(Temples and TukTuks and Landmines, Oh My!)
Ahhh, Cambodia. Or Kampuchia, as it was known in ancient times. I first became aware of Cambodia and the temples there as a kid of 8 or 9 years old. Before the days of the internet, we had these things known as ‘Encyclopedias’ and one of my favorite things to do was to leaf thru a set of late 50’s era encyclopedias that we had around the house. I remember seeing pictures of Angkor Wat and being fascinated by them as a kid and thinking “I need to see that someday!”. One of my earliest ‘bucket list’ items, established.
When the trip to Vietnam came up, my sister suggested a stop in Cambodia after Vietnam and I thought it was an excellent idea. It made no sense NOT to go as we would be half an hour away, I’d always wanted to see Angkor Wat, and I recently left my day job, making a long trip possible for me.
We flew into Siem Reap from Hanoi and the flight was less than an hour. After the fun of clearing customs in Saigon, we were prepared for anything, but were very pleasantly surprised at how quick and efficiently we procured visas & cleared customs. Probably less than 15 minutes passed before we were standing outside the airport looking for a taxi.
Task 1, we threw away our Vietnamese SIM cards & purchased Cambodian SIMs for our phones, spending approximately 6 dollars apiece for unlimited data & calls for 15 days.
Next up was a ride to our hotel. We had read that taxi drivers could be aggressive in Cambodian airports but we experienced nothing of the sort at Siem Reap. We actually had to go to the taxi stand and ask for someone. A smiling, smallish, middle aged guy approached and said hello, he’d be taking us to our hotel. He directed us to his vehicle and helped load up our bags. His name was ‘Moni’ (Rhymes with Pony). He immediately launched into a tour guide persona, telling us it would take about 15 minutes to get to the hotel and that he would tell us all about the area on the way. His english was excellent, and I was immediately drawn to his soft spoken demeanor and kind, polite persona.
I spent the ride to the hotel listening to Moni, and observing what I could of the Cambodian country side. I was struck by how little traffic there was, and how many cars there were, in comparison to Vietnam. Still, the roadsides were dotted with small stands selling various things, motorbikes were everywhere, and people were still out late enjoying the evening. Still very much in the ‘Southeast Asia’ vibe.
A quick aside about Siem Reap:
Siem is another word for Siam, as in “Siamese” and is a reference to the ancient country of Siam, now known as Thailand. Siem Reap translates to ‘victory over the Thai’ as an important battle was won here in the past. I was surprised to learn later that the Cambodian people (Khmer’s technically) are directly related to the Thai and can even understand much of each other’s language and their alphabets are similar.
Within a couple minutes of giving basic info about Siem Reap, Moni pulled out a map of the angkor complex and made his pitch to offer tour guide services.
For 80$ a day he would provide a car and guide services to the temples and other interesting sites nearby. This seemed very reasonable to me and after our experience with a Vietnamese guide who barely spoke english, I was excited to run into someone so fluent in English, as well as just enjoying his personality. I was ready to hire him on the spot, but my sister asked for a card and told him we would settle in first, and then contact him if we decided we wanted a guide. As we neared the hotel, Moni let us know, that we could find guides anywhere around town, including the hotel and as a bonus for us, he would knock 10$ a day off his usual price. After checking in the hotel and getting luggage put away, we quickly agreed to call Moni and hire him for the 3 day tour.
My sister and I were both a little tired of the tight schedule we’d been on in Vietnam and were ready for a more relaxed week so we agreed to get a nice hotel and go slower over the week and just enjoy ourselves. Lucky for me, my sister Mindy is an expert traveller, and a travel hacker as well, so she’s always researching, gathering credit card points & airline miles to use on her adventures. She happened to have status with an extremely nice hotel chain called Le Meridian and procurred us the entire week on some points she had with the chain. That became our home base for the week.
Our room came with an amazing, free breakfast buffet every morning, and free drinks and appetizers / snacks in the bar every night. I was thrilled to have a big pot of regular old western coffee to drink every morning, and there was a great pool and nice bar as well.
We contacted Moni to setup a meeting time for the morning, had a couple of free drinks in the bar, and turned in for the night.
The next morning we got up and had a nice long breakfast and then prepared for our 1st day. I was surprised at how much hotter and drier it was here compared to North Vietnam. Everything was extremely dry and the temps were in the high 80s even at 8 in the morning.
