An unforgettable solo trip to Angkor
Angkor is undoubtedly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen of the temples, photos just don’t do them justice. When the sun rose over Angkor Wat, I couldn’t help but audibly gasp at how magnificent the sight was. Put aside the architectural feat, the sheer beauty of the UNESCO world heritage site reflecting on the lake with the sun peeking over the trees is enough to make anyone pause and appreciate just how gorgeous life is.
Highlight: Angkor Wat, duh. Plus Bayon (the temple with massive faces) and Ta Prom (where Tomb Raider was filmed)
Lowlight: the big bites. No matter how much I bathed myself in Deet, the mosquitoes still manage to find the untouched spots to feast upon my skin. But it’s a small price to pay to get to experience such a beautiful place.
Bottom line: Don’t wait to coordinate vacationing to Siem Reap with a travel buddy. The beauty of Angkor Wat is the only companion you need. Go now before it gets even more tourist-y. And it’s SO. CHEAP!
ACTIVITIES (in order of enjoyment)
Sunrise bike ride around Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Preah Kahn, Bayon), Ta Prohm
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, do it!! So worth it
One of the highlights was actually biking from temple to temple through backroads and lesser traveled paths that no (sane) tuk tuk driver could traverse. Caution: because July is the rainy season, the roads were extremely muddy and slippery. I’d only recommend this if you’re super comfortable on a bike. (I can think of many friends who do not fit this description ;) )
Angkor Wat: no brainer. I mean, why are you even in Cambodia?
Bayon: the temple with massive faces. If Angkor Wat weren’t Angkor Wat (and thus my default favorite temple), Bayon might eke this one out. The looming faces of Bayon have a way of good-naturedly taunting you, as if to remind you how small you are in this vast world.
Ta Prohm: the temple that has trees snaking throughout the walls. Even if you aren’t an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider fan, Ta Prom is the perfect melding, yet battle, of nature and architecture. The trees are both friend and foe to these temples. Their roots fortify the temple’s foundation, but also possess the power to collapse entire walls of the structure. Inevitable winner in this duel? Def nature.
Rating: 5 stars, a must-see
Along with 94% of the world, I hate circuses. Clowns and captive animals performing sad tricks under the big top is probably the last place I’d ever want to be. (Let’s not pretend we weren’t all cheering a little inside when Ringling Bros. went bankrupt :X ) But this is an entirely different performance.
Calling Phare Circus a “circus” does it a disservice. This is a nonprofit that trains disadvantaged kids across all artforms, like acrobatics, archery, juggling, and painting. What manifests is a poignant story (there are different storylines every day) that incorporates high-flying acrobatics with incredible feats of strength, live art, and accompanying music. I was on the edge of my seat during most of the acts and couldn’t hoot and holler loudly enough for the performers.
Pro-tip: Don’t order the set dinner beforehand. Just get some street food for $3 then head to the circus. Line starts at 7:15pm, doors open at 7:30pm. Buy the cheap-o “C” tickets and just get there early for a better seat. No need to pay more for “A” or “B” tickets.
Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre class:
Rating: 5 stars
Demi Moore ain’t got nothing on me.. Ok, yeah she probably does. I had never worked with a pottery wheel before, and it took me until Piece #3 to get the hang of it. But I will say Bowl #4 and Cup #5 look pretty good! There isn’t an artistic bone in my body, but I thoroughly enjoyed being artsy-fartsy for a day. Now I just have to find my Patrick Swayze. Too soon? RIP :X
Added bonus: the Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre employs deaf people to help teach you how to create the ceramics step by step. At first, I didn’t understand why the teachers were being so uncommunicative, but quickly caught on. In Cambodian culture, old school people shun the deaf, believing that they inherited this disability because of a sin they had committed in a previous lifetime. Thankfully attitudes are changing, and there are more employment opportunities opening up for deaf people. I suggested to the manager that he add this background to the website, but he explained that he didn’t want to exploit his workers and use their disability as a marketing ploy. Mad respect. So I followed-up and suggested that he at least explain their disability as a precursor to the class.
Now that I’ve literally lugged these rocks home, I’ve got some cool souvenirs for my apartment!
Tonle Sap dinner tour:
Rating: 4 stars
Tonle Sap is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia (oooo great trivia). But the best part of this tour was watching the stunning sunset with a gorgeous rose hue alongside good company. Cruising around the lake and seeing the floating village was a refreshing reminder of just how different people’s lives are from mine, a la living in Water World.
Added bonus: This is what I get for not reading the fine print… this was open bar and an all-you-can-eat buffet! Three beers was not getting my money’s worth given that the drinks were a-flowin’.
