Deb & Roger’s YB Travel Adventures to Cambodia 2003
Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia. We had been wanting to visit but each year were told by everyone that it was very dangerous, like the wild wild west. And it was only in 1979 that the Khumer Rouge were driven out of by the Vietnamese. But in 2003 we were in Thailand on our annual trip, and the timing was right.
We flew from Bangkok into Phnom Penh. The city is situated on the banks of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, and we found a small place right on the river. Phnom Penh was once known as the “Pearl of Asia”, and considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920s. But after the war, while some areas were nice, it was not what we expected. Everything was substandard, and you paid a lot for this. The road in front of our hotel was red dirt, but actually there was pavement underneath. I am sure, like everywhere else in Asia in the past ten years, this is nothing like it is today.
But with all traveling, you take each place for what it is, and enjoy what it has to offer. So we spent the next few days touring the city, looking at what was left of the beautiful French architecture, visiting Wats (temples), the palace, and markets which we love. Plus the more sombering sites of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former Khmer Rouge prison, and Choeung Ek, one of the killing fields.
Choeung Ek, the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard about 17 km south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is the best-known of the sites known as The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed about 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former inmates in the Tuol Sleng prison. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. We were heavy for days after visiting these two sites.
From here we wanted to visit Angkor Wat in Siem Reap so investigated road travel versus the boat. Back then the the bus ride was long, and there were no facilities so if you had to go to the toilet you did it in the road. If you walked off into the brush you could be blown up by a land mine.
We opted for the boat. In Thailand you pay the same as a local. At this time, in Cambodia foreigners paid 1000 times as much as a local, and there was no such thing as a tourist boat. The boat we got on was so overloaded that most of us sat on top. Which is preferable if you have to swim for shore. And if it had life jackets, we couldn’t find them. But we were all enjoying ourselves, and experiencing the locals that lived on the river bank, water buffalo, people fishing, as we headed up river.
We passed a boat that had broken down, and we stopped to pick up more people in our already crowded boat. I kept thinking that if we sunk, I could swim to the shore. And this was a comfort until we got to Tonle Sap Lake and I could not see a bit of shoreline in any direction. This was the longest boat trip I had ever experienced, and every moment until I saw land, several hours later, was torture.
But once you see land you are so grateful you survived that nothing else matters. And this too, is one of the joys of travel. As we approached Siem Reap there is a spit of land with many boats and rickety shacks the locals live in. And hundreds of people standing on shore, along with rickshaws, waiting for all of us tourists to take us to town, or to a friend’s place to stay. Once we docked and walked down a plank, literally, to the shore we started negotiating for a ride to town and a place to stay.
Back then there were only two Western style hotels. And we don’t really go for these, you could be anywhere, so we opted for a room in a small place across from one of these. Close to Angkor Wat. Good price which is important when you travel six months at a time. Clean, and neat. And later we found out just across the bridge from the market. This was awesome as we ate a lot of our meals there. And in the early evenings watched thousands of bats flying in the air.
We are partial to Hinduism, and Buddhism. And Angkor Wat is a temple complex built for the king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation – first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist. It is the world’s largest religious building. And truly a must see.
Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple mountain and the later galleried temple, based on early South Indian Hindu architecture, with key features such as the Jagati. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology: within a moat and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres (2.2 mi) long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next.
At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas (guardian spirits) adorning its walls. We could have stayed a few more days. And plan to visit this place again in this decade.
After 3 days here we headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Thailand. At the airport there were beautiful things to buy, the craftsman and artisans in Asia are truly amazing. But what struck me the most was the sign on each toilet stall that showed a photo of how to sit on the toilet. I had been used to squat toilets, like most parts of Asia, the western toilet didn’t arrive until recently. I was always thrilled to find one. But the locals did not know how to use them. They would stand on the seat like they did on their squat toilets. Truly wonderful, the cultural differences.