First Impressions of Cambodia

We are now in Cambodia and immediately noticed stark differences between this small country and Malaysia where we had just come from.  We were getting a little too comfortable with all the modern amenities in Malaysia, so we looked forward to going a bit more raw.

After arriving and spending 2 days here in Siem Reap we have some early first impressions.

Upon exiting the plane onto the tarmac - movie style - we knew Cambodia would be a special place.  It was immediately much more informal, which is what we dig the most about "developing" countries. Developed countries seem to have far too many rules, procedures, and laws these days.

Our first interaction with stately-dressed "officials" was to get our visa on arrival.  After I called them out for trying to overcharge us by $60, they half-smiled, half-grimaced and moved our passports down the assembly line of at least 20 other officials.

Luckily, I researched exactly what things would cost and, thanks to some great travel bloggers, I was well prepared.  The cost for a 30 day visa is $20 per adult (13 years and older) and free for children 12 and under.

Next was immigration. There was no line when we got to immigration, but it took what seemed like an eternity to process all the entry forms and to add the visa and stamps to our five passports.  Perhaps it was shorter than it seemed, but the kids were breaking into wrestling mode in the background and I was anxiously itching to play referee.

While methodically stamping the various forms, the middle-aged man murmured something under his breath clearly directed at me, but his eyes remained focused on his task.  I couldn't quite make it out. I said, "Pardon me, I didn't understand you."

And he repeated it again, but still under his breath and with a thick Cambodian accent.  I said again, "I'm sorry, I just don't understand."  To that he returned quietly to his work.

When he was finally done, he handed me our passports and looked me squarely in the eye and said in clear English, "Do you have a tip for me?"

Welcome to Cambodia!

Customs?  Yeah, no one even there. We walked right through!

I went to Angkor Wat the first evening to get our passes to visit.  At that point in the day they will let you go in to get your first glance without charging you a day.   Angkor Wat REALLY is as incredible as everyone says.

I even got up at 4:30am to see the sunrise!  If you know us at all this is no small feat, especially since we had gotten up that early the day before to catch our flight.  We have been here 2 days now and each time we go there is more to explore and magic to be felt!  So much history and beauty all in one place is simply hard to put into words.

Angkor Wat is NOT the only amazingly beautiful temple located in the area!  We have not even really begun to explore them all but what we have seen in Angkor Thom and the surrounding area has already blown our minds.  There is an affordable boutique hotel called Tara Angkor which is just 5km away from Angkor Wat where you can stay for $46 a night, in case you need more time to visit the place.  And trust me you need more time!

The Bayon, inside Angkor Thom
Cambodian people are some of the most persistent people I have encountered.  "No I DO NOT want to buy a book!!!  Because I already have that book!"  Or a postcard because no one uses those anymore.  And please exit before the fifth time I politely say no thank you!

That said, nobody is begging. Everyone is attempting to offer us value with a smile -- even the friendly customs agent.

This really is a great book, so say yes just this once:)
Poverty is certainly more evident here compared to Penang and Kuala Lumpur which are upscale even for Malaysia.  This high level of poverty, coupled with their tragic recent past, led us to expect a more melancholy population. But, as always, the people seem happy and are sweet and helpful so far, if not overly opportunistic.

Although underneath all of the waving and smiling you can still sense a sadness that is hard to explain.   Perhaps it's exhaustion, perhaps it's the memories of the not so distant atrocities still haunting this beautiful country, but either way I can feel it!

These people are survivors trying to claw there way back to prosperity.  Their desperation is almost completely masked by their pride when offering a helpful service or product to awestruck tourists like ourselves. They all seem to have a keen understanding that tourism helps every individual in the country.

Some rustic observations. Who knew gasoline could be sold in bottles on the side of the road from metal drums with a hand crank?

This counts as a bathtub here... according to the hotel listing on Agoda.

