Asia, Southeast Asia Travel Diary, Travel

Day 4: Bangkok to Siem Reap and Phnom Bakheng Sunset

August 31, 2018

At 3:30 am we woke up, gathered our things, then checked out of the Novotel. It was relatively quiet in the airport at that time so we were up to the check-in counter by 4:30 am. It was so interesting to see the number of people sleeping everywhere. It was like anywhere somebody could possibly lay down that wasn’t in a pathway was used as a “bed”.

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The walkway from the Novotel to the main part of the airport
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Riding up to the 4th floor on one of the endless walkway escalators

We got in line to check-in to our flight with Thai Smile. When we got to the counter we realized we were in the domestic line (ugh). So we walked across the walkway to the international counter.

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The guy at the desk didn’t speak English very well. He was so nice and kept apologizing like it was his fault. He told us it was his first week on the job and he was still learning English.

Through some guessing and another worker’s help, we found out that we couldn’t leave anything with a battery in our checked bags. So we had to do some shuffling to get the GoPro bag out and cram it into Eric’s carry-on. It didn’t take long and we were up to immigration within a few minutes.

Immigration and security weren’t crowded at all so we made it through quickly then went to find a lounge.

There are so many lounges at the BKK airport so if you want to go to one, there will most likely be one close to your gate.

The breakfast wasn’t the greatest, but I hadn’t been feeling very well anyway so I just had a piece of toast, some fruit, and a protein bar that we had in our bag. I also drank about 6 bottles of water in an hour.

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Fruit always tastes better when it’s cut into a heart shape

Speaking of not feeling well, I think it was because in 48 hours the only food we had was from the plane and that random Korean restaurant from our tour. I barely ate anything on any of our flights and only had one protein bar accessible in my carry on bag, so I really hadn’t eaten very much at all. Mix that with being dehydrated and there you have it.

At our boarding time, we headed to the gate. They checked our passports and scanned our tickets before we could sit down in the waiting area which I thought was interesting. Then at the boarding time, they did the usual thing where they board the elderly and those with children first, then whatever their higher class passengers are called. But no one listened and everyone just boarded at once. No one seemed to care.
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As we walked on the plane we were handed immigration forms. There were 3: customs, VOA (Visa on Arrival), and immigration. We only had to fill out the customs and immigration forms since we did our visa prior to our trip.

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While I’m on the subject, if you’re contemplating getting a Cambodian visa ahead of your trip, do it. Ours were checked many times before we boarded the flight. When we got to our gate, the agent scanned the barcode on them as well. It definitely wasn’t mandatory that we had them ahead of time, but I think it made for a smoother travel day.

We took off right on time and as soon as we got to cruising altitude those 6 bottles of water I drank hit me. I was nervous about this bathroom because the plane was small and old, but it was fine. There was a funny sign in it though. By the sink, there was a sign that said: “please use a towel to dry your hands as a courtesy to your seat neighbor”. I guess people here don’t use towels to dry their hands after they wash them like we do!

Fifteen minutes into the flight, the cabin crew started coming around with food. We were shocked! This flight was only an hour but they served us all hot food in pretty cloth bags. Even more surprising? It was delicious!

We each basically got a cheese pizza Hot Pocket. They called it a stromboli but it was just like a Hot Pocket. There was also some fruit in the box. Finally a meal I could eat!

As we descended into Siem Reap, the view was beautiful.

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Our plane landed around 8:30 am. The Siem Reap airport was tiny! It reminded me of Santorini, except this airport looked much newer.

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We walked into a big room. There were desks to the left blocking the way to the baggage conveyors; those desks were immigration. The VOA desks were to the right. There were some girls from Ireland that had to go to VOA. I’m so glad we did this ahead of time. That process looked long and immigration took long enough as it was even though our plane was the only one there!

Once we were through immigration, we grabbed our bags from the carousel which was maybe 30 feet from the desk where we just were. Then we headed out to find our driver.

We were staying at Mulberry Boutique Hotel and it came with pick-up service from the airport. We spotted our driver quickly. He had my name on a sign and also was wearing an obvious shirt from the hotel that said “MULBERRY” in bold white letters on the back.

Our driver greeted us and offered to carry my bag. We had zipped up the straps on our bags since we checked them and decided not to unzip them to bring them out of the airport. My bag was not light when carried by the strap on the side and our poor driver was a little guy. He definitely struggled a bit and it was so hot outside. I felt bad!

Once we were in the car, our driver brought us each a cold towel, a cute reusable aluminum bottle filled with cold water, and two skewers of lychee fruit. All of it was such a surprise! The lychee tasted very different from what I’ve had back home. It wasn’t sweet at all which threw me off. It wasn’t bad, but I prefer sweet fruit.

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We pulled out of the airport and on to the little road to town. All of a sudden we saw a bunch of scooters in the road and people lined up on either side. There were people standing in the road too. Our driver said “accident… very bad”. There were two foreign-looking people standing around looking concerned, one person laying in the road (looked to be foreign), and several local people holding a sheet to cover the person laying down. It looked bad. Our driver said it looked like a car had hit the person riding the motorbike. We would come to find out that this was very uncommon and I’m sure had to do with the inexperienced foreigner.

