After Vietnam, I headed back to Thailand to explore some more, but I’ve already blogged about that (weren’t you paying attention?) So now I’m fast forwarding to… Cambodia! My mate Dave (from Seattle) and I met up with three fellow travellers that I met on my India tour two months prior.
We spent four days each in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I have to admit: I’m generally pretty good at history, but I didn’t really know all too much about Cambodia. I knew there was some sort of genocide there at some point in the not-too-distant past, but that’s about as far as my knowledge went. I honestly don’t recall this being taught in school in the US. Is this taught in US schools? If not, why not?
Of all of the Southeast Asian countries I’ve been to – which is now up to eight – I think I enjoyed Cambodia the most (though Singapore is great but expensive and Bali was lovely but part of Indonesia…) The people were probably the most pleasant in the region. Yes, they all want to make a buck, but they need a buck and they’re generally pretty nice about it.
A few highlights of my time in Cambodia:
When in Phnom Penh, one of the highlights is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. I am aware that genocide and highlight don’t really belong in the same sentence, but not all highlights have to be happy ones. This was truly an educational experience for me. With the museums in Africa and Asia lacking a lot of proper curation, it was actually refreshing to see a place that was put together well and provided extensive information in a digestible format. For those of you who don’t know, the rough story of Cambodia is this: in 1975 – some time after the country freed themselves of French colonial rule – a political party called the Khmer Rouge took over the country. They were communists to the extreme and envisioned a completely agrarian, self-sufficient society. That was never going to work, but still they tried. They emptied out cities and forced everyone to go to villages to work in the rice paddies. And the worst part is that they killed – by some estimates – as many as three million people, which was somewhere between a third and a fourth of their total population. Many of the victims were political rivals, but these people were so fucking crazy that they also killed anybody that they thought might get in their way, such as urban dwellers, intellectuals (including teachers or anyone who wore glasses), smaller ethnic groups, and more. In the process, they also tried their best to destroy Khmer culture (for example, you can’t keep a culinary tradition alive if you don’t have food to feed your people…) The Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and ousted the Khmer Rouge, but they kept their place as Cambodia’s UN representative for over a decade after that because the west didn’t like Vietnam and for some reason didn’t believe the stories coming out of the refugees. WTF, western world? The Killing Fields was one of the places where the regime murdered people. The country was too poor to buy bullets so they killed people anyway they could – mainly by beating or hacking them to death. They even killed infants by holding their legs and beating them against trees. Because infants were apparently a big threat. Mass graves and other parts of the killing fields were on display. A memorial stupa in the middle contained skulls and bones of many of the victims that had been dug up on the site. Everyone had their audio guides on and the whole place was eerily quiet. It was beyond sad, but it was definitely something that I’m glad I did. The world needs to hear these peoples’ stories.
Tuol Sleng Museum:
Just to ensure maximum sadness, we also visited the Tuol Sleng Museum. This museum used to be a school which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison. There really was no way to win with these people – they would arrest you for no reason, and if you denied doing anything wrong they would call you a liar and kill you, but if you admitted to doing anything wrong, they would also kill you. It was here where people were imprisoned before their deaths, and when they had too many people here to handle the killing part, that’s when the killing fields were opened. The museum had pictures of the victims, tiny prison cells on display, and other information that was important for piecing together the tragic history of Cambodia.
On a happier note, elsewhere in Phnom Penh we visited the Royal Palace, various wats (temples), a bunch of markets, and the National Museum. And then we took a boat from Phnom Penh up the river and through a big lake to get to Siem Reap.
Temples of Angkor:
I know I’ve seen a lot of temples already and am fully sick of temples, but the temple ruins of Angkor – the ancient capital of the Khmer empire – were outstanding. In all, we visited twelve different sites. Some of the more impressive were Banteay Srei, which had ornate carvings on display and was overrun with tourists, and Phnom Bok (recommended by a friend) which is virtually unknown to tourists, sitting high on a hill with great views. East Mebon had big stone elephants which were great for a photo shoot, Preah Khan was massive, Ta Prohm is being overtaken by the jungle and was where part of Tomb Raider was filmed, and Phnom Krom – also high on a hill – made for an excellent sunset viewing over Tonle Sap Lake. Angkor Thom was a complex with various temples, including the big Bayon temple and Baphuon, with its 60 metre reclining Buddha built into the back wall. But the crown jewel is, of course, Angkor Wat. The world’s largest religious monument, we spent quite a lot of time exploring here. Like an onion, there are different layers to Angkor Wat that you have to go through to get to the middle. The next morning after our initial visit, we went back (along with everybody visiting the country apparently) to watch the sunrise over the temple. It was fantastic. Later that day we visited the Angkor National Museum which had displays on the history of the temples and various relics of the temples. It was cool to see, but I wish we had done the museum first to have a better idea of what little things we should be looking out for.
Phare is the Cambodian Circus. It is similar to Cirque du Soleil but I actually enjoyed it more. The performers all come from disadvantaged families in small villages. The story they told was easy to follow and the performers made the show quite funny to watch. If you are visiting Cambodia, this is an excellent way to see a culture fighting to make a comeback.
Elsewhere in Siem Reap, we visited the workshop of Artisans d’Angkor – a non-profit that trains disadvantaged people in traditional crafts – and got one of those fish foot massage/pedicures where the fish come eat the dead skin off your feet. It was ticklish and weird at first, but I got used to it after a minute or two (and after much giggling!)
Aside from proper curation at museums, Cambodia also had a lot of top quality western-run restaurants and cafes (serving western food, local food, and inventive new versions of old local food). I think the high quality of the museums and restaurants is because Cambodia is so poor and has needed more help than its neighbours so many westerners have come here as NGO workers and possibly have stayed. This is my theory. I could be wrong, but I think it’s a good theory! Chicken amok was a local dish that I particularly enjoyed (amok was sort of like a satay sauce). I had a Khmer Muslim beef curry at a non-profit restaurant and had a taste of Dave’s red tree ant soup (if I could eat nasty worms in Africa then an ant or two in a delicious soup was no big deal…) But my favourite food of all in Cambodia was… wait for it… MEXICAN FOOD! I know what you’re thinking, but let me explain. One night we were wandering home from the markets and we stumbled upon a taco tuk-tuk. OMG. Did you read that? A FUCKING TACO TUK-TUK! Holy crap! I had just had dinner but I didn’t care: I got a quesadilla and it was actually pretty good. The guy was a local but had been trained by his old boss who was from California. Then, also in Phnom Penh, Dave and I went to a restaurant called Cocina Cartel to get my obligatory Mexican restaurant for the country. This place was sort of modelled on Chipotle, and I was surprised to find that it was delicious. I’ve eaten Mexican food in 20+ countries now, and this is the best I’ve had (outside of the USA and Mexico, of course). I was stunned, happy, aroused, satiated, and dumbfounded all at the same time. It was Mexiphoria – euphoria caused by Mexican food.
Cambodia marked the end of my eight weeks in Southeast Asia. I’ve been sad to leave a lot of places, but I was quite content to finally escape the heat and head somewhere with more reasonable temperatures. Taiwan, here I come! But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in Cambodia, follow this link:https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100329746856481.1073741900.3000370&type=1&l=06d9ae21d7