Yeah, haven't taken a bath yet!
Motorbikes can and do pull just about anything, from mounds of live ducks (wish I snapped that pic), to dead roasted pigs, to tuk tuks full of people, and overflowing selections of plastic stuff.  Resourcefulness is something that Cambodians take to a whole new level!

It is incredibly hot in June, so hot that the minute the sun comes up you wish it would rain!   All the suggestions are to tour the temples very early to beat the heat, but by 7am it was nearly as hot as it was at 12pm, so aside from the sunrise visit, I don't think it matters much what time you start!   Either way, expect to sweat!

We have just begun our Cambodia adventure but it is off to a wonderful start!   Follow along and/or add suggested spots to visit in the comments below!

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  1. Your pictures are great and I love the gasoline. We saw that when we drove through Thailand too....we were like really and didn't stop to get gas there as we were afraid that the car would explode 4 miles down the road. Looks like you guys are having a great time!! So wish we were there with you!

  2. Me too Paz, miss you guys! You must come here at some point, it is magic!

  3. Cambodia is hands down one of my favourite countries! I remember being spellbound by Angkor Wat as well as being surprised by Phnom Penh. Great to read that you guys liked it too!

    1. Yes it still remains one of our favorites! Not as fond of the beaches but the cities were great. Battambang was a real surprise , we loved it!

  4. So similar to Bali, will add it to the list :)

    1. Thanks for commenting Erin! I hope you do go, it is wonderful! I don't think its much like Bali at all but its amazing just the same!

  5. I am going to Cambodia on September this year. Besides Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are also listed to be visited. But still I have a question about a hotel you might have seen during your visit in Siem Reap. I booked the following hotel: Tara Angkor Hotel. You know if it is a good hotel? I heard good stories about it. What are the best attractions to visit in Siem Reap and in the surrounding?

    1. I'm sorry I am not familiar with that hotel at all so not much help there. In Siem Reap be sure to get into town to explore and see the Landmine museum inside the Angkor complex. The temples are the main highlight of course, they take days to see and enjoy! I suggest doing the sunrise morning, it was spectacular. If you can get to Battambang, only 3 hours away, try to, it was a great and unexpected town.

      I wrote more about the temples and Battambang in other posts:)

    2. Thank you for your response. It was very helpful.

  6. I am going to Cambodia on September this year. Besides Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are also listed to be visited. But still I have a question about a hotel you might have seen during your visit in Siem Reap. I booked the following hotel: Tara Angkor Hotel. You know if it is a good hotel? I heard good stories about it. What are the best attractions to visit in Siem Reap and in the surrounding?

  7. Hello Marith,

    I read your message and wanted to help you, because I have been in Siem Reap a lot of times. The Tara Angkor hotel is a beautiful hotel and is ideally and conveniently located, Tara Angkor Hotel is situated only 6 km from the Angkor Wat Temples, 15 min drive from the Siem Reap International Airport, a few minutes stroll to the Angkor National Museum and a short ride to the city town center with an array of Cambodian souvenirs, shopping and culture. They have a few promotions that you can make use of if you haven’t booked already: Last minute bookings, summer sales, early bird promotion or Angkor temptations. Of course there are a lot more, but have a look at their website. It is not that far to the Angkor temples that I would advise you to see for sure. I would say, grab yourself a 3 day pass and find yourself a decent tuk tuk driver to take you to the farther ruins and for a drive in some of the outlying villages. If you’re up for it consider renting a bike and checking out Angkor Wat on your own. There’s a lot to see and do so a lot depends on your time and budget. A few temples I would strongly suggest you check out besides Angkor Wat itself are Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom and of course Ta Prohm just to see the amazing tree. The Banteay Srei temple is farther out of Siem Reap but has a very different feel than a lot of the others. If you want to do something else as well, you can visit the day and night market. I can really recommend these attractions. If you need to know more, let me know.

  8. Its really great review to know about this information..Thanks a lot for sharing your post.

    1. Thanks, I loved Cambodia. Ended up spending 2 months there!

  9. Cambodia is the amazing place for the vacation and most popular as a tourist attractions, thanks for sharing the experiences.