Ah, Cambodia. What a different place from the others I’ve traveled in Asia before.

Phenom Penh. A sprawling, buzzing city crammed with low cement and wooden buildings, many displaying a heavy French architectural influence. I opted to stay at a guesthouse recommended in the center of the city, knowing that I’d hopefully be away from the hoards of backpackers that I had started to get tired of back in Thailand (shout out to Khao San Road). A five-minute walk from the Tonle Sap river, I often walked the boardwalk next to the river, staring out at the large barges or small fishing boats and the ever accumulating trash. There are a string of restaurants, cafés, and bars along this route that I liked to frequent. Khmer cuisine, Indian, Western-style restaurants advertising pizza and Mexican food, bakeries, etc.

The first full day there I spent my time trying to walk the city, making it to the Royal Palace, National Assembly, and Liberation and Independence Monuments. Not much to see, and it was hot as hell. Plus I had cable for the first time back in my hotel room (I know, lame. But HBO!).

My second day I hired a tuk-tuk for the day to take me to the Killing Fields, the Russian Market, and the s21 Genocide Museum. The Killing Fields are in a small town outside of Phenom Penh called Choeung Ek, and besides for the memorial that was erected to house all of the bones and skulls found at this site, the only indication that something monstrous happened here are the excavation pits that have not been filled in along with numerous placards explaining their significance. If you look closely too, you come across stray bone fragments, teeth, and scraps of clothing on the paths that are continuously uncovered by the rains and by time. It’s pretty creepy. It was here in 1980 that the bodies of 8,985 people, victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, were exhumed from 86 mass graves. There are still over 40 graves that have been left untouched.

a look through the hallways of the S21 Genocide Museum

Next, my tuk-tuk driver and I headed to the Russian Market where we both had lunch before heading to the S21 Genocide Museum. The museum was originally a secondary school that was turned into a prison during the Pol Pot regime. Men, women, and children came here to be tortured and killed from all different areas of society – monks, students, farmers, teachers, doctors, and generally anyone who had an education.  It is said that over a million people passed through this prison, and there are blood marks still upon the tiles and walls as proof. Very few escaped with their lives.

The Khmer Rouge were the ruling communist party in Cambodia from 1975-1979, whose goal was to turn the country into an agrarian utopia through radical social reform, dissolving the monetary system, education, religion, and any professions that had the mark of capitalism. The Khmer Rouge are responsible for the deaths of around 1.5-2 million people through starvation, forced labor, disease, torture, and murder.

Because of all of this unnerving history – including the photos of Phenom Penh as a literal ghost town when the city was evacuated – I felt pretty uneasy here, which is not common for me in places I’ve traveled. I couldn’t wait to continue on my trip – so, obviously unnecessary,  I left by bus to Siem Reap the following day.

But my hasty decision paid off. Siem Reap is a wonderful city on a much cleaner/smaller scale compared to the capital. The city is divided by a small river, with most of Siem Reap’s attractions focused along its banks. I stayed in a dirt-road neighborhood packed with clean and comfy guesthouses (also with cable!), that was a leisurely 15 minute walk to the Psar Chas (Old Market) and the center of town that was the focal point of all tourist activity – packed with restaurants, cafés, fish and massage spas, clubs, and the notorious Pub Street (I think the name is self-explanatory).

Wahoo! Angkor Wat.

David met me in Siem Reap the night after I arrived after his tour through Vietnam, and the next morning we headed to the ruins of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Phrom. Hallelujah. I have wanted to see these sites for as long as I can remember, and I can finally cross them off my bucket list. Angkor Wat, in all of its magnificence, was actually less magnificent than I had imagined. Most likely due to the hoards of tourists that file through the entryways and clog up the narrow hallways. But nonetheless, the temple and the huge moat that surrounds it was a pretty spectacular site to see.

Sitting in Bayon

Dav and I outside the gate to Angkor Thom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angkor Thom and the main temple of Bayon was without a doubt my favorite. With far less tourists and intricate bas-reliefs stemming from Hinduism and Buddhism, including the many stone faces that rise above the temple, it was a (please excuse the phrase) “magical” place.

Next was Ta Phrom, the temple in the jungle that has largely been left as it was found (except for the massive amounts of looting of statues that is found at all of the temples), with shimmering silk cotton trees and their roots weaving in and out of the stone architecture. David and I did some exploring here, passing down dank and crumbling passageways to eventual dead-ends, or climbing piles of stone to sit and look out at the view of the ruins. We were both in awe of the beauty, the detail, and the age of these temples – both so happy to have seen these places first hand.

Ta Phrom

David exploring Ta Prom

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