We continued into town. I was already having a bit of culture shock. I knew I would from what I had heard, but experiencing it is a whole other thing. Bumpy dirt roads that randomly turn paved, cars and scooters zipping around without any sort of organization, small stands lining the roads with little kids running around barefoot… we were in another world.

We arrived at the hotel which was down a tiny alleyway. Next to our hotel was someones home and a primary school. So different!

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Neang at reception welcomed us and brought us a cold drink: fresh mango juice! She asked us if we had a plan for our stay and we told her we wanted to book some tours through the hotel. This was the only place where I didn’t pre-book tours ahead of time because it wasn’t necessary.

We decided on the first two days of tours and left the last day unplanned just in case. For the first day, we hired a guide to take us around the small circuit of the Angkor Wat complex including the sunrise at Angkor Wat. For the second day, we planned to just do the grand circuit on our own without a guide.

Since we had to buy our Angkor Wat passes anyway, we decided to go ahead and do it that evening so we wouldn’t have to waste time in the morning for the sunrise. A bonus to doing this is we would get to watch the sunset at any temple for free the day we purchased the tickets (meaning it wouldn’t use one of our days). So for instance, we purchased the 3-day pass. Day one would start for the sunrise, they wouldn’t mark our passes for sunset.

It was only 9:30 am and we wouldn’t have to leave for sunset until 4:30 pm. So we went to check out our room and relax for a bit.

After an hour, we decided to go walk around town. All the locals wore pants and long sleeve shirts even though it was in the 90s. Some of them even wore jackets! The Khmer people (Cambodians) are very conservative so I decided to keep my leggings and short sleeve shirt on to walk around town.

Mistake! I was sweating like a pig only 5 minutes after we left the hotel. But the shop we were walking to was so close, we decided to just go there first then go back to the hotel to change after.

Our first stop was to a shop called Angkor Shoes Making. This shop specialized in making genuine cow leather shoes by hand. I read about them before our trip and really wanted to get some sandals made.

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We arrived and a very nice guy greeted us. He told us to look around and let him know if we liked anything. I spotted a pair of sandals almost immediately (I make decisions really fast… there has to be at least one in the relationship 🙂 ). The store owner let me know I could choose any type of leather I wanted for the sandal. What was so amazing about the shoes they make there was that every part of the shoe was leather, not just the straps.

I chose a matte black leather with a little bit of texture. At this point, I had no clue how much these shoes were going to cost but I really didn’t care because this was one of the main things I knew I was going to buy coming to Cambodia.

The shop owner brought over a clipboard with some paper and a pen. He had me take off my shoes and step on the paper one foot at a time. Then he outlined them and measured the top and middle of each one with measuring tape. The whole process took less than 10 minutes.

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My big American feet almost took up the whole page lol

We walked back over to the desk and he wrote up the receipt. I was a little nervous about the price, but as long as it was less than $100 I thought it would be worth it. I mean, custom, handmade, 100% leather sandals from Cambodia… that’s pretty cool.

Drumroll please… they were only $38 TOTAL. It’s hard to find nice sandals in the US for that cheap let alone custom made to my foot and pure leather.

I was so excited. The guy told us they would be ready by 5:00 pm Monday which was perfect because that would be the night before we left. So we said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel.

We walked back to the hotel, changed, then went back out to walk to the center of town. Our hotel was technically in the heart of Siem Reap, but all the main areas were a bit closer to the river.

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The walk took about 10 minutes then we decided to find a little shop I had read about that had cute clothes. It was called Shop 676 and it was owned by a Cambodian fashion designer who went to study in Paris but decided to move back to Cambodia to make her clothes.

We walked in and were greeted by a very European looking man which threw me off since we were in Cambodia. He told us to take a look around and try on anything we wanted.

I ended up loving a pair of flowy pants I found and bought them. We started talking with the guy who worked at the shop. He originally was from Amsterdam. He told us that a couple of years ago he took a trip around the world and ultimately decided to quit his job, sell everything, and move to Cambodia. So crazy! He gave us a bunch of tips for our stay there which was nice. He also gave us some restaurant recommendations as well as which markets were the best. I was so glad we stopped in!

It was lunchtime, so we decided to eat somewhere around Pub Street. Pub Street is like the Bourbon Street of Siem Reap and is usually where all the expats and tourists hang out. It was crazy hot out, did I say that yet? So we decided our appetizer would be some gelato.

We stopped at Gelato Lab where I got mango and strawberry. Eric got stracciatella. We hung out for a little bit then moved on to real food.

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Siem Reap was still new to us so we were still trying to get our bearings and feel out the place. At one point the map on Eric’s phone stopped working so we couldn’t look up the different places we had seen along the road. We were both starving so we ultimately decided to just eat at a really touristy looking placed called Red Piano. It’s apparently one of the most famous bars in Siem Reap. They claim it’s Angelina Jolie’s favorite when she visits… not sure how true that is.

