We've traveled a lot in the last two decades, and I can honestly say that there have been very few places that truly surprised me, that exceeded my expectations in almost every way. Siem Reap, Cambodia was one of those places.
When I was a child in the 1970s and 1980s, I only knew of Cambodia as a place where refugees came from. The Khmer Rouge and the killing fields dominated my ideas about the place, and though I knew there were amazing temples and ruins to be seen, it was difficult to get past my preconceptions. Add to that that we'd read we were going to be there at the absolute hottest time of the year (one guidebook described the heat as "hellish"), and I wasn't sure I was really going to enjoy our time there.
But from the moment we landed at the lovely airport in Siem Reap, everything about the city was picturesque and charming. It was hot, yes, but the air-conditioned hotel van was waiting for us (with cans of cold beer) to whisk us off to the Soujourn Hotel, a lovely little boutique hotel just outside the city.
The entire hotel is open-air, which worried me at first, but it turned out to be fine. Ceiling fans really do make a difference! Here you can see the flower garland they gave me upon arrival.
The grounds were lovely.
The rooms were all little villas (air-conditioned, of course), and reminded me a lot of the Ceiba Tops Lodge in the Amazon. There were maybe a dozen villas all centered around a lovely swimming pool.
We spent a lot of time in this pool. Since it was so hot and humid, we got up at dawn and went out to see temples before breakfast. Afterwards, we'd spend the day hanging out in our hotel room and in the pool. The pool was shady in late afternoon, and the swim-up bar was a fantastic addition. The bartender there made one of the best mojitos I've ever had in my life. She muddled ginger with the mint and lime, used ginger vodka instead of rum, and honey instead of sugar to sweeten. I'm noting all of this here so that I will be able to make this drink when I get home!
We generally ate our meals in the hotel because it was so, so hot that going out wasn't terribly appealing. Seriously, I have lived in Arizona and central Texas, and this place was HOT. But we did go out a few times, and found a fun kid-friendly spot called Jungle Junction. It was a bar and grill spot with all kinds of food, but the big draw is that it has an indoor and outdoor playground, a jumping castle, trampoline, and a sandbox.
Even better is that there are staff whose job it is to watch your kids while you eat and hang out!
It was ridiculously hot on the day we were here, but Carter would have played in this sandbox for hours.
Doug and I sat under the ceiling fans and drank cold beer and sweated a lot, but it was great!
Every morning we got up before dawn and headed out to see the sights. The most famous of these is Angkor Wat, a 900-year-old originally Hindu, now Buddhist temple. It's the largest religious complex in the world and one of the oldest in continuous use. It is the main tourist attraction in the area and always the most crowded, but the beauty of Siem Reap is that it is surrounded by ruins and temples of all shapes and sizes. Put them all together, and it rivals nearly anything else on earth -- Machu Picchu, the pyramids of Egypt, Petra, and so on.
And wow, it's huge.
This bridge (that Carter is running down) is leading to the outer gate.
It's surrounded by a moat that would put any fairytale castle to shame.
It's still a religious site, and there were many Buddhist shrines within and monks walking about.
After that long bridge and a walk through a temple, you reach the inner grounds, which are also huge. Off in the distance you can see the iconic spires of Angkor Wat.
After we walked all the way across, I took this picture looking back. You can see just how huge the place is.
The temples inside are huge and in various states of disrepair, but walking around the site is just amazing. The stones are huge and the carvings intricate, and it's incredible to imagine the amount of work that went into building this in the middle of the jungle, with no construction equipment.It's incredible what humans can do.
This was a day that really tried Carter's patience. He was tired and the heat and humidity were intense, and there were several times that he just sat down and refused to go on. Fortunately, we knew we had five days to explore the ruins, and so we didn't have to see it all in one day.
Really, I can't describe how incredibly hot it was that day, and it was only 9:00 am!
After a couple of hours of exploring the ruins, we headed back to the hotel to relax. It might sound incredibly boring to hang around in hotel rooms for long stretches of time, but it's really not. Those are the times when Carter and I work on whatever thing he's interested in learning about, whether it's cells or particle physics or bee life cycles or star structures or multiplication. He's at such a wonderful age where everything is interesting and the world is wide open, and his brain soaks up everything at astonishing speeds. And of course, I love following his lead and providing as many opportunities as I can for him to learn and explore and grow. This trip has given us so many incredible opportunities to show him new things and expand his horizons, and I can't begin to imagine how this is going to affect him in the long run.
More on Cambodia in the next post!