Cambodia, also known as the “Kingdom of Wonder” stole my heart. The second that my feet touched the tarmac (after exiting my plane in Siem Reap, Cambodia) I was in awe. This was the most anticipated leg of my trip and I was incredibly thankful and humbled to be there.
Picking up from where I had left off in my last post (https://unicorninbrooklyn.com/2015/01/07/uib-travels-the-land-of-smiles-part-ii/), I’d just boarded my flight (aboard Cambodian Air) and was slated to head to the last leg of my vacation of a lifetime – Siem Reap, Cambodia baby!
I walked to the middle of the window and took my window assigned seat with excitement. My flight was slated to take a mere 50 minutes from Bangkok (vs. several hours via ground transportation), which I found to be very convenient because I had only a limited time in Cambodia and I didn’t want to waste too much time on travel.
Even though the flight was under an hour Cambodia Air flight attendants were very efficient with their service. I was given a snack box (that included a corn muffin (which I devoured) a sandwich with some sort of chicken or tuna salad (that I didn’t eat because it didn’t look too appetizing), and a bottle of water.
I landed and exited the plane with no problems whatsoever – perfect. I exited the plane, walked across the tarmac and entered the immigration line. What caught me off guard was that I gave one of the immigration officers my passport for inspection and he took it for about 5 minutes later. We landed and we exited the plane to walk into immigration. My visa ran me $30 USD. My passport was taken away and returned to me approximately 5 minutes later with a big ass sticker on one of the pages “The Kingdom of Cambodia” – oh shit I just entered a KINGDOM, not a country! Things were already starting off royally, pun intended.
I grabbed my bag from baggage claim and made my way out of the airport. I felt rather VIP-esque when I spotted my driver with my name on a large piece of paper. The Siem Reap Hostel (my accommodations for the next 4 days and 3 nights) provided airport pick up (via tuk tuk) for their guests for free! made sure my tuk tuk driver was there to greet me and escort me back to the hostel.
I walked up to him, introduced myself and learned that his name was Bunna. Bunna was pleasant and cute looking man with a matching disposition that spoke superb English (this was a welcomed sigh of relief, as unlike in Thailand most of the drivers that I paid for service only spoke Thai or very little English). He stood approximately 5’9″ with creamy reddish-brown skin, dark brown curly hair, slanted hazelnut eyes, and a slight beer belly. He walked me over to his tuk tuk and proceeded to make his way towards my living quarters for the next few days, The Siem Reap Hostel.
En transit, I sat in the back of that tuk tuk and took it all in. I was thousands of miles away from America (the only place that I’ve even known as home), but I felt like I was home. Some places just speak to you, Cambodia spoke loudly. The tears came without warning and I let them flow. I watched the movie Tomb Raider (a film, starring Angelina Jolie, that was filmed in Siem Reap), I watched travel shows that featured this beautiful country, I scoured the Internet for images of Angkor Wat, and I read numerous blogs that featured articles on visits to Cambodia. I dreamed of this place and I was finally here . To realize a dream while you’re still young enough to appreciate it is an indescribable feeling – a feeling that I implore you to realize while you’re young and able bodied enough to appreciate it.
After the tears subsided (I wasn’t a hysterical basket case for too long) I wiped my eyes and took in the beauty of the country for the remainder of my ride. I noticed that just about all of the roads were dirt roads and the weather was extremely hot and humid. I admired the dark honey colored complexion of the people, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Everything was beautiful to me – I knew within minutes that I would have to visit Cambodia again for a longer period of time. Within minutes I arrived to my hostel and I grabbed my bags.
Upon exit, I spoke with Bunna briefly. I learned that he was going to be my driver for the next two days; he would take me anywhere that I wanted to go along the route of the “small circuit” and “big circuit” (tours that include visits to the major sites in Siem Reap and restaurants). The fee was a mere $45 USD – which I found to be incredibly fare considering he would pretty much have my out from the crack of dawn until sundown.
