We got to Phnom Penh in the early evening, which is the perfect time to arrive. If you walk to the waterfront, the city comes alive. Mini lights are strung up all around, children are outside playing and the sun is setting over the top of the palace. We strolled along, with no real plans, getting a drink and some street food to eat while sitting in the grass. Phnom Penh is impressive and, coming from Vietnam, what is really striking are the colours. The building are white and orange, with gold embelishments and fine, ornate detailing. In the heart of the city, you would not be aware that is among the poorest countries in the region nor of its tragic recent past.
We spent the better part of the next day digging into this past. In 1979, Pol Pot and his communist army, the Khmer Rouge, overthrew the government and created an intense agrarian society which forced all citizens to live in countryside farming plots that essentially became labour camps. It was declared Year Zero. People starved to death. Anyone with any education, money or ties to the former government were killed, often bludgeoned to death with farm tools. By the end of the four-year rule, over a quarter of the country had been killed off. It is impossible to visit Cambodia and not hear of this. One of the nearby killing fields and a genocide museum serve as top tourist attractions in Phnom Penh, to pay tribute to those lost but also as a reminder that these acts of atrocity are never far away and we must be vigilant in how we manage power. Both the fields and museum were very sad but well-organized and highly insightful.
We also visited the presidential palace which is immense and attractive, decorated in the white, orange and gold scheme. We nearly got scammed as a tuk tuk driver approached us and told us that the palace was closed due to a local holiday and offered to take us to some other attractions a bit further away. We considered it but decided not to, only to find that the palace was, in fact, open, and that this is a common ploy to dupe tourists.
From Phnom Penh, we headed on to the city of Siem Reap, the overly-touristic jumping off point to visit the temples of Angkor. While the city did not feel very authenticly Cambodian, the temples were absolutely spectacular. Build in the early twelfth century, it is the largest temple complex in the world and Angkor Wat is the largest religious building of any denomination. It was miraculously spared by the Khmer Rouge and a symbol of fierce national pride for Cambodians. We rented bikes on our first day and toured around the largest sub-complex, that of Angkor Thom as well as some of the smaller ruins in the area. On our second day, we hired a tuk tuk and got to Angkor Wat at 5:45 a.m. so that we could watch the sun rise over the buildings before going in to explore. We also went to a small but beautiful pink temple, about 20 km onwards from the rest. This was thought to be built by women as the designs are so intricate that it would impossible for men to create. It was very beautiful and worth the detour. One of our favourite stops that day was Tah Prohm, which has been less excavated that the others, allowing trees and brush to overgrow on the site. It is really a struggle of man vs nature, and, as Jasper says, makes you feel like Indiana Jones. (We took too many photos to count. Below are just a few.)
After Angkor Wat, we wanted to see something of Cambodia that was not strictly touristic, so we spent two nights in the smaller city of Battambang. While not being touristic means that there are not so many attractions to see, I am glad that we made this stop. Aside from just allowing some down time, we got to explore some smaller, active temples and get a better feel for daily life. We had what was surely the most painful massage of my life. Word to the wise – do not do a khmer massage. I felt like I was being punished for something. But the concept was interesting – the massages are given by blind people who would otherwise have difficulty getting work. And they certainly thought it was funny when I was howling in pain. The highlight of Battambang was a ‘circus’ performed by local artists, who were taken off the streets as children or teens and trained in the arts so that they can have a lucrative future. It was a mix of theatre, performance art and gymnastics and done with incredible talent. It was like a low-budget Cirque de Soleil – though equally impressive. ❤