The flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was about one hour. The landing gear was barely tucked away in the belly of the plane before we heard the telltale rattle and bang of it being dropped again in preparation for landing.
We came to Siem Reap for the sole purpose of visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples in Siem Reap. Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, Angkor Archaeological Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It contains the magnificent remains of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat, as well as Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple, Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm, among many others.
Back home I had booked a three day tuk-tuk tour in Siem Reap after reading some great reviews about the temple tours on AngkorFriendlyDriver.com. Vantha would definitely prove himself worthy of his website name.
Vantha retrieved us from the airport with a placard in his hand and that telltale Cambodian Cheshire Cat grin on his face. That is a smile that we had quickly come to love in Cambodia. Neither feigned nor fraudulent, it is an eye-involving smile that pulls the cheeks way up to meet the ears, a smile that invades your heart, driving out any wariness or distrust you have for the world and planting joy in its place. We encountered this smile and general sense of welcoming many times throughout Cambodia, and by the time we left we would feel changed by it.
Vantha drove us to our hotel and waited while we checked in and drop off our packs. There was no power at our hotel when we arrived but they allowed us to check in early with our printed confirmation. Power outages are quite common in Siem Reap as the infrastructure in most parts of the country is quite poor. Cambodia doesn’t generate any of its own power, it comes in from Vietnam for the southern half of the country and Thailand for the northern part, and all it takes is something as simple as a power poles being hit for city-wide outages to occur. Welcome to the Third World.
We dropped our bags off in the simple, clean room and took a quick peek at the pool. It looked so crisp and refreshing and already threatened to lure us away from the heat of the day. We hurried back to our Tuk Tuk before thoughts of desertion overcame our desire to see the temples.
It is immediately apparent that Siem Reap is very different from Phnom Penh, with wide roadways dusted red from the clay earth and lined with towering trees, standing like custodians of the roadways. The long bare trunks of the trees rise up to the sky, their high branches reaching across to grasp each other, creating a gorgeous canopy of interlaced branches sheltering us from the hot, unrelenting Cambodian sun, yet allowing small glimpses of blue sky to escape through the tightly woven leaves.
We lumbered along down the rural roadways in the tuk tuk, lurching lightly back and forth and up and down in the rustic yet liberating open-air chariot, feeling regal – if not a bit pompous – in our carriage towed behind Vantha’s rumbling motorcycle.
Approaching Angkor Wat, the first thing that comes into site is the giant moat, its banks carved into perfect symmetrical lines and corners, wrapping around the expansive temple In a perfect square box.
As we came upon the front of Angkor Wat, it all started to feel so surreal. This was the main reason for our trip to Southeast Asia, to witness this amazing history and architectural marvel. Vantha gave us a short history of the temple and its significance, and then he waited behind in the shade with the tuk tuk while we explored the temple site.
Entering the temple grounds, excitement builds as you cross a vast limestone bridge that extends over the 600 foot wide moat. You enter the site through a 15 foot high stone wall, the ancient grounds creating their own perverse sense of anticipation for what lies on the other side. As you emerge through the etched stone columns of the doorway, you get your first glimpse of the telltale jagged spires rising up from the infamous temple of Angkor Wat that rests at the end of quarter mile long sandstone causeway.
The initial design and construction of the temple took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Suryavarman II. Dedicated to Vishnu it was built as the king’s state temple and capital city. In the late 13th century, Angkor Wat gradually moved from Hindu to Buddhist use, which continues to the present day.
Depending on the time of day, you will share the grounds with a few thousand other visitors. Fortunately, Vantha was very knowledgeable about which temples are visited at what times of day by most of the tourists and organized groups, so we were able to avoid the largest crowds at all the ruins we visited.
Below is a slideshow of images from the amazing Angkor Wat.
Along the borders and at the entrances/exits of most of the temple ruins, Cambodians hawk their wares. You’ll find the same clothing, fans, bracelets, and artwork at each temple. They are relentless salespeople, and if you show even the slightest hesitation they will latch on and not leave you until you make a purchase. While it is easy for some to say, “No thank you” and keep moving, I found it difficult, as I just wanted to help everyone. I bought many silk scarfs and beaded or woven bracelets from people who obviously were just trying their best to feed their family.
Women also sell the most juicy and flavourful fruit and I fell in love with buying refreshing whole pineapples, mangoes, and melons cut and diced for easy eating for just $1 each. You will also be bombarded with children selling postcards, magnets, and other small trinkets for $1 each. Many websites and guidebooks tell you not to buy from these children, as it is better to give to the area charities that help to keep these children in school. But it’s pretty hard to say no to a small shoeless child often in tattered, dirty clothing when all they are asking for is $1.
