My trip to Cambodia was one of complete happenstance. As I was checking into a flight from Thailand to Beijing, it quickly became apparent that I could not check in for the flight because I had confused the travel dates and was exactly 24 hours early to the airport. Since I had already done everything I wanted to in downtown Bangkok and did not want to make the return bus ride back to the city, I jumped online to check out what local destinations were possible to make a quick round trip visit. Malaysia popped up first, which was a quick no based on my earlier experience in the country. Cambodia was the next option that came up with fairly cheap and frequent flights. I was thrilled to find a round trip ticket that got me back just in time the next morning for my flight to China. While planning the over-all trip itinerary, I had wanted to include Cambodia and was very disappointed to miss seeing Angkor Wat while passing so close, but could not fit it in the tight schedule (or so I thought) . Immediately I booked the flight and sped off to the gate. Two and a half hours later, I was landing in Siem Reap Airport and being asked to prepare my passport and visa. In my instant decision while picking a destination, it had not even crossed my mind to check on visa requirements. Fearing that I would have to sit and wait in the airport until my return flight departed, I was anxious as we debarked the plane. Moments later my worries turn to relief as I saw the visa upon arrival line. After paying the $35 fee, they put the visa in my passport and I was on my way.
After catching a bus from the airport to downtown, I found a cheap hotel and made arrangements to have a taxi pick me up at 04:00 the next morning. The sunrise was supposed to occur just before 5:00 am, so a very early morning was necessary to ensure adequate time for getting the entrance ticket and finding a spot. The few hours of sleep were not nearly enough, but a few cups of coffee and a cold shower woke me up sufficiently to make it to the edge of Angkor Wat as hues of pink and red began streaking across the morning sky. As the sun continued to rise, it revealed the outline of the ancient temple. Despite everyone’s cameras clicking away, it was a brilliantly still and serene moment. This had never really been one of my bucket list items, but the sunrise was incomparable to any I have witnessed and it is still one of my most memorable moments.
Once the colors from the sunrise began to turn into morning light, the crowds of tourists gathered at the edge of the moat began streaming across the massive stone bridge over the water and into the grounds. As in many Southeast Asian countries, there are not strict rules limiting exploration of areas and tourists are free to explore the area at will. Built in approximately 115 BC as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II Angkor Wat is oriented towards the west to conform to the symbolism between the setting sun and death. It occupies an impressive expanse that covers nearly 500 acres and is surrounded by a moat that is 656 feet wide. The long sandstone bridge serves as the main access to the monument. The intricate carvings in stone cover the walls and columns defining the boundaries between the first and second levels. The higher levels support the five towers of the central tower and most prominent architectural feature of Angkor Wat. Inside this main compound, there is a steep staircase where visitors can climb to the top of the center dome for a 360 view of the temple and grounds below. The exterior passageways are no less impressive with their extremely ornate carvings which are often used by the locals for making charcoal rubbing artwork.
Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in the region, but there are dozens in the surrounding area which are included in the admission ticket for visiting the main area. As I walked down the road, another solo traveler offered to share his car and driver, which I gladly accepted since the other temples are scattered over several miles. Each temple had its own unique and distinguishing characteristics with detailed carvings and winding staircases through hidden rooms and they are each in various state of being reclaimed by nature. On the third or fourth temple, I realized that I recognized many areas of the grounds. It did not dawn on me until seeing one of the massive trees growing on the side of an entrance and overhanging a doorway, that it was the location that Tomb Raider was filmed. Lara Croft was one of my childhood heroes, so if I was not already slightly obsessed with the place, that certainly did the trick. Keeping close track of the time so as to avoid further confusion at the airport, all too quickly it was time for me to head back for my flight. Fare welling my new friend and the beautiful country, I left to catch my onward flights to China. This trip was one of the few planning mistakes that I am forever grateful to have made, but I would definitely recommend spending more than just 24 hours there!
Hostel Average Cost: $10 for dorm rooms
Currency: Cambodian Riel
Drink: Iced coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk
Food: Fried tarantulas
Electric Outlet: European
Visa: Required- offered on arrival