Cambodia: Phnom Penh and the Khmer Empire of Angkor
Visiting Cambodia is something I tell people is an absolute 'must do' experience in your life time. In fact, it was so good, I did it twice! Sampling the magical Angkor temples is a life changing event. Angkor Wat itself is the world's largest religious building, a mix of both Hindu and Buddhist. However, there are dozens more spectacular ruins around it to explore. Take this one fact, that at it's absolute height, the city of Angkor, including its hundreds of temples and houses made it the biggest city on the planet back in the 1200s, with over 1 million residents. If you wish to learn more about this wondrous ancient location then there are dozens of good documentaries online. About the best documentary I have seen is this Timeline one called Angkor: City of God Kings. It maps the old layout of the city using NASA thermal imaging, unveiling many secrets of its past. It also speculates as to the demise of the Khmer Empire.
I first visited back in 2004, and revisited this magnificent complex a second time back in 2012. If you make it to Cambodia, be sure to visit the capital city of Phnom Penh, a thriving Asian jewel of a city at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. I've visited Cambodia, from two different directions, from both Thailand first and Vietnam first. For the purpose of this article I will describe from the Vietnam direction first, visiting Phnom Penh, then onto ancient Angkor.
So where did my fascination for Cambodia first materialise? Invariably, my first memory of any country is often when it hits the news, often for wrong reasons, some tragic event. When I was just 6 years of age, back in 1979, Cambodia was in the grip of one of the most grueling genocides in human history. The leader Pol Pot had ruled this small Southeast Asian country for just 4 years and absolutely annihilated his own people, some 2 million of them. After losing grip on his power, the country went into further meltdown as hundreds of thousands of people were killed by further famine. I remember even as a small child, UK's charities raising money for the people of Cambodia, to combat this awful famine that was man-made. Cambodia had already suffered at the hands of mass bombing during the latter stages of the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1973, when the US decided to bomb the eastern half of the country in an attempt to combat the North Vietnamese who used Cambodia to smuggle weapons down into South Vietnam.
My second recollection of Cambodia as a child was the release of a British made film in 1983, called The Killing Fields. This film is the true story an American journalist called Sydney Shanberg who worked for the New York Times and was stationed in Phnom Penh in the 1970s. As the capital fell into the grips of Khmer Rouge rule, he attempts to help evacuate his close colleague, local Cambodian Dith Pran and his family. I will not give any more away in case you have not seen it. If this is the case may I recommend you see this true story film, in order to get an insight as to what went on in Cambodia during the 1970s. This film alone made me want to visit Cambodia, even before I learned about the wondrous Angkor complex.
At the heart of Phnom Penh, you will find the Silver Pagoda belonging to the royal family that was exiled for so many used during the reign of the brutal Khmer Rouge. You pay a small fee of around $5USD to enter the grounds and a little extra if you wish to video the place. Although it's not that old, it is still grand in architectural terms, with some resemblance to the mighty Bayon at Angkor, which I will come to later. After a wander around the grounds, take a stroll out to the riverside, beside the almighty Mekong where you can people watch for hours. Phnom Penh is now a city of 1 million people, and once again reliving its name as the 'Pearl of Asia'.
This photo is one my favourites and makes me marvel at how an entire family of 5 uses a 125cc moped to get around the city, and they're loaded with market goods too!
The people of the developing world are so adept at using transport and machinery to the maximum. This moto taxi has entire furniture store in tow, most incredible! So after I sat beside the Mekong River I decided to do a spot of site seeing around the city. I must warn you as a traveller that with the harrowing history of this nation it can be upsetting but its very necessary to witness the brutality that they suffered. First of all I went to a former prison from the days of the Khmer Rouge, known Tuol Sleng or S21. This is a converted secondary school which made into an internment camp. Here people were photographed and brutally imprisoned and often bludgeoned to death. People are taken from and then led out of the city to the Killing Fields as aforementioned already.
