Thailand and Cambodia – Ancient Temples, Beautiful Beaches, and Floating Bungalows

by Dan Fey on May 9, 2013

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Sunrise behind Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world

I had an interesting, eight legged experience taking the bus from 4000 Islands, Laos to Siem Riep, Cambodia.  About halfway through the 12 hour trip, we stopped to change busses at a small bus station. Along the sides of the station were stalls that I went to investigate.

I was greeted by a lady(?) with a deep voice, “you want tarantula? Very very cheap”.

I looked down into a metal bowl to find a pile of live tarantulas the size of a hand crawling on top of each other!  I looked up and asked, “you eat”.  She nodded yes.

Tarantulas in Cambodia

Live tarantulas crawling on my hand in Cambodia

She proceeded to put a couple on her hand and arm to crawl around.  Looking up, she smiled and invited me over.  They looked playful so I proceeded cautiously.  One crawled from her hand onto mine.  It was gentle and a little itchy walking around; it didn’t seem too agitated or aggressive.

I played with a few others.  I couldn’t help but find beauty in these over-sized spiders.  They were friendly and fun to play with.  I got up and looked around.  On a plate nearby was a mound of fried tarantulas.  I wish I would have bought one and tried it, but I was alone and didn’t have much Cambodian Real on me.

I arrived in Siem Reap late and checked in at the local Hosteling International guesthouse.  In the morning I’d be meeting my parents.  The last time I saw them was 7 months ago in Peru for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu (check out my posts on Peru here).  We met at the beautiful boutique hotel, the Golden Temple Hotel.  After traveling in hostels for 7 months, I was in paradise.  I walked in, instantly greeted with smiling faces and pineapple juice.  There was a beautiful pool and great food.  The staff was truly superb, greeting you by name and going out of their way to make you happy.

Golden Temple Hotel Siem Reap

I met my parents at the Golden Temple Hotel in Siem Reap

Ta Som

A tree growing over the ruins of Ta Som

We spent the next few days temple hopping on the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat, and the surrounding temples of Angkor.  These Hindu and Buddhist temples were absolutely spectacular.  Built between the 9th and 15th centuries, some were restored and in great shape, some in ruins, and some overgrown with jungle and trees growing up, down and around them.  One temple was even a film location for Tomb Raider.

Siem Reap was an interesting tourist city of 200,000 people.  Since it thrived off of the tourist money from Angkor Wat, the infrastructure inside and around the city was great.  In the downtown area were many bars and restaurants catering to all international tastes.  Many places allowed you a free treatment from “doctor fish” while you drink a beer.  You put your feet in a tank of small fish that nip at your feet, eating off all of the dead skin.

Grand Palace Bangkok

Part of the Grand Palace in Bangkok

Cambodia and Siem Reap were a short trip for my parents and me.  The next day, we flew to Bangkok, Thailand.  At 7.7 million people, Bangkok is modern city and a bustling hub for Southeast Asia.  The Grand Palace is beautiful and ornate, featuring the unique architecture of the region.  There are also many beautiful temples, known as Wats, scattered around the city.  Siam, the heart of the city, has several large, luxurious malls and high-rise hotels.

From Bankok, we boarded a sleeper train and headed north to Chiang Mai.  We stopped along the way to explore the ruins of the historical city, Ayutthaya, which was one of the world’s largest cities around 1700 AD.  The sleeper train was quite clean, comfortable, and very cheap.

Tiger Family Photo

A nice family photo with an adult tiger at Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai and northern Thailand differs from the south in several ways.  The north is less populated, more mountainous, and cooler than the tropical south.  Culturally, northern Thailand has heavy influences from Myanmar and Yunnan, China.  There are also many traditional hill tribes, like the long neck Kayans, whose females use brass rings to elongate their necks as a sign of feminine beauty.

Though the city of Chiang Mai caters to tourists, I found it to be much more of a cultural experience than southern Thailand.  It’s less crowded and less “corrupted” by tourism.  Some other fun and exciting activities include Tiger Kingdom, where you can pet and take pictures with adult tigers (!), and elephant riding parks.  I even had the opportunity to play goalie against a full sized elephant kicking penalty kicks.  I wasn’t able to stop one ball.

Soccer with an Elephant

I'm playing goalie against an elephant playing soccer!

Chiang Mai was very relaxing and comfortable.  We found a delicious restaurant that served Thai curries in pineapples and fried fish in sweet chili sauce.  Yumm.  We also experienced one of the best deals in Thailand several times, Thai massages.

You can’t beat a Thai massage.  Just about everywhere in the country, 300 Thai Baht (~$10) will get you a whole hour.  These massages are no joke, too.  You will get a deep tissue, back cracking, muscle stretching experience that will leave you so relaxed you won’t be able to get up.  You can also opt for softer, Swedish massages if that’s what you prefer.