Moni arrived and I was immediately struck by how much older he was than I had thought in the evening. We loaded up and headed to the ticket offices for the temple complexes & purchased our 3 day passes. Passes were $72 for 3 days. Tourism is hugely important in Cambodia, it’s estimated to be 30% of the entire economy, and I was happy to pay the fees. Cambodia is still very poor, and it feels good to spread some dollars around.
Finally, we cleared town and started heading towards our 1st temple of the day. Now I could check out the country side for real. We quickly turned off on to dirt roads and encountered a checkpoint. The roads to all of the famous temples are guarded by tourism police. Basically they just check your tickets and make sure you’re legit. It has to be a pain in the butt for locals who use some of these roads though, and in fact I later learned that if you need to get somewhere within the confines of the park boundaries, you have to go around on country roads and take 5 times as long to get where you’re going. Maybe there is a different rule for locals only? But I never found out otherwise.
The countryside was brown & dry, hardly any water anywhere. It’s the dry season in winter and it sure is dry. It very much reminded me of parts of eastern New Mexico. One thing I began seeing regularly, little ‘houses’ on stilts, with what appeared to be liquor in them. It turned out to be gasoline, in Johhny Walker bottles. Locals purchase gas somewhere, split it down into liters and sell it for a small markup. These little cambodian gas stations were all over the country side, and my mischevous self couldn’t help thinking how fun it would be to light some of them up with a little bit of tannerite and a 30/30 round… =).
Cruising down the road, day dreaming, enjoying the ride when we slow down for some traffic ahead and I glance out the window and my jaw drops, we are at the first temple of our tour, Pre Rup. It looks HUGE from the roadside. I look back at my sister and a big goofy grin spreads over my face. This is what I came for.
We parked the car and I grabbed my camera and practically leapt out of the car and scrambles across the road. I couldn’t WAIT to check this place out.
As I stepped across the threshold through the outer gate, a cambodian police officer held up his badge and said ‘Hey, you want a souvenir? You want to buy my badge? 15$’ I just grinned and him and kept walking but in my head I was thinking… WTF? Moni whispered to me “I’ll tell you about that guy in a bit”.
Back to the temple – Pre Rup means ‘turn the body’ and it is believed that this site was used for cremating the kings body. Moni pointed out a building that had ventialtion holes in it that may have been used for this purpose. This is a small temple as they go in the Angkor Complex, but my first one and so we spent a bit more time than normal climbing around, taking pictures, and absorbing the vibe of walking around on a 1000 year old holy site. The view was great from on top, and it made me excited about the bigger ones we would be visiting later on. Moni pointed out all of the key features of the temple, particularly interesting bas relief carvings or a statue, and also the coolest photo spots as well.
He really knew his stuff, and I was impressed with his knowledge of english architecture words. I later learned that all working guides in the Angkor park / complex must go to school for a full year to become a guide. It costs 500$ which is no small feat to raise in Cambodia but obviously, the opportunities are really good once you have that license. They also have to get updated every two years on recent discoveries or changes in thought on certain aspects of the history, etc. Like I said, tourism is vital here and the government has decided that amateurs are not allowed to relay their history, professionals only!
We headed down and to the car, and as I passed the front gate, I could see the local cop still trying to pawn his badge to tourists…
When we got back in the car I reminded Moni about the cop. Apparently, he sits out there in his spare time and sells badges to tourists when someone wil buy one. He told the guides a long time ago that he access to extra badges at work so… that’s his side hustle. I thought maybe they were fakes, but no. Legitimate Siem Reap PD badges, 15$. I should have made a citizens arrest but… I didn’t know the culture so I let it slide.
Rather than going into detail about all of the temples we visisted, I’ll just give you my impression of the complex overall, and list the names for you as you can find way more complete information on Wikipedia about each individual temple.
On Day 1 we visited Pre Rup , Banteay Samre. Banteay Srei, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan, and ended the day by stopping at the moat at Angkor for sunset. There were hundreds if not thousands of people in the area and locals were everywhere selling food, toys, or whatever they could make a buck off of.
Angkor is surrounded by a giant square moat, and there are ancient steps leading down to the water all around, making for a grand spot to watch the sunset. We picked a likely spot with a view of the 5 towers and relaxed.
As the sun and the temperature dropped, the bats came out and began their daily ritual, diving and fluttering about, wreaking havoc on the local insect population. It was a downright wonderful and a bit surreal end to an exciting day.
