Cambodia – Siem Reap & Phnom Penh 

A warning before I begin, for the Siem Reap half of this I will talk about some of Cambodia’s older history, and then its recent history in the Phnom Penh half. I’ll try not to be too graphic, but the recent history is incredibly upsetting, and there are some images I’ll never be able to get out of my head. Feel free to skim the pictures instead of reading.

From Singapore I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s greatest tourist town. 

I was back in to the less developed and more chaotic Southeast Asia, and I was happy. I’ve said it before, but after Delhi I don’t think there is any traffic that can phase me now; Cambodia was easy. 

Both the bride and groom wore pink.

These trees were full of bats.

Shortly after arriving I was lucky enough to make friends with a local named Den who worked in the tourism industry there and was kind enough to show me around a bit. 

I took the first day to walk around town a bit by the river. I was lucky to be in Cambodia when I was, because it was the time of the water festival. I saw the decorations for it along the river in Siem Reap and then the actual festival in Phnom Penh. 

Near the river was the beautiful Buddhist temple Wat Preah Prom Rath.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a little while then a lot of this temple may look familiar to you. As usual there are many beautiful stupas, the 7 headed naga, and evidence of the Hindu influence on Buddhism in the statues of other deities. I thought that this temple was impressive and enjoyed walking among the ornate stupas and bright colours. 

Behind the central temple there was a group of men preparing a long boat for the water festival races.

I was going to meet Den later that afternoon, so I went from the temple to get some coffee before that. Cambodia had good coffee, I approved. 

Later that day we went to the edge of the Angkor Wat complex. A full day ticket was required to go in and I was planning on doing that the next day, so we just sat at the moat. 

New friend Den!

At this point, I started to feel like I was in the Jungle Book (the Disney 1967 one), and the feeling didn’t stop for many days. 

I bought my ticket for Angkor Wat that afternoon for the next day, and prepared myself for a 4AM wake up. 

I went to the night market for dinner because it was cheap, close to my hostel, and an “authentic traveler experience” or whatever. It was a good choice, I was able to try crocodile for the first time. 

I had met a fellow traveller named Magnus at my hostel, and we decided to explore the Angkor ruins together the next morning. Apparently the thing to do is go to the main temple, Angkor Wat, for the sunrise. All I’ll say about that is I’ve never been more impressed by a sunrise than a sunset.

Alright, so Cambodia is inhabited by an ethnic group known as the Khmer people. Their language is Khmer, 98% of Cambodia’s population is Khmer, and from 802 to 1431 there was the Khmer Empire, also known as the Angkor Empire. The empire extended into lands that are now part of Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Incredibly, the city of Angkor, which was the centre of the empire, was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world. Today, the former city of Angkor is located just outside of Siem Reap, and is the number one attraction that draws people to Cambodia.

The most famous remnant is easily the temple Angkor Wat, which is so much a symbol of Cambodia now that it is proudly featured on their national flag. It is the largest religious monument in the world.

Angkor Wat is similar symbolically to Wat Arun in Thailand in that the central tower symbolises the mythical Mount Meru of Hindu mythology. The Angkor Empire began as a Hindu empire before converting to Buddhism.

Before becoming a Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu. In my opinion, it deserves to be considered as a world wonder. The cultural importance and history combined with the grandeur of the place is stunning. 

Magnus and I were doing a short tour of the ruins, and had our own personal tuk-tuk driver for the day. We left Angkor Wat and crossed back over the moat to where he was waiting to bring us to our next incredible stop: Angkor Thom.

Unfortunately pictures don’t do this one justice because the scale and amount of detail here was overwhelming.

In this next picture you can see evidence of the conversion of the empire from Hinduism to Buddhism. The man depicted had his arms and legs altered to imitate the Buddha.

Following Angkor Thom, we walked to the nearby Ta Keo. Like Angkor Wat, it was built to resemble Mount Meru, and this is a Khmer architectural style known as a temple-mountain. It is a step pyramid built entirely of sandstone.

