Before I go too far into our adventure in Cambodia, I wanted to give you a little history and context to some of what you’ll read in the next few posts.
Cambodia is in a post-war state. The country is very poor and its people are still suffering from the atrocities imposed by the Khmer Rouge. In fact, the country didn’t see peace until 1999. It’s still recovering and is a bit forgotten about.
I won’t dive too far back in history because you don’t have to go very far to understand why Cambodia is so poor and considered a third world country. I’m also leaving out tremendous detail for the sake of brevity. Consider this a cliff notes version of the history of Cambodia.
Let’s go back to 1970. The US was at war with Vietnam. Of course, Vietnam had formed alliances with the Cambodian government, so essentially the US was against Cambodia as well. The US bombed Cambodia quite heavily hoping to destroy Vietnamese camps hiding in the jungles. Many people don’t know this because Nixon ordered this carpet bombing illegally. It was done in secret because Congress hadn’t approved it. Unfortunately, many innocent villages were caught in the crossfire.
The communist Khmer Rouge took back control over Cambodia starting in 1973 and fully in 1975. This is when the genocide by Pol Pot, leader of Khmer Rouge, began.
Pol Pot ordered the evacuation of all major cities causing the entire urban population of Cambodia to flee to the countryside to work as farmers (2.5 million people). His goal was to purify the nation of religion, currency, and education.
To do this, he decided to take Cambodia (at the time called the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea) back to “year zero” and exterminate anyone against his ideals. This included practicing Buddhists, businessmen with an education, intellectuals, and foreigners. Many of the executions were done by working people to death in the fields. Others were starved or simply shot on the spot.
No one knows exactly how many people the Khmer Rouge killed, but it is estimated to be between one and two million. Mass graves are still being uncovered to this day. The Khmer Rouge’s reign lasted until 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded once more and sent the leaders of the cruel communist party to hide in the jungles.
Pol Pot continued to lead the Khmer Rouge party from his hideout in the jungle until 1997 when he was arrested by his own followers for murdering one of his close aides. He died in the jungle a year later and was never brought to justice for his actions.
Nearly 30 years after the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians received a little bit of justice. In 2010, A few of those responsible for murdering millions of people were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. One Khmer Rouge leader died during the trial and another was deemed mentally unstable to proceed with the trial due to Alzheimer’s. The trials are still ongoing, however, there is some debate as to whether or not those still on trial will be convicted.
September 1, 2018
Our first day exploring Angkor Wat started with the sunrise. We met our guide, Pich (pronounced PEACH, like the fruit), and driver, Mr. Socheat, in the lobby of our hotel at 5:00 am. Our hotel prepared breakfast boxes for us to enjoy after the sunrise which was so nice!
We climbed in the tuk-tuk and headed out into the dark streets of Siem Reap. The ride to Angkor Wat was only about 15 minutes.
Our driver couldn’t drop us right at the front of Angkor Wat, so we got out of the tuk-tuk and walked down a dirt path. I was glad to have Pich with us to show us where to go, especially in the dark.
Pich told us the best spot to watch the sunrise wasn’t from inside Angkor Wat, it was actually outside in front of the temple. The sun would rise from behind the temple so we’d get the best pictures if we stayed outside.
For the next 45 minutes, we saw hundreds of people filing into the temple so we were glad we had a calm spot outside. We were only joined by maybe 30 other people spread out along the stone stairs leading to the water.
The sunrise was incredible. Seeing the big ball of light appear behind the temple was truly magical.
Once the sun was up, Pich walked us to a small cafe near the front of the temple. It looked like the spot where every guide took their clients because we were joined by several other groups all enjoying their boxed breakfasts from their hotels. We ordered coffee and juice from the cafe (we felt like we had to). It wasn’t expensive though and they had “clean” bathrooms (note: if I mention a bathroom as “clean” in Cambodia it means there was a toilet, the floor wasn’t dirt, and there was a door to close).
Once we were done with breakfast, it was time to go inside Angkor Wat. I was bracing myself for the massive groups I was warned about; there’s no such thing as beating the crowds at Angkor Wat.
We showed our temple passes to the guard at the entrance and walked across a floating bridge into the temple. To my surprise, there was hardly anyone there! What happened to the hundreds of people we saw walking in for the sunrise?! It turns out, many of the big tour groups go for sunrise but leave immediately after to go to the other temples in the area. Why? I have no clue, but it worked in our favor.
So we entered the ancient temple where we were met with the most beautiful morning light pouring into each corridor. We were blessed with both incredible weather and zero crowds… we couldn’t ask for much more!