I opened the door to The Siem Reap Hostel (http://www.thesiemreaphostel.com/), a very nice multi-level hostel (4 levels) with great amenities (air conditioning in the bedrooms, a pool table, yoga, a movie room, an in house restaurant/bar, and a nice sized in-ground pool to name a few) and was very pleased. The concierge team greeted me with huge smiles and excellent English. I checked in and was given the key to my private room (which ran me $34 USD a night) – a room that I opted for because I wanted my own restroom and balcony (to dry my clothes on after hand washing them in the sink). The bell boy walked me (there are no elevators in this hostel) and my bag up to my room (on the top floor) and showed me inside. Check the videos below to see my reviews:
My room was decent as you can see from the videos above, however I wouldn’t call it the cleanest. The shower was on the skeevy side so I wore my flip flops in it and didn’t walk around the room barefoot (I would advise you to do the same). While I found the bed to be comfortable, the sheets didn’t look too clean. I took my chances sleeping on those sheets and thankfully – I didn’t have any issues. Lastly, the room’s temperature was always comfortable as I set the air conditioning at a moderate temperature and kept the ceiling fan on.
My first evening in the hostel was chill – I showered and went down to the pool/restaurant/bar communal area to get a bite to eat, take advantage of the $0.50 beers, and to mingle with other backpackers. I sat with a group of about 6 people – varying in age (the group – composed of people from India, the Philippines, Ireland, Canada, England, and Italy – was mostly in their 20’s, but there was one dude in the 30’s club with me). We talked about our respective travels, our thoughts on Cambodia, life back home, and what we’d do upon our return. I recall sharing one of the biggest lessons that I learned while I was in Asia; my travels taught me that I was OK with where I was in my life at that moment (despite previous fears that I was lagging behind the rest of my peers that were doing big things). I had just started to really live; I started my chapter 1. I realized that my chapter 1 may have been someone else’s chapter 20, but that was OK because I took the leap and started to damn book.
The crew had plans to head out and hit Pub Street (the happening strip in town) and invited me to tag along, but I politely declined because I was exhausted and had plans to wake up at the crack of dawn to go see the sunrise at Angkor Wat (the world’s largest Hindu temple and one of the most sites in southeast Asia – http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668 ). I bid the crew adieu and took my buzzed behind (I had about 3 1/2 beers during my conversation with the group). I’d told Bunna that I would be downstairs in front of the hostel to meet him no later than 4:30 so I set my alarm for 3:55 am and dozed off around 11ish.
It seemed that as soon as I closed my eyes it was time to wake up. I opened my eyes the next morning and felt an immediate sense of worry. I heard voices in the hallway and I my gut told me that I’d overslept. I looked at my cell phone and saw that I’d inadvertently silenced my alarm – it was 4:55, DAMMIT!
I ran down the stairs in my shorts and tank top looking like the only mad woman. I had to make sure Bunna was still out there because I could not miss the sunset! He was there, engaged in conversation with other tuk tuk drivers. After explaining to him what happened I dashed back up stairs, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and threw on the first thing that I could find. Thankfully, I’d packed my bag the night before (included was a roll of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, my journal, two bottles of water, lip balm, my shades, and my camera), so all I had to do was grab it and go. I made it down to Bunna by 5:15 – a record for me (I’ve never gotten so fast in my life).
Before heading to Angkor Wat, Bunna drove me through the streets of Siem Reap (along with many other tuk tuks) to the site to purchase my three day pass (that gave me access to visit all the temples in Siem Reap). I waited in line for a few minutes, paid the teller $40 USD, and took a picture and received my pass within 5 minutes. I dashed back to my tuk tuk and Bunna drove about 10 minutes more so that I could follow the crowd to Angkor Wat. For additional information on visiting Angkor Wat, check this helpful link out: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g297390-c131616/Siem-Reap:Cambodia:Angkor.Wat.Visitors.Information.html
I must warn you – if you arrive to this temple, arrive EARLY – I’m talking 4:00am. Why, because this is clearly the time the veteran photographers set up shop and snatched up the prime real estate spots – they had a vantage point of the temple; they were able to see the temple head on and would catch the best shots of the temple at sunrise. I wound up on the sidelines, but that didn’t matter – I was still able to take in the beauty of this amazing temple and caught a few shots once the sun rose all the way.
