Never in my life have I visited a place as thrillingly different from home than Cambodia.
Though it sounds like a hopeless cliché, I have always believed in travel as a way to learn, push boundaries and break free from comfort zones. That said, I don’t think I entirely knew what that meant until today. Between temples, tarantulas and thunderstorms, today’s last adventure in Siem Reap launched me far far away from comfort and familiarity.
We started the morning off with some low-key sightseeing around Cambodia’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat, whose iconic silhouette can be seen on everything here, from souvenir magnets and shirts, all the way to the Cambodian national flag. Welcoming over a million visitors each year, it is one of the primary draws for tourism in Cambodia, not to mention a monument that makes its way onto everybody’s ‘Travel’ Pinterest board. Today however, driving into the complex, I had the epiphany that I knew absolutely nothing about the temple or its significance, despite having seen so many photos of it.
So, why is Angkor Wat such an important destination?
As my guide explained, the temple’s immense popularity can be owed to the fact that it is the largest religious monument in the world, and also one of the best-preserved examples of Khmer architecture left standing today. Its remarkably preserved ruins transport visitors back in time to the glory days of the Khmer Empire, and invite wanderers to explore its mysterious allure through an impressive network of galleries, courtyards and towers. Though Angkor Wat was commissioned in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II as a Hindu Temple, it became a Buddhist site centuries later and continues to be one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Southeast Asia (for humans and monkeys alike, apparently!)
It should come as no surprise then that spirituality courses through the temple’s walls. Having visited dozens of cathedrals during my time in Europe, losing myself in this massive Buddhist temple was a refreshing change of pace. I was completely taken by the grandeur and detail of the stacked galleries, whose intricate bas relief carvings depict stories from sacred Hindu texts. Immersing myself in an unfamiliar religion was fascinating. What’s most impressive to me is the incredible amount of thought and planning that must have gone into the temple’s creation. Originally intended to be a funerary temple for the king, it was designed to be a stone representation of the universe. The temple’s towers stand for Mount Meru, sacred home of the gods in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, while the surrounding walls and moats symbolize the mountains and oceans found at the edge of the universe and beyond. This amazing place took around 30 years to build, and seeing it in-person is truly spectacular. While photos hardly do it justice, here is a taste of Angkor Wat’s beauty:
After our visit, it was time to say goodbye to Siem Reap and make our way to the cruise. About halfway through our bus ride to the boat, I was jolted awake with the announcement that we’d be taking a quick break at a local town for about 15 minutes.
Here’s where things got really interesting.
Stepping off the bus, still half-asleep, I was thrown headfirst into the most peculiar little town I’ve ever been to.
It turns out, this wasn’t just some random town… I was in Skuon, an infamous stop lying along Cambodia’s Highway 6, whose nickname “Spider Town” alludes to the townspeople’s love for consuming deep fried spiders. I learned this the hard way, when, within a few minutes of arriving, I was approached by an adorable little girl who smiled wide at me and extended her hand to give me a gift. Craning my head in, I looked eagerly to her special surprise and…
I screamed like a scared little girl, because entwined in her fingers was a big, black tarantula – the biggest I’ve ever seen in real life.
Where was I?!
Panicked, I walked away from the girl, hoping to escape the wrath of her tarantula friend. While she followed me around for a bit, I attempted to distract myself with the offerings of the town’s famous market. The fresh produce was nice, but there was absolutely no way to avoid the town’s specialty… Here and there were stands selling large mountains of gooey and crunchy spiders, stacked and drizzled with a mysterious syrup coating. I can’t lie – I was mortified. Nonetheless, it was a very eye-opening visit. Supposedly, the town’s spider consumption is a legacy left behind from the Khmer Rouge period, when food was so scarce in the area that locals had to eat anything they could for survival. Hearing this, I felt a lot less weird about the whole ordeal. Who was I to judge? Maybe another day, I’ll be a braver soul willing to endure the crispy crunch of deep fried tarantula for myself, but today, my friends, was not that day!
Today’s final adventure came when we were dropped off near our boat’s docking point after a few hours on the bus. As we waited for our tuk tuks, I felt a few harmless drops of rain falling from the sky. It took no more than 30 seconds for this harmless rain to morph into a torrential downpour, complete with bright pangs of lightning and the rumbling sounds of thunder. Here I found myself in the middle of Cambodia, riding a tuk tuk through a thunderstorm, raindrops thrashing the side of my face as we whizzed through the pitch black darkness of the Cambodian countryside. Now that I am safe and sound on the boat, I look back on this experience and laugh. As crazy as it sounds, I adore this chaotic madness of the unfamiliar, and can’t wait to see what more adventures this trip will bring!
Upon our arrival, the crew of the Toum Tiou I was prepared to greet us with warm towels to dry off. After recuperating from the (mildly traumatizing) storm, I saw my surroundings with a fresh pair of eyes. As it turns out, I was on board the cutest and most charming boat I’ve encountered so far on this Photo Tour. The Toum Tiou I is the smallest cruise boat in Cambodia, and it is brimming with colonial charm. From its open air dining area to its cute wooden décor and small decorative details, it seems like a wonderful place to finish off my three months of cruising. I really can’t wait to call this little boat home for the next week, and I look forward to sharing my Mekong adventures with all of you!
It has been a crazy day, so bedtime calls. Update you soon!