Siem Reap, Cambodia: First Experience at Angkor Archaeological Park

I don’t even know where to start when I think back to my week in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I initially intended staying three full days, which  I was told was plenty of time, but, I ended up staying for six days and LOVED every second of it! It was plenty of days to see both sides of the city, without one spoiling the other!

I knew I wanted to visit Siem Reap because I really wanted to see Angkor Wat, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What made it grow higher on my list, was the fact that I’d heard it’s effortless to cross the border between Thailand and Cambodia. It was a no brainer.

I pre-booked my ticket with Giant Ibis through 12go.asia, the best website for booking or researching transportation in Asia. I also decided to apply for my visa ahead of time to save space in my passport. It was honestly SUPER easy in every sense of the way.

The journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap was estimated to take about 8 hours and took about 9 hours. The bus ride was pretty uneventful with a little confusion at the border. Thankfully, Giant Ibis was there every step of the way.

Once I physically arrived into Siem Reap, I jumped in a tuk-tuk, which ended up being the best thing that happened, and headed to my hostel, Onederz. Once we arrived at the hostel, my tuk-tuk driver, Morl, mentioned to me that he offers tuk-tuk rides through Angkor Wat. I honestly didn’t know my plans and wanted to “wing it,” so we exchanged numbers, just in case!

Once at the hostel, I ended up meeting a girl, Laura, who together with several others, decided to go ahead with the hostel’s tour of Angkor Wat. I usually wouldn’t do a tour, but I wanted to learn more about the majestic Angkor Wat, and it was only $12.

One thing I want to explain before I go forward is the currency of Cambodia. Cambodia’s official currency is the riel. However, the majority of the country uses the US dollar, including ATMs, and it was extremely WEIRD going back to the US dollar after being on the Thai baht for seven months. Another thing, Cambodia also doesn’t have coins for their currency since the riel to dollar ratio is 4000:1. Meaning, they’ll give you US dollars for bills, then riels for change. It’s a pretty unique aspect to Cambodia!

The particular tour I did with Onederz Hostel was the Sunrise Tour or Small Circuit tour with a tour guide. You can opt for a tuk-tuk tour without guide for $6, but I thought having a guide would be beneficial for the first time visit.

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Now, something you should know about Angkor Wat is that it is said to be one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world, and I wasn’t going to skip it.

The Sunrise Tour started with the sunrise and a walk around the main Angkor Wat temple learning a little about the history. It continues with a drive through the South Gate and on to Angkor Thom’s Bayon Temple. Next, the tour took us to Ta Prohm (think Tomb Raider), and finished at Banteay Kdei. I’ll go into more details later.

Angkor Wat

Sunrise tours in Siem Reap typically mean a 4:30/4:45 departure time and this tour wasn’t any different. The primary reason for the SUPER early departure usually depends on if you need a ticket or not, and the sheer volume of tourists visiting sunrise on a single day means traffic.

Angkor Wat tickets can be purchased the day of the sunrise visit very quickly. There are several ticket options for Angkor Wat including a single day entry for $37, a 3-day pass for $62, or a 7-day pass for $72. What’s unique about these multiple-day passes is that they do not need to be used consecutively. The 3-day pass is valid for 10 days, and the 7-day pass is valid for 30 days, which means you have options for visiting the grounds of Angkor Wat and the many, many temples.

Laura and I both opted for the 3-day pass to give us the option for returning to the temples, depending on the tour (which I’m glad we did.) The tour itself started off strong with a good history of Angkor Wat and allowed time to experience things like climbing to a tower for a view or getting blessed by a monk. However, after the first two temples, it started to become nearly impossible to hear the tour guide, and the speed was becoming increasingly fast.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in hanging back and ignoring the tour guide. There was another couple who felt very similar to the tour as I did, and the three of us pretty much just took pictures of the majestic temples.

Each temple we visited had a different vibe and look to them. I later found out (thanks Laura for listening) was because of the century in which they were built, the religious entity who they were built for, and the purpose for the building.

The temples of Angkor were built between the 9th and 13th-century, as either a Hindu temple for the Hindu god, Vishnu, or a Buddhist temple, for the Khmer Empire. This means Angkor Wat is a beautiful combination of Hinduism and Buddhism and is currently a Buddist place of worship.

