Siem Reap, Cambodia
For $15 more, we then convinced our driver to take us around the bigger circuit.
Fifth stop: Pre Rup (“Turning the Body”). This temple was believed to hold funerals during which the body’s ashes were rotated in different directions in a ritual.
Sixth stop: East Mebon, which began to look a bit deja vu. It now stands in the center of a dried up reservoir, the East Baray, with its base guarded by stone elephants on all corners.
It was so damn hot that day that by 10am, my clothing was a different shade. And, though the heat was obviously felt by all, apparently I was the only one showing it. A guard came up to me as he was passing by.
Guard: “Very hot.”
Okay, thanks for taking the time to tell me that.
Tuk tuk driver: “Very hot…for you.”
Yea, I got the point, OKAY!
Seventh stop: Ta Som, another temple bombarded by awesome, majestic trees.
Neak Pean (or Neak Poan)
Eighth stop: Neak Pean or Neak Poan (“Intertwined Nagas/Serpents”), which was a large square pool surrounded by 4 smaller ones, representing earth, fire, wind and water (no heart? Captain Planet would be disappointed). Each of the 4 smaller pools were fed by the main larger one through spouts that were sculpted as the heads of the “Four Great Animals” – an elephant, horse, bull (replaced by a human) and lion. The pools were built with the concept of balance and was thought to have healing powers. Most of them were gated off, though, so I guess I’ll just have to continue living with my mysterious disease known as “great beauty.”
Ninth and last stop for the day: Preah Khan (“Royal/Holy/Sacred Sword”), another favorite and a perfect end to the day.
The purpose of the 2-story structure on the left is still unknown but, regardless, it’s awesome.
Again, trees taking over the premises, though this temple was in a better state than Ta Prohm.
The ride back to the hotel took some time and we drove along tree-lined roads with motor-assisted breezes. The heat and the hum of the engine made me sleepy, and as my head began to bob, H looked over, his mouth open to say something, but ended up just laughing instead.
H: “I was just about to ask if you could fall asleep in this.”
For our last morning, we grabbed another tuk tuk for the day to reach 2 temples a little further out and to stop at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. All for $26. We reached Banteay Samré around midday and it was hot as balls. At least we pretty much had the temple to ourselves. (Again, don’t forget to cover your legs and shoulders!)
Banteay Srei, the only major temple to have not been built by a king.
This temple probably had the craziest carvings that I’d ever seen and because of the immense intricacy, it is believed to have been done by a woman. Yup, that’s right. Women, represent! It is, after all, named “Citadel of the Women.”
Note: If you visit any temple without a guide or tour group, try to come prepared with an information source (e.g. a Lonely Planet guide). Though the main pathways have been made safe, if you venture off the beaten path, you may trigger a forgotten landmine. (The Lonely Planet book had alerts for specific temples.)
Afterwards, we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, the entrance ticket of which had the following statement: “Everything on display has been inspected 100% Free from Explosives (FFE).” Um, phew! The museum itself is definitely worth a visit. It was started by Aki Ra who, as a child, was drafted into the Khmer Rouge (Communist followers) and helped to plant landmines. After realizing that those landmines were killing way more innocent people than enemies and doing a lot more damage than good, he dedicated his life to de-mining efforts and set up a rehab center behind the museum for victims. Ticket proceeds help fund de-mining campaigns and support the museum/center.
Also worth a visit: Angkor National Museum.
Later that night, we were off to Phnom Penh. We booked an overnight bus that left Siem Reap at 11pm and arrived in Phnom Penh around 5am (about a 6hr trip). The beds were mostly reclined, included a blanket and pillow, bottled water, individual power sockets and free wifi. These bus rides were known to be pretty unsafe in the past but, nowadays, they’ve been made much safer and nicer.
We decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and take a tuk tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek afterwards (about $10 for a 30-40 min ride). The audioguide was definitely worth paying for at the museum (one was already included at the fields). It was really hard to imagine that not only could a genocide like this happen, it could happen repeatedly over history all over the world. During Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge’s regime, millions of citizens, including the sick and elderly, were duped into leaving Phnom Penh and other cities by foot only to end up in slavery in the countryside. That year was known as Year Zero and was the beginning of the 3-4 year purification process of the population. In other words, genocide.
Tuol Sleng (aka Security Prison 21 or, S-21) was a high school overtaken by Pol Pot in 1975 and turned into one of the many secret prisons in which citizens were wrongfully accused of crimes and tortured. Absurd rules were imposed. They were then brought to the Killing Fields to be murdered and dumped into mass graves. Educated people, professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) and religious leaders, even people wearing certain items like glasses, were targeted and killed. Out of an estimated 12,000 – 20,000 prisoners, only 12 were confirmed as survivors. And, as if that weren’t barbaric enough, they kept records of the prisoners, including photos before and after torture. It was believed to have been done so that the security officers could somehow separate themselves psychologically from their actions – record and file away. This was all done for a cause that even made the leaders eventually suspicious of each other.
Several foreigners were captured and killed also, including a Kiwi, Kerry Hamill, who was sailing around the world and happened to drift into Cambodian waters. Not believing that he was just an innocent traveler, the security officers eventually forced a “confession” out of him through which he fictitiously claimed that he was sent into Cambodia by Colonel Sanders of KFC. He also included a cryptic message which was believed to be a goodbye note to his mom and family.
The Killing Fields was also a secret operation, accidentally discovered later by people who, while looking for food, smelled a horrible stench. By then, the mass graves had grown into mounds from the gases emitted from the corpses. The eeriest and saddest part was the Killing Tree, against which women, children and infants were smashed. Brain matter was later found on the tree. Bullets also became too expensive so farming tools were used to bludgeon people and make them suffer. All the screams were then masked by large speakers playing music. Horrific on all levels.
On the tuk tuk ride back to the hostel, H and I just sat, dumbfounded. We came to the conclusion that the general rule for people should be “Don’t be a dick.” We needed to cheer up the day so we ended up meeting H’s friends, Aimee and James, for dinner and drinks at FCC (with a view of the Mekong), Friends The Restaurant (where we tried a Scotch egg with a baby duck), then Masamune (wedged in a cute alleyway of bars).
Travel tip: Whenever you ride a tuk tuk, make sure to hold onto your bag securely. Passing motorcyclists were known to grab bags and speed away. For hostels, I totally recommend staying at the Mad Monkey Hostel, the only hostel I’ve seen with a swimming pool (and a clean one, too).