“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.”
– Moorish proverb
When we were in the planning stages of our trip, we didn’t even consider traveling to Cambodia. We didn’t know a lot about it and it doesn’t quite have the popularity status amount tourists that other Southeast Asian countries do. However our friend TL, who had been in Australia and Southeast Asia a couple years before, told us it was one of her favourite place she visited. We took her word for it and we are thrilled we did so.
Our first stop was Siem Reap, which is a smaller city centred around tourists who have come to visit the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were immediately enthralled with the slow pace of life in Cambodia. After a busy and wild two weeks in Thailand, the simplicity of Cambodia was just what we were looking for. We stayed at the beautiful Angkor Heritage Boutique Hotel, in a stunning room with a king size bed and pool view balcony, buffet breakfast included, for only $46CAD per night. The only thing more baffling than the beauty of the resort was the hospitable service from the Khmer/Cambodia people, the kindest and most humble people we have yet to encounter on our travels.
Although it was difficult to leave the poolside oasis at our resort, when we were able to tear ourselves away we enjoyed exploring Siem Reap and its various markets. The epicentre of the small city, especially at night, is called Pub Street and it’s the (much tamer) Khao San Road of Cambodia. We enjoyed a few nights at the Angkor Night Market and on Pub Street meeting other travellers, eating at rooftop restaurants, watching street performers and dancing the night away.
When purchasing tickets to visit Angkor Wat there is the option of one day, three day and seven day passes available. Being the largest religious monument in the entire world, at 162.6 hectares, one could easily spend seven days exploring every single nook and cranny of the place, which many Hindus and Buddhists do. However, with limited time, we purchased the one day pass and saw what we could of the 12th century relic. Although the central temple of Angkor Wat is the main attraction of the complex, there are numerous other temples to see within the grounds. The most interesting one, for us, was the Bayon temple, with its many identical faces carved into the stone pillars and its discolouration from years of weathering. When we first approached it I pointed out the face in the centre of the temple that was captivating me and Jeff soon brought my attention to the fact that the temple was covered in faces. Soon enough it was all we could see. It was a fascinating day exploring Angkor Wat, but our shirts were soaked with sweat by the end of it, as long pants and shirts that cover the shoulders must be worn in the temples, despite the 36 degree weather. We had never been as happy to dive into the pool at our resort that afternoon.
Our final evening in Siem Reap we made a reservation at a restaurant called Tangram Garden. They offer a complimentary hotel pickup and drop off service, so we scheduled a pick up for 7:45pm. After a 15 minute tuk tuk ride we arrived at the restaurant and, much to our astonishment, were shown to our private gazebo with a candlelit table for two. We then looked around and realized that the entire restaurant was setup in this way, with each table under its own private gazebo, within a lush and beautiful garden. Our tuk tuk driver then introduced himself as our waiter for the evening. We hadn’t even taken a look at the menu and were already blown away. We both enjoyed traditional Khmer dishes and a bottle of local wine. After the delicious meal our waiter then hopped in the driver’s seat of the tuk tuk again and drove us back to our hotel. We couldn’t help but give him a well earned and generous tip which, in a country where tipping is optional, he was absolutely thrilled to receive. He showed his overwhelming gratitude with the traditional East Asian bow, over and over until we were out of sight. His respect and humbleness were just another example to us of the kind Khmer people.
We had been told, by Cambodians, that there was not a lot to see and do in the capital city of Phnom Penh, so we had no problem spending our first day there at our rooftop pool at The Frangipani Living Arts Hotel. We enjoyed the fantastic view of the city along with some local beers and dipped our toes in the water when we needed a cool down from the blazing heat.
Our second day in the city we explored. We had our tuk tuk driver drop us off at the Royal Palace, which we unfortunately were not dressed accordingly for as it requires long pants and sleeves. However we walked around the outside gates and admired the lavish architecture and decor from afar. We then strolled along the riverfront promenade, admiring various points of interest along the way, and made our way to the Old Market of Phnom Penh. This market is quite interesting, as it is unlike any other we had seen thus far. All the stalls were selling brand names clothes: Zara, Banana Republic, Polo, Old Navy, Aeropostale, Mango, etc. We were shocked at first and assumed they were ripped off, until Jeff remembered reading online that Cambodia is home to many garment factories, which is where all of these items that we purchase at home are made. When an item has a minor defect it somehow makes its way to the markets of Phnom Penh, where locals and travellers can buy brand name clothing at discount prices. Although we didn’t purchase anything, it was interesting to see.
That evening we went for dinner at Dine in the Dark, which is exactly how it sounds; an experience that is now available worldwide. Upon arrival we each selected a general menu option (vegetarian, international, khmer and chef’s special) without knowing the dishes we would be served and we were then shown to our table, by a blind guide, in a pitch black room. It was a fascinating experience, for so many reasons, but what surprised us the most was how difficult it was to use utensils when you can’t see the food on the plate. We quickly gave up and used our hands for most of the meal, which we realized also allowed us to experience the texture of the food before we put it into our mouths. It was such a unique experience that allows you to sympathize with the visually impaired and I believe everyone should try it at least once in their lifetime.
Our final day in Phnom Penh, and Cambodia, was a sad one. We had hummed and hawed about going to the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre since our first day in the country and on the morning of our last day we decided that, as sad as it was going to be, the genocide changed the face of Cambodia and we had to educate ourselves on the subject. The centre is also known as The Killing Fields, because that is precisely what it once was. A total of 3 million Cambodians were killed between 1975-1978, by the Khmer Rouge who were a political regime lead by communist Pol Pot. In an effort to create an equalized society, Pot built an army from uneducated young men from rural communities and brainwashed them into believing that all of the successful and wealthy people of the country must be killed. Choeung Ek is just one of numerous killing fields that existed across the country, for the sole purpose of brutal torture and murder. Cambodia as a country, and the Khmer people, are still recovering from the many scars that were left behind at the end of the genocide. Although our tour at Choeung Ek was extremely difficult at times and filled us with emotion, we are glad we went and learned so much about the country that had welcomed us so warmly.
Cambodia went from a country that we hadn’t even considered visiting, to one of our definite favourites, in one short week. Aside from the delicious food, enlightening experiences and fascinating sites, what really was the “cherry on top” in Cambodia was the people. From the moment we landed, until the moment we left, we never once felt cheated, ripped off or mistreated. The kind, humble and hospitable nature of the Cambodian people is something we hope to take home with us and impart on visitors to our own country.