The place didn’t really look like they would make very good local food, so we went with what they were famous for: pizza. Yep, our first meal in Siem Reap was pizza. It is what it is people. We didn’t want to take a gamble and end up getting sick or hating the food so we went with a super safe option. Don’t worry, we ventured out later.

After lunch, it was time to go back to the hotel to get ready for the sunset. We decided to grab our first tuk-tuk of the trip!

Neang at our hotel told us a tuk-tuk to or from the Pub Street area should only be $1, so that’s what we went with. I had been told to negotiate the fare before getting in the tuk-tuk so we did just that. The driver hesitated but then quickly agreed. Then we were off!

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The ride was easy and we were back within a couple minutes. Thankfully our hotel had given us a card so all we had to do was show the card to the driver and he knew where to go.

We quickly got ready then went back down to the reception area to meet the driver that would take us to get our passes and watch the sunset. Our drivers’ name was Mr. Socheat and he was so kind. We climbed in the tuk-tuk and off we went to the ticket office.

The ticket office was a madhouse, but Mr. Socheat walked us past all the crowds to an open window at the end. We would have never figured that out on our own. We purchased the 3-day pass for $62 (the passes only come in 1, 3, or 7 day).

Once we had our passes, it was on to see the sunset! Before we left the ticket office, Mr. Socheat asked us where we wanted to go. We were confused because we thought we were going to Angkor Wat. We asked him if there was somewhere else that might be less crowded but still nice. He didn’t seem to understand us at all. So we tried asking him his favorite sunset spot. He told us Phnom Bakheng. Since we would be going to Angkor Wat for sunrise the next day, we figured going to a different temple for sunset would be a good choice. So off we went to Phnom Bakheng.

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We had to show our tickets at a checkpoint about a half mile back from the entrance to the temple and then our driver dropped us off at the front. He told us he would be waiting in the same spot when we got back.

We were a little overwhelmed by everything going on around us when we stepped out of the tuk-tuk. To our left there were people riding elephants; it was the first time we both had seen elephants outside of a zoo! There were locals singing and play instruments, small stalls set up along the dirt road selling various fruits and souvenirs, small children playing games… it was a lot to take in at once. Side note: I’ll get into this later in our trip, but when you travel to SEA (Southeast Asia) please do not ride elephants. It’s considered cruel and hurts their spines. It’s a huge controversy here, but luckily the practice is starting to cease. 

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This little girl was so cute. She kept waving at everyone walking by.

We walked up to where everyone else was walking and showed our tickets again. Then we realized what we had gotten ourselves in to. We had to hike uphill for about 20 minutes to reach this temple. No one told us! I was in long pants and flip-flops. Luckily Eric was dressed a little better than I was in his Tevas.

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Once we reached the top, we were met with another unwelcome surprise; this temple only allowed 300 people at the top at a time. So this meant that if we wanted to go up, someone had to come down.

A temple guard approached us as we got in line and explained that it was going to take us at least 30 minutes to get to the top. It was already 5:30 pm, so that didn’t sound promising. We were so mad!

We decided to stay just in the off chance that we might make it up. We had walked all that way so there was no point in giving up. Luckily we could still walk around the front of the temple, so that’s what I did while Eric held our place in line.

Once I got back, Eric did the same thing so he could get some GoPro video. As he was returning, a huge group of people descended from the temple. Score! I thought to myself maybe this means we’ll get to go up before the sun fully sets. The guard also told us the temple would close as soon as the sun went down because the trail would become dangerous. There are some extremely dangerous snakes in this part of the world and the trail was just a dirt path with no lights.

At 6:00 pm another group of people came down from the temple and it was finally our time to go up. We made it to the top just before the sun went below the horizon.

We only stayed at the top for about 15 minutes. I started to feel really lightheaded because we were idiots and didn’t bring any water. In our defense, we didn’t know about the hike, but it was so hot we definitely should have brought some. Also, I barely had any food since Tuesday and it was Friday so there was that too.

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We made our way back down the trail which was much easier than the hike up. Not only was it going downhill but the temperature had dropped significantly too. We made it back to our tuk-tuk within 15 minutes.

The drive back was nice and it was so interesting to see the city at night. Tons of food stalls, people on motorbikes carrying things that should not be carried on motorbikes, and really adorable kids that loved to wave at us as we passed their villages.

We arrived back at our hotel around 7:00 pm. We were exhausted and famished so we decided to eat at our hotel’s restaurant instead of trying to go out.

Our hotel only had 13 rooms, so we really hadn’t seen anyone else other than hotel staff. Dinner was the same story. We sat down at a table with a view of the pool and one of the staff members came to take our order. I ordered the vegetarian pad thai and Eric got beef lok lak (a Cambodian dish). Both dishes were delicious! I even struggled through eating with chopsticks the entire time. I was determined not to use a fork!

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After our private dinner, we retreated to our room for the night. We would have a very early morning the next day for the sunrise so we wanted to make sure we got showers and had everything ready to go for our 4:00 am wake up call!

– Bisous!

Lauryn

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