I’m on a trip of a trip of a lifetime to SE Asia with my mom and good friend Sandra. See my original post here where I explain the how and why of us coming halfway around the world. Special thanks to my many travel blogger friends who were loaded with advice on what to do, where to go, and how to blend in.
After Bangkok, we flew into Siem Reap International Airport in Cambodia. I had imagined Cambodia being an exotic, hard-to-reach place that was free from the mainstream tourists… Uh, yeah, I couldn’t be more wrong!
While not many Americans tour Angkor Wat, tons of Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, French and Australians pack the small country each year, and they all stay in Siem Reap, the town central to the many temples in the Angkor Wat region.
Siem Reap is vibrant and wraps around a small river that flows through the center. Boutiques and trendy restaurants line either side, and while the traffic was much less than anything we saw in Bangkok, it was still a bit harrying. Motorcycles and tuk tuks far outnumber the cars, and the rule of thumb for vehicles seems to be the more people you can pile on the better! It was not unusual to see 4 and 5 people on a single motorcycle zipping in and out and between the cars.
Fun fact: There are very few gas stations. Instead, roadside stands have Jack Daniels bottles and 2 liter Coke bottles full of petrol available for purchase. These bottles are good measurements!
At night there is the popular “night market” which is like a giant flea market where the locals hawk purses, bags, shirts, pants, shoes, jewelry and more. The city never seems to sleep!
Fun fact: Cambodian food is good! While Thai food is spicy, Khmer food is very palatable! And, yes, they have their own beer.
The Cambodian people are incredibly welcoming and always have a smile to offer. Our guide was named “Long” and he was full of information not only about the temples we visited but about local life and Cambodian politics. Long was a young boy during the infamous Pol Pot reign, also known as the killing fields where attempted genocide resulted in nearly every family being affected. Long lost his mother and two of his brothers during the period, so it was interesting to hear his account of recent history.
Cambodians are survivors, that is for sure; coming through the worst and figuring out a way to keep on keeping on.
Our first night there Long took us to Phnom Krom, a 900 year old temple built on a hillside to watch the sunset. It overlooked a small village built on stilts due to the annual flooding.
Poverty was everywhere but but the families still found a way to keep moving on. Religion mixed with superstition seemed to play a large part in that. While at the temple, we got to peek in on a ceremony. A man had been to a fortune teller who said he had a bad spirit inside, so the monks were performing a Buddhist exorcism of sorts. (I hope it worked for him!)
Fun fact: Many poor families who cannot care for their children will send the boys to live at the wats and study to become monks. The wat will provide free food, lodging, and education. Unfortunately girls do not have this option.
The next morning our temple tours began in earnest. We visited the humongous Angkor Wat for sunrise along with several hundred of our closest tourist friends.
Remember, these wats were built by the last of the ancient Khmer kings in the twelfth century, and many of the smaller temples in the Angkor region were built in honor of dead kings or to house royal ashes. And all of them are still places of worship today, so while we were touring, locals were there to pay homage, including lots of monks.
In addition to the main temple buildings at Angkor Wat, we also visited Ta Prohm, Bayon Temple (my favorite), Angkor Thom, Beng Mealea, and Banteay Srei and Banteay Sram. The typical “Khmer architecture” became very recognizable, even for those temples which the jungle reclaimed and were now being restored. We had an archeologist named Krohm show us around several of the temples, and he was loaded with information on the many excavations.
Fun fact: After a new temple is discovered in the jungle, it must be reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. Cambodia relies on the donations of the archeology teams from different countries to come help do the work and it can take decades to complete.
An interesting aspect of the Cambodian temples is the mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism in the many carvings and statues that decorate the wats. There were seven great Khmer kings in ancient times, and they were continually flipping back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism over the centuries. Although, Cambodia is 95% Buddhist now, the Hindu legends and gods have become somewhat intermixed in their culture. Animism is also present as spirit houses are set up at each home and old trees are often decorated for the souls they hold.
We also visited the Land Mine Museum, a harrowing place that left us all silent. The US continually carpet-bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War to try and break up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Then, the Khmer Rouge buried as many as 3 million land mines across the northern part of Cambodia through 1999. Today there is a great effort to find and clear the bombs but it is a painstakingly slow process. In fact, one of the temples we visited had only been cleared of land mines just a few years ago. Many times villagers don’t even know there is a bomb until a playing child runs across one and it goes off, maiming or killing him. (Yes, it made me think twice before straying off the main path!)
Fun fact: There is still a King of Cambodia, but he is a puppet figure only. A prime minister has basically taken over and now rules it like a dictatorship, although they still hold “elections” for the Cambodian People’s Party, which has a strong presence in every village.
Getting around Siem Reap is easy thanks to the tuk tuks on every corner, and the government employs hundreds of workers to sweep the dirt from the road, leaves from under trees, and to collect entry tickets at each temple. The result for the “tourist zones” is almost Disney-like, which is such a contrast to the rest of the poverty-stricken country. Much of Cambodia is underwater, which is perfect for growing rice. But, during the rainy season, many villages are flooded for months at a time so they build their houses on stilts. There are more than fifty “floating villages” on Lake Tonle Sap alone.
Fun fact: Cambodia is actively developing their tourism, paving roads and designating places as tourist zones. This allows the locals to spring into action, selling handmade items, food, bottled water, and even piloting boats to take us around. There was a legion of teenage boys waiting to take tourists onto Lake Tonle Sap. Our captain didn’t look a day over 14 years old!
I loved Cambodia, as it reminded me somewhat of Costa Rica – tropical environment, friendly people, and safe to travel. In an area so wrecked by wars over the recent decades, the Cambodian people seem resilient and industrious; however, it also seems like they are hanging on by a thread and anything could topple it. Our guide Long seemed eager to talk about how his country has changed for the better but still had a long way to go. When I asked him what the biggest natural disaster Cambodia deals with, he smiled and said, “Politics.”
Corruption and bribery are common place at the highest levels on down, and Long pointed out that the US often won’t deal with Cambodia because America won’t do business under the table. It was strange for me to be in a country where the US was not a humongous influence. (Even when I was in the Soviet Union in the late 80s the Russians loved American things, so it was hard to believe Cambodians had not heard of rap music!)
Fun fact: Western music and Hollywood movies are not known in Cambodia. Although all the Cambodians knew that a famous actress named Angelina Jolie had made a movie at Ta Prohm (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), none of them have ever actually seen the movie!
I would definitely come back to Cambodia and encourage you to make the trek. Tourism is their best shot at making it and they do love Americans. (Interestingly, they don’t like the French so much, because Long said they treat Cambodians as second class citizens.)
Yes, it is a long plane ride, but Cambodia is worth the trip. And with plenty of English signs and speakers and tuk tuks on every street corner, it is an easy place to navigate, even with kids. Most of all, the beautiful land and warm people will win your heart!
On to Laos!
To see all the photos from my trip, see my Flickr account.