Westerners don’t often think about Cambodia as a must-see tourist destination. That’s really unfortunate.
My wife and I just spent the last three days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which was our staging area to visit Angkor Wat along with many other temples in the region. The experience was perfect: few tourists, amazing amazing amazing temples, and a unique and friendly culture.
Go now. See this country the way it’s meant to be seen before it’s too late. The country is still unspoiled, but who knows what it will be like in another 5-10 years.
Here are some highlights from Cambodia.
I had only heard about Angkor Wat prior to visiting Cambodia. And this temple is incredible, making the journey worthwhile in of itself.
But when you arrive in Siem Reap you soon appreciate the fact that the region has about a thousand impressive temples for you to explore. While Angkor Wat was wonderful, I found the temples in Angkor Thom and some of the other outer areas even more impressive and intimate.
Be sure you go with a hired guide. The history behind these temples are fascinating. Many of these religious sites switched back and forth from being centers of Hinduism or Buddhism, depending on whoever was king at the time.
Exploring these temples made me appreciate the ingenuity of human beings. No mortar or cement was used to create these huge temples, just bricks laid on top of each other like puzzle pieces. Even after a thousand years many of these structures are still standing and looking awesome.
The floating villages of Tonle Sap
On a whim, my wife and I decided to ask our guide to take us off our pre-arranged tour to visit a floating village community on the Tonle Sap lake. Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Asia.
Here you will find a relatively large town of house boats, with many of the infrastructure requirements you see in towns on land: a hospital, a church, a school, convenience stores, and restaurants. Except everything is on boats.
Many of the villagers are actually illegal immigrants from Vietnam. Tonle Sap is located pretty far into Cambodia, and Vietnamese house boat folk have to float up the Mekong river for upwards of three years in order to reach this lake (with plenty of bribes to cops and immigration people along the way). Why live on Tonle Sap? There are a TON of fish here. A great food source can mean a lot.
It was really fun to cruise around the village and see how these people live, but this part of the trip was one of the more sobering points of our trip. I learned that this community has virtually no access to education beyond grade school and that the average life expectancy is 54. Nutrition and health are huge problems here. This is a very muddy lake; people actually drink directly from it. They also poo and pee right into it, as bathrooms are just holes on the top deck of a boat. Waste drops right into the water.
I don’t ever want to forget this experience. I have a lot to be grateful for living in the developed world and having the resources that I have.
It’s getting hot in here…
What happens when it’s close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with super high humidity? Sweat pours out of every pore on your body.
As a wimpy Californian who is used to low 70s and dry climate, this weather felt oppressively hot. April/May is the transition from the dry season to the wet season. Our guide told us that the best time to come to Cambodia in terms of weather is October thru April. That is the dry season and it is a bit cooler. But the tradeoff is that you’ll find more tourists swarming the temples.
Despite the heat, my wife and I recommend visiting in May. We didn’t get rained on too much, but you do feel the heat.
Just drink a lot of water and stop complaining.
So much to see
We didn’t get to see much of Siem Reap. And we didn’t even touch Phnom Penh, which is supposed to be pretty cool to visit too. But it was time to move on because there’s just too much more of the world for my wife and I to see! We will come back to Cambodia in the future for a longer trip.
Next stop: a quick trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.