Hi everyone! So we’ve officially done a full loop, returned to Bangkok and are now starting the next leg of our trip in Myanmar (Burma)! We are currently in Yangon and the wi-fi at our guesthouse is OK for now, but from what I hear wi-fi is a bit spotty in most places here, so I wanted to go ahead and post about Cambodia before we take off to the next city! Heads up, this is another super long post.
Cambodia has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride. We were only able to visit for 9 days, but experienced everything from the sadness that comes with visiting S21 and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, the awe of seeing Angkor Wat, and the eye opening experience of visiting and staying with a local family in a small village.
To start, I think it is best to tell you a little bit about Cambodia’s history. It will start this post out on a sad note, but is a must in order to give you a real sense of what it is like to be visiting this country. And it goes hand in hand with some of the places we’ve visited and will talk about later in this post. I’ve asked Hoch to do this for me, since he is better with explaining historical events than I am.
ALRIGHT. so. One thing to remind oneself about Cambodians is that there is a deep ancient longing for the glory of their powerful empire that was in its downfall by the 14th century. The Khmer Empire (the people and language are still called Khmer) was one of the most powerful not just in the region but in the world, based on the strength of agriculture (due to sophisticated irrigation) and world commerce. This is evident from the still-astonishing remnants of the Angkor Wat a thousand years later. Unfortunately, the times and regional politics have not been kind to Cambodia and its peoples, leading to what is essentially an inferiority complex that comes from being wedged between the more-recent powerhouses of Thailand (Siam) and Vietnam. As the colonialism gave way to independence movements throughout Southeast Asia in the middle of 20th century, an undercurrent of communism eventually took over in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouges – literally Red Khmers. They saw farmer peasants and their self-reliant lifestyle as the basis on which to build anew. Once they defeated the pro-American government in 1975 all city and town dwellers were relocated to the countryside and forced to farm and be self-sufficient. As it turns out, even with millions of additional farmers the agricultural yield did not increase to support these new mouths, especially since the country was closed off to the outside and there was no food being imported as before. Also, people don’t tend to be very productive when forced to do shit. Starving people and a sense of impending failure led the Khmer Rouge leadership to never-ending spirals of suspicion and paranoia, leading to the “purges” even within its own party. All in all, in less than 4 years of Khmer Rouge rule about 2 million Cambodians died (out of 8 million) due to starvation, exhaustion, torture, and plain simple murder. It’s pretty fucked. There is so much more to it but you can choose to be depressed by yourself by reading Pol Pot: Anatomy of Nightmare.
When we first arrived to Phnom Penh, we were a little worried because we had heard and read online about several different scams to watch out for and did not know how safe it actually was. When we first arrive to a new city, we usually like to walk to our lodging, if possible, to get our bearings and a feel for the city. We told one of the bus employees that we were planning to do this when he tried to set us up with a tuk tuk and he laughed at us like it was a bad idea. But when we arrived, we saw that we were only a 10 minute walk from our hostel and since it was mid-afternoon, we decided to chance it and see if it really is a bad idea or if he was just trying to make a buck. From what we could tell, he was just trying to make a buck since we walked to our hostel without any problems aside from the usual tuk tuk drivers asking if we needed a ride.
At first glance, the city is not the nicest or the cleanest. A lot of the buildings are old and need to either be replaced or renovated. Our hostel was located in a popular tourist area, so it was a bit nicer, but nothing too special. We were immediately questioning if we wanted to stay 2 or 3 nights, we were leaning towards 2, but decided to give the city a chance and wait to see how we felt the next day.
Our first full day there, we visited the Central Market and the Royal Palace. The Central Market was not very crowded which was nice and also was not very touristy. It was a market for locals. The Royal Palace was nice and reminded me of the Grand Palace in Bangkok (not quite as intricate though), and was not nearly as hot or crowded.
Royal Palace photos:
In the evening we went to dinner and a movie at a place called the Empire. It is owned by a guy from the UK and he built a small sound proof theatre upstairs. He had just received the rights to play the documentary “Don’t Think I’ve forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll”. The documentary sheds light on the Cambodian music culture before the Khmer Rouge Reign began. Since intellectual people were considered dangerous, musicians were some of the first to be seen as a threat by the Khmer Rouge and had to hide their identities, if possible. The film was very good and not as depressing as you would think since the focus was on the music itself and not the happenings of the Khmer Rouge, though it still had some sad parts.
Our second day there, we went to see S21 and the Killing Fields. S21 was a prison during the Khmer Rouge Reign. People were tortured until they confessed whatever it was the executer wanted to hear, mostly some sort of treason against the Khmer Rouge (involving CIA, KGB, Vietnamese), and then they were killed. It was a high school before it became a prison. There were 4 main buildings used to either torture or imprison its prisoners. Some of the rooms still had the beds and chains used while others had whatever remaining records and pictures of the people that were imprisoned there. We purchased the audio tour and walked through the prison on the verge of tears as we learned about the happenings of this place during that time.
