In October of 2011, I spent about 10 days in Cambodia during my round the world trip. That’s not a very long time to see a country, so when Andy and I started researching places to go for our winter escape and he was interested in seeing Angkor Wat, I didn’t mind a return trip. I thought I might enjoy taking pictures of the temples with my DSLR, which I didn’t have the first time around, and I figured it was a good opportunity to visit other parts of the country that I didn’t make it to. It was a second chance to see a country I thought I’d never visit again.
Struggling at the temples
Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples really are amazing. I loved seeing them a few years ago. I assumed I would enjoy it the second time around, but it didn’t quite work out that way. A lingering sinus infection meant I was having a hard time dealing with the exhaust from the motorbikes and tuk tuks, plus all the dust and dirt they kick up as they drive through the dirt paths near the temples.
On top of that, we were in Siem Reap during Chinese New Year, which apparently is a popular time for people from China to visit. The temples were so crowded which sucked the fun out of it for me. People kept going up stairs marked as down only, and vice versa, and on steep, narrow stairs, it felt like the rule-breakers would make me fall. The hordes of tourists waiting their turn to take overly posed pictures made it near impossible for me to get an unobstructed photo. And with all the extra tourists came all the touts pushing their cheap souvenirs on us at every turn.
I can barely tolerate crowds when I’m visiting an attraction I’ve never seen before. Trying to enjoy one on the second time around in those conditions put me in a foul mood. Aside from that, the temples themselves just didn’t thrill me on my second visit. Would I have found them just as fascinating without the crowds? Or is it really the kind of place I only needed to see once?
A different perspective on Siem Reap
Two years ago, I thought the town of Siem Reap was charming. Sure, the Pub Street area, where most of the tourists go to eat and drink, is mostly set up for the tourists. Almost all of the locals you see in this area are tuk tuk drivers or people who work at one of the many cafes, bars, travel agencies or souvenir shops. But it still felt exotic enough that I didn’t mind, and the food options seemed endless.
This time around, my view had changed. The same exotic feel was still there, but my patience was thinner. The tuk tuk drivers constantly jumping in my face asking if I needed a ride grated my nerves. There are dozens of them on every corner, if I need a ride, I know where to find them. The restaurants served up watered down versions of Cambodian and Thai food, and we struggled to find anything we wanted to eat. We quickly became regulars at the one place we could tolerate that served barbeque chicken skewers, among other things. We also ate at a Mexican place twice. (Not quite as good as Mexican food in Berlin but somehow still better than Freiburg’s.)
In the end, 10 days/11 nights was too long for us to stay in Siem Reap, especially since we got stuck in a crappy guesthouse for half of it. We thought it would be an easy place to hang out and get some work done while still having plenty of time to see the sights. But since we worked through our food options fairly quickly and we were still adjusting to traveling again, it turned out to be a difficult place for us. Aside from two days in Phnom Penh before arriving in Siem Reap, we didn’t make it anywhere else in Cambodia and instead opted to book a flight to southern Thailand for some island time.
I still think Angkor Wat and the other temples are well worth visiting, and I would encourage anyone planning a trip to Southeast Asia to go to spend a few days in Siem Reap. I’m also glad Andy had the chance to see Angkor Wat and some of the other temples. But I’ve definitely learned there are some places I just can’t repeat.