After taking in the view of this grand temple, I did a little exploring on the grounds and took in the history.
Needless to say after waking up at the crack of dawn, waiting for the sun to rise, and exploring the grounds of Angkor Wat, I was starving! I made my way over to Bunna around 9:00 am and he led me to a restaurant in the middle of the woods (I can’t recall the name of the restaurant – don’t shoot me, but it was in the middle of the woods and patronized by many) . I didn’t have a taste for breakfast so I did something somewhat unorthodox, I ordered shrimp fried rice and a delicious mango shake. Sidebar: Cambodia is expensive. I had just came from Thailand and was used to eating like a Queen for about $5 or $6, not in Cambodia. My meal (which was very fresh and full of flavor) ran my about $13 damn dollars. Should you run low on cash, don’t worry – the ATM machines dispense USD so you can enjoy the sites without worrying about getting more cash and converting it over to the Khmer currency.
After I ate my meal, I pinned my hair up (because it was hot as hell (and only 10:00 am) and ordered a mango shake to go. Next up, the Bayon Temple!
The Bayon Temple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon) is famous for the faces that are carved in the stones. What I didn’t know was that this temple had many hieroglyphic images on the walls – telling a story of what took place there hundreds of years ago. I would strongly advise you to hire a tour guide while exploring this temple because there is a LOT of history here that you cannot simply take in on your own.
Since I didn’t have a tour guide, I did the most obvious thing – I ear hustled, lol. Whenever I heard a Cambodian speaking in English I made sure I was within ear’s distance and acted like I was taking pictures with my camera (meanwhile I was really listening to whatever he/she was saying). As clever of an idea as this was I didn’t get many opportunities to hear about the history of the Bayon Temple because there weren’t many English speaking tourists around.
You would think that I made my way back to my hostel right? After all I’d been out since roughly 5:00 am and it was well into the afternoon. I was too excited so I pressed on and explored even more. The next stop was to Ta Prohm Temple (also known as the Jungle Temple and better known as the Tomb Raider Temple).
Ta Prohm Temple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta_Prohm) was one of my favorite temples to explore because of the gigantic trees the grew through the temple. I was fascinated by how large this temple was and wondered what took place on its grounds in ancient times.
By now I was starving; I’d raided tombs (pun intended), took pictures, and explored for hours. It was time for lunch. Bunna took me to one of his favorite restaurants, Rom Chong Angkor. It was here that I tried the dish that the Khmer people (another term that the indigenous of Cambodia) love, amok. Amok was hands down my favorite dish in Cambodia – hell, it was my favorite dish in southeast Asia. Amok is called “the good food of Cambodia” (composed of garlic, galangal, dry chilli, fresh tumeric, lemongrass, lime leaf, coconut milk, seasonings, onions, and grio leaf – served with white rice) and there are three varieties. One is cooked and served in a fresh coconut, one is cooked in a pot and served in a faux coconut, and one is cooked and served in a banana leaf – they are all prepared with either chicken or fish. I had the liberty of trying all three (see below).
I finished my lunch and visited one more temple along the “big circuit”, Banteay Srei (also known as the “Lady Temple” by the natives). Banteay Srei (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Srei) means “city of women” in Khmer. Although small in size, this temple is known as the “jewel of Khmer art” because of the outstanding detail of its sculpted decor carved in red sandstone.
After I left this temple it was late, I’d been out for more than 12 hours and was beyond exhausted. My day included the exploration of temples, eating delicious food, taking hundreds of pictures, taking in the history and beauty of Cambodia, guzzling down liters of water (it was incredibly hot) and admiring the beautiful Khmer people. My goodness their skin and facial features were breathtaking.