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The largest and main temple on the grounds is Angkor Wat, which faces west and allows the sun to rise directly behind it. This skillful placement is part of why the sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of the most famous sunrises in the world. What’s even more unique, during the equinox, the sun rises in direct alignment with the middle tower. (Without knowing, I was a few days shy of this perfect alignment).

These towers and many throughout the grounds have a particular Lotus flower shape to them. The lotus flower is very symbolic in both Hinduism and Buddhism, meaning divine perfection and purity, respectively. It’s not uncommon to see the symbol of the lotus throughout temples, and Angkor Wat is no exception.

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After we watched the sunrise, our guide took us into the main temple where we learned a little more about the stones, carvings, and design of the temple. We were given some time alone to explore and had to opportunity to be blessed by a monk. It was extremely spiritual.

We continued our tour to Bayon, a late 12th-early 13th-century Buddhist temple, known for smiling stone faces. It was starting to get ridiculously crowded with tourists, so it was here that I chose to hang back from the tour guide and take in the serenity of the temple.

Next on the tour was the second most famous temple at the park, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is the temple best known for the trees, which have grown through the stone and have become one with the structures. It is why its nickname is “The Jungle Temple.” It is also the location where parts of Tomb Raider was filmed. Unfortunately, the majestic site was lost to the glob of tourists, and I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I was hoping. I felt very rushed and at times, felt like a sardine.

Our final location was Banteay Kdei, another Buddhist temple built in the mid 12th- early 13th-century. At this point of the day (it’s only 1 pm), my brain was slowly fading, and I don’t remember much of the history of this temple. Having started the day at 4:30 am, I was ready to be done. This, I would say, is a con to taking an organized tour vs. hiring a tuk-tuk driver.

Banteay Kdei

We finally returned to the hostel after an extremely long and hot day exploring Angkor, and I wasn’t up for much the rest of the day. After a short nap, Laura and I met to discussed plans for the next day, and concluded with asking Morl to be our driver/guide for the day! Although I was ready to be done for the day, I wasn’t ready to be done with Angkor. Stay tuned for another journey through Angkor Archaeological Park!

The Sun and The Moon

How can one city be so noisy in the morning? Oh wait there’s more than 10 million people here that’s how. In all honesty it didn’t really matter because we had another early morning, rise and shine, wake up call. We had to be on the bus by 8AM to begin our tour of Mexico City.

Getting on the bus this morning was a little different as we were joined by, I believe 22 more tour mates, who all are just starting their tour. As best we could, the original Mexican Contiki family gathered into the very back of the bus. Segregation did occur and we may or not be okay with it, but only in this context. We didn’t want newbies. We liked our original crew but we adjusted quickly to the change, as I knew we would. I was a bit bitter for most of the day because I was leaving and wasn’t in the mood to make new friends, which lasted for about 30 minutes.

We started off our morning, driving through different parts of downtown Mexico City, making our way to the main cathedral and National Palace (government building). As we drove, we learned about the various round-a-bout status and their meaning. None of which I remember. Brain was in full overloaded at this point. When we arrived at the National Palace, we exited the bus and divided into two groups. At this point, we did have two tour guides due to Mexican law, which was a little sad because Ish has been it for us for a whole week, but again we learned to adjust.

Entering the National Palace, after the metal detectors, you walk into this open courtyard with a beautiful fountain. Ish was explaining to us the history behind the fountain and the building itself, which is still used for government purposes today.The main stairwell and the walls of the second floor are covered, ceiling to floor, by grande fresco murals designed and created by Diego Rivera. The murals located on the wall are jointly titled “The Epic of the Mexican People”, created between 1929 and 1935, to demonstrate the various stages of the Mexico culture. The main stairwell mural is a combination of different images that depict the History of Mexico from 1521 to 1930.  In the middle level of the National Palace is another set of 11 panals by Diego that are part of a series depicting the pre-Hispanic era. Due to Diego’s passing, this series was not completed and the walls remain blank. Looking at Diego’s collection of frescos at the National Palace is quite impressive and reminds mea little of Michelangelo and his work at the Vatican. 

