Last week, my good friend, Bernice, and I got on a plane for a few hours, and woke up in Cambodia. This in itself seemed a “healthy feat” to me – mostly because in the 21 years I’ve known Bernice, we had never traveled together. A few beach trips in university aside, up until that point, the only place we’d ever seen each other “off home ground” was Singapore (just last year) when she visited me and we watched a Jimmy Eat World concert. This is why, when Cebu Pacific went on a big seat sale in April I was quick to give her a call, fix our schedules, and jump on the boat (or plane…so to speak – ha ha). At only SG$300 I managed to swing us both return flights to Siem Reap (MNL-SEP) – a stark contrast to the SG$400 I would be paying for myself on SilkAir in August had I decided to go with a different group of friends from Singapore. It really was a steal, and a purchase I already knew then I would or could never regret. And that’s how we ended up here:
We had arrived on a Sunday night at around 2130 Cambodian time (which is an hour behind Manila time). Our hotel, The Thunborey (US$18/night for deluxe twin sharing, near Pub Street and the river) had graciously sent us free airport transfer in the form of an adorable tuk-tuk and a good-natured driver named Chan. From there it was a 20-minute ride through near-blackness (I even saw a shooting star! It felt like a good omen), on freeways (curiously unlit) between rice paddies and fields, to get to the city center and to our hotel. It still being early, and there seeming to be some kind of chilled out night life in the town proper, we unpacked in our room and set out in search of a local snack. I had insisted on us only eating local food for the trip, and Bernice – the trooper that she is, agreed whole-heartedly. Setting out through the streets we weren’t even walking five minutes before we reached the Old Night Market, a tented bazaar of local goods with a grill out front, fresh ingredients laid out to choose from on beds of ice, protected from the flies and elements with a thin sheet of plastic. It was there we decided to have our first meal of the trip.
Grilled chicken skewer with vegetables.*
Grilled snakehead (fish) with greens*
At this point, we weren’t sure if we were just hungry…or the food was really off-the-charts-amazing, but that fish was so tender, so fresh, and so flavorful with nothing but a little vinegar on it that both Bernice and I had to take mental notes to come back before the trip ended. By the time we were done eating and scouring the shops it had gotten pretty late, and we had an early tour call time for the next morning (and by early I mean 0430 AM), so we made our way back to our hotel to get some shuteye. The next morning, as was necessary, we woke up at 0430 and prepared for a long day ahead. With only two full days in Siem Reap, I had known beforehand we would need to try to fit as much in as possible, so I had made early arrangements with the hotel to hire us an affordable ($30/full day), good guide to take us through 5 different temples in the area. We had heard that Angkor Wat was meant to be seen from dawn onwards, and that sunrise by the reflection pool would change our lives, so we were hell-bent on making it in time. Armed with my camera gear (lots of it, mind you)*, we got back on the same tuk-tuk we were on the day before and together with our new friend and guide, Sophy, began our day of exploration.
Top: A runner by the moat/man-made lake around Angkor Wat;
Bottom: Random stones in the shape of feet or hands embedded in the bridge/walkway to Angkor Wat
An Angkor Wat Sunrise
Sophy the Tour Guide
The village/eatery/market next to Angkor where we had a quick breakfast once the sun rose.
The two libraries flanking the entry to Angkor Wat.
Views from Inside
Reliefs and Buddhas and Buddhist Relics adorned by subtle Hindu accents that have carried over*
Admittedly, there were many moments throughout the exploration of Angkor Wat that moved me close to tears. I felt dwarfed by its breadth – both physically and spiritually. I wish I could better put into words what the experience was like, but all I canreallysay is that I could have sat in any small crevice of the place for days in complete silence without ever feeling the need to go anywhere else, or do anything else. Despite the number of tourists on site*, the air was filled with reverence, lending the temple an atmosphere that was at once somber and hopeful. I would do it all over again and explore the area even more in depth if I could. For someone like me, who loves history, and temples, and art, a few hours just wasn’t enough.
*Snakehead is one of my new favorites now. Also, notice how we attempted to stay healthy and on track? Good job, self, goooood job.
*When I first walked into Angkor, I was pulled to the side by a random Hindu worshiper, who handed me incense sticks and walked me through a quick prayer ritual in front of one of the reliefs. He said, “Pray for good health, long life, good family, good friend, safe travels, good job, and good boyfriend.” Then he made me rub the face of one of the relics with two fingers, and bowed to me with arms and hands in Namaste position. So now you are all witness: somewhere out there is a good boyfriend, Vishnu has spoken!
*I did wonder for a moment why he assumed I was boyfriendless. But anyway….
*Angkor Wat was first built as a Hindu Temple, but has since endured many years of changes back and forth between Buddhism and Hinduism. Now, it is used as a place of worship for both religions, though Buddhism seemed to be the more prevalent of the two. According to Sophy and Chan that’s because Buddhism in general is more prevalent in Cambodia these days.