My head was filled, and spinning with facts and figures about the temples, and my phone and camera were filled as well. Very satisfying.
Moni was doing a great job of educating us on the history of the area, the current culture and politics in the country, and we were getting to know him at the same time. He drove and older model SUV, and told us that due to taxes, the price of cars in Cambodia is roughly three times what they are in the US. So that old $5000 beater? 15K! I wondered how an average Cambodian family could pull it off. He was married with two young children, and lived in a traditional Cambodian home, on stilts. The average family tends to spend most of their time under the house in the shade during the day, and retire upstairs to sleep.
Moni is a devout Buddhist as well. He paid his respects to the Buddhas at every temple we visited, and his knowledge of the traditional Buddhist stories and the temples was astounding. So many details…
Most of the temples tend to follow a similar design. They are generally square, and there tends to be a moat surrounding the temple, followed by multiple enclosure walls. The temples often sport lotus shaped towers, and the inner space is usually elevated above the rest, as home for the gods. So in a way, they are all the same, but different.
My initial impression was one of awe at the size, and scope of the overall area. Dozens of temples, and the detail work… bas reliefs carved into sandstone, often over vast swaths of stone, not a square inch left untouched. The intricacy of relief carving solid rock with ancient tools is really hard to comprehend once you’ve seen it in person.
Stone was quarried miles away at a nearby mountain and the latest research supports the theory that it was gathered 22 miles away, and floated on a series of canals to the individual sites. Some of the rocks weigh over 3000 pounds… Angkor Wat alone has over 3 million pieces of stone assembled. It is believed that nearly 300,000 people were working on these temples. Many of them slave labor. I tried to imagine how much food had to be supplied to feed this workforce… Incredible.
Each temple tends to have an inscription in Sanskrit on the main gate entrance through the outer enclosure, which generally tells what year it was finished, whom it was dedicated too, and other vital information.
Each temple also includes two library buildings on site, where all the history of the temple was recorded and stored. Writing and records were kept on animal skins. So, the reason we know so much about the temples construction, names, etc, is because they kept great records!
Another interesting factoid, many of the temples were started for, or dedicated to Shiva, but along the way many of the Cambodian kings became Buddhists, so the temples were converted to Buddhist temples, or even changed midstream of construction. So there are statues from both major religions all over the area.
Where they have not been stolen, or destroyed that is. The vast majority of the heads from the complex were stolen or destroyed over the years, but eventually many of them ended up in the Museum at Phnom Penn. These days, there are many replica heads at the temples, and security guards live and sleep at the temples 24/7. I saw a few of their dwellings around the premises.
Eventually we drifted back to the car and headed back to the hotel for the evening. We got there just in time to hit the free drinks & barfood “Happy Hour”. My sis and I ended up trying about every drink on the menu and gorging ourselves on the bar food, which was quite good. So good in fact, that we decided it qualified as dinner and went and crashed for the evening.
Temples visited today:
Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Stone bridge – Spean Thma, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Elephant terrace, & Angkor Wat.
The first temple of the day proved to be some of the best photography light I’d had so far and I was really happy with some of my phone & camera shots. Next up was Ta Phrom. This is likely the 2nd most famous, due to the giant tree roots left in place, and it’s use in the movie Tomb Raider. When the temples were rediscovered in the early 1800’s, the french deliberately left the trees standing at this temple because of their picturesque appearance. Apparently that was a good move, as the place was so crowded with tourists standing in line to take “THE” picture with the tree rooted door that we were able to roam about some of the other parts of the complex in relative peace. Nowadays the trees are removed as they are a threat to the structures.
Ta Keo was next, and this one was interesting to me just because the foundation was so massive, and also because there were monkees hanging out on the grounds, the first we’d seen in the country.
Spean Thma was next (Stone bridge) and was more of a curiosity than anything.
Angkor Thom – This is technically the name of the temple ‘city’. This may be my favorite spot of all I visited. It features “South Gate’ which is a bridge over a moat that features the ‘faces’ of angkor, and a row of beings on each side playing tug of war with a 7 headed snake. It is an extrememly pretty spot, and a great spot for pictures as well.
The central temple is Bayon and has lots of the famous ‘faces’ and there are tons of great photo ops here.
Next up was the elephant terrace, a giant wall overlooking a courtyard featuring massive carvings of elephants and other elements.