While on the grounds I ran into some of the backpackers from my hostel. They couldn’t believe that I was still out and about since it was damn near sunset and I’d left the hostel before sunrise. I was invited to go with them to a circus in town and agreed. I bid them adieu (as they were still exploring the grounds) and walked back to my tuk tuk. The ride back to the hostel would be about thirty minutes, just enough time for me to get a nice nap in.
The second I stepped into my room I went into the shower and laid down for a little while. I told myself that I’d nap until about 9:00 pm so I could go down to the bar and meet the group for beers before heading out, but that never happened. My body won. I was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep. When my body woke at around 1:00 am I turned the lights off and rolled over to catch some more sleep. Tomorrow was my last full day in Cambodia, I needed to make sure I was well rested, the circus would have to wait another day.
The next day was full of pretty much the same as the prior day – more tomb raiding, admiring the beauty of Cambodia (and its people) and taking pictures. Check out some of the beautiful shots that I caught with my camera along the way:
Click here to view information about the Neak Pean temple: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neak_Pean
After my action packed day (including a one hour massage for a cheap $13 USD at a spa that Bunna had taken me to), I enjoyed dinner on Pub Street, and took a tuk tuk back to my hostel. Since I stayed a day longer than I anticipated I no longer had my private room because it was already booked by another backpacker. I wound up scoring a bed in one of the shared dorms and was thankful for that.
I went into my room, showered and came out to start packing my things – I was slated to leave the next morning after breakfast. Within minutes about two of my five roommates returned to the room – two Irish girls that I hadn’t met. They were very friendly. Next up, a friendly young dude from the Philippines walked in and introduced himself. After meeting him, I met another new person to the room. He was smug, obnoxious American boy – I didn’t take to him so I didn’t engage him in conversation too much. Finally there was the last roomie (another American), but she was cool and down to earth.
Within minutes we all exchanged pleasantries and made plans to go to Pub Street for drinks and dancing, sweet. I put on a little makeup and joined my roomies for my last night in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
We enjoyed the sites of Pub Street (while ducking beggars – the most common beggars were the women that asked tourists for money to buy milk for their children, a very popular scam there. The women approach you with a sleeping infant child on their bosom. They ask you to go with them to a store where the store owner is in on the scam. The tourist pays for the milk then leaves the store thinking that he/she has done their good deed for the day when in reality the store owner and the mother split the money – never purchasing the milk), bar hopping, dancing in the clubs and in the streets with other tourists.
After a night out on the town, we made it back to our hostel and went to my assigned bed – the top bunk. Cambodia was good to me. I lied in my bed wishing I had a few more days to take in the sites, but my inaugural solo trip was a wrap. The next morning I would made my way down the restaurant area to enjoy a hearty breakfast (that consisted of fresh mango and dragon fruit, scrambled eggs, and toast) before heading out on the bus to get back to Bangkok (where I was slated to catch my flight to Dubai).
My bus ticket ran me about $18 USD (which I thought was a steal compared the exorbitant prices for the 50 minute flights back to Bangkok). I took a tuk tuk with two other backpackers to a bus station about 2 blocks down the road. Upon arrival we got off the tuk tuk with our belongings and were instructed to wait a few minutes. After about twenty minutes or so we were told to walk up the road to yet another bus station. Here, I waited on the side of the road for about fifteen to twenty minutes. When the bus finally arrived I was relieved to see that it was immaculate (after my roach infested experience in Phuket, Thailand I was nervous about riding buses while in southeast Asia).
I was told by the concierge at The Siem Reap Hostel, that the bus ride back to Bangkok would be about eight hours – cool. To prepare for the long ride I had a book, my journal, and my tunes (on my phone). I boarded the bus and sat about three rows behind the driver. While seated the sweetest thing happened – one of the workers from the hostel (Somaly) saw me on the side of the road as I waited for the bus. She sat down on the bus next to me and we engaged in a brief exchange. Since it was her day off from the hostel she was driving around running routine errands, but when she saw me she wanted to wish me safe travels since she never had the opportunity to say goodbye. It was a kind-hearted gesture that almost bought tears to my eyes. We exchanged Facebook information and to this day we chat .