As we were leaving Angkor Wat, still in a “pinch me” state-of-mind, I was jarred back to reality with a stop at the restroom, where I encountered my first squat toilet. The “toilet” is just a porcelain bowl in the ground that you squat over. Beside it is usually a basin or trough of water with a plastic bowl, and when you are finished you scoop bowls full of water into the toilet bowl to “flush”. There is no place for you to wash your hands afterwards, so it is wise to always carry hand sanitizer with you. You need to bring it from home also, as they don’t seem to sell it anywhere in Cambodia or Thailand.
By midday in March the temperature reaches 35 degree Celsius (95 Farenheit) and the sandstone rocks of the temple and the lack of any breeze amplify the heat. This is further intensified by the long-sleeved clothing that should be worn inside all of the temples out of respect. It’s important to bring a lot of water as you sweat torrents.
Vantha had cold water waiting for us when we returned to our tuk tuk. As we set off for the next set of ruins, we were extremely thankful for the wind of the open air chariot.
Vantha took us around to the various temples over the next three days, excitedly telling us stories of each one. When Vantha picked us up, it was like being picked up by a friend who is eager to introduce you to their city and show you around, and that eagerness remains for the entire tour. I’m sure he has done this tour a thousand times, yet he still maintains an eagerness and excitement of the area and an obvious pride in his country’s history here.
One of our stops was at Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie. Unlike most of the Angkor temples, Ta Prohm remains in much the same condition in which it was found, with trees left intertwined with the stonework. While work has been done to stabilize the ruins, it has been consciously left in a very photogenic state of apparent neglect. There is a strange ethereal beauty in the way the ruins have merged with the jungle, enormous centuries-old fig trees strangling the man-made brick, an embrace of nature and human creation.
As we turned a corner on a path through the temple ruins, the path broke away to a muddy hill on the one side, and I spotted a Cambodian man balancing precariously on the mud. He had only one full leg, the right one was a stump at mid-thigh and rested on the handle of a rudimentary wooden crutch clearly too small for his height, the armrest of which he held with his hand to steady himself. Another crutch, about an inch or two taller but clearly still too small for his height, sat under the crook of his left arm and he leaned his full weight on it, crouching slightly forward. There he stood at the side of that little muddy hill, balancing like a stork on one leg, looking like he was ready to topple at any moment down the muddy bank.
The man’s left hand held a battered and dusty baseball cap which he extended towards us as we approached. He chattered lightly in Khmer with a scattering of English words tossed in, like “please” and “help” and “no work.”
John pulled some cash out of his pocket and passed it to me, and I walked over to tuck it into his cap. I could see he was also very burned down one side of his neck, the same side as his amputated leg, which seemed to point to a landmine. It was hard to pin an age on him, could be 60 could be 90; such a hard life as many Cambodians live tends to make people look more aged.
Instead of just dumping the money in his hat, I made eye contact and smiled at him and said hello, then reached out to hand him the money. This close I could see the telltale smokiness of cataracts in his eyes, and he was likely near blinded by them. Such a simple surgery available to us back home had worsened an already dire situation for this man.
He put his cap on his head and reached out with his hand to take the money from me, and I swear he got taller and stood straighter. He placed his palms together in prayer fashion and bowed, a respectful sampeah. He then said, “Thanks much, kind. Where from?” I told him Canada and his lips parted into that heartfelt Cambodian smile. A smile that was warm and joy-filled and beautiful, not because he had perfect veneer teeth or a smoothly groomed face; beautiful because despite what he had been through, the suffering, the sadness, the loss, despite the struggles he faced every day just to live, he had the resiliency to cling to enough joy in his heart to summon up that genuine smile as a gift to me.
He looked at me and said, “Thanks much from heart, Miss Canada.”
And with that, my heart swelled yet broke a little. Something in my mind clicked almost audibly, and there on day two of my trip began the systematic unravelling of the patterns of Western living that had governed my life up until now. By the end of the following week the last thread would be unravelled completely.
You see, Cambodia proved just how resilient the human spirit can be, and how hardship and heart-wrenching trauma does not have to be followed by resentment and revenge. The people I met and the things I saw in this beautiful country proved that although adversities can shape our lives, they don’t have to define us. Our hardships don’t have to leave us bitter and afflicted. We need to embrace these hardships to discover the deeper lessons that will help reshape us. We may never be the same, but we don’t have to be worse. Instead of becoming victims, we lean in and discover the blessings from within these experiences and we are then equipped to live life more deeply despite our tragedies. We are able to smile with that heartfelt joy.
There are so many temples to see in the Ankor and Siem Reap area that is hard to remember in which order we saw them. All of them are a little different from each other, but with wonderful bas reliefs and stone etchings, red or grey stone colours, and set within the most peaceful backdrop of forested clay earth and wide open spaces, alight with the calls of various birds and the sometimes deafening squeal of cicadas.
I managed to spot a cicada and get a closeup before he flew away.
Here’s a slideshow of images from various other temples:
During our tours, Vantha escorted us outside of the usual array of temples to less-visited sites where we found ourselves travelling into a much more rural area than we had yet seen. Like a scene reminiscent of every Vietnam move and television show, we were soon passing sprawling rice patties attended by white albino cattle pulling equipment and grazing, rice tools and bowls scattered abandoned at the muddy edges, and small homes of corrugated sheet metal perched on stilts above the wet, swampy earth.
