Heading out of the airport and driving into Cambodia’s capital Phnom Phen was a bit of a shock to the system having come from sleepy Lao. Vientiane may have been a capital but it certainly was much quieter than I was used to. Phnom Phen was definitely a capital city. The roads full of traffic, lots of building work going on and high-rise buildings taking pride of place.
I was not sure what to expect from Cambodia, the guide books all say to be extra careful with money and carrying valuables, and even our leader told us to leave everything in the hotel safe. I was a little stunned as I had been so relaxed in both Thailand and Lao, perhaps even a little lapse. So there I was double checking the room safe worked before I put anything in it ( it had been a while since I had used one), then left my cards and spare cash behind ( what a mistake that was as I will discuss later!!) and set off to explore the city. The stark contrast that tourism has had on Cambodia compared to Lao is evident almost immediately. As soon as you step out the hotel you are accosted by tuk tuk drivers wanting to take you somewhere, give you a guided tour or show you good shopping – reminiscent of India anyone??
As I headed onto the main road that ran alongside the river, I walked past bar after bar. This was certainly somewhere that was going to come to life after dark. I was walking towards the Palace, and faced a number of child beggars, looking for a sympathetic western tourist. My destination however was not the royal palace, that was for tomorrow, I was bound for a shopping recommendation by a friend, Street 240! This was definitely the place to shop, lots of boutiques with unique items, from clothing to jewelry and bits and bobs for the house. I could have gone mad shopping, however, my cards were in the hotel safe!!! Very annoying!! I could have gone back but it was just too hot and I wasnt sure I could take the gauntlet of beggers and tuk tuk drivers again there and back. So what is a girl to do – use all the cash she has!! One thing I found odd was no one wanted to accept the Cambodian currency, all people wanted was the dollar – this is a major contrast to Laos where people discouraged you from using the dollar over the Kip. This was annoying again as I had changed quite a lot of my dollars into Cambodian Rial.
Tip to future travellers don’t bother changing your money in Cambodia just use Dollars!!!
So after a very successful shopping trip, I headed back to the hotel as the group was meeting to go for dinner. As I mentioned before the waterfront in Phnom Phen was certainly not lacking for places to drink or eat, one place that everyone recommends is the FCC – the Foreign Correspondents Club, definitely a place to try. It had a proper old school colonial feel to it, and great views. There is another in Siem Reap and also in Bangkok. Phnom Phen is also home to many a roof top bar, and this is where we headed, as the city twinkled in the darkness and we drank overpriced ( well compared to what we had been paying in Lao, but ridiculously cheap by London standards) I wondered what the next day would hold for us.
Our second day in Phnom Phen was to involve the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. I have been to a couple of the Nazi concentration camps outside Berlin and they were harrowing, so I really wasnt sure what to expect from todays visits. I have to admit I only knew the basics of the Kymer Rouge rule, so learning about it was definitely interesting. The Genocide Museum was difficult, the walls of the cell rooms lined with pictures of those who were tortured and died will stay with me forever, seeing the cramped conditions that they lived in was inhuman. After all I have read and learned it still shocks me that Genocide still happened after German under Nazi rule, how something like this could go unnoticed! One thing that does unnerve me slightly is the need people have to take photos in places like this, and they continued to do it at the Killing Fields, people clicking away. I believe places like this should be taken in, and the pictures in your mind should be enough, at the end of the day people died here, you don’t take photos at funerals or in cemeteries!
Our guide around the Genocide museum, Mr Lim, was amazing, he was a great teacher and having lived through the Kymer Rouge gave us a personal account of what happened. What made him a great guide was that he wasnt negative, he told you how it happened, he wasnt preaching, but conveyed a personal perspective. As we drove out of Phnom Phen we headed to one of the Killing Fields outside of the city (Choeung Ek), I was expecting something organised, and fully excavated, but I was wrong. What I found was upsetting, the field had not been fully excavated but the ground was still littered with bones and bits of clothing. Bones stuck out of the ground and cloth floated along the ground. I do not wish to tell anyone how to respect their dead but I had expected the site to have been fully excavated and the remains put in a mass grave or something similar. It was incredibly uncomfortable, but perhaps that was the point, that there were so many dead it would be impossible to find them all?? What continued to confuse me was the group of huts within the site selling drinks, sweets and ice-creams. Is there not something a little distasteful with that? Why couldn’t they be outside the entrance gates? The photo taking continued inside the tall memorial which is a glass case full of bones and clothing, showing the multitude of murders and atrocities that befell this country. As moving as it was, I couldn’t help but feel that it all felt too much like a tourist attraction than a memorial to those that had died.