Pich filled us into the vast history of Angkor Wat. It is the largest religious monument in the world with the complex spanning 402 acres. The temples within the complex are so interesting because they started as Hindu and eventually became Buddhist. So you see both religious influences in the architecture.
Many of the ancient temples in Cambodia have been lost to the jungles. Since Cambodia has been through many hard times and war, temple upkeep and restoration had to be put on hold. During this time, vegetation and general weathering destroyed many temples. Angkor Wat, however, is surrounded by water. So encroaching vegetation was never able to overtake it.
You can see where some of the walls of the temple were damaged by gunfire and art thieves. Bullet holes cover a few of the temple pillars and nearly all the statues have missing heads.
As we walked from one part of the temple to the next, we saw a few locals sitting on the steps leading down to the grassy paths to some of the libraries off to the side of the main walkways. We had almost reached one of the libraries when we heard a woman scream very loudly. We all turned around and saw that a big monkey had attacked the woman’s baby. That was our first monkey interaction in Cambodia and a scary one. Even Pich seemed a bit nervous.
Speaking of Pich, he was an awesome guide to have as we wandered this massive place. He knew all the best picture spots and made sure we didn’t miss any opportunity for a cool photo.
We kept wandering through different towers. I was so glad I decided to wear a jumpsuit on this day rather than a dress; there was quite a lot of climbing up massive, ancient, stone stairs.
Pich took the time to explain a few of the ancient bas-reliefs covering the walls in the main towers. He told us these carvings took many years and it’s evident of the time they took based on how deep the carvings were. He explained that some of the temples in Siem Reap were rushed and you can tell because the carvings are very shallow.
Many of the carvings depict a sort of heaven and hell. One of the walls demonstrated the types of punishments one would receive based on certain sins. One in particular depicted a peeping Tom getting his eyes gouged out. Unfortunately, Pich told us that even though there are signs saying not to, people continually touch the carvings which make them start to look worn down.
Finally, we reached one of the main towers that we could actually climb. Thankfully, there were wooden stairs that had been built over the original stone stairs. Although, they were still extremely steep.
This tower had an amazing view from the top with a giant courtyard in the middle. The morning light and lack of tourists made it even more special.
After we descended the tower, it was time to move on to another temple. We still had to go back the way we came but we wandered on the other side this time.
Once we reached the front, there was a family of monkeys over to the side. I was nervous from our first experience with the monkeys here, but these were much smaller than the one that attacked the human baby. There was even a little baby monkey! They were super cute and more interested in eating fruit than us.
As we walked out of the Angkor Wat area, hoards of tourists were walking in; we had just beat the rush! As we walked past them, Pich said, “Chinese, all Chinese everywhere. We won’t escape them today, unfortunately.” He was right. The massive groups were all Chinese people with their tour guides holding flags so they knew which guide was theirs. How can that be enjoyable wandering through these amazing places with 100 of your closest countrymates? I just don’t get it.
Our driver was waiting at the entrance of the dirt path we had taken when we arrived. We hopped in the tuk-tuk and off we went to the next temple.
We arrived at the gate of Angkor Thom. It was really interesting and had a bridge with incredible statues lining the sides.
The main temple we would be exploring inside Angkor Thom would be Bayon, also known as the Happy Face Temple.
Our driver let us out before the entrance so we could walk around the outside.
We encountered another huge family of monkeys. Pich told us this group of monkeys had a “boss” monkey who was large and aggressive.
As we walked inside the temple, Pich told us Bayon suffered some extensive damage due to bombings during the Cambodian Civil War. Some restoration had taken place, but there were still massive piles of stone blocks where various pavilions once stood.
Pich told us this was his favorite temple because of all the smiling faces.
There were many more people at this temple than there were at Angkor Wat. It was much smaller than Angkor Wat so escaping the crowds was much harder. We wandered the temple for about 30 minutes and that’s really all we needed.
After Bayon, we stopped by Ta Keo, another temple within Angkor Thom. Pich let us go in on our own because this temple was even smaller than Bayon, but was still pretty to see.
This temple only had stone stairs to climb up. I’m not exaggerating when I say we climbed… take a look for yourself!
We were exhausted after the third temple. It was starting to get really hot and our conservative outfits were feeling more like sweatsuits. We found Pich sitting at one of the makeshift cafes outside the temple and decided to take a water break (it was a piece of metal covering a few plastic tables and chairs with a dirt floor). We had been EXTREMELY careful with everything we put in our mouths ever since we arrived in Cambodia, but a sealed bottle of water was always safe.
The woman running the cafe also had fresh coconuts. I thought a coconut would be safe since they are completely sealed up so I decided to get one. Pure coconut water is very nutritious and the perfect thing to help rehydrate after sweating so much.
We watched the woman take the coconut and wack it open with a giant cleaver. I had no idea the coconuts in Cambodia got so big. This coconut was massive! There was at least 20oz of liquid inside. Maybe more. It seemed endless.
After our rehydrating break, it was finally time for lunch. We had no idea if lunch was our decision or if Pich would take us somewhere on his own. He ended up bringing us to a roadside restaurant along the small circuit. It looked like the spot where all the guides brought their clients, just like the breakfast cafe, so we figured it had to be somewhat ok in terms of safety. The setting was pretty cool. Instead of tables, they had wooden platforms with pillows.
We looked at the menu and it was primarily Cambodian dishes. I knew I wasn’t going to eat any type of meat, so I ordered the one thing that looked vegetarian: mango salad. I also got pineapple juice. Eric got the fish amok, one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes.
My pineapple juice came out and I realized my first mistake: ice. I completely forgot to ask for no ice. I flagged down our server and asked if I could get the pineapple juice without ice. He looked confused but acknowledged my request. Surely other tourists ask for no ice, this couldn’t be the first time someone asked.
Our server returned with my ice-free pineapple juice and it was hot. Miscommunication? I have no idea. The pineapple juice was brown and boiling hot like they put it on the stove before bringing it to me. Needless to say, I didn’t drink it.
Our food came out and my second mistake became apparent: ordering a salad in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. I should have just ordered vegetarian fried rice. So I picked around the leaves and just ate the vegetables and mango I could find. It was served with a side of jasmine rice so I ate some of that too. I quickly realized I wouldn’t be eating very much that day.
After lunch, we moved on to Ta Prohm. This is arguably the most well-known temple in Cambodia thanks to Angelina Jolie and Tomb Raider. The coolest thing about this temple is the trees that have taken over parts of it. These trees are so old and incredible to see; they almost don’t look real!
Something I forgot to mention at the beginning of this day was that all of these temples are under restoration by different countries. Cambodia can’t afford the upkeep, so other countries have come in to fund the restoration to keep these temples “alive”. Ta Prohm is under restoration by India right now.
Ta Prohm was unreal. It was so weird standing in a temple I never thought I’d ever get to see in real life. I have these moments when I travel where I just can’t believe I am where I am. It’s a strange almost dream-like feeling. “Am I really standing in an ancient temple in the middle of the Cambodian jungle? Yes, yes I am. How lucky am I?!”
At this point in the day, we were so exhausted, but we weren’t ready to quit! So Pich brought us to a pretty sandstone temple called Prasat Kravan. It was so small but very different from what we had seen all day.
It was only around 2:00 pm but we had completed the small circuit. Pich asked us what we wanted to do. We asked him what else we should see and he suggested the Cambodian Landmine Museum. This was something on our list and since we had time and already paid for our driver, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to go.
We reached the museum and it wasn’t what I was expecting. Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting. Pich said they offer free guided tours with the ticket price but they wouldn’t start one unless a large group of people formed. Since it was just the two of us, they wouldn’t start yet. So Pich told us to just wander around and if more people came we could join the tour.
Spoiler alert: no one else came. So we just showed ourselves around. It wasn’t hard since there were English signs throughout the outdoor displays. We just followed the paths and read as we went.
I had done research on Cambodia before we traveled there. To be honest, I didn’t know much about it. We were taught about WWII and the Vietnam War in school, but nothing was really ever said about Cambodia. It sickens me a bit because of everything they went through and still are going through to this day. How is the US not educating our people more on this? I haven’t talked to a single person back home that knows nearly anything about Cambodia, even those old enough to remember the Vietnam War vividly. Many people don’t even know where it is let alone what they went through!
Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow it doesn’t look like those weapons are inside a case with tamper proof tempered glass like in a government regulated US war museum.” Why yes, you would be correct. Nothing was bolted down and everything was scattered about on shelves and on the floor like they were a bunch of knick-knacks. You want to pick up a rifle? no problem! Oh whoops! I kicked over a missile. No big deal!
We left the museum slightly somber but feeling more educated. I was very glad we went even though we didn’t get the tour.
After the museum, we asked Pich if there was anywhere else he would suggest we go. He told us there was a wonderful shop near our hotel that helped divorced Cambodian women find work. That became our last stop of the day.