After the elephant terrace our guide hooked us up with a ‘tuktuk’ a motorbike with a wheeled cart behind it and we took a ride over to a different area, and eventually headed to our final stop for the day, Angkor Wat.
At this point, having seen so many other temples, I was maybe not as impressed as I thought I’d be. Angkor is so famous mostly because of it’s scale, and also how well preserved it is. One neat feature were the ‘elephant gates’ on the outside, with doors big enough to allow elephants to pass thru.
The walls are covered in extremely cleanly preserved bas relief carvings, buddhist stories, and stories of the builders, etc. We made our way to the central square and towers, and joined the long line waiting to climb to the top. As we approacged the stairs the lady behind me was denied entry due to her shirt being sleeveless, even though she had a shawl over it. Religious code, but it seemed to be enforced randomly. We climbed to the top and admired the view, and i felt a bit of satisfaction standing at the spot I’d dreamt of for so long. Looooong way from home folks!
We took our time at the Bakan (inner gallery at the top) and then slowly drifted back down the steep stairs and our tour guide waiting with the other guides at the bottom.
Moni had a weird thing about his knees. I noticed on the first days if there were steeps stairs, he often told us to go on and he would wait for us. Later on, he told me he was ‘saving’ his knees. I was like… what’s wrong with your knees? ‘oh, they get sore sometimes after a day of climbing stairs’. He mentioned several times about his knees. Finally I was like dude, if you don’t have a family history of bad knees, you’ll be fine! He takes his tour guide job seriously, to the point of planning ahead with his knees…
But I digress.
After finishing up at Angkor Wat we started slow walking back towards the front of the complex. People were gathering for sunset but honestly I felt like we’d seen enough and let Moni know we could just finish up for the day.
On the way back, Moni told us he was taking us someplace before we went back to the hotel. He kind of let us know it was an art gallery, his friend owned and there would be no obligation to buy anything, but he got a free entry into some kind of lottery for bringing us there regardless. It turned out to be an exotic art & goods dealer. Art, Rugs, Statues, etc. The owner was middle eastern but traveled the world collecting things and then sold them from here in Siem Reap. We looked politely but I quickly let the owner know I was a collector of experiences, not things. I told him if I collected all the beautiful things that caught my eye in his store I would never be able to travel again. He smiled and seemed to appreciate my quip, and we quickly and politely extricated ourselves.
We headed back to the bar and again hit the free drinks and bar food, and again, crashed early. Walking in the heat all day long does you in.
After two full days of temples, we were looking forward to a change of pace. Today we’d be visiting Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Cambodia.
We headed out of town and stopped to get our tickets for our boatride. $50 dropped and we headed over to the boats in an extremely small, muddy canal. There barely seemed enough room to turn the boat around. The captain of our boat looked to be no more than 12 years old. His first mate, the same. They smiled and welcomed us aboard with a gesture. Kids mature at a completely different rate in Southeast Asia. I’d seen this all over Vietnam as well. 6 or 7 year old kids wander around on their own and no one thinks twice about it. I guess they don’t have cable news telling them they’ll be kidnapped 24/7…
Kids often start working in the family business as soon as they are capable as well. These guys seemed happy enough to be doing something though, and the whole operation was clearly old hat to them. THey worked together to get the boat started (one at the engine, one at the helm) and the engine fired up with a cough and a roar. We backed out, and with a bit of maneuvering, headed down the canal. It was interesting passing other boats in the skinny canal, and the breeze felt good on this 90 some degree day. I kicked back and let the scenery roll by. Along the bank, people were fishing, repairing nets, swimming, and just going about life. Soon the canal opened up a bit and we started making some turns. After a couple of turns I could see some homes across the way. As we rounded the corner I was surprised to see the houses were on stilts, and looked to be 25 to 30 feet in the air! The bank had disguised this from me on the river. Now an entire village of homes on stilts came into view, and it was amazing to witness. The entire thing was built out of scavenged wood, with very tall and sketchy looking ladders from the ground to the top. There were different levels where things were stored, such as wood, fishing gear, nets, and then at the top, all of the household goods. There were also boats at ground level that were clearly homes in themselves. Most had a semi-circular roof over the top, and a couple of hatches. Most of the day to day living items were stored under the roof, and things that could take the weather were tied on the outside somewhere. Hard to imagine a family of 5 living in such a small space but again, I had seen this all over Vietnam, and now here as well.
