It’s taken a while to finish worrying about Cambodia. Scattered across the country are monks and temples and farms and Killing Caves and further details of a tragic past that is hard to comprehend no matter how many times you hear about it. Angkor Wat took our breath away. But so did the Killing Fields, the Genocide Museum, and an ancient mountaintop with a sacred temple; there were bats flying out at sunset, striking sunrises, and refreshing poolside cocktails. I already look forward to visiting again, though next time for a few weeks instead of ten short days.
Cambodia: The Real Land of Smiles
Even with limited time, we saw that across the country Cambodian people are kind and polite. They smile as you leave their stores, even if you didn’t buy a thing. But I have to confess that I love nature. I always have. So even though I was loving Battambang & Phnom Penh, what I was really looking forward to was exploring Siem Reap. This city built up around Angkor Wat, literally coming to be because of tourism, which helped rebuild the country following the devastating genocide that ripped it apart in the 1970’s. There were inhabitants there before, as the major temple complex has always been an important religious site for the Cambodian people, but it was not the bustling city of today until tourism & restoration of the temples became a priority in the country.
We only had four days for the temples and temple town, however, so we went hard. No stopping for food, reading breaks, or morning coffee. After arriving on our first afternoon, we headed straight for the temples.
“It’s so beautiful here!” became my catch phrase that week. The religious sites are dominated by green, everywhere; sunlight streams through immense foliage that almost seems to be taking over. Centuries-old trees have pushed apart stones that men would have bawled in the face of.
Our Itinerary in 4 Trips
Pre Rup (for sunset)
Angkor Wat (for sunrise)
Bayon in Angkor Thom
Angkor Wat (quick exploration)
Angkor Wat (thorough exploration)
We All Keep Angkor Wat Beautiful
Our tuk tuk driver saw a guy leave his backpack behind while biking towards Angkor Wat, and proceeded to turn his tuk tuk around twice to go return it to him. Thoughout the country, we met almost exclusively kind and honest Cambodians, unlike my time in the Philippines and much of Latin America. Arrive with an open mind. This is not the mean streets of LA or Boston, either, so don’t worry about people constantly trying to rob you or rip you off. Though do expect people to be trying to earn a living however they can. Pay what you think is a fair price for something rather than the fair price, be it a shirt, a tuk tuk, or a coconut.
With neighboring Thailand & Vietnam’s reputations in mind, I also feel obliged to warn you that just as in any other country where they are not legal, don’t go to Cambodia looking for drugs or prostitutes or any other illegal activities. This is a country still recovering from war, and I honestly think they’re thriving for how recently they were suffering. But there’s definitely still a long way to go.
You’re there to support the economy, so help where you can, though don’t give money to beggars of any age or buy stuff from children. I know it is hard to watch people suffering, but the Cambodian people can help themselves, and they are. Hundreds of charities and nonprofit organizations have popped up over the last few decades, and your money is best spent supporting them rather than occupying children who should be in school.
Many local artists draw inspiration from the temples; I saw several young men creating and selling watercolor paintings along the roads leading to the sacred sites, and I bought a couple. Others sold drawings or painted-in rubbings of some of the reliefs depicted inside the temples. So if you’re looking for art to bring back, buy some that you just watched someone make!
Many people also sell souvenirs inside the grounds of the more popular temples. Categorize these as active religious sites, and always be respectful of the sacred space, as it was built and continues to be used for religious purposes. Avoid making financial transactions or taking pictures of people praying, though it’s probably fine to take pictures of the offerings after the people have left them.
Enjoy your experience in the jungle, but remember to keep the space as clean as when you arrived. Respect closing times, and leave before the street lamps in the jungle have to light your way back.
Have you ever been to Angkor Wat or another spectacular religious site? How was your experience? Leave a comment below and let us know your best advice!