“You’re in Hong Kong?”
Shit, my mind said.
I accidentally posted online where I was, thanks to excitement and carelessness. I see my mom’s eyes becoming big saucers demanding instant explanation, and wanting to reduce me to amoeba-like proportions.
I didn’t tell my parents about my solo trip to Cambodia. I was planning to tell them afterwards because I know there’s a chance they wouldn’t like it.
“Uh, yeah. I forgot to tell you because I was busy at work.”
Congratulations to me for coming up with the lamest excuse offered to a mother in a state of shock. I waited nervously, expecting a waterfall of guilt-inducing sermon served with a scolding tone. In hindsight, I felt stupid for not telling them this beforehand.
Also, as an only child, I understand the reaction. Whoever said there’s no such thing as forever forgot about a parent’s love.
“Who’s with you?”
“I’m traveling solo.”
Earth stops moving.
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m staying at a hotel, with a packaged tour. Price was good coz it’s low-season so I might as well go.”
For the next few minutes, I would fill her with information she wanted to have known days before. I made sure my voice was happy, no streak of nervousness whatsoever, which was actually my state of being a few minutes before she discovered my photo. Craaaaap.
While telling her about my next 4 days, the thought of what I’m doing also sank in. The reality of being in a place where I don’t know anybody, without any single idea what to expect, hit me. I forgot about bucket lists and ended up thinking baket ko to ginagawa instead.
I wished Internet would become faulty so we’ll just message instead. BUT NO. Internet decided to give us a crystal clear Facebook Messenger call.
Someone relaxes. It’s her.
“Ikaw talaga, lakwatsera ka. Ok, don’t forget to buy me pasalubong. Your dad’s size is large and don’t get him a white shirt. Blue or black’s better.”
And just like that, she welcomed me back in the family. The earth spun again, crickets stopped chirping, Happy played
in the sound system of my imagination.
Excitement put a stop to seeping worries as I realized this adventure will be my best trip so far.
Why Siem Reap
Seeing photos of friends in Cambodia, amongst Angkor’s temples, got me thinking, why haven’t I seen this myself? There’s something in those temples that told me to go. I wish I’m being cheesy here but after seeing Angkor Wat…nope, not one bit. Also, UNESCO World Heritage site. After visiting the temples, I’d then realize why I needed to do this trip.
I’ve always wanted to start doing solo trips abroad, excluding Taiwan and Philippines since they’re already my home countries. I ping-ponged my way into a decision, which surprisingly, got smoothened out during the first week of September by a number of good chances happening successively.
The weather’s great on my chosen dates, the tickets I purchased were low-priced with a 7-hour layover in another country, and I got a great deal on accommodations that included a couple of temple tour packages. Turns out July to September are low-season in Siem Reap and the week before October is a golden window of opportunity. It’s no longer that hot and accommodations are still low-priced. Finally, Taipei had a mid-autumn holiday from September 25 to 28 so, bingo!
Some travel solo to meet people, but my priority were the temples. So I decided to book a hotel just to make sure I’m safe, though Siem Reap is secure enough for solo females to explore. I found Silk D’ Angkor Boutique hotel as one of the highly recommended hotels, so I decided to check their website and look for tour packages. I wanted my visit to be comfy and insightful so I really aimed for a tour that would include an English-speaking guide.
And oh my Buddha. Was I so right to book this hotel.
Where I stayed
10 hours later (including a 7-hour Hong Kong layover) I finally reached Siem Reap. I initially felt scared, seeing how sparsely lit the place was from above. I’m used to a sea of lights welcoming me on an evening flight to Taipei or Manila, but it wasn’t the same on the way to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Good thing Ana from Silk D’ Angkor was already there, holding my name on paper, waiting by the sole exit. With her was Kim, my tour driver for the next two days. Welcomes were done and I did sense a genuine hint of warmness from them. We passed by sometimes-lit-sometimes-not rural areas but I was surprised to see a few women biking in the dark without any lights. Ana asked me about my flight and told me I would be their VIP for the next few days, and internally I was like, oh you do know how to market don’t you…
But she wasn’t kidding. They welcomed me with a pandan-and-lemongrass drink, a cold towel (which they would offer as a staple “welcome back!” from a day spent touring outside), and a statement they stayed true to throughout my stay:
“We’ll be your family while you’re in Siem Reap.”
They also gave me a FREE room upgrade! My previously Superior room became a Deluxe Pool View room, on the third floor.
The cute round sofa was so comfy, I was glued on it soon as I sat down. Wi-Fi was amazingly fast. Every day I have two free bottled waters. The shower’s got hot and cold, and blasts strong enough. The entire bathroom was spacious and clean. There’s a shower cap and basic toiletries. Pillows are comfortably soft. The bed would pull me in for more sleep every morning.
