Liz and I have loved traveling around in Cambodia. From the ancient ruins of Angkor to the tragic killing fields to the beautiful islands and bustling city life.
Our arrival in Cambodia hit my biggest traveller pet-peeve. We booked our transport from Laos to Siem Reap, only to get dropped off at a ‘private bus terminal’, or in more common terms: a dirt pit down long unlit roads 8k from the city. So we were stuck with either a nighttime trek into the city after a 12 hour travel day or a grossly inflated tuk-tuk from one of the pushy drivers that were the only people around. We did take the tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk driver repeatedly tried to talk us into ditching our pre-paid hotel reservation because it was very far out from the main drag of bars (a 10 minute walk) and it was in the Muslim area. He then was VERY pushy about us booking with him to tour Angkor the next day. My face during interactions with him=someone just peed in my ice-cream. We did not book with him for visiting Angkor.
Our hotel ended up being right up there in terms of one of our favorite places we have stayed. It was 15/nt the first two nights and then $12/nt for the next two. Nice building, incredibly friendly and helpful staff and we had a view of a busy local soccer field and a crocodile farm. Yep, as long as it was light we had full on crocodile views. Also, the pool was cleaned daily and we got free breakfast. I wasn’t sure we were going to get out of there at all.
Angkor was beautiful. Our tuk-tuk driver, Peter, who we arranged with through the hotel was great and very friendly. We started our tour at 5am, watching the bar closers stumbling back to guesthouseson our way out to Angkor. While the sunrise was not the greatest, the temperatures early in the morning made for a much nicer first half of the day touring. We spent into early afternoon walking through different ruins, the day getting progressively hotter as we went. Lots of Angkor pictures in the album, I normally am better at cutting pictures out, it really is a stunning place. It is a place that is strange to visit for the amazing history of the place (largest city on the planet at its height, religious battles between rulers including wiping out Buddhist/Hindu art to replace/cover/erase the original multiple times) combined with that most people go because it is crazy cool looking. The dedication to selfies bordered on daredevil with people climbing out onto centuries old stonework for a perfect shot.
The next day we stopped by Tonle Sap lake. The lake is in many ways one of the most interesting things about Cambodia. It is part of the Tonle Sap river that during the rainy season and through the winter months changes direction from the massive force of the Mekong river. Because of the flooding, the Tonle Sap basin is an incredibly productive breeding ground for many fish, designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997. The productivity of this lake is assumed to be part of what made the size and population density of Angkor possible.
After getting a peek at the lake edge (stilted houses some 20ft in the air as the flooding hasn’t started yet) we continued on with Peter to the war museum. The war museum is primarily a collection of tanks, guns, bombs and landmines. Most of them from the Khmer Rouge reign, but some from earlier conflicts as well (Japanese and US forces during WWII and the Vietnam War).
Our night bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was probably a little optimistic. Cambodian roads are notoriously nasty, especially when it rains, with potholes that could swallow a person. We did not manage to get that much sleep on the trip down. We did get a 1 hour pith black lightning show though as our bus broke down around 1am, so that was pretty awesome.
We had three primary goals in Phnom Penh. Arrange our Vietnam visas, see the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng(S21) prison. The S21 prison was used primarily for political prisoners. The original reports were that out of 14000 people sent to Tuol Sleng only 12 survived, thought the Documentation Center of Cambodia who is still actively researching the Khmer Rouge period estimates that number at 202, still a shocking number. It is all the more jarring to visit a site where the horrifying actions were recent enough that there was a Tuol Sleng survivor there the day we visited.
The next day we visited the killing fields at Chueng Ek. These are the closest killing fields to Phnom Penh and were the final
destination for most of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng. There was a guided audio tour that described what happened there. Some people were marched to the fields, most were brought by truck, told they were being moved to a new prison, or a new home. Upon arriving they would be lined up beside pits and bludgeoned to death. As bodies fell into the pits, they were coated in DDT to help with the smell and kill those that weren’t killed by the blows to the head. While the pits were excavated, bones still surface, especially during the rainy season. There were many places where bones and clothing fragments could be seen sticking out of the earth. These fields were surrounded by homes, people outside thought it was a Khmer Rouge party headquarters because of the constant music and rally recordings played to cover the sounds of what was actually happening.
After Phnom Penh, Liz and I went to Sihanoukville to visit the beaches and islands. We were caught in torrential downpours, at one point we had to walk through a full on wall of water to get to our guesthouse for the night (I’ve hiked to see less impressive
waterfalls). We also hiked across two islands, getting a chance to see some lovely beaches that were almost completely abandoned. While the weather wasn’t great for much sunbathing, it was still nice to spend a few days appreciating the quiet of the islands. While on the islands we got to swim in phosphorescent plankton at night, see wild hornbills and a wild cobra (not fast enough on the camera to get those pictures).