In Cambodia, marriage and divorce are brutal. For a man to marry a woman, he has to present the woman’s family with a dowry (a sum of money the parents request from the man in order to marry their daughter). If the man cannot pay the dowry, he cannot get married. This is why there are so many single Cambodian men. The country is poor, therefore the people are poor. If the men cannot come up with a significant amount of money, they will never get married. Pich told us he fell in love with a girl but could not afford to marry her. He decided he would rather save up his money to open up his own restaurant in the future.
On the other side, divorce basically ostracizes women. After a divorce, women rarely re-marry and it becomes extremely difficult for them to find work. Society wants nothing to do with divorced women and it usually forces them to leave the country in order to make ends meet.
This is where Senteurs d’Angkor comes in. They focus on employing divorced women to help them stay in Cambodia and have a sense of community. The women are given a job like making soap, candles, tiger balm, lip balm, tea, incense, or even the packaging for these items. Then these items are sold to the public in their store and used in their spa in downtown Siem Reap.
We were shown around the workshop where we saw women making all these things and more. It was wonderful to see a place focused on bringing something good to the people of Cambodia.
We stopped in their shop and bought a few things to bring home and then we made our way back to our hotel.
On the way back to the hotel, Pich opened up to us a bit. He told us he was 38 and remembers bits and pieces of the Khmer Rouge regime. His family was murdered by the communist regime when he was very young. To his knowledge, he does not have any remaining family members.
When he was 5 years old, he was placed in an orphanage. He told us about the struggle each day for food. Some days all they received was a small portion of rice since the orphanages were so overcrowded.
As a teen, his orphanage was visited by a wealthy couple from California. They talked to Pich and asked him what he wanted to do when he was able to go out on his own. He told them he wanted to study at a University to learn English and work for the government. The California couple sponsored him and sent him to University. He credits them for helping him get out of the orphanage and off the streets to become a successful tour guide today.
He kept in contact with the couple for a long time until he learned of their death a few years ago. He regrets not being able to visit them in the US, but he said he could never afford it.
Around 4:00 pm we arrived back at our hotel and said our goodbyes to Pich and Mr. Socheat. We found so much value in having Pich with us all day that we decided to book him and Mr. Socheat again for the next day to see the Grand Circuit of Angkor Wat. They were both excited, probably because we tipped them very well. We probably tipped too much, but it’s hard not to. The average annual household income in Cambodia is just over $1,200. That isn’t a typo. $1 to them means they can feed their family for a week.
We walked up to our room to change into our bathing suits. It was happy hour at our hotel and the pool was calling our names! Not five minutes later, there was a knock at our door. One of the hotel staff was waiting there with a tray of fresh mango and mango juice! It was so delicious.
The pool was so nice and relaxing. We ordered a few drinks and stayed for a couple hours. First, Eric got a mojito and I got a fruit shake. Then I got a passion fruit mojito. Yum!
For dinner, we decided to check out the one brewpub in all of Siem Reap. Aptly named Siem Reap Brewpub… creative!
It was really pretty on the inside and looked like a spot frequented by expats. We came to realize that most decent restaurants in Siem Reap were mostly for the tourists and expats. I’m sure you can figure out why.
We both ordered flights of beer and were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the beer. Coming from the US, it’s hard to find decent craft beer anywhere else. They did a good job!
We ordered the spring rolls to start which was a total mistake. We assumed they were fried like spring rolls you order at any Asian establishment in the US. Nope. These were fresh spring rolls. What are fresh spring rolls? Basically raw veggies wrapped in slimy rice paper. I’m sure people like these, but not us. Oh, they were not good.
For my main dish, I got the honey garlic prawns. Eric got some kind of meat that I can’t remember because I didn’t take a picture!
The waiters would not remove our spring rolls. Not even after we had finished our main dishes. It was only until we asked for the check that someone said, “Did you not like the spring rolls?” In America, it’s common for people not to finish their food. We get way too much of it and then we get full. In Cambodia, food is hard to come by. We felt so guilty not finishing our food but honestly, we struggled to eat even one of these rolls. They even had the manager come out to understand why we didn’t finish them. We would come to realize this is really common in Southeast Asia if you don’t finish all of your food. I rarely do so I was shamed at every meal.
After dinner, we walked back to our hotel. It was a little sketchy since we were still a little unfamiliar with Siem Reap. We had been told it was very safe, but there are very few streetlights when not on the main roads. Immediately when we walked out of the brewpub we saw a massive fire in the street. It was so weird. There was a police officer just standing there watching it. He saw us and waved us by. Casual.
We made it back to our hotel and crashed. We wouldn’t be starting nearly as early the next day, but it would still be a long one since we wanted to catch the sunset somewhere.
Read about our next day exploring Angkor Wat here.