By total chance during my upsetting visit to Tuol Sleng I was honoured to meet one of only a handful of survivors in Cambodia who actually went to the prison, a man called Chum Mey. His story has been well documented in an article by the BBC and he has also written a book about surviving torture in the prison. The only reason Mey was spared death was the regime thought he could be of use to them in terms of information. Below is a photo of me with Chum Mey.
After visiting Tuol Sleng, and being moved to tears, I rode moped out to the edges of the city to see the Killing Fields where 9000 victims of the Khmer Rouge were put in mass graves. This place is called Cheung Ek, out towards Phnom Penh airport. This site is actually that of the real killing fields themselves and contains 129 mass graves. Your first sight is that of a huge column of skeletons, victims who have been exhumed from the brutal murders.
When you stand close to the monument and see the skeletons of victims piled 30 feet high, you cannot helped be moved by the tragedy of 1970s Cambodia. The genocide which claimed 2 million people in around 4 years was one quarter of what was then a nation of 8 million people.
I returned into Phnom Penh city absolutely numbed by the tragedy of Cambodia's past. I remember it taking a day or so to internalize the fact this mass murder must have touched every single family in the country even to this day, some 40 years later.
The city of Phnom Penh contains a few buildings from the French colonial period. Similar to neighbouring Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was a part of what was called French Indo China. The French ruled here from the late 1850s through to the 1950s. There was a brief period of Cambodia being an independent royal kingdom for 20 odd years before the vicious Khmer Rouge came to power. King Sihanouk started off quite popular but was ousted from power in 1970 and went into exile. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is back to being a Constitutional Monarchy.
If you want an interesting side trip from Phnom Penh and to experience somewhere slightly less touristy than the capital and also Angkor, take a bus out east to the town of Kratie, up the Mekong Valley. I spent a couple of days here in this peaceful town. My main aim was to try and see the pink river dolphins which are quite unique. I did get a glimpse of them at sundown but a little more distance than I'd have liked. However, I did get a nice river boat trip on the Mekong out of it and a sample of rural Cambodian life. I'd recommend this side trip to Kratie if you have the time.
Then onto the almighty Angkor part of my Cambodia adventure. It takes around 6 hours by bus or about the same if you take a riverboat taxi up the Tonle Sap. Everyone who visits the ancient city of Angkor tends to stay in the bustling town of Siem Reap, which is just 10 minutes tuk tuk ride from the ruins. Like in the rest of Southeast Asia you will be spoiled for choice in terms of hotel choices, anything from $10 hostels through to luxury 5 star hotels with all the frills, but for hundreds of dollars a night. I usually settle for a low to middle range hotel from 2 to 3 stars, costing just $25-30USD, which Siem Reap has aplenty. There isn't a huge amount to see in Siem Reap itself, I would just get yourself straight to Angkor on day one, and make the most of all 3 days which you get on your ticket. The current 3 day ticket is a little of $60USD but worth every cent! In fairness to Cambodia, they have not altered these prices barely in over 15 years. You are visiting in my humble opinion the most intricate and fascinating set of manmade structures on the planet, and that includes the Egyptian pyramids in the mix!
On your first day, it is irresistible to visit the actual centre piece of the Angkor complex itself, known as Angkor Wat. This structure dates back to the early to mid 1100s when the Khmer Empire was ruled by Surayvarman II. This was when the Khmers were at their absolute height of empire in Southeast Asia, ruling as far west as Burma and also Vietnam to the east. You enter the Angkor Wat across a giant moat and then through a grand gate of its outer wall. There are a further two inner walls which guard the central towers which rise to a massive 51 metres above the ground. Inside of the main walls, there a bas-reliefs or galleries full of incredible carving depicting the Khmer wars with her neighbours such as the Siamese and Vietnamese.
