Travel Log 2011: Cambodia

Last Updated
Matt Mueller

Update 2023: This travel series was ported over from an older blog. In the previous post, I wrote about my time in Southern Vietnam. The content has been left in its entirety. Enjoy!

It's 6am in the morning. Just as I was beginning to figure out Ho Chi Minh City, it's time to move on. Today I will be crossing the border into Cambodia. I will be spending the next 14 hours on the bus on my way to Siem Reap.

I had paid $23 for a "luxury" bus but as I've come to learn in Asia, luxury may just mean "safe" or "bearable", so I wasn't sure what to expect. As I stepped on the bus, a gust of cold air hit me.. Nice, air-conditioning.

map of Cambodia

As I took my seat the man sitting next to me smiled and said hello.. Cool, I'm accepted. And as the bus attendant went around she handed each of us water and a box with a donut and this thing that looked like a pizza roll.. Wow, food too? Alright, this is awesome - I can work with this. The luxury bus exceeded all my expectations.

En Route to Cambodia

It would take about 2 hours to get to the border of Cambodia. As the Vietnam flew by me, I felt a little uneasy. I had really come to enjoy Ho Chi Minh City. It was a vibrant city, everyone had treated me so well, and it was really easy to get around. I quickly brushed the anxiety aside - this is just the feeling you get when you finally get comfortable with someplace then have to leave.

When we arrived at the border of Vietnam & Cambodia, we had to get out to pass through customs. I got my Cambodian Visa at the border and only had to wait for about 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, I made my second rookie mistake of the trip. I had purchased a single entry visa to Vietnam, so when I passed through the border, the customs official stamped my Vietnam visa "USED". I was catching a flight to Northern Vietnam in 4 days and would not be able to re-enter the country!

The bus attendant assured me that I would be able to get another Vietnam visa while I was in Cambodia. Phew! I calmed down a bit. I was definitely freaking out at the border - I'm surprised the Cambodians let me into their country.


We filed back on the bus and entered Cambodia. Immediately, there was a striking contrast between Cambodia and Vietnam. The landscape in Vietnam was green and flat with hundreds of little shops clinging to the sides of the road.

In Cambodia, the landscape was a marshy, tropical wetland with little wooden farms littering the countryside. Vietnam had this energy of a developing country reaching for prosperity. Cambodia seemed like it was still in the stone-age.

The religious influence in Cambodia was stunning. Every couple miles there was a huge colorful tower or temple. I thought it was strange that the people built these striking temples, while living in absolute poverty.

The Cambodian language, Khmer, was like nothing I've ever seen before. It had an alphabet with 33 letters, but each letter is very complex, similar to a symbol-based language like Mandarin.

The words are also incredibly long. Entire English sentences would boil down into one 40-character word in Khmer. As I was gripping my head around this strange place, our bus pulled into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

We had to get off the bus in Phnom Penh and transfer to another bus. Phnom Penh is very close to the infamous Killing Fields, where millions of Cambodians were killed from 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was in power.

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, were anti-intellectual extremists. They killed most of the intellectuals of the country, leading to a large-scale Cambodian brain drain. This included professors, professionals, even people that wore glasses were at risk. This was the closest I had been to a modern day genocide. It was really sad to see the devastation that this regime caused to the Cambodian people.

After an hour at the bus station and a hilarious conversation with the bus attendant about Lady Gaga, it was time to board the bus. I was ready to get out. Phnom Penh was a very dirty, hot city.

I was worried when I learned that I had to leave my passport there to get my Vietnam visa, but they assured me everything would be fine. We got on the bus to Siem Reap, which was about 6 hours away - we would arrive at about 8pm.

Siem Reap

6 hours passed quickly, the new bus attendant was very smiley and nice and could speak pretty good English. I talked to her about popular Cambodian music and if she liked eating crickets (she thought they were delicious).

We arrived in Siem Reap and I felt a relieved. The city had a quant feel to it - it seemed much nicer than Phnom Penh. I was greeted by a kind-looking Cambodian, who would take me to the hostel with his Tuk Tuk, which is a motorcycle that pulls a cart to sit in.

We arrived at the hostel at 9pm and I was ready for bed. The same driver was to pick me up at 4:30am to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.

Angkor Wat

3:45am came really quickly. I slowly crawled out of bed into the shower. After eating some left-over Pringles for breakfast, I left my room and went to the gate of the hostel.

My driver was waiting to take me to the temples. The drive would take about 20 minutes. The sun was just starting to peak its head out from the horizon. We had to drive around a massive moat to get to the entrance of the Angkor Wat temple.

I started getting really anxious, like I was traveling back in time to this ancient temple, deep in the jungle. We stopped about a half a mile before the complex. I walked up this long, wide bridge across the moat and entered the walled-off complex.

As I walked closer, I started seeing a silhouette of 3 beehive-shaped structures in the dark blue sky - this was Angkor Wat. I arrived at the "perfect sunrise" spot, which had a lake in front of the temple that gave off a nice reflection.

My heart was beating quickly as I gazed at the massive, epic structure. Two reoccurring thoughts kept popping in my head: I can't believe that our ancients built this and I can't believe more people from home don't know about this place.

