Category Archives: Cambodia

Kampuchea

Siem Reap, Cambodia

For $15 more, we then convinced our driver to take us around the bigger circuit.

Pre Rup

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.

East Mebon

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!

Ta Som

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 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 “incomparable beauty.”

Preah Khan

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.

Me: “What?”
H: “I was just about to ask if you could fall asleep in this.”

Banteay Samré

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

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.

Phnom Penh

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 wasn’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). I think gluttony did its job.

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).

Turn down for (Angkor) Wat

Having learned my lesson, I made sure to get to the airport exactly 2 hours before my scheduled flight. So, I walked out onto the shady street by the “hotel,” not realizing there was a main road not too far away with plenty of cabs. Instead, a motorbike stopped to offer to take me for ฿50. I pointed at my backpacking bag, clearly communicating “And, where are you going to put this?” Unperturbed, he said that he could straddle it in between his legs. For whatever reason, I just agreed. “It should only be 10 min anyway,” I thought. So, I hopped on, now realizing that I have a higher chance of dying, without a helmet or long pants to shield my legs. The driver, on the other hand, not only had on a helmet but also a leathery jacket that motorcyclists wear for protection. Great.

But, I made it safely to…

Siem Reap, Cambodia

H had told me he took a motorbike as well to the hotel for only $2. A cab was $7. Having survived round 1 in Bangkok, I thought, “Why not?” Bring on round 2 of risking my life on a motorbike as the driver straddles my luggage. Again, I made it in one piece, unharmed. But, then, I later found out that by “motorbike,” H really meant a tuk tuk. A nice carriage pulled by a motorbike. “You took an actual motorbike??” Yea, laugh. And, thanks to my credit card points, we were able to stay at Le Meridien Angkor. We totally belonged.

Travel/visa tip: If you need USD, make sure to take it out from the ATM’s right by the door/entrance after you disembark the plane and enter the terminal. The ATM’s are before immigration. Otherwise, you would need to circle back to the departures hall. Everything in Cambodia seems to run on USD. Also, I was able to purchase an e-visa online. You just need to print out 2 copies (doesn’t have to be in color) and bring that with you.

Angkor Wat

First stop, of course, was Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) with a sea of Asian tourists toting sun umbrellas. It was just as epic as I had imagined it to be and worth being on multiple lists of top things to see in the world. It was even worth dropping my iPhone onto the extremely hard brick ground and cracking the screen when I tried to take a photo. Well, almost.

Travel tip: The tuk tuk driver took us to the ticket office before we visited any of the temples and we bought a 3-day pass for $40. Make sure you bring something to cover your shoulders and legs. They don’t provide anything so come prepared. I just wore a maxi dress and brought a t-shirt to wear over the top.

Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple turned Buddhist, was built facing the west, the reason for which remains theoretical since most other temples faced the east. But, similar to most temples, its architecture was designed to depict a temple-mountain, a representation of the Hindu sacred mountain, Mt. Meru, the center of all universes. The moat surrounding it apparently prevented the surrounding jungle from encroaching onto the premises. Because, you know, trees and plants grow wherever the fuck they want. Fair enough, since we’ve taken all their space.

The bas-reliefs (sculptural technique) along the wall depicted either scenes of war or of heaven and hell, 37 heavens and 32 hells to be exact. Not very comforting to see scenes of torture of those condemned to hell.

I must say, I’ve never seen so many monks pose for photos in my life. Nor did it ever occur to me that monks could be tourists. I thought one guy was sitting in meditation against a column, looking all pensive, until he turned to his friend a few seconds later and asked, “Did you take the photo?” He then proceeded to drape his robes and look away into the distance. Another pose. I wished I had a pashmina on me to ask him for draping tips. Instead, you get the above photo, where I’m so itty bitty, it wouldn’t have mattered if I was posing or not.

We later sat on the steps of a ruin by the left pond and watched the sunset. It was pretty but, sunrise (above) was so much more epic. We had to wake up at 4am and take a 5am tuk tuk but, it was so much more peaceful in the morning that it didn’t matter. Since the sun was rising on the left, everyone crowded around the left pond. H and I were smart and perched ourselves by the still empty right pond (around 5:20-30am) which the left siders gradually migrated to as time passed. With the gradual daylight reflecting off the water, you could see all sorts of movement on the surface of the pond. Bugs, and lots of them.

H: “Does it make you feel all itchy even though they’re not biting you?”

The answer was a scratchy yes.

The sun then started making its way up around 6:10-20am and as soon as the sun rose, the crowds dispersed almost immediately. Epic on another level. We left by 6:30am.

Travel tip: We ate dinner at Marum where we tried beef satay with fried red tree ants. The only real indication of it in your mouth was the horrific crunch. Delicious, though! Other places to try: Genevieve’s, where we tried beef lok lak and 1kg of sweet & sour fish. I didn’t realize what 1kg really meant until the dish clunked down in front of me. H then challenged me to eat the red pepper garnish, seeds and all, which for some reason I agreed to do and immediately regretted. Remember to make reservations. The Little Red Fox in Kandal Village had amazing breakfast and flat whites. And, try fish amok anywhere!

Tuk tuk parking.

Travel tip: We rented a tuk tuk for the day through our hotel. It was $25 to cover the small circuit, starting at 5am with the Angkor Wat sunrise and ending at 5-6pm. We let him go at 1pm, though, since we covered 8 hr by then.

Bayon

Second stop: Bayon Temple, in the center of Angkor Thom (“Great City”). We arrived by 7am but had another half hour before opening time. This gave us time to meander around the perimeter and have first dibs at the entrance.

Within 15 min of it opening, though, a line of people streamed in and we no longer had the place to ourselves.

Bayon houses 216 faces (6 or so pictured above) of Avalokiteśvara, an embodiment of compassion of all Buddhas, but really, they’re probably the faces of Jayavarman VII, the king responsible for its construction. Perhaps even the original “Many-Faced God.” Either way, I wouldn’t want to mess. The king’s face was everywhere and always watching you. (He did, however, abolish castes and improve infrastructure so, not half bad? On the other hand, his aggressive construction work exhausted both people and supply…)

There were 3 levels to this temple and it was easy to get lost while exploring.

A close-up of one of the bas-reliefs.

Baphuon

Third stop: Baphuon. The entrance was a really long pathway which we later realized was propped up on stone columns. Another architectural delight.

Baphuon was a 3-tiered temple-mountain, another representation of Mt. Meru.

Ta Prohm

Fourth stop: Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider temple.” When I mentioned before how trees can grow wherever the fuck they want, this temple was the epitome of that. Even in the smallest little crack, there was a sprout (I could’ve also worded that a little differently…) But, that’s what made this temple a real adventure. I channeled my inner Lara Croft, sans sexy outfit.

If I thought this temple was in a state of “ruin,” I was seriously wrong. They showed before and after photos, and the current state was a result of conservation efforts. But, I hope they leave it as it is because the trees made this temple seem mystical, making it easily one of my favorites.

Onto the bigger circuit…