Exploring temples and historical sites in Bangkok, Siem Reap & Phnom Penh

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity of doing all of the incredible things we’ve seen and done so far, but I ‘crashed’ after One Life Adventure’s 14-day tour of Japan.

Being on the go 24/7 had eventually taken its toll. My body was achy and telling me to rest after exploring Bali, Malaysia, Philippines and Japan over the last five weeks. Three back-to-back tours was always going to be challenging both physically and mentally.

For the last part of our world trip, we’ll be going it alone through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and UAE. No more tours! Back to the planning days of America, New Zealand and Australia.

Bangkok

We learnt when we arrived at our apartment on the outskirts of the city that there really is an awful stench around Bangkok. The city smells like rotten eggs and it’s hard to escape.

Siam Paragon Shopping Centre was our first point of call because I desperately needed some new trainers. We also treated ourselves to cinnamon swirls from Cinnabon and Krispy Kreme doughnuts for Christmas.

On our second day, we saw all of the main attractions in Bangkok. We’d researched that you could walk to see The Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun all in one day.

We made the mistake of wearing shorts, though. The locals yelled Thai in our faces, gesturing for us to buy one of their cover ups when we rocked up outside The Grand Palace. (Covering the shoulder and knee areas is vitally important in the Buddhist religion). We should have known better.

In the end, we saved ourself a couple of hundred baht and bought two traditional Thailand elephant pants inside the beautiful grounds.

In hindsight, we would have been better paying extra to have a tour guide because we wandered around aimlessly this afternoon without understanding anything of what we were looking at other than brief descriptions in pamphlets.

Next, we checked out Wat Pho – a Buddhist temple complex famous for its giant, golden reclining Buddha around a 15-minute walk away. There wasn’t really anything else of note here so we soon turned our attention to looking for a Tuc-Tuc driver to take us to Wat Arun.

I was being lazy, we could have walked but Grab (the equivalent to Uber) and Tuc-Tuc’s are incredibly cheap in Southeast Asia. The driver we spoke to explained that we would be best going on a one hour cruise on the Chao Phraya River costing 1200 baht / £30 p/p.

Emily was apprehensive about heeding the advice of what could have been a ‘Cowboy‘ driver trying to rip a tourist like us off (most try to), but in the end I think we made the right decision.

The boat took us alongside Wat Arun and then went off the beaten track. I was worried where we might end up, but the next 40-minutes really opened our eyes to the poverty stricken areas in Bangkok.

We passed slums where a family’s wooden hut was literally collapsing into the water and then some extremely extravagant houses. It was strange to see the contrast of fortunes from just across a river.

Our skipper then dropped us as he could possibly get us to Wat Arun so we could take a closer look.

By now it was around 17:00 PM so we didn’t spend a great amount of time here before heading to arguably Bangkok’s most famous street, Khaosan / Khao San Road.

The street is only 397m long but after dark it becomes one of the most popular spots in the city crammed full of bars, restaurants, street food stalls and western takeaways.

We ate on a rooftop to escape the local street food sellers who were constantly running up and down trying to sell you a fried scorpion or tarantula. I’m all for trying new things and embracing new cultures, but this one wasn’t for me!

A lady had a stall with some of the weird insects on display that you could eat. It included centipedes, crickets, geckos and snakes. The skinless crocodile made me feel sick.

After a busy day exploring, we called it a night at around 21:00 PM. We didn’t get to experience the nightlife, but we did a couple of days later when we went to the go-go bars (strip clubs) on Soi Cowboy. That was an experience and a half!

Walking down seeing extremely vulnerable on the side of street trying to entice us to come into their establishment was an eye opener.

Christmas

Perhaps naively, we crammed everything we wanted to do into our first couple of days in the capital of Thailand so we could enjoy a few days rest over the Christmas period.

From my point of view, you only need a few days in Bangkok anyway. For the next few days we caught up on sleep, chilled by the hotel pool by the day and played what felt like a gazillion games of pool (all of which I won).

Christmas Day was strange with being away from our families on the other side of the world, but we were both on FaceTime throughout the evening. Spending Christmas Day in 32°C heat was rather unusual.

Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Instead of getting a flight to Siem Reap from Bangkok, we made the decision to use Giant Ibis coaches in more of a traditional backpacker way in Cambodia so that we could save on costs. The coach journeys were long and boring, but I’m glad we did them.

Because of our extended time in Japan, we were forced to cut short our time in Cambodia and Vietnam. We gave ourselves two days in Siem Reap, known as the gateway to Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world and UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

We booked onto a 2-day Temples with Sunrise Group Tour on GetYourGuide with a company called Journey Cambodia for $98 USD and found that this was enough time.

