originally to worship the Hindu gods, over time the grounds transitioned to Buddhism. Survived by centuries of war, regime changes, political strife, and religious changes, the people of Cambodia have the utmost pride in Angkor Wat. We spent all morning exploring. Going up and down steps, ducking into cool stone hallways, and savoring a hard-to-find, short-lived breeze in between sandstone pillars.
I can’t begin to tell you the history of this place. Not accurately, anyway. Regardless, when standing on these ancient grounds, imagining what the temple looked like during its prime, and the civilization that built it, it really is a testament to the ingenuity of mankind. If you have the opportunity to experience it for yourself, GO!
While Angkor Wat is considered the flagship of the temples, there are dozens more in the region. After Alice’s pre-planned picnic, Sopha took us to see a few others in the area, including Ta Prohm. This one was my favorite! I had seen the ruins in pictures and added Cambodia to my bucket list years prior, and now we are here! The site of the banyan trees domineering the temple inspired my inner Indiana Jones. But in elephant pants and armed with an iPhone.
Sopha was an iPhone whiz. He taught us camera tricks we had never seen. He told us exactly where to stand. How to pose. When to jump. Where to look. And snapped hundreds of photos of all of it. We’re a hot, sweaty mess in every picture, but it was well worth it.
After a long day of exploring under the scorching hot sun, we were in dire need of some rejuvenation. Thankfully, there was a cooler of beers in the van. Sopha asked if we wanted to go see Lake Tonle Sap at sunset before we quenched our thirst but we were tired and hesitant. After a few sips we changed our tune and a short ride later we’re on a dock boarding a boat. With caged crocodiles and cold beers.
Tonle Sap is massive in size and importance. It’s the livelihood of fisherman and the local population depends on it. Excited children from the floating homes waved cheerily as our boat powered past. The adults were casting nets and reeling in their catches. It’s nice to see the other side of tourism and the day-to-day life of the residents.
It’s been a long day and the family is ready to get cleaned up for a cocktail and some food. There are so many options in Siem Reap! I highly recommend Malis and Chanrey Tree if you are looking for something a bit more upscale and want to try some authentic Khmer/Cambodian food. If you’re looking for more casual, you don’t have to look far to find all kinds of street snacks (like scorpions) and restaurants to breeze in and out of. There’s also a night market selling food, artwork, and locally made crafts.
Siem Reap also has a pretty robust nightlife you can find along Pub Street. The lights are bright and the beer is insanely cheap. A few locals will probably chase you down offering tuk tuk rides and/or some more illicit things in an attempt to make a buck. They’re not too pushy and will leave you alone if you keep on walking (or whatever you choose to do). I’m certainly not here to judge! But I must say, Pub Street is a fantastic spot for people watching while you enjoy a cocktail.
We packed a lot of action into our first day in Siem Reap. Day two was a bit more relaxing. Sopha took us to Phnom Kulen National Park. The park is home to waterfalls and a temple at the top of the mountain with a massive reclining Buddha statue. The ride up to the top of the mountain is winding, with views of lush green peaks and valleys as you get further up. It looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Untouched. My brother-in-law and I were convinced a dinosaur would come into view at any moment. It didn’t.
The five of us made the obligatory visit to see Buddha. He’s become a regular friend of ours since moving to Asia. Once we said hello, down the stairs to the swimming hole to cool off.
It’s a little tricky and quite slippery to get to the entrance, but the revitalizing fresh water is worth the risk. Nothing makes you feel like a kid on adventures you dreamt about more than playing at the bottom of a gushing waterfall in a Cambodian forest. We must have been having a lot of fun because Sopha couldn’t watch from the rocks anymore and jumped in to join us!
If you have the chance to visit and want to get in touch with Alice/Sunflower or Sopha, we have stayed in touch. I’d be happy to put you in contact with either of them for you trip. You won’t be disappointed 🙂
Leah sin houwy and happy travels!