It was interesting observing life in the village, watching kids run about, a few adults worked on repairing homes, boats or fishing gear. A young girl bathed her little brother on a floating dock in the muddy water, a mangy mutt lounged nearby, and another young boy stood on the canal edge peeing into the water and watching us go by with a big smile on his face. Party on dude!
We passed the local temple and police headquarters (Labeled Gendarmarie) and that was the edge of the village. Now we entered a mangrove forest and I could see people among the mangroves fishing, or tied up selling things. Ahead I could see the canal open up and sure enough, we arrived at the lake. It was not at all what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected… It was a giant expanse of muddy water. So big that it was like looking at a freshwater ocean, as if the Mississippi had turned into a lake. It was hot, and haze came off the water in the distance. A couple of large buildings floated at the mouth of the river, and we headed there and tied up. This was the equivalent of a welcome center and included a restaurant, a small store selling various fishing equipment, taxidermied animals including the worst example of a crocodile I’d ever seen (you could see the cut and stiching from 10 feet away) and also a pen filled with live, hungry crocodiles. I’ve seen crocs quite a few times in my life, but something about the environment felt really unpleasant to me. The market was selling live or dead chickens for people to buy and pitch into the pen. There were roughly 12-15 crocs of various size present in the muddy water. I stood at the railing checking it out and realizing that it would be incredibly easy for a person to disappear out here. If someone managed to push you over the railing… or you just needed to dispose of a body….
There was an observation deck on top and we went up top and looked around. Nothing but muddy water as far as the eye could see, and the mangrove forest behind us. We lingered a moment and headed down. Moni informed us it was time to move on. We got back on the boat and to our surprise headed back up the canal. Well… that didn’t take long. LOL. Fastest $50 boat ride ever!
Whatever. This entire area reeked of poverty, from the canal, to the boats, to the village, to the lake, there was a palpable sense of it in the air. I just hoped our 12 year old boat pilots got a piece of the ticket price. I carrried some hard candy around in my pocket and both of them accepted some with a smile when I offered and I could see the small smiles on their faces as they sucked on their butterscotch, and drove us up the canal. Soon we were back at the boat parking area and I managed to drop my camera lens cover under the floor in the boat. Both these guys gave it their all to retrieve it for me and I believe they would have deconstructed the floor if necessary. Luckily they got it and I handed them each a few bucks. Big smiles. Thumbs up dudes.
We headed back to the van and off we went with Moni. We had no idea what was next but soon enough, we pulled up to a temple. Ah. More temples. LOL. I say this with a twinge of humor, I was fine with seeing some more temples, but I was also perhaps reaching ‘temple burnout’.
Temples visited today:
Preah Ko, Bakong, Chau Srei Vibol, and Phnom Bok.
Preah Ko was a very old, smaller temple built by the Chams and looked exactly like some temples I’d seen in Vietnam (built by the same people)
Bakong was more of the same.
We moved on and headed out into a more back country area. Eventually we stopped and parked. I couldn’t see anything so apparently we’d be hiking a bit. We headed up a hill towards a modern looking Buddhist temple. We arrived at the temple, which had an interesting painting on it. Moni explained the painting a bit, and we move towards the entry in back. Though this temple was modern, it was one of the most interesting I’d seen. Inside, the entire walls and ceilings were covered with paintings of scenes of various lessons of the faith, and buddhist history. Extremely colorful and I could have spent quite a while lingering here, taking it all in.
Behind this temple, were the ruins of Chau Srei Vibol. Most of this temple has fallen and it’s really just a pile of rubble. A party was going on in the distance and we could hear the usual chanting and music that seems to permeate the cambodian countryside, and it added a cool vibe to where we were. This was an out of the way place. Not a soul around other than ourselves. Moni guided us down a hill and we cam to another set of buildings, which were the libraries and galleries that went with the older temple. In this case it was separated from the temple which was unusual. There was also a dry pool nearby which has water in it in the wet season. On our way back to the car we passed a mom sleeping in the afternoon heat in a hammock while her 6 or 7 month baby played nearby on the ground in the jungle, completely unattended. Again… confidence. LOL.
Chau Srei was not impressive in any way compared to the temples we had seen in the last two days, yet I absolutely loved visiting it. It’s location made it nearly unvisited, and it was really nice to get away from the crowds, into the woods, and relax in peace and quiet. It had a bit of a mysterious vibe. I told Moni this and he said almost every tourist he brought here said the same thing. He said he had not visited this area in 8 months. Apparently not many hire him for an entire three days.