The Killing Fields had a similar vibe. As you can probably guess from the name, people were taken to the fields (most from S21) to be killed and then buried. There were huge pits with over hundreds of bodies buried together (the bodies have since been removed as best as they could be, though some teeth and bones still rise to the top of the soil during the rainy season). They did not use guns (bullets are expensive) to kill the victims, but instead bashed them over the head with either a hammer, a steel rod, or really anything they had available. One thing I will never forget was hearing about what is known as the Killing Tree there. When the area was first discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there was blood, hair, and brains on this tree which was right beside a large pit with over 100 bodies of women and children. This indicated that they would slam young children against the tree, throw them into the pit and then kill their mothers before throwing them into the pit as well. Needless to say, I was in tears listening to the audio and am almost brought to tears writing about it now.
Speaking of tears, leading up to arriving in Cambodia, I wanted to read a little bit about the history and decided on a memoir of a young girl who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. It is called “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” by Loung Ung. All I can say is read it, you will cry, but you will be reminded to be thankful for all the small things you take for granted, you will hold your loved ones a little closer, and you will think twice about whether or not you’re actually having a bad day (because you’re not in the grand scheme of things).
Anyways, I did not take many pictures of these places, but do have a couple from the outside of the S21 prison and the monument erected in memory of those killed at the Killing Fields. Hoch – About 20,000 people were brought to S21 for interrogation. 7 survived.
After seeing these places and learning about the history, we saw the city of Phnom Penh in a new light and it most definitely grew on us. I am glad we stayed the extra night there.
Siem Reap is the most touristy city in Cambodia due to the fact that Angkor Wat is there. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and includes Angkor Wat along with several other ancient temples nearby. The majority of the temples were built during one of the largest rules in southeast Asia, the Khmer civilization, in the 12th century.
There were a couple of ticket options, 1-day pass ($20 USD), 3-day pass ($40 USD), and 7-day pass ($70). We decided to buy the 3-day pass option (only did 2 days though) so we could take our time visiting the various temples. The first day, we met up with our tuk tuk driver for the day, Lay (pronounce lie), at 8am. He took us to the ticket office first, and then we did what is known as the small circuit that includes visits to Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Keo, Ta Phrom (tomb raider movie was filmed here), and Banteay Kdei (see map below). The entire day, including a lunch break, took about 6 hours. We were also able to scout out where we wanted to return the next day to watch the sunrise in Angkor Wat, which was also another reason why we wanted to split up our tour into 2 days. The next day, we were up super early, met our tuk tuk driver Lay at 4:45am and were on our way straight to Angkor Wat (since we already had our passes). It was definitely the right call, we picked an awesome spot right in front of the pond, brought a towel to sit on, and enjoyed the sunrise while other people straggled in later. Afterwards, we did what is known as the grand circuit and visited Preah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup, and Prasat Kravan. The second day took about 5 hours and we were back to the hostel in time for lunch.
I am happy that we did both days, but if I had to pick one, I would say the temples in the small circuit were better than those in the grand circuit. We especially enjoyed Ta Phrom. Overall the temples were beautiful and definitely worth visiting Cambodia for. I am already wanting to come back with my family one day. I know they would really enjoy it. I also saw that they have various races here! Fellow runners, imagine running through temple ruins during a race! It would certainly be different than any other race I’ve run in. Something to remember for next time….
Per usual we took plenty of Go-Pro videos and will be putting a video together and posting that separately when ready. However, see the album link at the bottom of the post for additional photos of the temples. And excuse the million different photos of the Angkor Wat sunrise! 😉
Our last night in Siem Reap, we were able to meet up with the same UK couple, Mat and Cass, that we met in Cat Ba, and ran into in Hoi An, Vietnam. We ended up drinking a little too much, but thoroughly enjoyed their company and received several pointers from them on Myanmar. They visited and loved it so much that they extended their time there and stayed the entire allowed time for tourists (28 days).
For the last bit of our time in Cambodia, we wanted to get away from the city and see what the countryside is like. We had heard great things about the northeast region of the country, but did not think we would have time to get there and back so we decided on a small village not far from Battambang, west of Siem Reap and close to the Thai border.
