“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
I think it is fair to say that the majority of people couldn’t point out Cambodia’s location on a map…unless of course it was one that had all of the countries labelled and I gave you some time. I fully admit that I was one of those people until 2005. I knew nothing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge or Angkor Wat. Originally intending only to do a border run (to refresh my tourist visa) I had no intentions of spending anymore than an hour or two outside of Thailand. But with all of the organized trips to Siem Reap advertised in Bangkok, I quickly grew curious of what was there and what I was missing. To this day I couldn’t be happier that I decided to spend several days there and experience this hidden gem.
Siem Reap is a very long trip by bus. The road from Bangkok to the border is smooth, paved and quick, but from that point on, be prepared for an undeveloped dirt road which has become infamous in the backpacking community. I even recall having to wait for a bridge to be rebuilt so we could cross a small river. The small bus didn’t have A/C – so the windows were open the entire time, letting the hot dusty air circulate through the bus…it wasn’t all that pleasant. If I may be so bold as to suggest, please heed my words of wisdom. If money isn’t an issue, take the plane. And whatever you do, don’t change your money to the Cambodian Riel, no matter what. They will stiff you on the exchange almost everywhere and most places don’t even accept their own currency – it seemed like more of a hassle when trying to use their own money.
The lodging in Siem Reap was dirt cheap at $3 a night for a private room with two double beds and a personal bathroom. It was clean, large and spacious with a restaurant attached to the inn. Locals are available for hire to take you to the famous Temples. For just $12 you can have a chauffeur take you to watch the sunset over the valley in the evening and be up at 4am to make sure you don’t miss the sunrise behind Angkor Wat, the largest religious temple in the world. Travelling via tuk-tuk your driver will drop you off, let you explore and be ready to take you to the next site whenever you are ready to move on. If you are lucky, he might even sing on the way.
Built in the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat is now a protected Unesco World Heritage Site that hosts over 700,000 tourists every year. Guidebooks warn of King Cobras lurking in the cold dark shadows of the temples and instruct you to only enter the well lit areas. You might be thinking “WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO GO?”. The best way I can answer that, is show you. Take a look and see what it looks like to have the night disappear behind Angkor Wat as the sun rises. Some things in life are worth waking up at 4am for.
Even this early in the morning, the grounds of Angkor Wat are packed with tourists all wanting that majestic picture. It was cloudy enough that morning that I didn’t get that perfect picture, but the moments were beautiful nonetheless. There was something very special about seeing the temple for the first time reflect itself perfectly in the pools as the day lent just enough light to make out the majestic scene. The grounds surrounding this temple are just massive, complete with libraries, pools and even a moat 3.6 km long. You can literally explore this site all day if you wanted to. Large viper statues mark the entry to the main temple and the stairs to the towers are so steep you need to use all fours to reach the top safely. Angkor Wat is certainly one of my most favorite places on the planet.
If you think you go to the temples only for Angkor Wat, you are surely mistaken. Although Angkor Wat is the largest of the temples you can see by this map that there are several sites to see, some equally as impressive in their own right.
The Bayon Temple was next on our stop and seeing this one for the first time made me feel like a small child that walked into a candy store. I remember making the short walk from the tuk-tuk and seeing the sun bounce off the stone carved face. I then saw another, and another, and another. Built in the late 12th century Bayon is situated inside Angkor Thom as you enter from the south, leaving Angkor Wat. I don’t know what it was that captivated me so much about Bayon, but when the sun washed over their faces, you could almost hear the temple sing.
Ta Prohm, which you would undoubtedly recognize from Tomb Raider, is a site truly taken over by nature. As many of the other temples have had steps taken to help restoration, Ta Prohm has been left to the elements. I assure you though, that fact is what makes this Cambodian temple not only unique but visually stunning. The trees grow directly out of the ruins and make this site truly picturesque.
You can spend several days exploring the different temples Angkor has to offer and if you have the time, I highly suggest that you do just that. Climb to the top of a few, take in the view and if you are lucky enough, enjoy some peace and quiet. Head to one of the less famous temples and you will likely have it all to yourself. Soak up both the raw and architectural beauty Cambodia has to offer, you won’t regret it.
Just be sure that if you embark on such an adventure that you are equipped with thick skin, because in Cambodia, it isn’t man or woman trying to sell you their best product, but it is the children. The children learn to speak English at a very young age so they can sell items to Westerners only so they can keep a small portion to take home to their family. The children are well educated in Western ways and know how to talk to you. They know that Ottawa is the capital of Canada and they know how to ask you for a loonie or a toonie. And when that fails, they return with a younger child to look up at you with the big doe eyes and see if that is perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back. I never bought so many non-required postcards in my life as I did there. Saying “no” broke your heart, yet saying “yes” wouldn’t stop their “employer” from taking their cut. I’d never felt so stuck between a rock and a hard place. Wishing you could make a difference, wishing you could do anything to help. But that isn’t the way it works there. The Cambodian people sadly are used to going through life on their own. With no social security in place, there isn’t anyone to help them out if the father of the house looses his job and is no longer able to provide for his family. No one steps in to ease the burden.
There are somewhere between 4 and 6 million unexploded land mines in Cambodia right now. Areas are marked everywhere with signs “Danger! Mines!”. 30 years of war have left the country littered with these mines, lying in wait to create another statistic that can be added to the growing number of amputees. Cambodia is the third most land-mined country in the world and they have the highest number of amputees per capita out of any country. The majority of those killed are children playing in the fields or herding animals. When an adult comes across a land mine they usually just require amputation of one or more limbs. Just. To make matters worse, let me go back to the issue with social security. A man goes to work everyday and provides for his family. Working the fields, he sets off a land mine. He becomes an amputee and can no longer provide, and the wife and the children and the husband who were already struggling before (by an Western standards) sink further into desperation. The children go to work begging as soon as they can talk, in some cases it’s as soon as they can walk.
Cambodia is a very poor country with a sad story and sad history. But what I tend to remember most was the vibrancy and tenacity the people had. They carried an extreme will to live, resilience to the cards dealt to them and determination to succeed. People gauge success differently all over the world. Even in a country filled with like minded people such as Canada, every day you can run into someone with a differing opinion about what it means to be successful. For some it is a high level of education, a big house, a high paying job, a lifelong career, a loving wife, or a large family. In Cambodia I saw happiness despite their misfortunes. I saw loving families working hard to turn things around. I saw people united to reach common goals. I know that I will never be able to convince people that a country with 2 year olds selling post cards is successful. But tell me, what are these families supposed to do? Are they supposed to quit? Give up? Feel sorry for themselves and apply for social assistance? Oh wait, that just isn’t an option. I have never been anywhere and encountered such highly educated children. How many 5 year old kids do you know that are fluent in 5-6 languages so they can communicate with tourists? I met a few. I choose to remember the beauty I saw in a nation of people fighting to survive. I just make sure I tell both sides, because I would hate to think that people go oblivious to the trials that people endure every day in other parts of the world…while we complain about our neighbour getting a larger flat screen TV.
I hope you enjoyed a look into my experience in Cambodia. If you ever make the trip there – I promise that it will be one of the most special times you will ever experience in all your life. Cambodia is beautiful, Cambodia is sad, Cambodia is real. I just wish more people knew it’s story.
If you missed my earlier posts on my 3 month backpacking trip through Thailand, please check out these two posts here: