Chris and I spent several weeks in Cambodia touring Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and the Cambodian southern islands. In a country with such rich history, we had endless opportunities to marvel and reflect, to learn and appreciate, to meet incredible people and to experience the arrival of monsoon season along the way.
The highlight for me was roaming the remarkable ruins of Angkor. To step foot in an ancient city, to imagine the life of people who once roamed the same structures and narrow walkways, to know that hundreds of thousands of slaves toiled more than a thousand years ago to build the magnificent structures we tour today is nothing but surreal. The detail, the grandeur, the tribute to faith, the stunning accomplishment, the enduring legacy – it’s simply amazing to me.
One of the most alluring characteristics about Cambodia is its rich history. An ancient place that’s also so young, Cambodia is where the long reigning Khmer empire thrived more than a thousand years ago across a wide expanse of SE Asia. This mighty empire, which ruled for a longer period than the Roman empire and before the time that colonial world power England was even in existence, is responsible for building the remarkable structures of Angkor which ruins are now a top-visited destination in the world. But, even with such incredible history, Cambodia is still a young nation – torn by civil war in the 70s, devastated by horrific genocidal atrocities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime and continuing to grow its economic, political and social infrastructure today. Despite political upheaval and turmoil in recent generations, the Khmer people are nothing short of resilient – evidence of a mighty ancestry. We are thankful to have spent so much time in Cambodia.
Twelve hours, a boat, a bus, a border crossing, a minivan, a second minivan, several hot 2-hour stops and an overpriced tuk-tuk later, we made it from Laos to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Thank goodness! We toasted to the end of our travel day on bustling Pub Street with an Angkor Beer and beef lok lak, a Khmer dish of meat stir fried in a tangy, peppery tomato-based sauce.
While walking back to our hotel our first night in Siem Reap, we passed an outdoor birthday party where a group of young men (and one bored looking woman) were drinking, eating and watching a replay of the Cambodia vs Singapore soccer game. They eagerly invited us to join them, so we picked up three big bottles of Angkor beer and sat down for a few hours of learning and laughs. (Surprisingly, they all refused the Cambodian beer we brought…they preferred Singha, a Thai beer, in cans straight from the cooler.) Each of them was either a student or teacher at the IT school where we were hanging out. Since many spoke English (and Thai), we chatted easily. Some of the more chatty ones taught us how to say “cheers” (chol moi) and “bottoms up” or “drink all” (luek duch) in Khmer.
Many chol moi toasts later, we took this photo.
Other Siem Reap highlights include Angkor Wat, having a pool to cool off in, as well as a crocodile farm view from our hotel room.
We arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, at sunrise after an overnight bus ride from Siem Reap. From the bus, we watched the city wake up: food stand vendors prepping breakfast, tuk-tuk drivers carting goods, pedi-cab drivers soliciting rides, early morning risers exercising around the river.
Phnom Penh’s heartbreaking history stems from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime when more than 2 million Khmer people were executed from 1975-1978. We toured Tuol Sleng prison, a high school turned prison and now a museum, as well as the Choeung Ek killing fields, one of 130 mass graves where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered fellow Cambodians, often brutally bludgeoning them and burying them alive to save bullets.
Siem Reap photos:
Phnom Penh photos: