I’ve been wanting to get to Angkor Wat for a long time, but never thought I’d make it until I surprised even myself by moving to Asia. Now many of the coolest things in the world are just a stone’s throw away. One of the oldest cities in the world, influenced by half a dozen religions, sprawling over 1,000 square kilometers, built to withstand monsoons, and at one time home to over one million people . . . um sign me UP. The quiet sunrise, the sprawling temples, cheeky monkeys, the friendly people, the delicious food of Cambodia calls to the traveler heart. The complicated and violent past (and the role the US has played it in) adds a complex layer to visiting there, but I knew I had to go. Even knowing it would be hotter than the surface of the sun and that Santa might not be able to find me there over Christmas would not stop me.
After Leslie and Mike’s wedding in Thailand, the dynamic duo of Rachel Squared zipped off Koh Samui (so grateful for their international airport!) and went through a disappointing stop in Bangkok (somehow stuck in the one part of the airport without any snacks). You know what we did to make it awesome though? We wore Christmas sweaters.
Oh. Yeah. We did. And off I went in search of my Indiana Jones, assuring the big man in the red suit that I had been chaotic good this year, and maybe deserved it.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve spent Christmas abroad, nor the first time in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas at all, but I was pleasantly surprised by the range of cartoony Christmas themed things we saw, which was somehow nice and awful all at the same time.
Our lovely boutiquey family run hotel sent what we thought was a teenager (turns out he’s 30-something, married with children, but looks like he’s 15) by tuk-tuk to pick us up from the airport. He had impeccable English and such a friendly smile that we ended up spending the next four days driving around with him.
We’d done a fair amount of research for what to do to enjoy Angkor Wat, but still were a bit underprepared for just how hot it would be and how much walking you would do. We hadn’t booked our tickets to visit the temple in advance, which was fine, and arranged with the hotel to get to-go breakfast and a bright and early 3:45am wake up call to race down to the ticket office with a million other tourists. We were some of the first there, which was awesome. Then our tuk tuk sped through the night, which was just beginning for us and just ending for some. Once we entered the park, he dropped us off and told us to RUN. We made it to the pond and waited anxiously with thousands of others, swatting away mosquitoes and hawkers and hoping it would be a good sunrise.
It was a slow burn, but beautiful and peaceful. You could hear the whole crowd holding their breath, waiting for something magical to happen and it very nearly did. The sun just didn’t ever really seem to rise in the majestic way we were looking for, but that’s okay. We took as many pictures as we thought necessary and then made the very smart move to scramble into the temple before it was overrun with people. We were able to see things without the crowds, and for the rest of the day seemed about one step ahead of everyone as we hit most of the major sites.
One can only scramble around temples, avoiding cheeky monkeys and busloads of Chinese tourists, sweating from everywhere you didn’t know could sweat for so long. If you do too much of it, it all starts to look the same and lose some of the magic. And tours in Angkor Wat know this, so you schedule your pickup to hit the sunrise, and then you are usually back at your hotel by about 10:30am, exhausted and sunburnt despite all your best efforts. We took cold showers and doze-y naps in the AC-ed hotel room, scrolling through our photos and soaking it all in until we headed to the pool. There was a delightfully drunk Russian couple, obnoxious French family, young Asian couple taking beautiful photos of each other, and then us, half in our cups by noon, Facetiming our families on Christmas eve in our bikinis, shouting into my phone so my Grandpa could hear me. The real feel was something like 110F with over 90% humidity, so I think we can be forgiven if the best idea we had to combat that was G&Ts at the swim up bar.
The next day, we had another early pickup, and this time we went to more off the beaten path temples and wandered. We got to have a lot more space and time to ourselves, letting the idea of the place really come to life. We visited the “Tomb Raider” temple, Ta Prohm, which is a good example of the jungle taking the temples back. Our driver explained that there were so many mines planted in Cambodia during the war, that a lot of the structures were damaged or destroyed, which not only damaged temples but often led to people stealing the stones of the temples to rebuild, which explains a lot of the crumbling that doesn’t come from just being one of the oldest human structures on earth.
We saw the Elephant temple and the Bayon temple with over 200 faces etched into the stones, and I followed a monk on pilgrimage over steps and ruins, but he walked really fast so it just became a game of Where’s Waldo I played against myself all day, trying to spot his bright orange robes in the ruins.
For Christmas dinner, we donned festive headbands and wandered down the pub street, which was a less seedy version of Patong Beach in Phuket, still teeming with bars and old men looking too interested in young women and families you wish would take their young ones home from the madness. We had Christmas dinner of pasta and paninis at a Belgian restaurant, playing our thousandth game of Golf and Headsup, and then got more cheap foot massages, trying to ease away the ten mile walking feels embedded into our feet. And guess what? They let you drink beer from the convenience at the same time and it’s magical and totally does work.
