This is the second installment of Rachel & Gabe Rock Asia (following Part 1: Hong Kong). It’s extremely long and contains a tons of pictures, so settle in and enjoy!
Getting from Hong Kong to Siem Reap (REP) was a bit of a planning challenge. Flying direct was not an option—at least one, and often two connections was necessary. And even those cost upwards of $450 USD one way. So then I got “smart” and realize that we could fly direct to Phnom Penh (PNH), explore there, then take either a bus or a boat to Siem Reap and see the countryside along the way. Normally this one-way ticket on Dragonair (Cathay Pacific’s low-cost carrier) would be about $550 USD, but because they’re a oneworld partner we were able to redeem 15,000 American AAdvantage miles and call it a day (not an amazing redemption ratio, but not bad by any means). The flight on Dragonair was quite nice (as was the case on all the Asian carriers), so I would recommend the airline to anyone looking for intra-Asia flights
Anyway, I put the word smart in quotation marks because although we enjoyed the way the trip panned out, we would never do it that way again. You’ll find out more later. First, let’s dig in to the good stuff.
My first impressions of Cambodia were far better than anything I expected. As the least developed country I’ve yet visited, my expectations were quite low—thatched roofs, predominantly non-motor transportation, and things of that nature. Instead I encountered an airport on par with those in small town America, modern buildings, plenty of people driving cars of the mid-nineties or newer, and everything being quite pleasant overall. Well, except for the massive flooding we flew over on the way in—that was not pleasant, and my heart ached for these people before we even touched down.
After we landed we found our driver waiting for us in the parking lot—he was holding a sign that read “MOGOLSKI” ;) If you ever go to Southeast Asia, don’t even dream of renting a car and driving yourself around—it’s not possible. These people have absolutely no regard for traffic laws (if they even exist), the concept of staying in a lane, or the instruction “do not enter.” I can’t imagine an attempt to drive that didn’t result in the death of myself or another. Or at least a stray dog or rooster. The good news is that you can hire a driver for an entire day in Cambodia for something in the vicinity of $40, so getting around won’t break the bank.
O.K., back to activities. Before heading to the bus depot, we had our driver take us to the Killing Fields. Yes, I’m talking about the site featured in the 1984 film of the same name. Touring the Killing Fields was an extraordinarily eye opening experience. We learn about the Holocaust over and over again in school, yet we don’t even touch on these other genocides and atrocities that have happened, nearly even in our lifetime. I don’t want to go into a history lesson here, but if you don’t know much (or anything) about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime, and Cambodia in the 1970s, I recommend you do some reading.
Long story short: it was a terrible communist regime which aimed to institute a forced agrarian society and killed any and everyone who was educated, appeared educated, or was related to an educated person. Somewhere between 1.7 and 2.5 million men, women and children of the 8 million-person Cambodian population were tortured and executed in just four years by the Khmer Rouge, and much of that took place at the Killing Fields. The final stop on the Killing Fields tour is this stupa, the center glass portion of which is filled with hundreds of victims’ skulls, many of which show evidence of the blow that ended that person’s life. The stupor’s design is very symbolic and unfortunately too much for me to digest and repeat.
We considered going to Tuol Sleng Prison/Genocide museum after the Killing Fields, but unfortunately we ran out of time before we had to be at the bus depot. We heard from friends that is a good museum, however, so I do recommend that you try to pencil it in to your trip.
Our experience at the bus depot was hectic and nerve-wracking, to say the least. We were two of very few non-Cambodians there, and we were all kinds of grateful that it was air conditioned because it was hoooooooot and humid in Phnom Penh! Between the little bit of English being spoken, having to stare down our luggage sitting outside in a giant pile afraid that it was going to be loaded onto a bus going who knows where, and being unable to ignore the man who kept trying to sell us a newspaper, there was just too much going on for the two of us—it made me very nervous about what was about to come.
Luckily, it turned out that there wasn’t much to be afraid of. The bus was decent, they gave us free water and snacks, and the two small Cambodian children on the bus didn’t make a peep the entire time (American parents could stand to take lessons from these people!).
Although the bus was nice enough, the ride was LONG. For whatever reason I was expecting a 5-hour ride. What we got was an 8+ hour ride delayed by flooded roads and slow-moving traffic. The up side was that we got to see what “real life” in Cambodia actually looked like, and it was much more like what I initially expected of the country—thatched roofs, livestock feeding on the side of the road, stray dogs and cats everywhere, and lots and lots of flooding.