We decided to stay at a homestay with a local family. When we first arrived, we were greeted by 2 young girls (Rachana and Kanya, 16 and 14 years old, respectively, though they looked younger). They showed us our room and explained that their parents were still working and would return soon. Our room was a very basic yet large room. We had a bed with mosquito net, a cooler with water bottles, a fan, and a small bathroom. There was no tub or shower in the bathroom, only a large basin filled with water and a small bucket. So we would have to bathe the old school way, by pouring water on top of us using the bucket, washing, and then rinsing. The village ran along a river and their home was right beside the water, built partially on a deck and stilts. You could see the ground sloping down towards the water through the cracks in the floor boards of our room. Our room was in between a small school (more on this later) with a room on top (which is where the grandmother lived) and their family room which consisted of a living room/bedroom, a kitchen, and another bathroom. The dining table was outside of our room in a covered area. They also had a nice area on the wooden deck in which you could sit and watch the sunset.
Here is a short video clip of our room and the school next door:
Once the father, Sophorn, returned, he explained some of the touristy things we can do in the area and also told us a little bit about his background. He and his family used to be very poor and he was working hard as a tuk tuk driver and a tour guide. One day, he met an Australian lady who offered to sponsor him. He was very thankful for this opportunity and was able to build a better life for himself and his family. He received a bachelor’s degree in Finance and Accounting and came up with the idea to create a center to help educate young children, especially those without a lot of opportunity (some are orphans or are from poor families). They in particular want to help children learn English and connect children with potential sponsors (but there was no pressure to do this). He told us that if we wanted, we could participate in a few of the English classes.
Here is the BOVA – Battambang Orphanage Village Assistance Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/bova.ngo/
We decided we wanted to participate in teaching English, but that for the rest of our time, we wanted to just hang out with the family and we did not do any tourist activities. The homestay included our meals so we were able to try Khmer home cooking (which was simple yet delicious). His wife, Kumtien, cooked lunch and dinner for us and their family each day we were there and they also took us into the village market for breakfast. They usually go to bed early and wake up early so we tried to do the same (however we did end up watching a couple of GOT episodes in the evenings after we said our 8:30pm goodnights).
We arrived on a Saturday evening, so Sunday we were a little bit lazy, but got to see how Khmer families enjoy their Sundays. Since they live by the river, they warned us about the fishing boats in the morning. We heard them driving up and down the river starting around 4am (no wonder they are early birds). Across the river is a large Muslim (Cham) community and there was a mosque with a loud speaker that would announce when it was time to pray (5 times a day). Also, on Sunday, they played Khmer music the entire morning. We asked the girls about it and they were not sure why. And in the evening, we heard music again and noticed lights in the distance. Then we learned it was a concert hall and market that plays live music most evenings. So needless to say, it isn’t very quiet there, especially on Sundays.
Monday was the day we planned to help teach English. There were several classes throughout the day and each one had a different teacher (all local volunteers). The morning session was taught by his wife, the noon session was taught by a nearby teacher who came on her lunch break, one of the afternoon sessions was taught by his oldest daughter, and the final class was supposed to be taught by another person, but they could not make it, so his daughter filled in for that one as well.
Hoch and I helped with the lessons and would read a lot of it out loud and have the children repeat after us since the regular volunteers still have Cambodian accents. The kids also asked us questions about where we are from, what we do, what our favorite animals are and so on. We also asked them several of the same questions. The students were so well-mannered and polite. They would greet us in unison and would stand up when speaking. Some were a little shy about speaking, but overall they seemed very interested in asking us questions. The last class of the day composed of mostly young teenagers. After the lesson, a bunch of us went across the road to an empty lot and played soccer! We didn’t even have a real soccer ball or goal, but a couple of the kids used their flip flops as goal markers and ran around barefoot on the gravel. Some of them were pretty good in my opinion (which may not be saying much since I am not good). We had a great time playing soccer with them, I hope they enjoyed it as much as we did. 🙂
The next day, we were up early to say our goodbyes to the family before the girls left for school. I took a few pictures with the family before leaving. They were so nice and welcoming and I really enjoyed our short time with them. If I come back to Cambodia, I will definitely want to visit them again.
The people in Cambodia have been my favorite so far. Not just because of the family we stayed with, but everyone seems nicer overall, even the tuk tuk drivers were nicer in my opinion. And despite the online rumors, I never felt unsafe traveling here (though I am traveling with Hoch and not solo). We did miss out on the northeast region and the beach areas, but I am still very happy with everything we were able to do while in this pleasant country.
On a side note, Cambodia is a bit more expensive due to the fact that they use a combination of US dollars and Cambodian Riel. ATMs gave you options for both currencies. It seemed in the larger cities that USD was preferred, but if the change is less than $1, you would get back Riel as they do not deal with coins there. Hoch – Riel is fucking worthless. Currency exchange in Bangkok airports don’t even deal with it. Now I have $3 worth of riel to wipe my ass with.
Well that is all I’ve got for now. As I mentioned before, we will share an Angkor Wat video once ready and in the meantime, check out this album for more photos of our time in Cambodia:
Until next post!