Two parts excitement. One part anxiety. And a dash of uncertainty. Even though I have planned this trip for months and I will only be away for a little longer than 2 months, It still didn’t stop my mind from conjuring the cocktail of conflicting emotions as I boarded the plane for Siem Reap. This trip was a trip of many firsts for me. This was the first time I’ve travelled alone. It was the my first time to Cambodia. And it was the first time I have been away from home for that long. Even for work, the longest I’ve been away previously was 3 weeks.
I was overly excited that I made sure I was prepared for every scenario and situation on the road. I had all my clothes and necessities packed to the last meticulous detail and cramped into a 55l backpack. I purchased a few guideboks and saved them into my tablet. I made a rough itinerary of the entire journey. I booked my hostel for the first 5 nights. I wore a money belt in case anybody tries to rob or pickpocket me. I had all my important documents photostated. Alright, the last 2 bits are very important for anybody who’s travelling. The rest however, as I eventually learn, were unnecessary.
A good friend called me the night before departure to ask me, “Hey! I’m genuinely excited for you! But out of curiosity, why are you doing this?” Even up to that point, I wasn’t really sure. But I had nothing to lose since I’ve already left my daily job. When there’s no point in looking backwards, might as well as look forward. I told myself there and then that whatever happens, I will go along with the flow.
I landed at Siem Reap International Airport late in the evening after an uneventful flight. There wasn’t anybody on the adjacent seats to talk to. I wondered if it was a sign. Nevermind that, I’m sure I will meet somebody at the hostel.
I have arranged for a free tuk-tuk pickup with the hostel to avoid the usual hassles with taxi touts. It turns out that almost, if not all, hostels/hotels at Siem Reap offers free airport transfers. Imagine being a superstar for a second as you exit the arrival hall to a horde of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, each holding a cardboard with passenger names written on. It was overwhelming at first, but I eventually found my name from the sea of cardboards. The man holding my name was around my height, had a compact built and dark brown skin. He introduced himself as “Vai” (Sp?) and was a tuk-tuk driver for the hostel. He was the first person I met in Cambodia.
We waited for another girl before we left the airport. On the way, I chatted with her and it turns out that she was an Australian travelling to Cambodia for her fourth time. She was heading for Phnom Penh the next day and when I asked how was it to travel solo, she said to me, “Best way to travel. I never going back to how I used to do it,”
The town wasn’t too far from the airport and it didn’t take long before we arrived at Hostel Siem Reap. It was a cozy hostel with its own bar and… yes, swimming pool! The vibe was laid back and the staff were local an friendly. I checked in and was brought to my dorm, which to my surprise was empty. My roommates were all out for the night. Ermm… ok, I guess will meet somebody eventually.
I put my backpack aside, kept my valuables in the safe and went exploring Siem Reap town.
Siem Reap – translated “Siam (Thailand) defeated” – is situated in the Northwestern corner of Cambodia and is a gateway town to the Angkor temples. As it used to be a small unspectacular town, the popularity of Angkor meant that a lot of the development of the town is geared towards tourism. The streets are spotless. The shops and restaurants in the main town are traveller-friendly. Local guides well-versed in foreign languages are abundant. What I didn’t expect to see though was the Pub Street, with its neon lighted sign hanging over a stretch of expensive restaurants and bars. Dig in a little further and you will find cheap Khmer massage palours and generic souvenir shops. Around every corner of the area there will be a few tuk tuks and taxi drivers waiting for business. Being a male solo traveller, I was approached more times than I could count. From the harmless “Want a Tuk Tuk?” to the dodgy ones like “Want lady?” and “Smoke weed?”, you got to get used to saying no quickly. I guess that’s the price of commericialization and tourism. Thankfully, the are a few decent upmarket restaurants and the commercialization isn’t excessive. And having been to Bangkok’s infamous ghetto Khao San Road, I hope it will never be.
Nevertheless, take a walk away and you will be rewarded with a glimpse of the locals’ daily life. You will find friendly locals and young students who would like to practice their English. I was tipped off by my roommate a couple of days later that the market at the central had good local food. It was apparently still frequented by the locals in the morning. The funny thing about this market was that if visited any time other than early morning, it’s quiet and only the cheap restaurants that serve tourist food are opened. In the morning though, it’s a whole different vibe. It was packed and lively. Vendors and customers alike were squeezed into small lanes and some of the fishmongers had to even squad on their platforms to go about their business.
The food, while not superb was local and hearty. Since there used to be a large Chinese community in Cambodia, it was unsurprising to find noodle soup and porridge for breakfast. Often served with shredded chicken and blood cakes, they would not look out of place in a Penang kitchen. You could also find local coconut milk-based desserts that are colourful and eyecatching. Strictly for the sweet tooth. And of course, just like the former French colonies Vietnam and Laos, baguette is a staple. With less than USD$1, you could buy a huge loaf of freshly baked baguette and they are delicious! Crispy on the outside, light and fluffy in the inside. While Khmer cuisine, in my humble opinion wasn’t as extensive or delicious as Vietnamese’s, it was good enough and kept me from craving home cooked food. Hey, who could resist a piping hot bowl of noodle soup?
Although Siem Reap isn’t a bad place to stay in, it isn’t the main reason for coming here. Instead, people come here for Angkor Wat and its surrouding archeological sites. I will save this for the next post. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the post and if you have questions on my trip to Siem Reap or even Cambodia, feel free to ask!
On March 2013, I bought a one-way ticket to Siem Reap and travelled to various places for 5 months. I returned home in September and decided to blog all the memorable stories and photos. It’s the best way to conserve these memories and also share with my friends. All posts are tagged to the category 2013 Travels, should you need to browse the entire series.
I was in Cambodia from March 4 to March 20. Most of the shots were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera, with either the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens or the original Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. Some may be taken with HTC Desire HD smartphone.