About two hours into the ride I noticed that we were surrounded by a large crowd of people. The bus attendant stood up and told people to get off in broken English. I know I was sleepy and all, but I knew damn well my logic was still in tact. We didn’t travel 8 hours, why the hell were we being told to get off the bus? I sat in my chair and watched the majority of the riders get off, but noticed that the few that remained looked just as lost as I did. I wound up asking the couple behind me what was happening and they were just as lost as they thought they were returning to Bangkok as well.
I took it upon myself to approach the bus attendant and ask him where we were, but he didn’t speak to me in clear English. This lunatic put a small red square sticker above my left breast and told me to get off. Surprisingly, I wasn’t scared, I was confused – hella confused. I tried to ask him where we were again, but noticed that my bag had been removed from the storage compartment underneath the bus. This was my stop – I didn’t know where I was, but the minute I saw my bag being placed on the side of the road I knew that that was my stop.
I followed the other backpackers from my bus and walked toward a large crowd then it hit me – we’d approached the Cambodian-Thailand border! I edged my way towards the front of the mob and had my passport checked and fingers scanned. Once I cleared the boarder, I was on my own again. I didn’t notice any of the backpackers from my bus and I was a bit concerned. What the hell was I supposed to do now? Where the hell was I supposed to go? Then I spotted a large blue backpack on the shoulders of a blonde haired girl. She was clearly a tourist, so I followed her. After walking about two blocks I noticed some other backpackers and approached the Thailand immigration building.
Again, I had to clear another border before continuing on my trek to make it to Bangkok. I walked up a few steps and stepped into a hot, smelly, room with several other tourists (as had been the case in Cambodia and Thailand, I was often the sole Black tourist and was stared at unapologetically by tourists and natives). I immediately stood in line and looked around to see what everyone was doing. The same blonde girl that I followed a few blocks back was now a few inches from me. I asked her if she was American and we began talking. We both noticed that just about everyone had a form in their person to hand to the immigration officer, but didn’t know where to find the forms. She agreed to get forms for her and I if I agreed to watch her backpack. I told her that I would, but that if she wasn’t back within 5 minutes that I’d leave her bag there (I saw Brokedown Palace – I was NOT trying to get caught with a bag full of narcotics because some untrustworthy chick that I DIDN’T know appeared to be doing me a favor). She returned within two minutes (yes, I counted the minutes on my watch) and we completed our necessary forms.
The next 1.5 hours was a waiting game. We stood in line zig zagging our way to the front as fanned ourselves with our forms (it was hot and humid in that room), we ignored the loud crying and unfamiliar dialect tourists were saying to each other, and we talked about our experiences in Cambodia. I learned that she was a marathon runner and was making her way to Bangkok to participate in her next marathon.
Upon clearance I left the room and followed anyone who looked like a tourist and donned a backpack – after all I still didn’t know where the hell I was going. I walked about a block up and saw the young couple that was seated behind me on the bus. As I stopped to ask them about where to catch the bus to Bangkok I saw a man across the street from us waving his hand and pointed at his messenger bag with red stickers all over it. I walked over to him and he pointed to my sticker. I then asked him if he would show me to the bus to get to Bangkok and he just wrote on the sticker without talking; I was #20 and I was confused as shit.
After writing on me he told me that I had to wait for few more people so that we could be transported to yet another bus station. At this point I was relieved, but I was incredibly hungry, sweaty, thirsty, and hot. I started to realize that I was getting what I paid for – I paid $18 USD for this ticket back to Bangkok and this shitty service matched the bus ticket fee.
I wound up seeing the American girl again as we both waited for our ride to the bus depot. Again, we engaged in small talk then we climbed onto the back of a vehicle that reminded me of a coach wagon. Within about 10 minutes we were dropped off at a restaurant/bus station. We were told to wait with no further instruction. I had no idea how long I’d be there and I was somewhat frustrated. I knew that I’d make my flight in time because I wasn’t slated to leave until 2:30 am the next day and it was about 1:00 pm. I ordered shrimp fried rice and an orange Fanta soda (which ran me about $2) and scarfed the lackluster and bland rice down as I continued to wait for this damn bus.
