Southeast Asia vacation Part 1: The Ancient Ruins of Siem Reap

Living in South Korea presented us the perfect opportunity to travel around Southeast Asia. It’s one of those parts of the world that’s just so far from California, that we’d likely never visit it otherwise, I’m kind of ashamed to admit. (Unless Will had to go there for work, which is very possible.) So, we decided to vacation across Cambodia and Thailand on our way back to the states.

Why Cambodia and Thailand? We didn’t know much about either country until we started to research and plan our trip. In the end, the many ruins, temples and paradise-like beaches lured us there.

Our two glorious weeks of vacation kicked off in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Tip #1 when traveling to Cambodia — bring U.S. dollars! You’ll need them for everything, most importantly, to pay for your tourist visa (they don’t accept credit card) and then for pretty much anything else in-country. Let’s just say we learned this the hard way, having flown in straight from Seoul with only South Korean Won in our wallets.

The ride to our hotel from the airport was a bit eerie. It was nighttime, and our driver took us through what felt like the middle of nowhere! It was hard to get a sense of where we were in the dark. It wasn’t until we ventured out the next day that we discovered Cambodia was not at all what we expected (more on that later).

Siem Reap is famously known for its amazing ancient ruins in and around Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire (802 AD-1431). Before visiting any temples, though, we decided to get a primer at the Angkor National Museum so we could better appreciate the sights we were about to explore. Aside from visiting the museum, we spent our first day relaxing by the pool of our beautiful resort and strolling through the Angkor Night Market.

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We went everywhere by tuk tuk, which was definitely a first. If you’re ever in Southeast Asia, it’s a must. Sure, only tourists ride them, but they’re so much fun. Just remember to keep your smartphone inside the tuk tuk while taking photos…don’t want to have it stolen by any motorcyclists zooming by! I took so many photos and videos from inside the tuk tuk, but here’s one below of one of our first rides. Check out the crazy traffic intersection with no traffic light — motorcycles, scooters, cars, trucks, buses, tuk tuks all “sharing” the roads.

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One of the best parts about traveling via tuk tuk is that we had the same driver for the duration of our stay in Siem Reap. He was very professional and friendly, and was basically at our service. He would drop us off at a temple and wait for us, then take us to the next one, wait for us, and so forth. At first, we weren’t sure what the proper etiquette was — do we invite him to eat with us when we stop to eat? Apparently, they usually go and grab some food while you’re eating, etc., so it works out. He always came prepared with a cooler full of cold water for us, and a raincoat for when it rained so he could keep driving. It seems standard for all tuk tuk drivers. By the way, it cost us next to nothing to rent the tuk tuk for the entire day, either. Around $20 I think.

When we were ready to visit the temples, we hired a tour guide for the day. He spoke English pretty well and really shed some light, not only on the history behind the temples and ruins, but also on the local culture and traditions. (He told us about everything from the prevalence of bad doctors and fake medicine, to the foods that are ok for locals to eat but not for tourists, from the fact that foreigners are not allowed to buy land in Cambodia, to the fact that volleyball is the country’s most popular sport.) Here’s Will with our guide.

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First, we went to Ta Prohm, built in the late 12th century as a Buddhist monastery and university. Other than the fact that it was the filming location for part of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), it’s easy to see why this place is world-famous. These incredibly old trees have grown there and overtaken the ruins, their giant roots wrapping over and around the buildings, claiming ownership. Like with many of the temples across Siem Reap, there are restoration efforts underway to keep these historic gems from falling completely to pieces. I was mesmerized by the huge, beautiful trees — never seen anything like them! Tangled, tall, breathtaking.

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Along the way to the next temple, we passed by other ruins — they are just everywhere. Not sure what this one was called.

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Angkor Thom itself is a walled city with multiple large gates or entrances. Passing through the gates for the first time was a pretty cool experience.

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Next up was Bayon Temple, built as an official state temple for a former king and known for its giant stone faces. It’s one of multiple temples in Siem Reap that has gone from Buddhist to Hindu and back to Buddhist ownership, with the different rulers altering the bas-reliefs and artwork according to their own religious preferences. (Don’t miss the short video below.)

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From Bayon, our guide took us to Baphuon Temple, built in the mid-11th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

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And here was our driver, waiting for us when we finished:

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After a quick lunch break, we finally made our way to Angkor Wat, the most popular tourist destination in Siem Reap and, arguably, all of Cambodia (it even appears on their national flag). In addition to being the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is also known for its architecture — its five towers, its large bas-reliefs (including the one depicting the “Churning of the Sea of Milk”), its sculpted female devatas (Hindu deities), its large moat, and more. It’s an incredible structure and gets especially packed during sunrise and sunset. Thankfully — or maybe not — we went there in the middle of the sweltering day, so it wasn’t as crowded.

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Our next day in Cambodia was our favorite. I know … better than Angkor Wat?? Yes. Read my next post to find out which one was our favorite temple and what else there is to do in Siem Reap aside from visiting temples.

For more photos from Siem Reap, feel free to peruse my Flickr album.

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