Siem Reap translates to Defeat of Siam, recalling the centuries-old battle between the Khmer and the Siamese. Also known as Siemmarat or Siam’s Territory, it is home to Cambodia’s ancient cities. These days, it is one of the go-to destinations for backpackers looking for adventure, for a dose of culture and history mixed with modern-day conveniences.
Whether you travel to Cambodia as part of your itinerary on an extended trip around Asia, or you do so with a distinct activity in mind, maybe to visit Angkor Wat because you have turned X-years-old, or to try every bar in Pub Street, or to go attend a yoga retreat, there is something beautiful about the way the old and the new find themselves coexisting in beautiful Siem Reap.
Solo traveling comes easy to some, sounds daunting to others, but even if dipping your toe in the waters of flying sans companion tends to ring scary to you, the likeness of Cambodia with the Philippines lessens the blow of being alone in an unfamiliar place. Their huts, constructed from nipa palms, are similar to our bahay kubos; they have their versions of turon and suman, use coconuts for their milk, nectar, and alcohol; the rice paddies and the landscape; even the popularity of Filipino telenovelas made evident with children running around in shirts with Pinoy actors and actresses’ faces on it, offer a bit of home amidst the confusion of a new language, new place, and new culture.
Riding into the city, the lanes dedicated to tuktuks and motorcycles are busier. The tuktuks, similar to the larger tricycles such as those seen in Visayas and Mindanao, are their primary mode of transportation, each one decorated and tricked out with paint jobs, curtains, and ornaments much like our jeepneys, the seats elevated and upholstered. Hotels are usually suffixed with Angkor: Gloria Angkor, Chateau d’Angkor, Diamond D’angkor; and just as their names suggest, all these structures mimic Siem Reap’s ancient architecture. Although a room with a gigantic bed to yourself is very affordable, hostels for about a third of the price provide everything a traveler needs, cheap, clean rooms, 24-hour meals, and sign-up boards to join temple tours and other historical sites; an especially great option for the alone and unused to striking up conversations with strangers.
Pub Street has become a sort of legend of its own, a busy, noisy row of streets lined with restaurants, neon signs screaming “Pint for $.50”; traditional Khmer cuisine flanked by German, Italian, and American restaurants; a decent Beatles-themed pub; several establishments dedicated to pizza (both regular and happy, if that is your thing); pushcarts selling fried scorpion, snakes, spiders; ice cream shops and hip coffee bars that serve smoothies and granola bars; stalls with spices and dehydrated fruit; several spas; rows upon rows of shops with jewelry, elephant-print pajama pants, shirts, and bags, and beautiful paintings of the temples, monks, and the Cambodian countryside.
What is an air-conditioned haven for the templed-out, the sunburnt, and the hungover by day turns into a crowded, colorful bacchanal by night. If your goal is to have a good night’s rest, then even the prettiest boutique hotel in Pub Street won’t keep the noise away.
The wonderful thing about Siem Reap is that the conservation of temples is of prime importance, and development near and around the ancient ruins remain minimal and unobtrusive, no buildings towering over these structures, no traces of trash left in the wake of visitors.
Biking from Angkor to Angkor is common, with e-bikes quickly increasing in number. If on a tight schedule, the Small Circuit tour takes one to several of the more popular temples.
Tickets allow access to all temples depending on your tour and preferred number of days to complete it (one, three, or five days). It’s recommended to visit Angkor Wat in time for sunrise or sunset, where those wary of crowds can stay among the banks of the moat surrounding the temple, perhaps with a chocolate croissant and coffee in hand.
Although it is possible to wander around the largest religious monument by yourself, it is good to note that authorized tourist guides will be upfront about rates, will always be in uniform, and have proper identification. If you find yourself chasing the Angkor at sunset and getting talked into following a shifty-eyed stranger into dark hallways away from the milling tourists, if you feel reluctant to hand him your phone for a photo against the temple, or unconvinced when he tells you that he lives with the monks and has been assigned by the government to give tours, then you better walk toward a group of people as calmly as you can, and refuse to pay the exorbitant amount he may demand from you, even if he raises his voice or chases after you, even if he did know the spots to take pictures of you looking uncomfortable despite the pretty surroundings. Exit gracefully and board your tuktuk while trying to cry as quietly as possible. Come back another day, perhaps with solo-traveling friends you were lucky to have made, and then take all the time you need to wander up and down the corridors, inspect how identical the carvings are throughout the length of walls and from pillar to pillar, perhaps wonder at how they were made, and why not attempt at the narrow steps that only the kings used to ascend?
Ta Prohm may be known as the setting of Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider, but the structure’s beauty goes beyond its fame. Thick roots wrap around the carved walls, growing around and tearing through stone, proving that nature can always reclaim dominance over things manmade.
Bayon Temple, with the two thousand gigantic smiling faces fronting every compass point, is striking even from afar. Located at the midpoint of Angkor Thom, the temple represents the intersection between heaven and earth, King Jayavarman blessing you from every direction.
Lazy nights can be spent wandering around Pub Street after scoring a full dinner of rice, two kinds of curry, palak paneer, and naan for three dollars. If you absolutely insist on going home penniless, buy artistic black and white snapshots of young monks going about their day at the temples, splurge on a brass apsara statue, some leather shadow puppets, or chance upon a boutique that sells modern-cut dresses made from traditional Khmer cloth. If spas are up your alley, Four Hand Massage, where two masseuses work on opposite ends of your body in unison, might be a great way to cap off your successful first solo trip.
Hopefully, in your journey, you realize that traveling alone does not necessarily doom you to being lonely. Whatever obstacles you may encounter when it comes to differences in language and culture, are easily overcome through a shared genuine passion and interest in widening your horizons. And in the event that you do find yourself dining, walking, and touring solo, these are rare moments wherein you truly get to know yourself, away from the conventions of daily routine, free to sleep in, eat whatever you want, wander wherever you please, or decide to skip that Angkor altogether, never having to answer to anyone but yourself.
Text – Jette Vizcocho
Photography – Cris Legapsi