We climbed as high as we could and realised that we only had a few more minutes before we needed to meet our driver again. We didn’t quite have time to go the proper way back, so we improvised a little bit. We first went down the steep central stairs quickly to the side closest to our guide. (Magnus called me a mountain goat, which I took as a compliment.) We were then confronted by a 10ft drop, but we managed it without injury and felt like real explorers, bravely forging a new path rather than taking the stairs on the other side.

On the way to our next destination we made a quick stop at one of the smaller temples. 

At this point I wasn’t expecting too much from the rest of the day; we had already seen the main attractions. I was therefore quite impressed by our penultimate destination: Ta Promh. 

Ta Promh was so cool, it’s a temple that has been reclaimed from the jungle in a such a way that makes it look like it hasn’t been touched. Again I got the feeling that I wasn’t in a real place, it was just amazing. 

The final stop on the “small tour” was Banteay Kdei, another temple. It was nice to walk around a bit, but Magnus and I were pretty much done and ready to return to the hostel.

Magnus bought some pineapple from this lady, and we just rested a while before ending our day. 

Siem Reap really was incredible. The Angkor ruins were a unique experience, and I found myself enjoying Khmer culture. The next day I took a bus to the capital, Phnom Penh.

Notice the 4 people on the bike?

I enjoy when a country has its own unique identity. Cambodia not only has that with its architecture and history, but its landscape as well. It’s very flat, and whenever I see these trees on a picture I’ll guess it’s Cambodia every time. 

I spent my first day in Phnom Penh with another traveller from my hostel. Hostels are great for friends when you travel solo. 

Before that though, I went alone to The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, known as the Killing Fields. 

Seriously, from here on feel free to stop reading and just scan the pictures.

In 1975, the Cambodian Civil War ended with the defeat of the ruling military dictatorship to the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.

This was a truly evil regime. They believed in removing social institutions and making the society a completely self sufficient agricultural one. This meant that people living in cities were perceived as ‘bourgeoisie’ and were sent to work farms in the countryside. City populations were drastically reduced, as many people with no experience and not enough food went to the countryside to work themselves to death.

Torture and executions were common, and by the end of the regime approximately 25% of the population had been killed. They killed 1 in every 4 of their own people. There is an entire generation that is almost missing in Cambodia due to the brutality. 

People went without wearing their glasses out of fear of being executed for being an intellectual. Children would be told to walk up to people and touch their hands to see if they are soft or not and report back to soldiers, because soft hands did not indicate the working class and could result in death. Ethnic minorities were massacred, and as an atheist state, the Khmer Rouge massacred nearly 25,000 Buddhist monks.

Choeung Ek is one of over 300 mass graves across the country, and it gets worse from here. 

In the centre of the site is the memorial stupa, containing over 5000 skulls. 

This site is not located far from the city centre, but it was not widely known to be a killing centre at the time. One reason for this is that they played loud music to mask any sounds, and another is that you cannot scream when your throat is cut. Do you see how sharp the branches of this tree are? In order to save bullets, soldiers would use them to cut people’s throats before using blunt tools like shovels and hammers to kill them. The skulls in the stupa have coloured stickers on them that indicate evidence of killing by crowbar, or bamboo stick, or an iron hook.

There were a few mass graves, as well as a glass box containing victim’s clothing. Every year clothing makes its way up from the mass graves to the surface. 

As for the next picture, it will be up to you to look it up if you want to know more. Just be warned that this killing tree will be in my waking nightmares for the rest of my life. It makes me want to cry and be sick even a month later. 

We’ll return to the Khmer Rouge one more time before the end of this post.

Afterwards, I went with the hostel friend to a mountain temple he’d heard of not too far from the city, with a stop at another temple on the way. 

We arrived at the base of what I assume to be the only thing resembling a mountain in Cambodia and began looking for the way up.

If those last two pictures aren’t entirely clear, that was the way up. There was actually a more accessible way on the other side, but this was clearly the more exciting way.