A min van pulled up and announced that it was there to pick up passengers 1 – 21. I immediately shot up and wished the young woman a safe journey (her number was in the mid twenties so she would have to wait for the next bus), I was excited to be one step closer to Bangkok. I quickly and strategically made my way towards the front of the line so that I could confirm with the driver that I indeed had a seat on that mini van. After he assured me that I did, I breathed a sigh of relief. Although I knew that I was guaranteed a seat I didn’t relax yet. How the hell was this lunatic going to get 21 people onto a mini van and drive for 4 – 5 hours more? To secure a seat I made sure I stayed towards the front of the line so that when he started loading passengers I got first dibs and it worked.
I wound up getting a single seat two rows behind the driver and was grateful for the leg room, comfort, and A/C! While in transit I dozed off and listened to my music. There was one annoying rule of the van – whenever he stopped for gas or at a rest stop (for snacks at a store or to use the restroom) everyone had to get off. This annoyed the hell out of me because I was awakened from my light slumber a few times. During one of the stops something told me to ask the driver where exactly in Bangkok was he going. Thank God I asked him – he was slated to take the passengers to Khaosan Road (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khaosan_Road), a happening hip strip known as the “it spot” for backpackers. I didn’t want to go there because that was about thirty minutes away from the airport. I asked him if he could drop me to the main airport in Bangkok before continuing on and this opportunistic prick told me that he could – for 200 baht/ $6.13 USD. What an asshole! I had no choice but to pay him because I needed to get to the airport.
After what seemed like forever I made it to Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand at around 7:00 pm. I made my way to the front of the van, told everyone “bye” and got off. Once I received my bag I paid the driver his fee and went into the airport. I was hot and I was exhausted. My gameplan was to charge my phone to 100% at one of the charging towers, to visit the Emirates counter with hopes of catching an earlier flight, and to change into different clothes. Unfortunately, I was unable to catch an earlier flight because the earliest one was only one hour before my scheduled flight and would’ve ran me $200+ – no thanks.
I entertained myself by interacting with friends and family on social media and did some journaling. Since I hadn’t checked my bag yet I didn’t go to sleep for fear that someone would put something in it or would walk away with it.
At around 10:00 pm I checked my bag in with Emirates and walked towards a bathroom where I freshened up as much as possible and changed into a pair of leggings, a tank, a cardigan, and my comfortable slip on sneakers. I felt like a new woman. I then dined at one of the Thai restaurants in the airport – it would be my last meal in Thailand so I made it count. I ordered a shrimp pad thai, spring rolls, and mango with sweet sticky rice. I barely finished the meal, but I damn sure tried.
Before I knew it, it was almost time to report to my gate to board. I found a comfortable lounging area with plush couches and laid out like everyone around me appeared to do. To protect my belongings (all I had on my was my backpack and my travel pillow), I put the bag over my shoulders so that bag was in the front of my body and laid on it). I set my phone alarm for about 30 minutes before boarding and put it underneath my travel pillow before laying on it. As a back up (in case I inadvertently silenced my alarm) I told my girlfriend to call me – and she did.
The time had come – my time in southeast Asia had come to an end and I was NOT ready to go back home. I enjoyed immersing myself in the culture. I enjoyed the food. I enjoyed the massages. I enjoyed the views. I enjoyed stepping outside of my comfort zone and meeting new people. I enjoyed the music. I enjoyed exploring. I enjoyed taking pictures. I enjoyed making new friends. I enjoyed dispelling the myth that Black Americans don’t travel. However, the most important thing that I enjoyed was being courageous and going on my very first solo trip abroad. I was proud of myself and learned that I am braver and stronger than I give myself credit for.
So I’ll leave you with this – one of my favorite Rumi quotes:
“I looked in temples, churches, and mosques, but I found the Divine in my heart”
Friends, I implore you to take a chance and see some world – I promise you you won’t be disappointed!
Until Next Time Friends!