Countryside Motorike Ride:
Rating: 4 stars
For those who are worried about getting “temple-ed out”, this motorbike ride provided the necessary reprieve from temple overload. Cruising the open road with the wind in my hair (not really, I just chopped it all off, but presumably your hair is longer than mine if you’re a female) was the perfect Day 3 activity after two temple days. You see how most Cambodians really live (after all, 90% of the country are farmers), and it’s quite serene away from the city center.
You can ride for a couple uninterrupted hours, while singing The Carpenters’ “Top of the World”, Celine Dion, John Denver’s “Country Road”, and “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas at the top of your lungs. Your friendly tour guide only interrupts, not because of your tone-deaf singing, but insists that there’s a good photo opp of you riding towards the mountain (and who am I to turn down someone taking my photo? ;) )
For the final hour, we stopped along a lake with Bali-style huts — the ones that are on the water, and you can dive right into the water from your hut. Except, this was Cambodia, so it was kinda the poor-man’s version of those Bali huts. I had a magnificent bbq lunch with what is my new favorite fruit: rambutan- a spiky red fruit whose fleshy inside tastes similar to lychee, but tastier. With my belly full, I happily obliged to nap in the hammock for a bit to allow the afternoon rain to pass.
Similar to the bicycle ride, I don’t recommend this unless you’ve ridden a scooter before. The motorbike was similar, but heavier and with gears. Plus the muddy roads have you veering through some very narrow passages to avoid riding through puddles.
Air con van to Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre
Rating: 3 stars; worth going, but not the price I personally paid
Very glad I did it, and I would have gone to Kbal Spean (sacred river) and Banteay Srei (City of women) again. Kbal Spean was the first site I visited, so I’m a bit biased towards it, as it will forever be seared in my memory. It’s definitely worth a look. The carvings in the river bed are stunning, and it baffles the mind how erosion hasn’t made the stones smooth as marble. But hey, I’m no geologist.
Banteay Srei was gorgeous because of its intricate carvings. The temple itself is on the smaller side, but that just adds to the ultra feminine nature of this petite, but mighty beauty. (Girl power!)
However, the tour I chose was a huge ripoff. Always call ahead to your hotel and see what tours they offer. The hotel would have offered this “tour” for ~$50, but I paid $100, plus $10 tip to the guide and $5 tip to the driver. Granted, there was a large discount if there were 2+ people, but since I was solo, I paid the price. Ain’t no love for single folks.
Also, I would have opt-ed for the tuk tuk instead of the air con van. Despite being a long drive — almost an hour each way — , the breeze from the tuk tuk would have sufficed.
Roluos Temple Group (Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
I wasn’t stoked on any additional temples past the ones I had already been to on Day 1 and 2, so I wasn’t expecting much from these three. I chose these over Srah Srang (giant lake) and Ta Keo, another temple, but I think I made the wrong choice. My guide book advertised that the Roluos Temple Group temples were designed like pyramids. (“Cool!” I thought, something different) They were nice, but didn’t blow my mind. Bakong is the biggest of the three and was impressive, but Lolei was entirely under construction, so I saw a whole lotta tent and not much temple.
Angkor Wat Museum ($12)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
I think I was just killing time on my last day. A history buff I am not, but I do have an appreciation for learning more about a people’s culture. This was enlightening to reinforce all the guides’ history lessons with visuals. Worth the $12 (air conditioning at no extra cost)
$4 for a 60min body massage: this is even cheaper than their neighboring sister country, Thailand! I even saw some places offering a 30min foot massage for $1. I couldn’t imagine giving another human being just one dollar bill to massage my grubby little feet.. That’s just disrespectful. I had massages four consecutive days, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
I “splurged” for $8 oil massages (they’re everywhere) and opt-ed for an in-room body massage for just $7. The quality of the massages was so-so, compared to the ones in Thailand, Korea, and heck, even at home. But at that price, zip the lip and get another one.
$13. You can’t even get a mani/pedi from one of those US beauty school places where the beauticians need guinea pigs to practice on! I walked around Pub Street and saw signs for manicures and pedicures for $5 each, so it’s possible to get them even cheaper. However, I was happy with the quality of my mani/pedi, so no regrets. And because there is such an abundance of labor (I swear I’m not being insensitive, it’s just a fact), they’re done in a jiffy because they have 3 women working on you at the same time.
Maybe I hadn’t gotten my nails done in a while (it’s been months, sorry I’m grody… sue me :X ) but, man, the women were going to town on my nails, trimming down the cuticles as if they were mining for gold. Make a wincing face if they’re hurting you, and they’ll sharply recoil and profusely apologize. Cambodians in the service industry tiptoe so gingerly around you. If they commit even the slightest error, such as allowing beer condensation to drip on your hand, they freak out as if they had just gashed your forearm instead. It’s very sweet, but wholly unnecessary for me personally.
