One of the greatest challenges with long-term travel is allocating time. With more than a year to traverse the globe, it would seem we have all the time in the world. The problem lies, however, in figuring out how best to use that time. We’re constantly struggling to find that balance of really getting to feel and experience the places we visit while fitting in all we want to see. Moving at a more mellow, relaxed speed throughout Asia, it was time to pick up the pace (begrudgingly) to explore Southeast Asia.
After lingering in Laos, we were on to the Kingdom of Cambodia. There is an aura about Cambodia that really grabs you. Perhaps it’s the convergence of its powerful past, tumultuous present and uncertain future. We were about to experience all three.
It was a full day of traveling to reach Cambodia from Bangkok, Thailand. The day of trains, planes and tuk-tuks (the name given to the smoke-bellowing auto-rickshaws throughout Asia) culminated with a cramped four-hour taxi ride from the Thai-Cambodian border. Accompanied by two gregarious Brazilians drowning their sorrows in Angkor Beer from their premature World Cup exit, we were all on our way to Siem Reap, the home of the great temples of Angkor Wat.
Cambodia was once the center of the Khmer Empire, which once ruled much of what is now Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. At the heart of the influential kingdom, stood the temples of Angkor Wat. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, the temples were constructed to serve as a center of spiritual devotion, but perhaps more importantly, to outshine the ancestors of the Khmer Empire. With the hundreds of temples standing for more than a thousand years, the Khmer Empire displayed their outstanding creative ambition and architectural genius.
Our first taste of Cambodia, was discovering the charming town of Siem Reap. The town straddles a tree-lined river and is dotted with colorful, old French shophouses. Narrow cobblestone alleyways offer innovative and sophisticated dinging options and welcoming watering holes where we watched many a World Cup matches.
We spent a day exploring the temples of Angkor, which are today the pride of all Cambodians. An early morning wakeup call proved well-deserved as we watched the sun rise above the temple of Angkor Wat. The sky lit up in 10 different shades of red as the sun rose out of the jungle. Soaring into the sky like a stone castle and surrounded by a moat of still water, we experienced one of the most inspiring monuments of mankind.
After sunrise over Cambodia’s crowned jewel, we explored some of the smaller, nearby temples. A visit to the temple of Bayon revealed 216 massive stone faces staring at us and we closed the memorable day wandering through Ta Prohm temple, a mystical temple devoured by the surrounding jungle.
We enjoyed a few more days wandering the streets of Siem Reap and escaping the sweltering heat under the canopies of French-inspired cafes. During this time we were also introduced to another side of Cambodia. Here, we witnessed invalids and children begging on the streets and countless men and women hawking books and sunglasses. This was a foreshadowing for what we were about to experience in Phnom Penh.