Flying Solo in Cambodia
Traveling alone is something you get used to in the corporate world. Hotel food, airport lounges and business meetings nine to five. But traveling alone to a foreign country in rural Southeast Asia because you want to a new adventure? That’s crazy. Or is it?
My last “hurrah” while living in Singapore was adding Cambodia as the 22nd country in the world I’ve now been to. Turns out traveling solo isn’t so scary, if you plan ahead, are open to meeting new people and just go with the flow.
Round trip tickets from Singapore are much cheaper to Phnom Penh than they are Siem Reap. So I arrived in Phnom Penh Friday evening of a long three-day weekend to find that a work colleague and two other friends are on the same flight (bonus!) We get settled in our respective hotels and meet up at the FCC, Foreign Correspondent’s Club for drinks, appetizers and a good laugh. We get some local food, Amok Chicken (national Khmer dish is Amok Fish) and Angkor Beer at a local spot on the river. Then we’re off to Gary’s Irish Pub, or was it called Guest House? Then we check out the local gay bar, Blue Chili. And my my, let the entertainment portion of the evening begin! Drag queens are dancing on the bar when we arrive and we meet an Irish guy from Bangkok who’s displaced temporarily because the floods have taken over his house. He shows us to the Heart of Darkness a straight/gay club where we dance the night away until 3am.
Saturday morning, at sunrise mind you, I make my way to the 7am Mekong Express bus station to buy a ticket for $11 USD. Yes, this will guarantee you one seat on a semi-decent bus with a questionable toilet on board, sitting next to a random stranger who will try to sleep on your shoulder for the next SIX hours. Note to self, don’t drink the night before you take this bus. Good scenery, and a stop for lunch in a small rural town where you can buy fresh mango on the side of the road. No, no bags of fried or live crickets this time.
Arriving in Siem Reap I meet my new buddy for the weekend, Tom. My tuk-tuk driver. For a mere $15 USD per day, Tom will take me anywhere I want to go, at anytime and is my personal tour guide to the temples of Angkor Wat. He rocks.
Checking in at Angkor Riviera Hotel is painless and it’s a rather large Hyatt type establishment just a 5 minute walk from the Night Market. Tom and I head down to the temples so I can grab some lunch and take in my first sight of Angkor Wat before heading to the gates of Angkor Thom to roam around the Bayon Temple first. It smells like ambers burning from a campfire that is still warm in the morning. More than 500 smiling Buddha faces peer down from above in all nooks and crannies with the sun casting shadows through the hollow doorways, which, at the right angles, you can’t tell if they are actual door ways or a perfectly spotless glass mirror reflection of some other doorway. It reminds me of “Return to Oz” in a way that is both fascinating and creepy at the same time.
We head up to “the mountain” where Phnom Bakheng sits and there is supposedly a spectacular view of Angkor Wat at sunset. Climbing this mountain is not for the faint of heart. I realize quickly that I’m out of shape when the Auntie with a walking cane is moving up the incline faster than me. Reaching the top you find about a zillion tourists clamoring to climb the top and pushing their sweaty bodies to inch up to the front of the line. People like this can make anyone feel claustrophobic, so I head down the path less taken where a couple of guys from Spain have found a serene place to snap a pic without all the humanity.
That evening, I head to the FCC in Siem Reap – same chain as the one in Phnom Penh, but the colonial house style of the building is cooler and the vibe is older. Then I head to the Angkor Night Market for some cheap shopping. Everything from silk linens to airbrushed photos to spices and jewelry – and fairly priced. Christmas shopping done in November? Check.
The next day we hit up Ta Prohm, a.k.a. “The Tomb Raider Temple” famous after Angelina Jolie’s movie (which all the group tour guides are saying over an over again as you walk by). Nature has truly taken hold of these ruins in a way that cannot be explained until you see it up close and personal. The tree roots are enormous and overwhelm what little is left of the historical site. I find a local more than willing to show me around – off the beaten path of the Chinese tour group moving through in droves of 20 people deep and we climb up through doorways in the back to the very top of Ta Prohm for a bird’s eye view, and some pretty cool photo opps. I pay him a small donation of $3 USD after he brings me back to the masses.
Before lunch it’s Baphuon which looks very impressive from the road, and very tall. Until you get to the entrance and they tell me I can’t go in because my shorts don’t come down to my knee. Woops. Guidebooks should tell you these things! (Same with climbing to the very top of Angkor Wat by the way)
Lunch is back in town at Siem Reap at a place called The Butterfly Garden. A small garden serving local food, enclosed with more than 1,000 butterflies floating around you in the greenery! Very cool experience, highly recommend. Top it off with an hour long foot massage ($6 USD) and Coconut sorbet from The Blue Pumpkin in a waffle cone. Heaven is having ice cream that isn’t really ice cream!
Saving the best for last, I head to Angkor Wat for sunset. Comparatively, it is massive. This is not just a temple, it’s a compound. The grounds go on for miles, and the “moat” surrounding the entire place should be called a small lake. Most of the front of the center building is under repair and covered in tarps now. But you can still capture some spectacular shots. It’s peaceful here. Monks wander by occasionally and if it weren’t for the overcrowding of tourists and the echo of loud voices bouncing off the walls, you’d think you traveled back in time. There are some quiet corners, but it would be nice if they limited entries to 20 at a time tops. My favorite moment was coming out of the main gate to see the sunset setting the sky and the water on fire at the same time. It’s the best photo I took all weekend too.
A quiet dinner at Le Malraux, a little French restaurant around the corner from Pub Street. A three course dinner of red wine, goat cheese salad, salmon Carpaccio & tar tare duo and chocolate mousse will set you back $15 USD.
Monday I returned to Phnom Penh after wishing Tom farewell, where his friend David was my driver for the day. First some lunch of Amok Chicken (my fave) by the river and then on to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The grounds are huge, sprawling with perfectly manicured gardens and flowers that remind you of the entrance to Disney World, if only they were in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Silver Pagoda? Not so impressive. But the monks wandering through stopping to smile for the camera and the lone cat who slinks up the stairs to the top of a large silver gray pagoda? Well worth a quiet moment of reflection in the middle of quite possibly, the coolest country on my list of 22 so far.