Vantha stopped at the Cambodian Landmine Museum as I had requested. More than a museum, it is also a home that provides education and support for dozens of at-risk youth and landmine affected children who have suffered overwhelming hardships. The museum prides itself as a place of healing for bodies, hearts and minds and believes that t and education will help secure a better opportunity for the children that live here.
The museum was established in 1997 by ex-child soldier Aki Ra. After years of fighting he returned to the villages in which he planted thousands of mines and began removing them by hand and defusing them. While doing so, Aki Ra saw many children wounded by landmines and living desperately poor lives. He took these children in to raise them with his wife and his own children.
The museum reminds its visitors of the atrocities that occurred against this nation’s proud and agreeable people at the hands of foreign governments. Diagrams speak to Richard Nixon’s carpet-bombing of the country’s Vietnam borders between 1965 and 1973, when “the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.” The museum also speaks to the use of toxic chemical Agent Orange by the US to defoliate the land and forests of Vietnam and parts of Cambodia. More than 50 years since, the tragedy of that brutal campaign lingers in birth defects and diseases of the region’s people. It’s all so nauseating.
Then there are the landmines. To this day, hundreds of Cambodians are burned, injured, and killed each year by unexploded landmines that they come upon while simply farming their own land.
Visiting here was sobering and affecting. At the same time, it gave hope and yet again proved how resilient the Cambodian people can be, and how they can turn horrific circumstances into learning experiences that help them to think more deeply about the world. Aki Ra has demonstrated one of life’s most important lessons: atonement.
Before we left we purchased t-shirts, spices, and other trinkets being sold at the museum as a way of supporting the work they are doing. If you want to learn more about this facility, please visit their website.
Following the Landmine Museum, Vantha intuitively took us on a more light-hearted adventure to see how palm sugar and palm sugar candy is created. It was deliciously interesting adventure to see and learn this trade, and we purchased a large amount of the candies to bring home to Kelsey to bake with. It was definitely a nice reprieve.
After a full day in the heat and 70% humidity, it was a welcome respite each day to return to our hotel for some pool time and some snacks. Almost all food you order in Cambodia is made fresh when ordered, and the food throughout Cambodia and Thailand is amazingly memorable. I’m not sure we ever had a bad meal. The prices only add to the comfort.
Siem Reap is far from just daytime temple trekking. It also has a very lively and entertaining nightlife. The liveliest areas in Siem Reap after dark are Pub Street, the Old Market area, the alley and lane off Pub Street, and the Night Market area. This is no Thailand, but there are numerous venues for either eating or drinking (or both) and with everything from intimate and upscale to late-night thumping “discos”, there is something for everyone. We appreciated the more laid-back, bohemian feel of Siem Reap at night, and enjoyed people-watching in the street-front bars on Pub Street.
But be prepared: you can’t avoid the gruesome human trafficking scene in Siem Reap, or the lengths some Cambodians will go to earn a few dollars from compassionate foreigners.
While sitting street-side, we watched as young teenaged mothers begged for money, with their infants strapped to them in sling. This at first may seem typical for any third world or developing nation, however when you do your research before you travel you learn things. Things you don’t want to believe until you see it with your own eyes. For instance, these babies are drugged by these mothers to remain placid while they spend all night until the wee hours of the morning begging and pleading for money to feed their hungry children. My compassion quickly turned to distaste and anger.
Then there is the sex trade. Look left or right in Siem Reap and you will see older, often (but not always) rotund caucasion men with very young and pretty Cambodian escorts at their sides, and making no attempt to hide it. In fact, they puff their chest like a peacock, showing off the trophy on their arm like we all don’t know they are perpetrators of a crime. These men aren’t buying these girls ice cream and dinner as a humanitarian service.
It’s really hard to reconcile the sex trade in Cambodia with the conservative Khmer culture that emphasizes modesty. They are not a bad people or culture, quite the opposite. During the day, you won’t see a Cambodian woman even in a tank top. And the laws against sex crimes in Cambodia are stronger than in the United States. The problem lies with endemic corruption resulting from a very poor country with police who earn a meager wage. This results in a government that is powerless against an influx of wealthy foreign pedophiles.
It is distasteful to think about, it is gruesome to see with your own eyes, and it is abominable to see how prolific it is.
“Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.” – Joseph Mussomeli, former US Ambassador to Cambodia
That is the heart-breaking stuff. Along with the mistreated babies, and landmine victims, and poor children, and deformities, and disabilities, and genocide. But then there is also the resilience, the generosity and warmth, the genuine caring, the most welcoming people you’ll meet. The attitude of living in the moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, the ability to capture joy in small things. That is the ambrosial charm that Cambodia ever so covertly sneaks into your heart.