The afternoon heat was now starting to letup a bit and we headed off thru the countryside again. Moni pointed at a large mountain in the distance and said ‘that’s where we’re going next, last one!’. It was dramatic, as everywhere around us was perfectly flat, so any deviation really stood out. As we spun down the dusty backroads kids started pouring into the road on bicycles. Apparently school was letting out. I rolled the window down and we yelled at some of them. They road their bikes up and laughed at the foreigners with the cameras. We spoke english to them and some of them yelled back in whatever english they knew. It was fun for all of us.
We continued on and I could see the mountain ahead. We rolled up and parked, and hit the toilets at the bottom before heading up. This was going to be a heck of a hike. We started up the hill on a gravel trail and soon came to a set of concrete stairs that went up, apparently forever from the looks of it. Several women were cleaning the stairs with brooms and repairing a stair at the bottom. They eyed us curiously as we passed and the climb began.
If you ever want to test your cardio, climb some stairs. Nothing will raise your heartrate faster than stair climbing. I quickly found myself pulling away from Mindy & Moni, and Moni yelled for me to go on at my pace. I climbed for a few minutes and stopped to catch my breath. My heart pounded and sweat poured in the heat. I turned to look around and could see the view becoming more amazing by the moment. Being on the only hill for miles really made for a dramatic view. It reminded my of climbing on the front range in Colorado, looking back east towards the plains. Grass as far as the eye can see. My heart rate settled a bit and I continued on. After a few minutes, my breathing and running muscles settled in, and I made steady progress. 634 stairs… 2/3 of the way up, my legs were starting to complain a bit. Ha. Not today. No rest for the wicked! I put my head down and kept going.
I soon reached the top and encountered an interesting cooking shack and cistern. Makes sense. It’s a LONG way up here. Water would be really tough to haul up and down. There was no water in the cistern. I wandered on and came to another modern buddhist temple. Modern design anyway. It was clearly old and in disrepair and I could see that the roof was looking pretty rough. I could see a trail leading around the temple thru the trees so I followed it. I emerged from the trees into another ancient temple complex, surrounded by walls. Phnom Bok. Wow. This place was so cool. The old temple structures were again crumbling or even fallen, but many of them had trees growing from various places and it had that cool vibe with the trees like Ta Phrom. Something about the long hike up and it’s location gave this place a really interesting vibe and again, I could hear a buddhist cereMoni going on somewhere below as the music and chanting drifted up from a PA system somewhere. I was struck with the feeling of discovery I had being alone and sat down and shot a quick video with my phone.
Soon enough, Moni and my sister appeared and we chatted a bit about the place. After a bit we moved to outside the walled enclosure an began strolling back towards the way down. We came upon a hammock with a mosquito net, and a tarp overheard. Some dishes sat nearby. What is this? I asked Moni. “Guard sleep up here every night”. Whoa. That’s a heck of a walk to get up there. Bet it’s interesting in a lightning storm too!
Moni led me over to some trees and started pointing. Almost every tree on the mountain top was some form of fruit tree. At least 5 different varieties of fruit trees. By design obviously. Of course it made sense to have food growing up here, again, it’s a LONG way down. A small buddhist cemetary stood in the edge of the trees near the way down and I went over to check it out and take a couple pics. The names of monks who had lived on this mountain were honored here.
Again, I was struck by the vibe of these last two temples. While having very little left of the details or the actual buildings, they nonetheless had a great vibe for any who would make the journey. There were no other people on the mountain, and again I really enjoyed that sense of mystery, of being alone, and just having the silence and space to wonder about what was before me.
Side Note: There is a great drone video on YouTube HERE:
It shows exactly what we climbed, what it was like at the top, and various structures at the top. Awesome!
We started making our way down, and I was a little sad, realizing this was our last day with Moni, whom I had come to like and appreciate.
My sister and I would make sure he got a little something extra for his troubles.
On the way home, we happened to pass Pre Rup, our 1st temple of the trip, and it was maybe 15 minutes before sunset. The moment was there, so we stopped and decided to check out sunset from Pre Rup. I grabbed my camera and rushed inside. Sister moved a bit more slowly. I quickly climbed Pre Rup, and realized I was one, of about 500 people on top for sunset. Excitement quickly turned to ‘Absolutely No Thanks’. I climbed down and drifted over to a corner of the temple that was unoccupied and sat down alone and watched the sun drop for a few minutes. Not wanting to encounter the crowd, I walked out, and ran into my sister on the outside. “The religous police wouldn’t let me in because my sleeves were too short”. But you just climbed Bakan… at Angkor Wat…?
