Ancient Khmer temples have been cleared from jungle vines and humanitarian disaster, and in the debris, heroic Cambodia has risen from a history both saddening and inspiring to come back to travellers’ hearts. I fell in love with her on my first visit and promised myself I would reflect on a country that has always been so misunderstood.
Dropping Angkor into UNESCO
Siem Reap is the base for the temples of Angkor; the postcard baby of the tourist board and topping the bill as one of earth’s most spectacular architectural achievements. I was teeming with adventure whilst roaming the ancient grounds of the Khmer Empire. Angkor Wat is the masterpiece, as featured in the national flag, and officially the world’s largest religious structure. King Suryavaraman II conceived Angkor Wat in the 12th century, most likely as a state temple and mausoleum facing the west. Meaning “city of temples”, it began as a Hindu pledge to Vishnu, and transformed to Buddhist prayer later in life.
Pumpkin orange robed monks lounge on the temple paths, whilst treetop birds screech in the distance. My best advice is to stick around after sunrise when the downpour of tour groups flood back to town for breakfast. Otherwise as the sun sets in the early evening, the walls glow, and inside emerges a quieter side when the masses have fled.
The sandstone design and elaborate base-reliefs stand side-by-side in ingenuity with the Ancient Romans or Classical Greeks. Presence in the site of Angkor brings wonder in a playground for the gods, encircled by a 5.5km moat and jungle terrain that wraps its position of UNESCO World Heritage.
Angkor Wat is in fact one of many temples in the area, jostling for tourists with the temple and tree root wrestling match of Ta Phromn in East Baray. It gained notoriety as the ‘Tomb Raider temple’ where Mrs. Angelina Jolie once graced with short shorts, tank top and Uzi guns. Don’t miss Bayon in Angkor Thom, the bizarre ‘face temple’ with mysterious mug shots of Avalokiteshvara (or more likely creator King Jayavarman VII), glaring literally stone-faced from all angles.
Elsewhere in Siem Reap, bars and eateries fanfare for attention on the aptly named ‘Pub Street’, with some of the best (and most touristy) places to spend the evening. The night markets sell everything from fake DVDs and Angkor carvings, to watches and crossbows, and even a plate of fried tarantulas!
Hectic and historic Phnom Penh
Residents of the capital city clamber three-fold onto tuk-tuks and motos – darting around golden temples, cluttered amongst urban life as intense as the humidity. Some overwhelmed visitors skip it, but they are largely mistaken, for a stay in Phnom Penh is the hallmark of understanding Cambodia’s turbulent history.
Flying into the chaos, it’s difficult to imagine the streets empty in 1975. The Khmer Rouge troops swarmed in, and expelled the population out, all in efforts to build an agrarian communist ideology. Schools, hospitals and post offices were brought to a halt, and its only residents were soldiers and the captured.
She was a nation limping from a bombardment of explosives on the Ho Chi Minh trail to flush out North supply lines spilling from the Vietnam War. Bombing killed up to half a million innocent Cambodians, leaving the overthrown King fragile, and the opportune moment for a new leader, Saloth Sar.
Re-named Pole Pot (a nickname from his Paris university years), his political life had beginnings as a guerrilla rebel, later instilling himself as a Communist dictator largely influenced by Chinese Maoism. Resetting the clock to Year Zero to build a purified society, Pot’s version was extreme, and generations of society from the educated to the dissenters, the politicians to the elderly, even those who wore glasses; all were sentenced to unbearable torture and death.
The Killing Fields
In the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge occupation, Cambodia endured a chapter of one of the worst genocides since the Holocaust, with social cleansing marking a massacre of nearly 2 million Cambodians.
In the former ghost town, Tuol Sleng S-21 Museum was in the heart, and touched my emotions as the former high school-turned-torture prison. A visit to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields is a profound experience to understand the brutality of the war. Over 17,000 people were killed in one of over three hundred fields in the country, many with the most appalling of deaths. Women and children were not spared, all described in the excellent audio tour read by survivors. Witness the Memorial Stupa with more than 5,000 skulls, remembering a dark past absorbed into the calm surroundings.
This kind of sightseeing might be a little heavy, yet is an essential understanding on just how far Cambodia has progressed in 40 years. It will strike a chord.
I sipped an Angkor beer afterwards and people-watched the live aerobic line-dancing sessions at the Olympic Stadium, an impressive public park that will reaffirm your sense of humanity. Over the restaurant hugging riverfront, I nourished with some Amok, Cambodia’s national dish – rice combined with baked fish and lemongrass, served with tasty chilli and coconut sauce.
Most travellers to Cambodia are touched by her history and poverty, and want to ‘give something back’ to the community. Whilst corruption reigns in some projects; such as rice buying at the Tonlé Sap floating village, and orphanages whom rent children for donations. Avoid both at all costs, and take up advice with ConCERT, a reliable NGO compilation offering genuine tourism opportunities to put the money in the right place.
Touring the country
With time on your hands, try tuk-tukking further afield to pristine coastal resorts such as Sihanoukville in the South, or the quieter Ket or Kampot – all featuring as surrogate sisters to Thailand’s tropical beaches in their yesteryear. Delve into village life amongst rice paddies and colonial architecture in Battambang, and breathe the mountain air in the scenery of the North.
Cambodia has begun its resurrection in the eyes of travel. It remembers but does not prolong it’s terrifying past, and the glory of the Angkor Khmer Kingdom can be revelled at once again. Educate yourself with the history, be bowled over Indiana Jones style by the temples, and most of all, be inspired by the beauty of her local people, one of the most inspiring generations you will have ever met.