Tourists began to gather in anticipation for the sunrise. The loads of people started to really kill the mood, so I looked up at the sky, which was transforming into this navy blue. The sky was overcast - I decided there would not be a very good sunrise, so I skipped the sunrise pictures and went right into the temple.

I was so happy I did - absolutely no one was in the temple. I was able to gaze up in amazement at the huge temple around me, listen to the morning birds and quiet wind passing through, think about how spiritual this place must have been, and take tourist-free pictures.

Nearly every wall in the temple has some hand-crafted engraving. After walking around a bit, I noticed that the top of the temple was blocked off. I really wanted to see the top. I asked one of the guards at the temple if I could go up. He said he'd take me up there for $5 - I said okay.

We climbed up these really steep stairs and passed behind this tarp. He told me some of the history and let me take pictures from the top. I asked him why many of the statues were missing their faces. He told me that the Khmer Rouge broke many of the statues during their rule.

After about 15 minutes of wandering around, he escorted me down the stairs stealthily. We passed another tourist on her way up. We exchanged sly looks like we're doing something most tourists won't get a chance to do. After 2 hours of exploring, I left the complex. My Tuk Tuk driver was waiting for me. I got back on and we headed for Angkor Thom.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is another complex nearby. It is less known because it is not one large temple but a dozen smaller temples. The first temple we arrived at was Bayon temple. As I walked into the temple I noticed giant-stone faces carved into every side of the temple.

It was the same face everywhere - hundreds of carvings of this smiling, wise-looking figure. I would later find out that the name of the figure is "Pie" (not sure about the spelling). I really liked Bayon - perhaps more than Angkor Wat. The moldy, greenish-gray stone really added to the ancient, epic feel of the temple.

After Bayon we went to about ten other temples within the Angkor Thom complex. The temples began to blend together. We ended with a temple that had white, thousand-year-old trees with massive roots reaching over the walls in search of nutrients from the ground.

At around noon I was ready to go back to the hotel and take a nap. I had been up since 3:30am and could not last till sunset. The driver was to pick me up at 5:30pm to go to Bakheng Mountain (pronounced "Bacai") to see the temples at sunset.

Bakheng Mountain and a Camera Crisis

We arrived at the base of Bakheng Mountain an hour before sunset. There was a slight drizzle - nothing to worry about. It was a half mile walk up to the top. Some people opted to ride elephants to the top. I went with the trekking.

About a quarter mile in the drizzle turned into a downpour. I put my raincoat over my backpack and continued. When I got to the top it was still pouring. Many people were huddled in the temples to avoid the rain.

I quickly found an unoccupied temple. I waited for a bit and tried to take some pictures. After about 15 minutes of waiting around, it was still pouring and the sun was hidden behind a blanket of clouds.

I put my camera in the front pocket of my raincoat expecting that a raincoat would have waterproof pockets. Turns out they were just water-resistant. When I got back down to the base of the mountain, the pocket had accumulated a puddle of water.

This was where I made my third rookie mistake of the trip. I turned on the camera because I wanted to see if it still worked. Yes, it turned on. Then I tried again. This time it didn't turn on.

I was freaking out - I couldn't go without a camera this early in my trip. I also was worried that I would lose all my Cambodia pictures. I took it home and dried everything off and tried turning it on again - no luck.

Well, great - now I'm without a camera for the rest of the trip.

I was willing to try anything to get this camera to work. I had heard somewhere that if you put a wet electronic in a bag of rice overnight, the rice will suck all the water out and the electronic will work.

As a last ditch effort, I went to the grocery store to buy a bag of rice. I stuck the camera in the bag of rice and went to bed. I woke up the next morning and crossed my fingers as I pressed the On button.... the camera lit up and the lens opened - it worked! What a sigh of relief. I backed up my pictures and was good to go.

A Day to Relax

The following day I had the option to go see some more temples farther outside of Siem Reap. I was really tired and had seen enough temples. I spent the day catching up on emails, writing, and worrying about Malaria.

I had been bitten a bunch in Siem Reap. There was mixed information about Malaria in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Some said it was low risk, some said it was present, but everyone said that if you're going to worry about it, you should be taking pills.

Well, I didn't have any. In fact, I didn't consult a doctor at all about shots or health risks of the countries I'm visiting. I also have this horrible habit of looking up the health risks of a place after I already arrive. So far so good though.

Back to Vietnam

The next day I boarded the bus at 7am to go back to Vietnam. I was looking forward to getting back, Cambodia was a little too underdeveloped for my tastes - I didn't like worrying about the food I was eating and all the mosquito bites I had.

I did leave Cambodia with an interesting rash on my arm. Seemed harmless though. We made it back to Phnom Penh and I had my passport waiting for me with a new Vietnam visa inside of it.

On the bus I sat next to this Cambodian teenager who was flying to Massachusetts for summer camp. I learned about the Justin Bieber of Cambodia, "Camerah" (definitely wrong on the spelling).

We watched Cambodian karaoke videos the entire way back to Vietnam. Every video either involved a guy cheating on a girl, or a lover dying.

At 8:30pm we rolled into Ho Chi Minh City. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were definitely diamonds in the rough of Cambodia. I have never seen such a striking example of human achievement.

The journey into the heart of Cambodia was incredibly interesting - but I was definitely thankful to leave Cambodia with my health.

Next Stop: Halong Bay!

The adventure continues in Halong Bay.