Up some overgrown nearly vertical stairs.

My legs had become not legs by the end of this. I felt only fire and the need to stop moving forever.

However, in keeping with the theme of the blog, now that I have complained about the hike, I must admit that the view was spectacular. 

There was an Angkor style temple up top. It was a nice tranquil place to see monks in their natural habitat with their iPads. 

I remember getting to the top of the stairs and getting looks from everyone else like we were crazy. Seeing as we were the only ones to take the stairs, I have to agree with them. 

When I get home I’m proudly adding “can walk lots” to my resumé. 

My hostel in Phnom Penh was the worst. Aside from no hot water, which is annoying but I guess I can’t expect that everywhere, since it was the water festival there was a full stage and sound system directly across the street from the front entrance. I somehow picked the one hostel in town that came with an ALL DAY CONCERT.

The picture is as bad as my choice of hostel.

Luckily there was good coffee to be found in town, and some coconut pancakes to try, so leaving my hostel each day was easy. 

The next day the Water Festival was in full swing, and I was eager to check it out. 

Since my dad is an avid dragon boat paddler, I found it very interesting to see the different sizes and styles of boats here, and to watch the races. I also stopped in at one of the temples along the main road. 

The streets were packed with spectators and competitors, and I occasionally saw a team pray together before setting out. 

At night there were large boats with impressive light displays.

For my last full day in Cambodia I decided to check out the royal palace.

It was very nice, with many artifacts to see and halls to marvel at. There is a “Silver Pagoda” there which is so called because it is tiled in silver. Only a small section is uncovered for viewing though, and pictures weren’t allowed. 

At the temple on the grounds, people had taken to writing wishes on the leaves of the plants growing around it. I was told that one was a wish for success on exams. 

The next morning I would take a bus to Vietnam, but before I left there was one more place I needed to visit.

Of the over 150 killing centres used by the Khmer Rouge, Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh is the best known. It was a high school before being converted by the regime, and of the approximately 20,000 people to have been held there, an estimated 209 survived. 

This was the place where the Khmer Rouge tortured confessions out of any perceived enemies, and it was a grim place. The Cambodian Genocide was ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and deposed the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese soldiers found Tuol Sleng by following the stench of rotting bodies. They photographed what they found, and some of the photos are on display today. Some of the rooms are empty except for a bed frame with manacles attached in the centre of the room. On the wall, you see a picture of how the room was found, and discover that it looks exactly the same, except for the body of the murdered person on the bed.

There are rules on display that each prisoner faced when arriving. Rule 6 was that while getting lashes or electricution, you must not cry at all. Water boarding and other torture instruments were on display as well as more skulls of victims. The buildings were covered in barbed wire that used to be electrified to prevent suicide. 

If all of this isn’t infuriating enough, the Khmer Rouge were recognised as the legitimate government of Cambodia and retained their seat in the UN until 1993. A consequence of this was that international aid was denied to the Cambodian people because their government wasn’t recognised as legitimate. The international community thoroughly failed Cambodia. Pol Pot was never arrested, and died at the age of 72.

What really got me in that place was the rooms full of victim’s mugshots. It was just row after row, so many people, so many children, and they all died. They were all murdered. From Armenia’s history museum, to Israel’s Yad Vashem, to Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Prison, learning about genocide after genocide has seriously shaken my faith in people. 

I think this is why it is so important to fight against hate speech and racism; because when it is possible to see others as something other than human or something other than you, it suddenly becomes possible to do things like this or allow them to happen. It really isn’t a thing of the past, and inaction and complacency have real consequences. 

4 thoughts on “Cambodia – Siem Reap & Phnom Penh 

  1. Happy Christmas Owen! This feels like the perfect day to thank you so much for your wonderful blog. I learned about it Thanksgiving weekend and have been enjoying an entry a day ever since. Your beautiful and evocative pictures combined with your interesting, informative and entertaining comments are wonderful. I’m looking forward to hearing about your next adventure, Beatrice McFarlane