We didn’t get into Siem Reap until late, so we didn’t really know what to make of it. The next morning once we arrived at Angkor Wat, however, we quickly realized that every minute of the bus ride was totally worth it. In two days we visited seven different temples, each of which had a totally different (amazing) look and feel. Because I’m obsessed with ancient civilizations, I could go on for days about the temples. Instead, I’ll post some pictures and brief commentary of and about my favorites:
Before we got there I was aware that Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, but I was not prepared for exactly how massive it is. On top of that, every square inch of it is covered in some kind of extremely ornate carving. We visited twice—once as our first stop, and once at sunrise on our last day—and I *highly* recommend a sunrise visit. I am NOT a morning person, and if I’m willing to wake up during the 5:00 hour, you KNOW it’s going to be good. Overall I was very impressed by Angkor Wat, but didn’t realize what kind of other awesome was waiting for us around Siem Reap.
Angkor Thom - Bayon
I liked Bayon—part of the Angkor Thom complex—even better than Angkor Wat. It felt much more genuine than Angkor Wat partly because it wasn’t as well restored (as you can see in the pictures), and partly because style of everything from the construction to the carvings was completely different from what we saw at A.W. (I tried to add pics of the more detailed carvings, but Tumblr won’t let me :-/). The reason for this is that every Khmer king would build his own temple when he came to power, thus leaving something like 100 years between the completion of each. Tastes and styles obviously change in such a long period of time. Anyway, the smiling faces of Jayavarman VII were my favorite thing about Bayon—they’re huge and everywhere—Wikipedia says there are 216 of them. They make you feel so happy :)
Angkor Thom - Baphuon
Please excuse the poor quality of the first photo—the humidity had taken over my lens by this point in the day (ohhhh the humidity!). We were really lucky because according to our 2012 Fodor’s, this temple was supposed to still be closed for restoration—but lookie there, we made it! Bauphon reminded me of a Mayan/Aztec temple because of the general pyramid shape, and this was the first temple we encountered in the area that wasn’t completely covered in carvings. You can’t really tell without looking closely, but the walkway leading up to the temple is raised 10 feet or so off the ground—it created a really cool effect as you approached the main entrance. This was also the temple where I was followed around by a bunch of teenage monks, one of whom kept taking photos of me. After I noticed this I went out of my way to make friends, take photos, and help them practice their English. It was great fun.
Banteay Srei, “The Citadel of Women,” is located quite far outside of the main temple area, but is totally worth the drive (and the extra $10 or so for your driver). Again, this temple is completely different from the others we visited—it’s made out of pink sandstone, the carvings are (again) distinct, there are no stairs (everything is on the same level), and the jungle kind of closes in around it making you feel like you’ve found something hidden. The light bouncing off the sandstone was so pretty, I can’t even explain it. You can also enjoy some shade here, which was quite welcome at this point in our day. The only bad part was the dozens of Japanese tourists carrying umbrellas and making it very difficult to take a good picture.
Ta Prohm was my favorite of all the temples we visited. A few parts of it have been restored, but most of it has been left as is, which is to say awesomely giant piles of centuries-old rubble. It really made you feel like a tomb raider walking around the giant maze of dark, damp corridors, getting stuck at dead ends and then emerging into bright wide open courtyards. And yeah—that’s probably why they filmed the movie there. The coolest part is that the temple has been quite literally overgrown by trees—not just one or two, but hundreds…it’s so eerie! I can’t imagine that anywhere else on earth is like this place.
Cambodia Landmine Museum
The last site in Siem Reap I’d like to mention is the Cambodia Landmine Museum. You can pop in on your way out to Banteay Srei; it was one of my favorite stops on the entire trip due to educational value. The man who runs it, Aki Ra, was a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge (then the Vietnamese Army and later the Cambodian Army) tasked with planting landmines. The destruction he witnessed during his younger years (O-M-G, thank goodness we live in America) lead him to dedicate his adult life to de-mining Cambodia. The museum teaches you much about the history of the Khmer Rouge, technical aspects of landmines and de-mining, and the politics involved with de-mining efforts in SE Asia. Along with the museum, Aki Ra also runs an orphanage which takes in children maimed and injured by landmines whose parents cannot/will not. The museum had quite an impact on me, and I’m so glad we stopped by. Added bonus: the views of the rice paddies and huts along the drive out to the museum are quite beautiful.
Accommodations in Siem Reap
If you’re heading to Siem Reap, I highly recommend our hotel—the Angkor Pearl. We stayed there for three nights and found it to be a very nice hotel—exceptionally nice considering the going rate was less than $18/night! It was named the #6 best bargain in Asia in the TripAdvisor 2011 Travelers’ Choice Awards, and the accolade is well deserved. You can find Gabe’s detailed review if you’re interested (he left it on December 14th, in case you have to scroll down).
OK, that was incredibly long. Thanks for sticking with it, loyal readers, and you can look forward to my next post on Thailand sometime in the next couple of weeks! Speaking of readers…
Have any of you been to Cambodia? How did you like it? Do you recommend any stops I didn’t mention?