Travel Dates: March 7-12, 2017
I knew very little about the Cambodia and its tragic history before coming to visit.
At the recommendation of one of the staff members at Phum Baitang, I downloaded First They Killed My Father: A Daughter in Cambodia Remembers on my kindle and began reading the harrowing true story of one family’s struggle to survive during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror from 1975-1979, told through the perspective of 5 year old Loung Ung. Over a four year period, approximately 2 million Cambodians and ethnic minorities (25% of the country’s population) perished under their rule from mass executions, strenuous working conditions, starvation, and or poor medical care. It was a heartbreaking account of the Khmer Rogue’s atrocities against their fellow man.
Accommodations: Phum Baitang
From Laos we traveled southwest to Siem Reap, gateway to the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat. We planned on spending the next few days exploring the Angkor ruins of the former great Khmer Empire.
First we checked into Phum Baitang, a beautiful luxury hotel amid lush green gardens and rice paddy fields. We were upgraded to a stunning stilted wooden villa with a private plunge pool courtesy of honeymundo. The resort and room were impeccable. A perfect combination of charm, comfort, and rustic luxury.
The next morning we rose bright and early for a sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. We departed at 4:45 am to purchase tickets, hoping to beat the crowds. FYI, you have the option of purchasing 1,3,7 day entrance passes for Angkor Park. Tickets are purchased at Angkor Enterprises (located off site) and cash is the only form of payment accepted. We went with the 3 day option for $37 USD each. If possible, purchase your tickets a day in advance to avoid long lines. Tickets purchased after 5pm are valid for the next day. When we arrived to the West Gate, we realized we were not the only ones with the same brilliant plan. We joined hundreds of other tourist that had arrived before us to claim a lakefront spot to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It felt a little like Disneyland but when the sun peeked up over the temple and cast a radiant glow over the tranquil lake, all was right again.
We spent the rest of the morning exploring the intricate galleries of the complex temple system, perusing the detailed pictorial scenes carved into the sandstone, and learned more about the ancient Khmer civilization. We climbed the notoriously steep Angkorean stairs, snapped some shots, checked out the inner enclosure and then made our way to Angkor Tom, the last great capital of the Khmer Empire.
At the center of Angkor Thom, lies Bayon Temple featuring 200+ massive stone faces with curious smiles staring in different directions. We stood in awe gazing up at the many faces that seemingly watched our every move.
In the evening we arranged a food tour through Vespa Adventure. It was a fun, interactive way to learn more about Cambodian culture and cuisine. We were picked up directly from our hotel and whisked away through the busy streets of Siem Reap to meet up with our guide Akim and the rest of the group. It was an adventurous night where we sampled a range of exotic fruits, various grilled meats (including snake, crocs, and toads) and munched on fried insects! My favorite was the fried grasshoppers. They taste just like fried crisps.
The next afternoon we hired a driver (cancelled our guide for the day) and went off in search of a less crowded temple. We found Preah Khan, one of the largest complexes of Angkor, left largely unrestored with trees growing out of the ruins. Surprisingly this temple is not as frequented as some of the other more popular ones. We had our Indiana Jones moment wandering about and exploring the galleries and courtyards of the ruins. With no one in sight, Amit climbed up on top a giant mound of dislodged sandstone blocks for a photo op and was “almost” crushed when the blocks shifted under his weight. Despite his near death experience, this was his favorite Angkor temple.
Our last temple was Ta Prohm (A.K.A Tomb Raider Temple), a beautiful untouched temple overgrown with enormous trees and dense foliage. It is arguable the most photogenic temple in all of Angkor. Unfortunately we arrived just before closing so we didn’t have a ton of time to explore but it was fascinating witnessing the power of the mother nature as the jungle reclaimed Ta Prohm as its own, over centuries of growth.
Accommodations: Raffles Le Royal
After a short 45 minute flight, we landed in Phnom Penh, the capital and cultural center of Cambodia.
Following the Cambodian military coup in 1970, with the support of the overthrown King, the Khmer Rouge emerged as a major power, toppling Phnom Penh in 1975. The new regime immediately evacuated urban cities and forced entire populations into the countryside to work in collective labor camps. All professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers), members of the former government and militia along with their entire families were executed. This would later be known as the Cambodian Genocide.
On our first afternoon in Phnom Penh, we met and chatted with Youk Chhang, the Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields.” At age 15, Youk was arrested for stealing mushrooms for his pregnant sister, he was publicly beaten and sent to an adult prison. He was let go after an older prisoner begged for his release. Youk later learned that the older prisoner was killed in exchange for his freedom. After his escape he committed his life to conducting research and documenting the Khmer Rouge regime to promote awareness and justice for Cambodia.
In the evening we met up with our European doppleganger couple Adrien and Sina who we met on the Vespa Food Tour in Siem Reap. We hit it off so well, we made plans to grab dinner our first night in Phnom Penh. We headed to Romdeng, a restaurant famous for their deep-fried Tarantulas. Of course Amit tried his best to get one of us to sample a giant hairy spider with him but he had no takers. Instead we dined on more traditional (bug-free) Khmer dishes and traded travel stories with our new friends.
The next day we visited Choeung Ek, a former mass gravesite for victims of the Khmer Rouge regime also referred to as a “killing field” where the remains of thousands of men, women, and children were discovered. As you walk the grounds around the excavation, you can see pieces of clothing, human bones, even molars peaking out of the earth. We paid our respects at the Choeung Ek Memorial, a Buddhist Stupa filled with 5000 human skulls before heading to Tuol Sleng, a former high school converted into an interrogation prison known as S-21. It was a heavy day, full of moving images but it brought to life how fragile society can be. It is easy to want to forget the horrific tragedies of the Cambodian Genocide, but as survivors Loung Ung and Youk Chhang have demonstrated, it’s important to remember.