We originally planned to do a super quick visit to Siem Reap, really just to see Angkor Wat. So many people had suggested that it was crazy to visit Vietnam and then Laos without ducking into Cambodia to see the shrine to end all shrines. We had no expectations of the country or this city. What we found surprised us, and pleasantly so.
We bid farewell to Vietnam, which meant regrettably leaving two new friends we made in the Ho Chi Minh airport waiting area.
Naomi put on a brave face when confronted with our prop plane bearing the name of a different airline than our carrier.
Happily, we made it intact and on time into Cambodia.
During our first morning of walking around the area near our hotel, we saw more signs and evidence of environmental awareness than we saw during two weeks in Vietnam.
We were impressed with RefillNotLandfill.org which sells refillable bottles with refill stations throughout Siem Reap. After our dismay at seeing plastic water bottles almost everywhere in Vietnam, this was a welcome difference.
Siem Reap is a vibrant city, which clearly caters to both the tourist and the backpacker crowd, but there is a lot more going on here. We have found multiple shops which are run by NGOs to help the local community and raise awareness. This place seems to attract ex-pats from all over the world, who drop what they are doing and follow their cause passion in Cambodia. We had a marvelous Italian dinner served by the owner from Southern Italy. We read about House for Strays, an animal rescue bar / petting zoo started by two Americans. We walked through the Made in Cambodia market, featuring exclusively locally made goods.
Of course, we visited the temples. The temples in the Angkor Wat region range from relatively well kept to absolutely overgrown and crumbling.
The magnitude of Angkor Wat itself can't be captured in photos. Those who recommended we visit were absolutely justified.
We spent a fascinating and very very very sweaty day trudging around antiquity.
Our guide at Angkor Wat itself pointed out the many intricacies of the design, including the abundance of odd numbers 1,3,5,7,9 corresponding to 1: the unity of everything, 3: god, king, country, 5: 3 plus mother and father, 7: I forget, and 9: chakras.
He pointed out the marker at the center of Angkor Wat which perfectly aligns with magnetic north, and wisely got us to take an "ussie" with each of us as one of east, west, north and south.
Even the stunning temples took a back seat to our favorite feature of the Angkor Wat area - the monkeys, who were completely unperturbed by people, and who seemed to delight in putting on shows of various kinds.
We loved the vibe of Siem Reap enough that we extended our stay there by an extra two days, which gave us time to explore the night scene on Pub Street, including the incredibly inexpensive massages and treatments (including fish defoliation),
walk past the Kiss tribute band playing at the Hard Rock Cafe,
and, of course, visit the many markets and sample exotic delicacies like folded dragonfruit ice cream and oreos (Keegan's choice).
I'm still trying to understand what made this place so much more appealing to us than the other cities we've visited. Certainly the relative absence of honking on the street, and the culture of environmental awareness were a nice contrast. But I think there's something deeper, which may actually come down to Buddhism. Cambodia is much more Buddhist than Vietnam, and there's a sense of more contentment and greater striving for harmony which I can imagine might be related to that.
Or perhaps it's as simple as low expectations. I really knew, thought, and expected nothing from Cambodia, so every surprise was a pleasant one.
On to Thailand next!