What did I do to deserve all these awesomeness?
For the next 3 days, I lived in maximum comfort and truly felt like a VIP. They even gave me a Happy Hour discount card which gave me 10% off on drinks and food. When Ana handed me my discount card, I started to think that maybe they mistook me for a visiting princess of some country, or an heiress who was supposed to go soul-searching here.
Every time they’d tell me I’m a VIP, I would always say “no I’m just a simple individual
who saved enough money to buy herself Tiger beer in Cambodia!”
If the hotel didn’t want me to find food elsewhere, they have great reason to do so. Silk Cafe, the hotel’s restaurant, offers consistently delicious food items that are satisfying in every possible way. Plus, the staff would ask you about your food, your stay, and I took the chance to talk to them. Best part about our conversations is when I’d thank them in Khmer, saying “Arkoun!” That would always elicit a surprised happy look from them, and a sense of being appreciated too.
But, just so you know, Silk D’ Angkor isn’t too far from the famous Old Market, Pub Street, and even the Angkor Wat museum. Old Market and Pub Street can be reached via tuk-tuk in as little as 5 minutes, while the museum is just 5 minutes by foot. And it’s perfectly okay for you to go out to eat and ask the hotel to help you grab a tuk-tuk.
Okay, so back to the food. It was diviiiine. Daily breakfast is buffet style and consists of Western/Asian/Khmer eats. There was BACON, an omelette station, fresh fruits, bread and cereals, and unlimited coffee/juice/tea. The breakfast menu varied daily though I personally wouldn’t mind those huge slabs of bacon EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
I also tried some of the Khmer delicacies for dinner. Silk Cafe has course meals that include the whole appetizer-main-course-dessert-drinks setup. Price range’s above 10 USD but I’d recommend you try it even once, especially the Amok fish curry and this grilled shrimp with Khmer barbecue:
Just looking at these photos makes me want to go back. The food is SO DAMN GOOD.
Touring the temples
I purchased a 3-day travel pass for $40 because I will be touring Bantay Srei the following day. A single-day pass costs $20.
The pass has an ID photo, which perfectly captured my smug smile. It’s a bit fragile coz it’s made of paper so take care of it. Make sure you keep it if you’re also visiting the temples for 3 days because the guards at the entrance would check it and, from time to time, you’d be asked to show it in some areas.
I would strongly recommend getting a tour guide, even just for a day. He’ll take you to the most important places to see and would explain to you all the history you need to appreciate the entire Angkor complex. They’d also help you spot the best angles for taking amazing shots and be your instant photographer too.
You probably think, “I can do it myself, get a guide book, and take my own sweet time.” But the thing is, if you get a local tour guide you also learn about the customs of Cambodia plus meet a local friend. My guide was part of the tour package and you can easily arrange these tours with the hotel/hostel you’ll stay in. I met a group of travellers who arranged for a tour guide on the same day they arrived at their hotel.
Your tour guide would probably be a local and, most of all, practices Theravada Buddhism. He would be more than happy to show you how to pay your respects to their religion which is a HUGE DEAL because it’s the one of the main reasons why the Angkor temples were built in the first place. You can ask them about the war in Cambodia, their traditions, and they wouldn’t hesitate to tell their story to you. I don’t think you can get that same experience from the Internet or any guide book.
If it wasn’t for Chhaya kim, I might just take a photo of this monk by the Buddha altar and go my way. But because Chhaya was there, he taught me the Theravada Buddhist way of praying, then gave me a chance to be blessed by a monk who also gave me the best souvenir of this trip.
Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu became gods that I now have so much respect for. I learned about personality politics as among Jayavarman’s reasons for building these temples. I discovered that the Khmer Rouge took refuge in Angkor Wat, creating those bullet holes peppering its walls. I found out that some Buddha parts and relics remained in the temple simply because they suddenly became too heavy for thieves to carry off.
I was amazed and perplexed with Khmer architecture—its precision, symbolism, and political importance. I thought, if the Khmers were already that advanced way back then, how come we’ve only progressed this far?
To which Chhaya replied, “Some people know the secrets but they keep it from us… Modern man goes to these temples and learns from the past.”
I smiled in silent agreement.
And, if I didn’t tour the place with Chhaya, I wouldn’t discover this dinosaur-like engraving on the wall, which prompted another debate with my very smart guide.
If that is truly a stegosaurus, I have no idea how and why the Khmers included it in the carvings. All I know is that these temples are not just places of worship, nor homage to the kings’ families and religion, but are most importantly vessels of knowledge that are too powerful and great to keep as a secret.
To be continued…