Going back to using USD in Cambodia was rather bizarre. We never got our head around the conversion rate to the pound and paying in USD but receiving Cambodian Riel in return. (Cambodia’s currency is not recognised internationally).

On our first day, we were picked up promptly outside our hostel (which had the hardest beds we’ve slept on throughout our 8 months travelling) at 08:00 AM.

This morning we saw the most interesting temples outside of Angkor Thom in Angkor Archeological Park. Our first stop was the Pre Rup Hindu Temple, built in 961.

Next was Banteay Srei, another 10th-century temple which is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The reliefs here are regarded as the finest and most skilfully crafted in the country.

We then visited Neak Pean on Jayatataka Baray – my favourite on day one. In the afternoon we checked out the Preah Khan temple, which is currently being restored by the World Monument Fund.

After being dropped back at our hostel, we had a wander around Siem Reap and ate at an Italian restaurant on Pub Street. It was the first time in months that we had found somewhere that sold cider.

The highlight of the tour came incredibly early the next morning when we got up for 04:00 AM in order to see Angkor Wat at pre dawn. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the perfect reflection in the lake because of excessive cloud cover, but it was still amazing nonetheless.

We spent the next couple hours at marvelling at the corridors, central chambers and upper terraces while our tour guide deciphered the stories behind the carvings, as well as giving us an insight into what life would have been like during the Khmer Empire.

By now we were absolutely exhausted, but we powered on and explored even more temples. We walked through Ta Prohm (Em’s favourite) because of the tree roots that were growing everywhere.

To finish, we walked through the Angkor Thom Victory Gate before wandering around the temple itself where the central towers are covered in over 200 faces. By the end of the day, we were officially ‘templed out’!

Phnom Penh

Back on the road once more, we headed to the capital of Cambodia in time for New Year’s Eve.

There wasn’t a great deal here that we wanted to do, but we were both eager to learn more about Cambodia’s most recent horrifying history at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center / Killing Fields and S-21 Prison / Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

To put this into context, between 1975-79 two million Cambodian’s were murdered because of Marxist Dictator Poi Pot’s evil Khmer Rouge regime.

Walking around Choeung Ek where 10,000-20,000 Cambodian’s tragically lost their lives was up there with the most distressing places I’ve visited along with The National September 11 Memorial & Museum and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

You could hear a pin drop as locals and tourists alike walked around the site while listening to an audio guide, trying to imagine what it would have been like not knowing what was about to happen.

During the Khmer Rouge era, loud music along with the sounds of road noise was played from ‘The Magic Tree’ to disguise the massacres that were ongoing. Seeing the mass graves including one with 450 victims and another with 166 headless victims was extremely moving.

So too was learning about ‘The Killing Tree’ where helpless children and babies were beaten against and killed, as well as going inside the memorial stupa where 8,000 forensically examined skulls lay.

Listening to the audio guide whilst walking around the S-21 Prison wasn’t any easier. Seeing the living conditions, school equipment used for torture and hundreds of photographs of what went on was abhorrent, barbaric and sick.

New Year’s Eve

On a lighter note, tonight was New Year’s Eve so we headed out to NagaWorld – Cambodia’s largest and most prestigious casino for what we thought was going to be a romantic meal.

However when we sat down at the table, we realised it was a set 6-course menu – no À la carte. I wasn’t prepared to pay $50 p/p and there was very little we would have eaten anyway.

It was now 20:30pm, so we weren’t left with too many options but luckily we were able to find another restaurant close to Bassac Street, which was lined with quirky bars.

After knocking back a few cocktails, we made it over to the waterfront just in time for the firework display at midnight.

The day after we used to plan as much as we could for our next 10 days in Vietnam.

As always, if you’d like to keep up-to-date with our adventure, you can either enter your email at the bottom of this article to receive instant notifications every time I post a new blog; click the Follow ‘Al’ Around The World link, or drop me a follow on Twitter at @AlecW95 or on Instagram at @AlecW95 or @alatw95.

Alternatively, you can follow Emily on her travelling TikTok account at @emstraveladventure.

Thanks for reading, until the next time…

Alec

2 thoughts on “Exploring temples and historical sites in Bangkok, Siem Reap & Phnom Penh

  1. time to take it easy but you will look back and the pain will disappear we had a great time in Sydney,New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands especially Mystery Island and Fiji and as yourself visiting places everyday

    1. So glad to hear you had an amazing holiday cruising around NZ, Aus & Fiji. We loved our time in that part of the world. Look forwarding to catching up when we’re home.

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