My husband and I spent 3 weeks traveling around Southeast Asia for our honeymoon in 2011. We went to 5 countries in total with a shoestring budget that nobody would believe, thanks to a seat sale on a budget airline and my newly acquired flashpacking skills. We were not disappointed.
It is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Of all the countries we’ve visited, Siem Reap in Cambodia was my favorite. Ever since I saw Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft running amok in Angkor Wat, I instantly knew that it was somewhere I must visit. It was #1 on my bucket list. When the opportunity to travel for an extended period came up, I jumped at the chance and made sure that we got to visit Siem Reap.
I had the time of my life!
I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. My only regret was that we didn’t stay long enough to fully explore what Siem Reap had to offer. Someday, perhaps. It’s been 2 years since that visit, but 5 memories of those 4 beautiful days still linger in my mind.
FAVORITE #1: That first morning ride
We arrived in Siem Reap from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam the night before on a very long, exhausting and eventful 14-hour bus ride that I wish I would never have to take again. Fortunately for us, it was all uphill from there. That first morning ride was a fitting welcome to 2 weary honeymooners.
With only a few hours of sleep, our kind tuk-tuk driver, Sam, picked us up promptly first thing in the morning and brought us to the Angkor Wat complex.
It was so beautiful.
With wind blowing into our faces the entire tuk-tuk ride, I was giddy and pumped up! I just couldn’t wait. My first glimpse of the complex did not disappoint.
It was lush, it was huge, it was stunning.
I mentally asked myself repeatedly, “Am I really here?!” I was beyond ecstatic. I was in awe–and I was in love.
FAVORITE #2: Bantay Srei
Bantay Srei was built in 967 AD, almost 2 centuries before Angkor Wat. It is also significantly smaller. But what it lacked in size, it more than made up for it in its charm. The temple was beautifully and ornately carved–you can’t help but wonder how much work it took to complete these amazing bas-reliefs.
What I didn’t like was that right next to the temple were small stalls selling souvenirs to tourists. I’m all for using tourism to improve the local economy, but I felt that Bantay Srei was too beautiful to have something so modern–and a tourist trap, at that–to be sitting right next to it. But I didn’t let that bother my experience. I am still just a visitor, after all. I haven’t walked a mile in their shoes. That tourist trap might just be the sole source of their livelihood.
Bantay Srei will always be a beautiful experience, with or without tourist traps.
FAVORITE #3: Cambodian Food
It was quite a surprise to me that I appreciated Cambodian food. I was told by friends to keep my expectations to a minimum–they didn’t find Cambodian cuisine fantastic during their visit.
But we loved it! Even my picky eater of a husband loved the food. He wasn’t much of a curry eater prior to this trip (he wasn’t much of a foodie!), but after a taste of the Khmer curry and Amok on Pub Street, he was hooked. For that alone, I will always have a sentimental appreciation for Cambodia.
I also couldn’t forget that amazing green mango dip that Sam gave me. It was a mix of salt, sugar and chili. It was made simply but very good!
FAVORITE #4: Fish Spa
While planning for the trip, I thought it was a good idea to go to a fish spa on Pub Street–everyone seemed to be raving about. Looking back, it was a good idea. But it didn’t feel like a great idea the first time I placed my feet on the tank for little fish to nibble on. I don’t consider myself a scaredy cat, but for the first few minutes of the experience–I feared for my life!
Luckily, my husband agreed to get his feet in the tank first before mine (ah, true love!). It was weird the first 3 minutes, but I soon found myself enjoying and relaxing. It was a good after-dinner treat; and I sure needed it after running around and climbing temples!
FAVORITE #5: Angkor Wat, after sunrise
I don’t like lining up to see sights. I don’t like having to “overtake” large tourist groups just to get ahead of the pack and get great shots of Angkor Wat’s bas-reliefs. And I don’t like having to hurry up just because another group need to take their photos next.
Angkor Wat at sunrise is a disappointment. Those photos showing Angkor Wat in the middle of nowhere is a product of great composition and editing. I had the impression that it was going to be serene and tranquil.
Was I so very wrong!
There is a huge crowd of tourists who gather every day at the crack of dawn to get that iconic photo of Angkor Wat at sunrise.
But here’s a secret Sam told us: that same crowd thins out just after sunrise as most tour groups drive back to their hotels to eat breakfast. This means that only a few will be exploring Angkor Wat in the first few hours after sunrise. So we decided to stay put and eat breakfast a little bit later.
We had Angkor Wat almost to ourselves that morning.
No crowds. Quiet. Serene. Probably how monks experienced Angkor Wat in its heyday. Exactly how I pictured myself experiencing its awesomeness.
It was magical.
I still dream of going back to Siem Reap. My husband’s all templed out, so we probably won’t get to visit in the near future.
But I would love for my kids to visit it with me someday. I would love to see the look of excitement in their eyes as they feel the wind in their faces that first morning ride into the complex. I want to see them running around and exploring temples with youthful wonder and curiosity. I look forward to seeing the expression on their faces as they have a taste of Cambodian food for the first time. I would love to see the look of awe in their eyes as they marvel at Angkor Wat the first time they cross the moat towards its entrance. Most importantly, I want them to experience the joy of traveling–of seeing how different people in different places live.
Exploring Angkor Wat was such a humbling experience. No photo would ever give it justice. As I hopped from temple to temple, I couldn’t help but feel envious of the pilgrims who traveled to Angkor Wat in its glory days. How beautiful the experience might have been, no matter how treacherous the journey.
P.S. I’ve been often asked how I came upon our very nice tuk-tuk driver, Sam. I found him online while planning our honeymoon and booked him before we got to Siem Reap. Some travelers advice against booking beforehand, but I’m glad we booked him in advance. Siem Reap wouldn’t have been a beautiful experience if not for him. I would recommend Sam Tuktuk Tours to anyone. He speaks English well, and would happily lend you a book he carries around to help you appreciate going in and around temples.