As we silently filed back onto the bus we headed back to the city for lunch to a restaurant called Friends, it’s a charity organisation that offers former street children a job in the food industry. The food is also very tasty which makes you feel even better about doing your bit!! – http://www.friends-international.org/shop/restaurants.asp?mainmenu=shop&page=restaurants
Our afternoon was spent exploring the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. I have to admit in the 30+ degree heat I wasnt overly enthused as this was our third Royal Palace in less than 2 weeks. Saying that it was beautiful decorated and very spacious, had it been cooler it would have been a nice place to wander. If I were to return I would try to visit earlier in the day or much later in the afternoon so that I wasnt so distracted by how hot I was.
The next morning we left the city behind us and headed for Siem Reap, this is what I had been waiting for, a historians paradise!! We were going to Angkor Wat! It was about a 7 hour drive on decent roads, along the way we stopped for the customary fried spider, crickets and other creepy crawlies. The locals were carrying around huge trays of them, I couldn’t think of anything less appetising. A nap or so later we arrived into Siem Reap. This is definitely a town that has prospered by the tourist, it has a street called ‘Pub Street’ I think that says it all. Our first glimpse of the ancient site of Angkor was to be that evening to watch the sun set from Phnom Bakheng. The 20-30min walk up the hill-side ( yes it was very hot!) leads you to a large archaeological ruin, for the lazier tourist you can get an elephant up to the top! We joined a long queue for the platform, but luck was not on our side, as we got close they closed the entrance, they had too many people on the platform, very disappointing!! If only we had got there a little earlier. So instead we wandered around the ruins and took in our first experience of the Temples of Angkor. Tomorrow was the main attraction.
We started early, leaving the hotel before 8am, we got to Angkor Wat, we entered from East Gate, there was no-one else around, heaven! At that point we all split and went off to explore on our own. Slowly as we got deeper the busier it got, but if you were lucky you could get a few seconds to yourself in an open court-yard taking in the majesty of the building, the craftmanship, the sheer size of this 12th Century power house. It makes you think, this was being constructed the same time that England was just about building castles from Stone instead of wood! We may have dominated the modern world with our architecture but the glory of the past belongs to others. Having finally had enough of Chinese tour groups, the masses of flashing camera, we left Angkor Wat to explore more of the complex.
We headed into Angkor Thom, the ancient capital of the Kymer Empire. Angkor Thom is a collection of temples and Palace buildings and their sum rival Angkor Wat. The Bayon with its cold smiling faces will stay with me forever, they look happy but there is something else behind those eyes! absolutely stunning! Other places of interest we visited were the Baphuon, a pyramid type structure which has recently been restored by French archaeologist, the back of the building holds a reclining buddha which is built into the structure, making it difficult to see at first but once your eyes adjust you cannot believe you didn’t see it before!
Outside the main complex of buildings ( Angkor is made up of hundreds of temples) is the Tomb Raider temples, or at least the one that appeared in the movies, commonly known as the Jungle temple – Ta Prohm. I have to say I was a little disappointed, the guide-book built it up with an imagery of being covered in plants and climbers, with trees wrapping themselves around the building, but alas the temple had very much been cleaned up! There were certainly spectacular trees and their root twisting around the ruin but it wasnt a jungle temple, or certainly not the one I was expecting.
We headed back into the main complex and explored a few more temples but as we got nearer to midday it was rising in temperature and filling with large groups of tourists. As sad as I was to say good-bye it was time to leave the Angkor complex. That afternoon as the sun lowered in the distance we headed for a touch of elegance at the Raffles Hotel. Having never been to Singapore I don’t have much to compare it to, but the cocktails were delicious. After a martini or two we headed to the Siem Reap FCC for a dinner and drinks. As the air-cooled only a fraction I knew I was going to miss outside dinning and long leisurely meals. The previous night we had gone to a restaurant on pub street for traditional Cambodian dancing. It was entertaining and very graceful but when you have the latest chart hits playing out of the bars on the opposite side of the street I think it takes something away from the charm. However, pub street as its aptly named is the place to go for a cheap drink, who can say no to a cold glass of beer for 33p!
Dinner at the FCC was our last night in Cambodia we were heading back to the airport first thing. My feelings on Cambodia are mixed, if I had gone there before Laos perhaps I would have felt differently. Cambodia being one of the poorest countries in the world has taken tourism for everything it has, and who can blame them. The streets in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are lined with cheap bars and young waitresses. Heading off the tourist trail into smaller side streets to lead you to charming little bars and street restaurants but in the two big cities they are most definitely geared towards tourism, everyone is selling something – maybe I am just too cynical, but there is definitely something seedy about some of those river side bars in Phnom Penh!!
Overall, it’s a country you have to visit to take in the beautiful scenery, I would definitely go back and head out into the countryside, away from the big cities. Angkor Wat is stunning, even if you don’t like archaeology you have to see those temples just to appreciate the sheer size of them – there are buildings being constructed when the UK was still building small wooden forts and only just starting to use stone! Like the rest of South East Asia the Cambodian people are incredibly friendly even after everything that has happened to them, their smiles are always so genuine. Go and explore it!