The next day, for something different to do, we took a tour of a village on a lake. Big lake. It’s called Tonle Sap, and it’s this huge freshwater lake that provides water and food for nearly a million people in Cambodia, with almost 200 different fishing villages living on or around it on stilt houses or floating villages. The tour showed a different way of life, which was interesting, but was a bit of a tourist trap; we got dropped off at the village school, where we were swarmed with women and children cleverly begging for school supplies by asking for cash in exchange for packages of notebooks and pencils you could then hand directly to a cute barefoot child, so you could feel good about yourself. Most people did this, also taking pictures with the children, and it all felt kind of sick. But of course, I go weak at schools and said “take all my money!” and then shoved the notebooks at a gang of children and let them fight it out. I will just hope it all gets distributed well.
The stilted houses are easily up 20-30 feet in the air the dry season, which we were in, and you could see barefooted children and adults scrambling up and down what looked like very unstable ladders and stairs, or perched on a porch, swinging in a hammock, showering in the river water. Our tuk tuk driver had warned us about the abject poverty most people in Cambodia are living in, with no electricity, no running water, burning the forests away for heat, still recovering from a war that took most of the grandfathers and fathers and uncles, lacking government help, having fished most of the lake to extinction, unable to pay for basic services, but this brought it home and broke our hearts in a very real way.
That night, aiming for an evening of rest after massive days, we opted to have dinner at the hotel and just chill out in our room. Of course, like all our best laid plans, that was not to be. We walked back to the room, and a small dinosaur was crawling around our porch like he owned it. It was a prehistoric beetle the size of my fist. And he had an attitude. So I did what any normal person would do; filmed a video of it, and then prepared to whack it into the next century with a flip flop. But I misjudged the angles of the porch, and it hit the side of a wall and ricocheted right back at me like a hockey puck, causing me to scream so loudly that the hotel security came running to check on us.
The other fun thing that happened that evening was I became so overwhelmed with some kind of intestinal malfunction, I was up all night, giving my insides to the toilet, googling symptoms of Ebola virus. It was easily one of the sickest times I’ve ever had while traveling, and I still have no idea what caused it, but I nearly woke Raquel up to get me a tuk tuk ambulance. But, like most nice tropical diseases, it was over in 24 hours.
We spent the next day walking around through town trying to find a cemetery I had located on a map and *needed* to go to. It was waaaay off the beaten path and happened to also be on a compound with an active monastery and elementary school. We saw bright orange robes hanging out to dry and heard monks laughing, living their normal lives, and some of the most impressive tombstones I’ve ever seen.
Overall, my favorite parts of Siem Reap were conversations with our lovely tuk tuk, who never hesitated to pull over at a convenience store so we could stock up on snacks and cold brewskies, and pointed out all kinds of interesting things to us; getting to play Temple Run among the ruins, nearly on our own the second day; and the surreality of spending Christmas in blazing hot weather, chasing off monkeys and resisting the urge to buy the ubiquitous elephant pants all backpackers apparently have to wear or aren’t let into the country. Cambodia was cheap and easy and friendly, anxious for tourists, and we had a fantastic Mexican meal there, continuing my quest to try Mexican food in every country in the world.
I posted this little tribute to life on Facebook on Christmas, and I think it sums it up nicely:
Ten years ago I hiked Machu Picchu to culminate five months of my first backpacking trip – through Central and South America. I went back to the states, unemployed, and with zero experience in either Latin or teaching, somehow was hired to be a Latin teacher! Those decisions and risks and leaps of faith changed everything. Today I watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat as I make my way through south East Asia, now living in Hong Kong as a teacher. My life has not always made sense to me or anyone else, has not been without it’s share of hard times or moments of shaking my fist at God. It’s not easy to sacrifice another Christmas with family for a few more stamps in my passport. And it might look pretty glamorous to travel as much as i get to, but I’m not usually posting pictures of the all night Bali belly, infected mosquito bites, poverty I witness, tears of loneliness and a lot of other bummers. But it’s my journey, it’s incredible, I’m proud of it, I’ve never met a stranger, I’m learning all the time, I am blessed beyond measure. And in this season, on happy birthday Jesus, thank you and I love you to all of you who share it with me. I’d take you all in my pocket if I could. Oh wait I do it’s my phone. Merry Christmas to all – chase dreams laugh hug and love as much as you can.