We drove back to the hotel and Moni offered his last bits of advice on some places to visit around town. We paid & tipped Moni, said our goodbyes, and again rushed for the free drinks and food at the bar.
Today we had no real plans other than to relax, eat local & check out some local attractions. We decided to hit the Angkor National Museum. It was interesting in that half of the building was a mall, owned by a chinese company, and the other half was the national museum. We avoided the mall. The museum was nice but we had already experience it all in person. We spent less time here than maybe we should have. We’d had our share of temple information!
We decided to grab a tuktuk and go visit the war museum. We flagged one down and headed out. It was a couple miles away and we enjoyed cruising in the tuktuk and checking out the traffic. We arrived at the war museum and paid the $5 entry fee. A young man approached and asked if we wanted a guide for a small tip. We said ‘sure’ and I’m glad we did. He appeared to be about 18 years old, but man did he know his stuff. He proceeded to walk us around the grounds and started describing the military hardware arrayed before us, as well as laying out the timeline of their use.
One of the more interesting things he told us, was that he had heard a lot of propaganda in his life, and how important it was for the next generation to learn to recognize and exercise skepticism about the information they are told. The lessons of the Khmer Rouge was not lost on the people here, and I sensed a determination by the people here to never let that happen again. It was pretty cool to hear this message at the war museum.
Another topic of interest to me, landmines. I had been told to hit the landmine museum in Siem Reap and even though I’d seen it a few times while touring the temples, I never mentioned it to Moni. I had told him this on the way home yesterday and he’d told me to come here and I’d get all the same info.
They had a great landmine display here, that showed the various types of mines that were routinely used here, and which kind were left by the Khmer Rouge. Landmines are a huge problem in Cambodia. There are over 40,000 amputees here, one of the highest rates in the world, and it is estimated that there are potentialy 4-6 million more landmines and pieces of unexploded ordinance out there.
The most likely victims are children, who’s curiosity gets them in trouble, and farmers. The govt designed flyers and placed them in schools that help children learn about the mines, what they look like when encountered, and what to do about them. Siem Reap is very safe but there are other areas of the country that are very bad. There are currently demining efforts underway and hopefully they can continue to make progress.
After the war museum we grabbed lunch and then headed back to the hotel. We thought we should go down to pub street for the evening and shop a bit, since we’d basically avoided it while we were there, as it’s a huge tourist area (generally not my thing)
We grabbed a tuktuk and went down there after cleaning up. It was chaos, which I’m sure is normal Thousands of people shopping eating and partying it up. I bought a T-shirt, my one purchase other than food on this entire trip. Three dollars. It was gloriously nice out though, and we noticed a couple places offering ‘fish pedicure’, where you stick your feet in a fish tank and the fish eat the dead skin off your feet. I knew my daughter had tried this in Mexico and I thought it would be fun to try. Plus they give you a beer during your ‘pedicure’… So we went for it. OMG. I’m ticklish and it took every bit of my will power not to jerk my feet out and just call it a night. The tickling sensation was very intense but I stuck it out and it became more tolerable after 5 or 10 minutes. Maybe the beer helped… It was fun to sit there and people watch though and we ended up staying for probably 45 minutes. Enough to have a few beers. We flagged down our tuktuk and called it a night. Flying out tomorrow. When I got back to the hotel and took my socks off, I was blown away by how soft my feet felt. That fish thing was totally legit!!! I think some of the nail shops around town should try this…
Last day in Cambodia. We had planned to take a bus to Phnom Penh, but changed our mind. A 6 hour bus ride just did not feel appealing on our last day, and we wanted to visit the genocide museum so we were concerned with timing. We did some research and decided to take a flight. A 39 minute flight vs a 6 hour bus ride… no brainer. There are few airlines in country and we either had to use the established airline (Angkor Air) or go with a brand new airline, only operating a few months, Cambodia Airways. Cambodia Airways was significantly cheaper, and Angkor Air has a crappy reputation, service wise. We rolled the dice and booked with Cambodia Airways. Before booking I got online and checked out their fleet and saw they were flying Airbus 319s, average age 10 years old. I was satisfied that we’d be a lot safer flying than riding a bus in Cambodia. We had our concerns given the age of the airline, but our worries were unfounded. The planes were spotless, the service was excellent, and the flight was just fine.
