The city of Siem Reap is a strangely quaint mix of pastoral country meets grand tourist spectacle.

Arriving once again to a slower paced city was sweet relief after the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. Because of the considerable amount of tourists Siem Reap sees every year, their international airport’s visa on arrival process is streamlined to the point of perfection. All you need is a passport valid for six months, $30 USD, and a passport sized photo and 10-15 minutes later you receive your stamped passport. Love it!

A refreshing Cambodia draft beer for only $1 USD.

Our guesthouse was about a fifteen minute walk from the city center and so we grabbed some lunch at the Cambodian Traditional Chef Restaurant where I sampled the traditional khmer fish amok. A major national culinary dish in Cambodia, amok is thick soup cooked with fish, meat, vegetables, eggs and coconut milk. We also sampled some traditional chicken curry and stir-fried greens with pork– all very delicious!

Pub Street, Where All the Tourists Meet

Which way to the egress?

It was then a short walk over to Pub Street, the main tourist hub of Siem Reap that includes many khmer, western and international restaurants catering to those with foreign dollars, as well as endless stores tucked away on side streets and back alleys selling Cambodia beer tank tops in every color and size imaginable (major shopping FOMO that I didn’t buy one). We spent the better part of the hot afternoon chugging 50¢ draft beers on a restaurant patio– life is good.

Here Comes the Sun & I Say It’s Alright

Angkor Wat silhouetted against the early morning sky.

We awoke the following morning at 4:30 in the morning with ambitious plans to catch the popular sunrise over the legendary temple complex. For a total of $6 per person ($18 total for the three of us), a tuk tuk driver drove us from our guesthouse to the ticketing office and then to Angkor Wat where he would wait patiently for us to view the sunrise and explore the temple. This is the best way to do the temple circuit, in my humblest of opinions.

It was still pitch black out as we made our way over the bridge entering the temple grounds with only the lights from smartphones and flashlights leading the way as stars twinkled above in the night sky. We arrived early enough to snag a good spot in front of the less crowded right side pool facing east. Even the teeming selfie sticks and professional-grade camera tripods couldn’t detract from the grandeur of the place.

Contemplating Space Time & the World of Cosplay

A view of the inner main structure of the temple complex.

I could see why a visit to Angkor Wat is on any backpacker’s must see list– it’s the world’s largest religious monument and a UNESCO world heritage site. What a surreal experience to walk among the ruins, some areas of which were undergoing restoration, and think of how much history and time has passed through here. I’m so happy to finally be able to scratch this off the bucket list and act out my inner Indiana Jones cosplay nerd fantasies.

A gaggle of tourists approaching the temple’s main entrance.

The temple’s hours are from 5am – 6pm but no matter the time of day, you will be surrounded by hordes of other tourists. We did manage to stay a bit ahead of the crowds by leaving the poolside viewing area immediately after first light and being among the first in line to enter the main tower inside. Our subsequent visits to Bayon and Ta Prohm were way less crowded thanks to our impatient New York attitudes and aversion to other human beings.

Monkeying Around at Bayon Temple

The entrance to Bayon temple in Angkor Thom.

Our next stop was the equally stunning Bayon temple, with its huge stone faces carved into the many stepped towers. Wandering through dark and damp corridors, reflecting on how ancient these really are is quite the solemn experience. Monkeys casually lounging atop the aging, crumbling columns only added to the unearthly quality of it all.

That One Temple Where They Filmed Tomb Raider

Shout out to this security guard ruining everyone’s tourist photos.

Ta Prohm temple would be our final visit for the day. The interesting aspect of this site are the huge, overgrown trees taking over the temple and growing from the structures inside. Huge stone blocks covered in moss lay quietly in disarray. This is also the temple where the first Tomb Raider was apparently filmed and even locals affectionately refer to it as the “Tomb Raider Temple” (for better or worse, but probably for worse).

The hour was approaching noon. We kindly asked our tuk tuk driver to take us back into town before we succumbed to heat stroke and could fry eggs on the tops of our foreheads, because it was so blistering hot and humid out. Starting out bright and early in the morning is a great way to experience Angkor Wat and it’s a stunning experience that I’ll never forget.