As you enter the inner walls, you have a sense of scale. The inner sanctum of Angkor is approximately 200 metres across, and has steps guiding you ever higher to the central tower. Beware the stair get steep towards to the middle, take great care climbing down as well as up! It adds to the ambiance of the place, that there are hundreds of Buddhist monks roaming around exploring the site too. Angkor was originally built as a Hindu city back in the earlier days of the 900s, with the face of Vishnu the creator visible all over. However, by the late 1100s Angkor evolved into a Buddhist site.
I remember back on my first visit in 2004 being in total awe of the central courtyards of the Angkor Wat temples and I had a chat with a few of the Buddhist monks who were there. They too, held the place in a sense of awe and wonder. I sat and chatted to one group for a while who were very friendly and started telling me some quite amusing jokes which I was not at all expecting!
This show some of the monks I chatted to still in fits of giggles after they told me a couple of jokes, that were a little on the rude side, which if I recall perhaps linked to some of the naked carvings behind us! Following my visit to the central towers, I got an atmospheric photo of some monks ascending some stairs.
Quite close to the main Angkor Wat itself is what is known as the Bayon. This was the original centre of the city of Angkor, inside the walls of an ancient citadel known as Angkor Thom (meaning 'city'). You enter this through an enormous gate flanked by thick rainforest trees. The Bayon dates back to slightly after Suryarvarman II, to the early 1200s when Jayavarman VII ruled the Empire. At this time, the Khmers had lost masses of land to the Vietnamese Cham Empire. The Bayon is much smaller than the Angkor Wat but almost as impressive in terms of its carvings. There are a whole bunch of corridors to explore but the most impressive features are the 54 gothic looking towers with over 200 creepy faces of Avolo Kiteshvara - but some say is actually a depiction of the ruler Jayavarman VII himself!
At the end of my first day of visiting Angkor, I jumped back in my tuk tuk which I shared with a couple of other travellers and headed back to nearby Siem Reap, totally bamboozled by my first day around the Angkor Wat and Bayon temples. I decided that on my second and third days I would ditch using a tuk tuk and I rented a bicycle to get around a few of the outer temples and sites. There is a whole labyrinth of old ruins to explore which can easily fill a couple more days. You have to pace yourself in the heat of the day, and also you take your time or risk becoming a little 'templed' out!
This photo of me is by the ruins of Ta Prohm, where a trees roots have strangulated the buildings. This is a fine example of biological weathering for all you geography fanatics out there! Ta Prohm is probably my third best experience visiting Angkor. There are dozens of corridors and buildings to explore around here, dating back to around 1200AD. Back in 2004, As I wandered the ruins I just happened to come across an old Cambodian man who was quite familiar to me from my week of wandering around the country. It was in fact the very man on the front cover of my Lonely Planet guide book! He had become quite a celebrity from having his photo on the cover. He was in his early 80s and didn't mind myself and many other visitors having their photo taken with him. By the time of my second visit, in 2012, sadly the old man had passed away, but he had reached the ripe old age of 90 bless him!
After cycling around the ruins of Angkor for a couple more days, I had just about reached my limit of soaking up the temples and sites. I decided to head up to the hill top ruins of Phnom Bakeng for one last over view of the whole of Angkor. It gets pretty crowded up there around sunset time, so you have to head up there quite early to beat the crowds. I was actually more taken with the view across the nearby paddy fields than that of Angkor Wat which was a little bit distant and overcast on the evening I went up there.
My very final experience of Angkor was to sample the grounds of Angkor Wat itself at twilight. It was incredibly eerie and you can almost sense the spirits of 1000 years of history all around you. What made it even more chilling for me was being the very last person in the grounds before the guards threw me out! I just wanted to see the mighty shape of the towers one last time silhouetted against the darkening twilight sky. In fact I was quite glad to have been thrown out of the grounds in the end, as it really would have been creepy to have been locked in all by myself overnight!
Thanks for reading my blog on Cambodia, including the modern and ancient historical perspectives. I would put visiting the Angkor Wat in my top 5 travel experiences of all time, for sure! If you wish to see more of my photos on Cambodia, please click here. Best wishes, Paul.
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