Chew Lan Lake

Chew Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park

After Chiang Mai, my parents and I flew to Phuket, stayed a night, and then took a van up to Khao Sok National Park.  We arrived at Chew Lan Lake and were directed onto a wooden long boat that had a bus engine attached to a long shaft with a propeller on the end.  We wouldn’t be returning to “civilization” until late the next day.

The boat ride was spectacular.  We motored in between jagged limestone mountains covered in trees.  The air was warm, the water was clean, and the sun was shining.  After about an hour, we arrived at our accommodation, floating bungalows in a small cove overlooking the lake!  We put our stuff down, took a quick swim in the water, and then got in some kayaks.  After leisurely rowing around the corner, we spelunked through a cave, catching glimpses of spiders and other critters.

Floating Bungalows at Chew Lan Lake

We slept on floating bungalows on the lake

The next day, we trolled around the coves, looking out for different types of monkeys and great hornbills.  Then it was time to explore the jungle.  A park ranger with a rifle led the way.  We couldn’t get too much detail out of our tour guide, but apparently we were sharing the jungle with wild tigers, elephants, boar, and king cobras.  The jungle was balmy and full of wildlife.  The trek concluded our time at Chew Lan Lake.

Phi Phi Ley

Phi Phi Ley, film location of The Beach

When we returned to Phuket, my parents and I boarded a ferry to Koh Phi Phi (pronounced pee-pee).  Koh Phi Phi blew me away.  Around the outskirts of the island, beautiful rock cliffs jut vertically right out of the Andaman Sea.  The main town where the ferries arrive has many shops, restaurants and tourist agencies promoting snorkeling, scuba diving, and boat rides to the nearby Phi Phi Ley, where The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed.

Phi Phi island is just small enough to walk around, a few kilometers across.  Beaches and footpaths surround the island, leading to different restaurant, beach bar, and resort areas.  You can also take wooden long boat water taxis to cover longer distances.

View of Koh Phi Phi

Hanna on a ledge overlooking a resort area of Koh Phi Phi

After a night on the island, my girlfriend Hanna arrived from South Korea (read about how we met in South Korea traveling here).  My parents, Hanna, and I spent the day snorkeling, exploring Phi Phi Ley, and experiencing the bioluminescent water in the evening.  It literally lights up when you wave your hand through the water!

Fire Show Koh Phi Phi

The spectacular fire show on Christmas eve on Koh Phi Phi

At night, on Christmas Eve, we wondered to the other side of the island.  We found a nice bar to lie on the beach while sipping cocktails and listening to dance music.  Around 8pm, a Thai guy came on stage and started spinning a fire stick.  Gradually others joined him on stage with different instruments, like fire balls.  They were twirling the sticks, throwing them in the air, juggling them with each other, and even standing on each other’s shoulders while spinning the fire.  It was incredible.

Then, the main show started.  A guy with a mask came out and performed a choreographed routine spinning many different custom fire tools, finishing off his finale spinning sparklers.  It was by far the best fire show I had ever seen.  Later we learned that the guy, Poppy, had performed on Thailand’s Got Talent.  At the end, the audience had the opportunity to participate by jumping rope, with the rope on fire, or shimmy under a limbo pole on fire.  Participants were rewarded with shots.

Rock Climbing at Railay

Looking down after climbing a wall at Railay

My parents flew home, and I continued traveling with Hanna.  I loved Khao Sok National Park so much, that I returned with Hanna for a few days.  We slept in a jungle tree house hotel the night before our lake tour.

After the park, Hanna and I ventured south of Phuket to Krabi and Railay beach, known for rock climbing.  The morning started out with pouring rain, but we continued to the rock wall, which was somewhat sheltered.  Though it drizzled on and off, the day of climbing turned out very well.  The walls were wonderful.  They were tons of fun to climb, and the top offered beautiful views of the cove.

Railay Cove

A view of a cove at Railay from the top of the climbing wall

The next day, on New Year’s Eve I was back on my own.  Hanna and I took an early taxi to Phuket so that Hanna could catch her flight.  The adventures with my parents and Hanna were ending, but a new ones were just starting, including a race to the famous party island Koh Phan Ngan for New Year’s  and a PADI Rescue Scuba Diving course.  Be sure to read my post next week on these adventures.

Which of the places in this post would you most like to visit?  Angkor Wat, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kao Sok National Park, Koh Phi Phi, or Railay?  Leave your comment here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheena September 4, 2014 at 9:13 am

Hi I just stumbled upon your page and absolutely love it! Do you have a Facebook page or somewhere I can follow your journeys? I also love your writing style; I feel like I was right there in those places seeing Angkor wat and petting tigers. I’ve always wanted to travel. How do you do it? Do you have any tips or advice? Also how do you make your money to get around?

If you want, please email me your Facebook/ social media page so I may follow your adventures. I’d love to live vicariously through you! (Haha).

Anyway, I wish you safety and good health on your journey and hope to hear from you.


Shawna February 3, 2015 at 2:26 am

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Thanks one million and please carry on the enjoyable work.

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