Places/things to eat:
Bugs Cafe: I stumbled upon this restaurant on my walk down to the Night Market. Bugs on a stick sold by street vendors (including scorpions, spiders and snakes, oh my!) are a “thing” in Cambodia, the owner explained. People love the novelty, and vendors charge 50 cents just for a photo to ensure that tourists actually buy something rather than just gawk. But these buggers are deep fried, and the vendors pay little mind to the actual flavor. Enter Bugs Cafe: where a Cambodian chef + French owner teamed up to provide some really tasty grub. Not only do many people around the world eat bugs, the entire process from procuring to cooking is incredibly sustainable and good for the planet. I hope bugs become much more mainstream in our everyday diet. Check out Bugs Cafe’s Instagram where yours truly is featured in a photo.
Lilypop: cheap, good lok lak (beef plus rice) for $2.50
Street food: pretty much any roadside restaurant offers the same food with plates ranging from $2–5. Random vendors will sell food items like banana wrapped in rice or mochi-like rice balls stuffed with palm sugar and sprinkled with coconut. Buy it all — these items cost 50 cents.
BBQ: Pub Street is the main drag, adjacent to the Night Market (celebrating its 10-year anniversary!) It’s super tourist-y (hey, it’s called “Pub Street,” what did you expect), but it’s really lively and vibrant with neon signs and arching canopies. If you’re looking to go out at night, this is really the only option, but a perfectly satisfactory one. There are a bunch of BBQ restaurants that will grill traditional meats (pork, chicken, beef) and fish, but also some of the more “exotic” stuff — frog, crocodile, ostrich. Whatever floats your boat. I eat everything, so I opt-ed for the frog and crocodile. Frog=delicious, crocodile=tough.
Worried about Bali Belly? Not here! I drank two fruit shakes (Mango and Avocado, $1 and $1.50 respectively) blended with ice, and I was fine. In full disclosure, I eat anything and everything, so years of this type of gorging may have contributed to my cast-iron stomach.
Two thumbs way, way up for traveling solo to Siem Reap. No need to wait for a travel buddy to go. In fact, visiting the temples alone was oddly calming, and I didn’t miss the mindless chatter that sometimes comes with traveling with companions. It’s impossible to feel lonely in the world if you travel with an open mind.
From the band of merry European physicists to the author of A Taste of Generation Yum to a Danish woman teaching French to the locals to the Aussie drama teacher to the young Brit practicing medicine, you meet some uber cool people when you’re traveling by yourself.
And with the advent of Tinder, you can also meet up with some pretty interesting people (some guys slightly more aggressive than others -_- Stand strong, ladies. Remember “No” means no!) Tinder is a great way to check out new bars without having to worry about douchebags creepily hitting on you. You might already be on a date with him!
Traveling as a solo female in Siem Reap was 100% safe. I even walked home around 9pm by myself and felt zero danger due to the throngs of people on scooters, foot, and tuk tuk out late at night.
Length of travel: 4 days in Siem Reap was enough, the final 5th day wasn’t necessary. I don’t regret not going to Phnom Penh or Koh Kong, but if I had one extra day, I would have loved to ride all the way to Phnom Penh on my motorbike (it’s only 300km). Option B would have been to take the overnight car to Koh Kong and spend a day on the beach. (Heard in Cuba from fellow travelers: The poor infrastructure results in polluted waters, and actually made the two females very sick. But they still highly recommended it! Must be a pretty darn gorgeous beach…)
Credit cards are rarely used. However, Siem Reap accepts USD so no need to exchange money at all. (USA! USA!) The ATM fees were $5–6, so make sure to withdraw enough in one go to make the fee worth it. This might be the cheapest country I’ve ever traveled to… Nicaragua may be a close second.
Time of year:
Yes, Cambodia was balls hot. It was very, very warm every day, even in the evenings. July is also the rainy season, so it rained heavily every day. But the good part was that every morning was clear, and the rain came later in the afternoon, at which point, I was done seeing most of the temples.
Also, the advantage is that low season drastically reduces the number of tourists flocking to the temples. It’s an entirely different experience exploring the temples in relative silence versus trying to tune out the incessant chatter from blithely unaware tourists.
Miscellaneous: Buy the 3-day temple pass. You probably only need two days, but a three-day pass ($62) is cheaper than two 1-day passes ($37 each)
Arkoun, Cambodia! You were a lovely hostess, and I’ll treasure this trip forever :)