Only one issue left to solve… what to do with all of our luggage for the day while we messed around. We could not check in to our flight until a few hours before and it was over 12 hours until then, and there were no lockers or storage at the airport. Damn.
We had no choice but to drag our luggage with us. This was going to be a pain in the ass but it would be better than sitting in the airport for 12 hours. So we grabbed a cab and headed for the genocide museum. It was maybe a 15 minute drive, thru the city. We pulled over on an unlikely street in the middle of a residential neighborhood and the driver said, here you are. I looked around and saw nothing that might resemble a museum. There was a wall across the street with barbed wire on top so maybe that was it? Weird.
We got our, grabbed our luggage and started walking back to the corner. Sure enough, this was it. The genocide museum is actually an old school, on which the grounds were used to run the infamous TS21, or Tuol Sleng 21. TS21 was a “security prison”, translation, a torture and execution center. There is a dearth of information online about Tuol Sleng, so I won’t go into much detail, but I will tell you this. There are some things that aren’t always easy to unsee, and images of the people, the rooms where they were imprisoned in, and some of the structures used to torture and execute people are burned in my brain, and I doubt that I will ever forget them. I knew before I ever set foot here that this may not be a ‘pleasant’ experience, but I feel that understanding such events is essential to preventing them in the future, however unpleasant it may be to face them.
The ‘museum’ is a virtual tour, they give you an ipod type device and headphones, and it guides you thru the grounds and explains everything in great detail. It is a very effective way to handle the large crowds of people who come here. We spent a couple hours on the grounds, listening to the stories, and looking everything over. Only 12 people are known to have survived, and at least 20,000 were imprisoned and murdered on the grounds. One of the survivors was actually on the grounds, selling his book. I cannot begin to imagine what he saw and how he has come to live with it. He is mostly deaf due to being beaten about the ears, but he smiled a lot and seems to have figured out how to move on.
After getting our fill of negative vibes, we grabbed our luggage and went off to find lunch. There were restaurants all around the block so we just walked down to a likely looking one and sat down. The lady was super nice and looked a bit surprised to see us. She didn’t have half the things on the menu but we still ended up with a tasty lunch, and had some small conversation with her. I asked her if it was strange having her restaurant 50 feet from TS21, which you can clearly see from her restaurant (also their home) and she glanced over at it for a moment and then gave a dismissive wave of the hand. “Ahh.. it’s just a building”.
We finished lunch and grabbed a tuktuk, and just asked the driver to take us to an area we could see on the map that appeared to be a nice park next to the mekong river. We were getting sick of dragging our luggage around but were not ready to just sit in the airport.
It turned out to be a good move. The park was packed with people out for sunday relaxing, had a view of the river, and presidential palace, and after the horrors of TS21, it was a nice contrast.
We did some googling and figured out there were boats selling cheap cruises just across the way, so again we grabbed a tuktuk and went down to the area where the boats were. Some quick negotiating got us a ‘private cruise’ on a nice boat on the mekong river. It was growing dark at this point and the city was beautiful from the river. We jumped on the boat, grabbed beers, and went up on the top deck to chill. The cruise was uneventful but it was interesting observing the many families living on their fishing boats along the edge of the river. I could see them casting nets and fishing, even in the dark, or cooking in the cramped quarters of their boats. What different lives we lead…
And that basically wrapped our tour of Phnom Penh. We grabbed a ride back to the airport and basically sat around for several hours waiting for our check in to become available. It was long and boring but… what airport wait isn’t?
Overall thoughts on Cambodia…
The people here are almost painfully polite. I came to appreciate their traditional greeting that you get everywhere you go, they clasp their hands together and bow their heads to you. It it both deferential and uber polite, and you can’t help but feel honored when people greet you in this way. The historical treasures here are worthy of a trip to any world traveler, and cannot be quantified in text, they must be observed, touched, and smelled in person. Cambodia’s economy and foreign investment list is growing very fast right now, and I hope and pray for prosperous times ahead for the Cambodian people. They seemed as a rule friendly, hard working, and overall, happy. It is strange but it seems the overall attitude of people in poorer countries I have visited is more positive and happy than the relative wealthy countries. I got the idea that people here were very aware of what they had survived, and an underlying attitude of determination to move past it, and onward into an ever brighter, and more happy, healthy, and prosperous future. I wish them all the best.