After exiting the National Palace, we were off to the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City, commonly referred to as Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. This main cathedral located right next door to the National Palace is the largest cathedral in the Americas and built in sections between the years 1573 and 1813. The church is designed and built in the Baroque style, common throughout Mexico. Like many popular historical places, the cathedral has suffered some extensive damage over the past century. A fire back in the 1960s destroyed a large portion of the interior requiring restoration that uncovered some important documents and artwork (seeing the positive from a negative situations). Built on soft clay soil, the churches foundation was beginning to create a sinking affect and threading the structural integrity, placing this cathedral on the 100 Most Endangered Sites. Thankfully, following restoration, the Mexico City metropolitan Cathedral was removed in the year 2000.

Before parting ways with the center of Mexico City, we stood outside the cathedral and captured our Mexico Contiki Tour group photo (minus several tour mates who came down with the flu bug).

Once back on the bus, the introductions between the old and the new tour mates began. We had to sit next to one of the newbies to merge the old with the new. I sat next to a young Aussie named Jacob, who reminded me a little of my brother with his long hair. He was quite the surfer boy and was there for a good time. Many of the new tour mates were there to PARTY, after all they are heading to Cancun for 4 days. We did introductions the entire bus ride out to our next included excursion, Teotihuacán.

What is Teotihuacan? Teotihuacan was an ancient pre-Columbia Mesoamerican city located just outside of modern day Mexico City. This place is known to many for it’s extravagant archaeological structures and two grand pyramids. These pyramids are dedicated to two Gods the ancient people of Mexico worshipped. The larger of the two is known as Pyramid of the Sun and the smaller one is known as the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Giza. Thanks to restoration efforts, both pyramids are able to be climbed by tourists and is the most visited archaeological  in Mexico. This archaeological site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Ish began to explain to us, prior to lunch and entrance into the site, that Teotihuacan was one of the sites nominated for becoming one of the New Seven Wonder of the World. However, because not much is truly known about this archaeological site, that it did not end up qualifying for the final seven. I find it fascinating that for as much that is known about Teotihuacan, their is still more unknown about this grand site.

BUT…before we entered into the archaeological site, we made a pit stop at a local craft market/shop to learn a little about tequila and about their acclaimed volcanic rock art pieces. We learned about the process of turning agave, which varies from region to region into tequila. The men who harvest the agave plants, jimadores,  use a tool called a coa, and are taught to be able to identify a plant ready for harvest versus those that are not. They maintain adequate heights of the quoites, which are   high stalks that grows from the center of the plant. Did you know that if the quoites were skinned away from the stalk, the material is actually as strong as paper, and can in fact be written on? I wouldn’t have believed it myself if she didn’t show us.

Once identified the jimadores carefully cut away the leaves from the piña, the succulent core of the plant. This is when the process of heating, cooking, draining the juice, fermenting and so for begins. After all the processes are complete you’d have tequila, which THEN becomes classified into the 5 commonly known types:

  • Blanco (white) or plata (silver): white spirit, unaged and bottled or stored immediately after distillation, or aged less than two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels
  • Joven (young) or oro  (gold): unaged Blanco tequila that is colored and flavored with caramel
  • Reposado (rested): aged a minimum of two months, but less than a year in oak barrels of any size
  • Añejo (aged or vintage): aged a minimum of one year, but less than three years in small oak barrels
  • Extra Añejo (extra aged or ultra aged): aged a minimum of three years in oak barrels, this category was established in March 2006

We also tried our hand at a delicious cactus beverage called pulque. Pulque is an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting the sap of the maguey (agave) plant. It’s a bit milky in color, but tastes delicious.

After our tequila lesson, the guide began walking us through their process of creating volcanic glass sculptures using various minerals and stones located around the region. This particular volcanic glass is known as obsidian. It is a naturally forming glass found within the margins of lava flows where the chemical composition nduces a high viscosity and polymerization degree of the lava, thus creating obsidian. Obsidian is hard and brittle and was highly used throughout the pre-Columbia Mesoamerican culture (click here for further information regarding the uses in Mesoamerica). I had no idea lava could become a natural glass and the designs and sculptures put together at this store were breath-taking.

