After several travelers along the way suggested that we visit Cambodia, we were excited to go there, but also had high expectations. At this time of year, the most practical way to get there from Vietnam was to take a flight, but we also had to drive back to Ho Chin Minh City from Mui Ne. Unfortunately, when I woke up the day we were leaving, I realized right away that something was very very wrong with my stomach. After a couple of hours of packing up yet feeling no better, I was feeling panicked about the upcoming five hour car ride and subsequent three hours in an airport and on a plane. Some combination of overdosing on Immodium and pure determination to not be sick while on the rode got me to Siem Reap, Cambodia and our hotel without incident – though it was not a pleasant journey for me. However, within an hour of checking in, it became apparent that I was very ill. Although in the end I seem to have either had food poisoning or some horrible 24 hour bug, I was sick enough that Raj was looking up details of Swine Flu symptoms and I was telling him to find the number for our travel insurance so that we could arrange to airlift me out of Cambodia – and I hadn’t even seen anything but the airport yet! By the way, we had a bit of scare at the airport in Siem Reap when we applied for our Visas on Arrival because my passport is FULL! There were NO blank pages that they could place my visa on! In the end, they made me pay an extra $10 so that they would stick the visa on top of other stamps in passport – so now my Cambodian visa hides my stamps from India and my passport is officially full, which I suppose means it is time to go home 🙂
Thankfully, by the next morning, the worst of my funk was over and we headed out for a very busy day exploring. The night before we had commissioned our taxi driver to be our personal driver for the duration of our stay in Cambodia (a great tip other travelers gave us – much cheaper than arranging a private driver in advance of arriving, and it worked out beautifully). More similarities with India assaulted us as we approached Angkor Wat, which is not so unlike the Taj Mahal in scale and impressiveness; were in not in ruins, it would certainly be as popular. Surrounding the entrance were dozens of people, especially children, trying to sell souvenirs and such, something that we had not seen much of on this trip. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, we spent nearly two hours wandering around Angkor Wat and marveling at the scale of the former temple (built as a Hindu temple and later converted to Buddhist). The grounds were lovely as well and were massive enough that for most of our time there, we felt completely alone in this wondrous place – often we looked around to find no humans, but sometimes a monkey or a stray dog. The carvings throughout the buildings were beautiful and it must have been unbelievable before it was destroyed. We also visited Angkor Wat again the next morning at sunrise, which was beautiful lighting to see it by and certainly less hot, but it was surprisingly packed with tourists at 5:30 in the morning!
After Angkor Wat, we went to another temple in ruins called Ta Prohm, which is where Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed. It was much smaller and in terrible condition, but it was home to the most fantastic trees! These trees were around 500 years old and grew through walls with exposed roots – completely awing! Later that day we also went through the South Gate to the Bayon Temple that is famous for all the faces carved into the stone as well as the Elephant Terrace. Once again we were mesmerized by the carvings and scale of the places. It was amazing and a complete maze to find our way around the hundreds of faces! There was yet another temple we visited about 35 km away from Siem Reap called Banteay Srei, or Temple of the Lady, which had some of the most intricately carved pieces we have seen. The color of the stone was a beautiful reddish color with some green as well, which must have been moss or mold, but was really lovely.
In Siem Reap we visited the Floating Village, and essentially drove through a very poor area to get there. Each home we passed seemed to have at least one naked little toddler playing (there were babies EVERYWHERE in Cambodia). The Floating Village, too, seemed to be very poor and the canals were so polluted, yet we saw kids swimming and playing and people drinking from the water at the same time as washing their clothes in it. We saw tiny little homes with people chilling out with their monkey, goat and dog in their one room area on the water. Though the poverty was obvious, what stood out the most was how content everyone seemed to be. Though it was an appalling lifestyle by our standards, the kids played as if they had everything they wanted.
We got really lucky one night at dinner in the hotel because they was a performance that our table had a front row view of. The way the girls danced was beautiful and I was particularly fascinated by the way they use their hands – so lovely (Dipali mum, Raj says he remembers you being able to do that and I want to see when we get to London!!!).
Perhaps the most adventurous few hours we had in Cambodia was the 5+ hour drive from Siem Reap to the capital of Phnom Penh. Our driver timidly requested that we allow his family to make the drive with us (in a van) because his parents live in Phnom Penh and had not met his 10 month old daughter. Though we knew this also meant his wife and two year old son would be coming as well, we felt he had been so sweet that we could handle a potentially packed van and crying kids – if nothing else, we could call it practice for the future! Well, his wife and kids were beautiful and the kids hardly cried at all. Along the way, Sothea, our driver, stopped to buy sticky rice from the side of the rode. This is essentially the equivalent of us stopping in the south for hot boiled peanuts, but instead is some combination of rice, coconut milk and black beans steamed in bamboo. It was delicious and was a perfect driving snack! Not quite as tempting was when our driver stopped again for some more snacks for his family; this time, he was picking up fried spiders and cockroaches!!! These spiders were HUGE and the whole family just munched on a confetti bag full of them – it was crazy! We also saw a colorful sunset over the never-ending rice fields that was simply poetic; I doubt the picture does it justice.
We found Phnom Penh to be a relatively modern city with museums and a nice palace where the king and queen’s son lives alone while they live in Beijing. Most notably, we visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum which serve as memorials to the 3 million victims from 1975 to 1979 who were murdered by Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge Regime. While my parents recall hearing about the horrors that occurred, Raj and I were completely ignorant of the atrocities and I assume a large number of our generation are as well. I’ve never visited the Holocaust museum but I would venture a guess that what we saw was similarly moving and no less baffling; how or why humans do such things absolutely mystifies me. While I left the museum angry, sad and close to being sick, I am glad we took the time to get a better understanding of Cambodia’s history, especially because it is relatively recent and impacts the people there today.
A couple of random things about Cambodia: 1) we discovered that US currency is used everywhere. Though Cambodian Riel is also used, there was absolutely no place that US dollars wasn’t dominate – even when we got money from ATM, it gave us dollars! 2) Cambodian people generally resemble Indian people; this might be because of their history, but we both noticed it several times. It’s a useless observation, but there you have it 3) everyone was so so nice and authentic 4) Our favorite sight in Cambodia may have been three monks on one motorcycle plus a driver 🙂
If you have never before considered traveling to Cambodia, we highly recommend you put it near the top of your list. We were not disappointed at all despite our high expectations and we would love to return there someday. Hopefully, if not likely, it will remain as authentic and beautiful as we found it to be on this all too short trip there.