Flying eastward from Bangkok there was an air of excitement as we pored through books and maps, plus our itinerary for Cambodia. This country has recently gained recognition as a tourist mecca primarily for travelers interested in visiting Angkor Wat. However, the checkered history of this corner of the world told us there was more to see as we entered Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city. We were so right!
Cambodia presents many facets that are little known outside its borders: old traditions meshed with the modern world; wealthy entrepreneurs versus an ancient agricultural society; French architecture parsed against ancient temples; new age religions bumping up against Buddhism.
One stunning fact is that Pol Pot, a vicious dictator, killed anyone who stood in the way of his dreamed agrarian society that targeted the best-educated people through systematic genocide of more than three million people. Today the country suffers from a huge gap in its educated society that has hampered the country’s growth in the 21st century.
We had the good fortune to meet an artist, Bou Meng, who is only one of six prisoners still alive after suffering untold torture while incarcerated in the infamous Khmer Rouge Prison S-21 for four years. He and his wife had been working tirelessly for the Revolutionaries, then eventually thrown into this prison for unexplained circumstances. The only reason he escaped death was that as a skilled portrait painter, important people commanded his expertise in recreating their image on canvas. It so happens he is around my age (hopefully still alive), so I cannot imagine living my life as he has lived his. In any case, having met this special individual only added to an already amazing trip.
Moving on, we toured the National Museum of Cambodia, housing one of the world's largest collections of Khmer art, including beautiful paintings and statuary representing the diversity of the country. It also displayed artifacts from the Royal Palace. We visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, near Phnom Penh, which is a Buddhist memorial honoring those who died trying to protect their country. The execution site, one of many throughout the country, presented the obvious horror as we walked beside the rolling terrain where bodies were buried in unmarked graves. Tattered clothing, clustered in glass cases, reminded us that these were real people who died defending their country against evil. As we walked away from the fields filled with sadness, we came to a huge glass-encased structure filled with thousands of skulls. Emotionally affected, I hope never to see anything like this again, and pray for the removal of other despots around the world.
The following day we traveled north toward Siem Reap, a small city at the gateway to the ancient holy city of Angkor. It was fascinating to see the small towns and villages along the route and see how the rural Cambodian people live. For the most part it is agrarian, and we stopped at a local market to check out the produce and other food items for sale. We had the opportunity to taste deep fried tarantulas and other local delights! We also stopped at a stone carvers’ village with myriad roadside stands where I purchased a lovely statue of Buddha. Children were everywhere and they were as curious and excited to meet Americans, as we were to meet them. Interacting with local people is always a highlight when I travel.
After checking into the Allison Angkor Paradise Hotel, we took a walking tour in Siem Reap to look at the juxtaposition of “old and new” as we have seen throughout Cambodia. The architecture has a strong French flavor reminiscent of the French occupation. The next morning we drove to the heart of Angkor, a holy city constructed between 800 to 1200 CE which is sprawled across almost 100 square miles! I was astonished at the unexpected size and the number of different temple complexes.
Our surreal journey began at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the primary entry for most tourists, where we crossed a beautifully decorated bridge spanning a large moat surrounding the walls of the city. We entered through an enormous gate decorated with bas-relief carved faces and other creatures, such as the seven-headed naga. Much of the carvings throughout the various temples and other buildings were influenced by both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. There are four major entries to the city located at the cardinal points and the roads through these entries converge at the State Temple in the center. This temple covers approximately 3.5 square miles, comprising a small portion of the entire site.
We next visited the temple, Ta Prohm, well known because of its tie to the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” filmed in 2001 and starring Angelina Jolie. Actual portions of the film were filmed here. This particular temple was designated to remain in its “natural state” as an example of how it looked upon its discovery in in the 19th century. Careful maintenance is required to remove enough vegetation to protect falling walls but leave the appearance of neglect. It was eerily strange to walk through the buildings and feel as if you were back hundreds of years in time. This was my favorite part of the adventure back in time.
We were able to spend two days in Angkor including a visit at sunrise to hopefully see the reflection of the largest temple in the adjacent pools of water. Unfortunately, burning of nearby forests caused the air to be smoky, leaving the reflection muddled. However, just the idea of watching this magnificent UNESCO-protected site in its many forms was an experience to not be missed.
About 20 miles from Angkor is the temple of Banteay Srei, built in 967 CE. The name translates to “Citadel of Women” and the structures were carved out of sandstone by Cambodian artisans. Some say that the details are as intricate as a woven tapestry. I would not disagree!
The last excursion on our Cambodian adventure before returning to Bangkok for our flight home was a boat ride on Tonle Sap Lake to visit the floating fishing villages. The structures were built on bamboo pontoons with thatched roofs and included homes, schools, a post office and at least one store where we stopped to purchase local crafts. There was a cage in the water next to the dock with crocodiles, a first for me at a shopping center. Water taxis zipped around the lake picking up and delivering whatever needed to be transported from one place to another. Since the water level of the lake regularly rises and falls, people are always on the move from one place to another. What an interesting concept! This is similar to RV’ers in the United States who follow the four seasons to best enjoy their environment. I think, however, the folks who live on Tonle Sap Lake move for different reasons.
All in all, Cambodia was a wonderful experience and very different than Thailand. Unfortunately, consequences are still being suffered because of Pol Pot’s genocide and maniacal rule. There still exists a huge education gap with the middle aged, and they do not have the benefit of foreign money pouring in as happens in other countries. Tourism is, no doubt, Cambodia’s biggest draw, although the impact of tourists who expect first-class facilities puts a strain on the country’s lack of infrastructure. I would certainly encourage all to visit both Phnom Penh as well as Angkor, but you must go with an open mind. You will be blessed, as the people are wonderful.
“ I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” — Mark Twain