After our “quick” and educational stop at this shop, we headed towards our lunch destination. We dined at Restaurant McCoy Artesania, which was a buffet style restaurant. It was a little pricy and wasn’t anything spectacular but did has some wide variety of traditional dishes and entertained us with an Aztec style dance. I think at this point in the day, as it’s like 1 o’clock, we were all ready for the pyramids and were happy when it was FINALLY time to enter the site.

When we arrived and exited the bus, we were given a little bit more history about the site, but I was in complete “awe” starring at the centuries old ancient buildings. I don’t even know how to put into words this feeling of utter amazement. Have you ever been somewhere that was so historic and beautiful? This feeling has only happened to me once before in Pompeii and even then I couldn’t formulate words. We walked towards the Pyramid of the Moon, which you are able to climb half way and the steps were so steep you practically had to crawl up them and coming down you had to hold onto a rope. The Moon rises to 140 feet towards the sky, and I estimate that we climbed to approximately 100 feet high (as I have no idea). Not going to lie, I was actually afraid I was going to fall.

Once down, I continued my way through the Plaza of the Moon with John, Mark and Stef and down the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Sun. The Sun rises 246 feet (75meters) and Stef and I climbed ALL THE WAY to the top and the view was astonishing. It was exhausting climbing but worth ever ounce of energy. At the top, Stef and I met up with Jimmy, Amy, Darren and Todd and had some entertaining photo opportunities including many selfies (typical). We weren’t able to spend too much time at the top, but even just the short 15 minutes was enough for a life time.

Back on the bus for our hour long drive back into the city, which I’m pretty sure was spent in semi-silent as many of us, myself included were completely spent. I was planning on grabbing a nap at the hotel in prep for the night’s festivities, but once back at the hotel many of us gathered in Jess and Nick’s room for pre-evening drinking and socializing. I must say, the new tour mates were in party mood and rearing to go. We didn’t have too much time before it was off to dinner.

Dinner tonight was INSANE as we added about 20 more people to the crew. We dined at a restaurant called “El Refugio” fonda where we were served a choice of soup from a selection of three (chicken, chicken and veggies, and veggie) and a combo plate, which included a stuffed chile, a chicken enchilada, and a taco. Talk about selection. Plus, all of this was ended with dessert. I could barely make it though the main plate of food. The best part of dinner was trying to figure out what was going on. There were so many new faces and with the tight quarters it got loud quickly. This was just the beginning of our night as many of us decided we would “party hardy”.

After dinner, Ish directed us to a local bar called Tamaulipas, via taxi, where I jumped in with Mark, John and Jimmy. Let’s just say the night escalated from here in so many great ways. Taking tequila shots with Stef and Amy to start, dancing with the crew, to “ditching” (I say that nicely) the newbies and making our way towards an Irish pub, where we proceeded to dance and talk and laugh. We ended the night screaming at the top of our lungs to our tour song, “Get Lucky”, and I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to end this tour.

I knew then that the next day would be the final goodbyes (which ended up being me completely hungover), but having one last go round was more than I could have asked for. This entire experience, trip and everyone I met on my Mexican Adventure with Contiki was perfect. I have had the time of my life, accomplished something I never thought was possible, met so many amazing people, and learned more about a culture I grew up right next too.

Thank you to the entire Contiki family including Ginny and her team, who worked behind the scenes to set this up; to Claire for making my time in Cancun so wonderful and traveling across the Atlantic to support me as I concurred my fear; to Celine and Capkin for taking time away from your son to help make my No Regrets day possible and the amount of time spent planning and filming this trip; and to Ish and my tour mates for providing me with an amazing tour filled with knowledge, laughter and an all around once-and-a-lifetime experience. Lastly I want to thank my entire support system- God, my family, my friends and my follower for coming along my journey with me and supporting me with everlasting love and faith. I don’t think I could have done any of this without each and every one mentioned. I cannot wait till my next big adventure- transitioning my life into a new city and new job.

Cuernavaca Bound

The morning of the second day, I woke up feeling, well “ugh”.  I cannot believe it. How am I sick already? I didn’t think I drank that much last night. I was good. I stuck to XX Amber and Negro Modelo. There’s no way I’m hung over, which only means this feeling was more than just the bottle-flu. In hopes that getting a few more minutes of sleep would do the trick, I chose to skip breakfast and take a shower. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t feeling up to snuff and barely managed to pack with enough time to walk down stairs and catch the bus.

