As an American, you’re allowed visa-free entry into Thailand for 30 days at a stretch. Since I’m here for 2 months, but didn’t bother prearranging for an extended 60-day visa, it was time to do a little border-hopping to renew my stay. And what better place to go than Cambodia?
I love flying in Southeast Asia. My budget flight from Chiang Mai down to Bangkok was around $35, plus another $65 to bring me onwards to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Once I touched down at my destination, it was another $2 for a 20-minute motorbike taxi into town.
Of course, prices drop even lower if you’re interested in taking a bus the entire way. The whole trip could have likely been done for under 40 bucks, but it would also have meant a lot of time on the road (perhaps ~8 hours to Bangkok, and then another ~8 to Siem Reap).
Having once taken a 12-hour bus ride from Athens to Albania, I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic about this option. So off I flew – thanks, AirAsia.
Siem Reap, which translates to something like “Defeat of Siam”, was probably so named due to some incident between the longtime-rival Siamese (Thai) and Khmer Empires. There is a prevailing explanation in local folklore, involving a hero king who supposedly shot an invading Siamese prince right off his elephant mount and went on to capture over ten thousand of his soldiers. The real story isn’t so clear.
Today, the city’s biggest claim to fame is its role as a service hub for travelers exploring the local temples. Speaking of which…
Check another item off the bucket list, because I’ve been to Angkor Wat! Spanning an area of jungle perhaps twice the size of Manhattan, this ~900-year-old temple complex is absolutely stunning, and a must-see for anyone visiting nearby Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat is often described as “Heaven on Earth” – quite literally, in fact. The central towers are a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. The outer walls and moat symbolize the mountains believed to surround the world and the oceans beyond, respectively.
Built in the early part of the 12th century, Angkor Wat was to be both the king’s state temple and the capital of the Khmer Empire. It was dedicated to the god Vishnu.
As Buddhism spread throughout the area, though, Angkor Wat was gradually repurposed and reinvented. Reliefs of Hindu gods were chipped out of the sandstone, and statues of the Buddha were installed. These statues were, much more recently, beheaded by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
Though the temple occasionally fell out of use throughout the centuries, it was never fully abandoned. The outer moat made it somewhat resistant to the encroaching wilderness, although massive tree roots do strangle the ruins in places.
Unfortunately, I was only able to dedicate a single day to discovering what lay in the Angkor temples. I probably could have filled three, and never seen the same thing twice. Should I ever return for a longer trip through Cambodia, I’ll definitely be back to see what else lies hidden beneath the jungle growth.