I got a lot of negative (but also some positive) feedback when I mentioned to other travelers that I was thinking of flying into Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, staying in Cambodia for a few days, and then making my way to Vietnam (where I’m ending my trip). After maybe a week of deliberation, which is actually a lot of thought compared with the spontaneous decision making that has ruled much of the last 6 months, I booked my flight from Yangon to Siem Reap, and one of the girls I’d been traveling around Myanmar with booked it as well!
We arrived in Siem Reap pretty exhausted and hung out at our hotel for the afternoon before grabbing dinner. The next day, we booked a taxi to take us to all of the major sights – Ankor Wat, Ankor Thom (and Bayon temple with all of the stone faces), Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was filmed), and the somewhat less well known Banteay Kdei. Angkor Wat was impressive, but very very crowded (even at sunrise!). I loved the countless serene faces of Bayon temple. My favorite was Ta Prohm (I’ve never actually seen the movie), because even though there were a lot of people, there was enough space that as I wandered through the crumbling structures, there were times I felt totally alone. It was big and complex enough to get a little lost in. The great thing (to me anyway) about Banteay Kdei, were the carefully placed wooden support beams that in many places seemed to hold up the entire structure. It reminded me of the scene in the Jungle Book where Baloo and Bagheera go to rescue Mowgli from King Louie and his ape crew at the ancient ruins. A crazy chase breaks out, one thing leads to another, and the whole structure collapses because they knock over one little piece…anyway I could easily picture a similar catastrophe here.
bayon temple (in angkor thom)
banteay kdei (aka the jungle book ruins)
That night, we wandered around downtown Siem Reap – Pub Street (briefly, as neither of us was in the partying mood), the night market, and the royal gardens. I liked Siem Reap – it was lively and picturesque, with definite French colonial influence, and really easy to navigate on foot.
The next day, we hopped on a bus to Phnom Penh. Since we had enjoyed some of the beauty of Cambodia’s history, it felt necessary to also learn more about it’s horrible, recent past. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime committed genocide, killing about one fourth of Cambodia’s then population, an estimated 1.5-3 million people. We first went to Tuol Sleng Prison Museum (the site of “S1” – a secret prison that the Khmer Rouge used to torture suspected enemies of the regime). The prison was haunting. The audio tour, narrated by a Cambodian and including many personal stories, is a must I think, as it adds life to the information presented, making it all the more real. The next day, we visited Choeung Ek Genocide Center, or “the Killing Fields.” Another very harrowing experience, the audio tour is completely necessary here. It was chilling to stand at a place where so many were violently and senselessly murdered.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who would say I didn’t do Cambodia justice only visiting for 4 days. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to see what I did. The temple complexes of Angkor Wat (and surrounding) were amazing to see. Cambodia’s history is filled with both beauty and horror, and I think that with anywhere you travel, it’s important to seek out both to even begin to understand or truly experience a place.