Once on the bus, I started to feel okay. Sitting was a good option. Today’s journey would take us about 3 hours from Puebla to Cuernavaca though Pueblo Magico of Tepoztlan, a longtime home base among precipitous cliffs and temples of the Nahua people and according to myth, the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent-god nearly 1200 years ago.  Unfortunately, in 2009, Tepoztlan title of Pueblo Magico was revoked in 2009 for noncompliance. It didn’t take the town long to fix whatever issue it had and regained the title approximately a year later. This town is famous for two things; 1) remains of a temple built on top of the nearby Tepozteco mountain, and 2) the exotic ice cream flavors prepared by the townspeople. While in Tepoztlan, standing in the zócalo (town center), we were educated regarding the agriculture most commonly grown in this region, maize and a variety of other grains. A very sweet and adorable elderly woman, allowed Ish to use her plethora of grains brought to the market for sale as our classroom. (see pictures here).

At this time, my flu-like, dehydration symptoms were becoming more prominent the longer I stood in the sun and wandering through the market with the very potent perfumes of fish, chili, and raw meat did not aid in my survival of the day. Once through the market, Ish brought us to entry way of Ex Convento Dominico de la Natividad, which looks more like a fortress than a cathedral. The entry way was completely compiled from grains and maize. (see pictures here). This was our second UNESCO World Heritage Site, inducted in 1994. I was struggling to comprehend exactly what Ish was explaining regarding this cathedral, but I believe he mentioned that this was the location where the Spaniards did all but force the local indians to convert to Catholicism. However, I wouldn’t quote me on this fact. My brain could barely function and focus on taking pictures. 

Before our trek back to the bus (as the bus was unable to drive us to the town), we stopped in t Tepoznieves, the ice cream shop for a little taste Mexico or as they say, Nieve de Dioses- Ice Cream of the Gods. This local shop has more than 120 flavors of ice cream and sorbet, ranging from the typical strawberry, chocolate, and bubble gum to beets, maize, and even the exotic tamarind. I selected pistachio (favorite), cappuccino and mango. All three were exceptionally delicious!

We continued our journey onward towards Cuernavaca and at this point I’m fading fast. The ice cream was probably not the most intelligent of decisions, but it’s ice cream and I wasn’t going to say no.

Cuernavaca, located in the state of Morelos, was established by the Olmec over three thousand years ago. It is nicknamed “the city of the eternal spring.” because of its stable, warm climate with abundant vegetation and the nickname delivered. It may have only been 80 degrees but this chick was on her last leg and felt as though I was going to pass out standing in the middle of the city center. Thankfully, we didn’t have a walking tour scheduled as were provided with free time to gather lunch and do a bit of shopping. I joined majority of the crew at a local 100% Natural restaurant and most of the initial portion involved my head face down on the table. I remember hearing Ish say “I think we’ve lost Nicole”. At this point of the day, I was still going off an empty stomach and knew I needed to eat so I chose a bowl of fruit with lemonade for some natural sugar.

Once our free time came to an end, we ventured off to our hotel, which was the brand new Holiday Inn Express and instead of hitting the pool like everyone else, I showered in freezing cold water (my core body temperature was ridiculously high) and PASSED out hard for a solid 2-3 hours. I hate missing out on the fun, especially this early in the trip, but if I couldn’t get rid of this icky feeling, it was only going to make the rest of the tour more unenjoyable.

I rallied awake and got ready for dinner, which included my glasses. If there is one thing you need to know about me, I NEVER wear my glasses in public unless absolutely necessary. This shows how icky I truly felt.

Dinner was included tonight and was a delicious spread of salad, veggies, chicken mole and a select few beverages. Some of my fellow travelers enjoyed their very first Squirt and tequila. If you are unfamiliar with Squirt, let me educate you. Squirt is a grapefruit flavored beer and is delicious both solo or when combined with tequila. Once dinner was completed, it was back to the hotel for a room party and more laughs and stories than I’m allowed to share. I mean we went from “Heads or Tails” to “Never have I ever” and well you get the picture. It was all fun and games until security was called and off to bed we went. Tomorrow’s adventures included jetting off to the beach resort town of Acapulco.

Pictures of my sick filled day two here