After long-term travels to Europe, I convince myself that I’m thirsty for somewhere different. In other words, somewhere that keeps its spirit while being less touristic and affected by globalization less than the other areas in Southeast Asia. I decide on Cambodia—lush jungles, ancient temples, floating homes on lakes, and Buddhist monks wrapped in orange robes are just a few of the many things that draw me in.
I vividly remember the first time I stepped foot in Siem Reap Airport. I was scanning the crowd at the gate when I finally found my guide. Eager to introduce myself, I went to shake his hand, but instead was met with a look of surprise and confusion. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized the namaste gesture of pressed hands at the heart, is more appropriate in this setting. From this moment on, I began to look at everything with wide-open eyes. What else would I notice had been missing from my life experience thus far?
As the driver steered the tuk-tuk toward the city of Siem Reap, my mind formed a puzzle of what everyday life in Cambodia must be like, and what adventures and lessons may await.
Traveling north west, I reached Siem Reap, a city well known for its Angkor Wat temples. The thickness of the humidity, brick-colored dust rising from the unpaved roads and some motorbikes packed with at least three people were just the first sights that drew my attention. Gridlocked in the middle of the road, I began to feel dizzy from honking horns and full-volume Khmer songs blasting from the cars.
After about an hour of taking in the bustle of the city via tuk-tuk, we reached a rural area where I’d stay for a week and hop between the chaos of Siem Reap and the serenity of the countryside. The tiny green house was accessible only by a narrow, unmarked road snaking its way past a few rice paddies, where children played with the cows, and big gardens filled with banana trees. Surrounded by lush greenery tucked away in a peaceful corner of the jungle where few people venture, I knew I’d reached paradise.
As I wandered through the city center back in Siem Reap, I already left the sounds of singing birds and rustling leaves behind. It was time to experience the sounds of the city. The riot of colors and sounds that made up the main street contrasted boldly with the calmness of side alleys and back streets proving Siem Reap to be a city of contradiction. Hounding questions from drivers eager to offer me tuk-tuk rides coupled with the noisy rhythms of crooked motorbikes, and street food vendors shouting out to attract attention reminded me of my own city, Istanbul. On the corner of the street, an ice-cream vendor caught my eye as he quickly prepared generous dollops of yogurt with one hand and mixed various toppings with the other, all while keeping a close eye on prospective passers by. It was like magic.
Apparently, most travelers come to Siem Reap to visit the temple complex of Angkor Wat. But I knew right away that there was even more to be discovered here. As an avid fan of street food, Siem Reap was a playground—so many options to taste Khmer cuisine from street side vendors and a constant curiosity for what would be on the next one’s menu. After tasting every type of spring roll imaginable and indulging in slow cooked rice dishes of chicken, prawns and tangy sauces, I noticed that both my stomach and soul had become equally full.
Eventually I had my day exploring the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and tucked myself into a small corner away from the clusters of selfie sticks. I sat in awe and silence as I took in the sprawl of the complex with intricately carved Khmer sandstone against the lush backdrop of the jungle. Like the rest of the city, it lived up to every bit of the hype.
Read more about the serenity of Angkor Wat, Seeking Sacred at Angkor Wat
I missed Siem Reap before I had even left, and I knew it had etched a place in my heart for good. The smell and touch of the moist soil, the warmth of locals, and the constant rumble of chatting neighbors, mooing cows, children playing in streets and the hum of traffic that is everyday life in Cambodia. Each and every one of these small moments are what solidified Siem Reap as one of the world’s most interesting cities, and in my last hours, as I watched a group of women worshipping in front of an ancient altar, I closed my eyes and prayed for a swift return.