Ask most people (at least Americans) what they know about Cambodia, and they'll recall The Killing Fields, bombings during the Vietnam War, the Genocidal regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Perhaps they would also know of the temples around Angkor Wat. This is the reason we wanted to travel to Cambodia, and we were able to spend 5 days there over the Easter holidays.
Cambodia is a country of contrasts. The temples surrounding Angkor Wat are beautiful, but along this are evident the remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime. We saw one tower of over 8000 skulls at the Killing Fields. At Angkor Wat we saw bullet holes in the thousand-year-old temple walls from when the Vietnamese were attacking, and Pol Pot's men were using the temple as a fort. (In this case the Vietnamese could be considered the saviors of the Cambodian people - they defeated Pol Pot's men in 1979, ending 4 years of terror where 2-3 million people died).
Everyone we met had a story - parents dead, brothers and sisters dead, etc. Most of the folks we met and talked to were about our age, so they were 8-15 during 1975-79. For a country of only 12 million (now 9 million), the loss of 2-3 million is a devastating. So many of those lost were of the educated "elite", and those surviving have terrible scars to bear.
Phnom Penh felt a little like Saigon, although far fewer people (there are some 71 million people in Vietnam). More affluent than Nepal - although this may only reflect what we were able to see on our trip. One observation: in almost all Asian countries we see people that have polio - except in Cambodia. Here, the people who had Polio were probably killed as useless to the Khmer Rouge. We did see quite a few people missing legs due to land mines, though - there are still 2 million mines in the countryside, so hiking or rough camping is not exactly safe in this country.
Pnom Penh: Cheap Eats
We spent one night in Phnom Penh (the capital) - had some good Kana Moo Tod and Chicken Penang at a Thai restaurant - that, plus two big Angkor beers (32 oz) and some fruit for desert - US$10. And that was the expensive place!
Siem Reap: Temples
A quick flight brought us to Siem Reap (town next to Angkor Wat and the other temples), where we stayed for 2 full days/nights. If you ever want to visit Siem Reap, go in the next year or two if possible. Japanese, Singaporean, and Malaysian investors are building more hotels (most coming since the 1996 democratic elections), and in 3 or so years it could get more crowded.
We went to Cambodia on a package tour - and we were dreading the possibility that we'd be on a bus tour with 15 other people from Hong Kong. Fortunately, we were the only ones on the tour, so we had our own private car (a ubiquitous white Toyota Corolla), driver, and guide for the entire trip. Great luck on that - the guide said that often he sometimes has up to 10 people on a tour. This way we could go and do things that we wanted to do - rather than trying to get 10 people all in the same direction while walking around the huge temples in the jungle.
The temples are amazing. Angkor Wat is by far the largest and most famous, and as a result is more crowded, but not too bad. To give you an idea of the size of the place, the square moat surrounding the temple is 5 km long. There were many others that we liked as well or more, though - including a couple that the jungle has been reclaiming for the last several hundred years. They're doing quite well for thousand year old ruins! It looks like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Most days we'd get up early to be met by our guide, and we'd drive to several temples and explore for perhaps 3-4 hours, then back to the hotel for lunch and relaxing (it gets quite hot in April, the hottest month of the year in Cambodia). Then back out at 3PM or so for another 3-4 hours of temples.
Phnom Penh: to the Killing Fields
We flew back to Phnom Penh for a final day of sightseeing there. For the first 1/2 of the day we had another guide/car/driver, and saw the National Museum and Royal Palace before lunch. The afternoon was supposed to be free for us - so we hired another car and driver (US$15 for 1/2 a day) to take us to the "Killing Fields" (the mass grave site from one of their prisons) as well as Toul Sleng (aka S21 - Security Prison 21), where up to 20,000 prisoners were tortured and killed (and buried 10km away in the Killing Fields). Very somber - it is hard to imagine seeing a pile of 8000 human skulls, and realize they only excavated about 1/2 of the graves in those fields. Many of the skulls had bullet holes or holes from being beaten to death (bullets were expensive; hammers were cheap).
This place was about 15km outside of town - it takes 45-50 minutes to drive there. This should give you a good idea of the quality of the roads - there isn't that much there.
In the midst of this we saw lots of interesting sites - including people riding mopeds with up to 5 people on them, and several with pigs strapped to the back on their way to the market. (They were either dead by then, or very well behaved!) One had a passenger carrying an air conditioner. Another had a passenger carrying a sliding glass door. Another passenger carried a bicycle. One driver was holding his sleeping son. It's incredible what they can do with these little motor scooters. We've seen it before in Vietnam and other places, but it is always amazing to see it again.
Future Note: Plan B
While driving out to the Killing Fields (now known as the Genocide Museum) we saw a couple of people on mountain bikes riding on the country roads. We arrived at the same time - after all, when you can only drive 10 mph the bikes can do just as well! We ended up talking with them for about an hour. Patrick and Natalie (Pat and Nat - isn't that great?) were from Perth, Australia, and about 1/2 way through an 8 month bike tour of the Middle East and Asia. They're doing it on the cheap - US$8000 for the whole thing (including air tickets). We don't think we could go that inexpensive - a beer was a luxury for them, not a daily occurrence. (Our bike touring experiences tend to be a little more hedonistic). It was great to talk with them about their trips and experiences - we talked bikes, Asia, touring, and getting 'real' jobs later (or chucking it all for a year or two). They had spent some time in England studying and saving for the trip. Perhaps a couple of years older than the typical Australian would take their "Walkabout" - most go right after college.
Phnom Penh: S21
We left Nat and Pat and drove on to S21, which was once a high school before the Khmer Rouge cleared out Phnom Penh and drove everyone into the countryside to work in forced-labor camps. About 1200 prisoners would be kept there at a time, either in mass detention rooms (say 40-50 people in a classroom) or in cells built in the classrooms. Pictures of thousands of the victims were hanging on the walls. It was like going back to Dachau in Germany, although things are a little fresher - happening just 20-25 years ago, and rougher - no nice displays or monuments.
We had our driver take us back to Phnom Penh (it was the end of his workday), where we dropped off down by the Mekong riverside and walked around the neighborhood. We bought a green mango from an old lady selling them in the street - mostly to take a great picture of her. We then showed it to her (on the digital camera), and people were all gathered around, laughing and pointing. Definitely a highlight. We also picked up some great chili sauce (although made in Thailand) that we had enjoyed with our dinners in Siem Reap - the shop keeper was amused that western tourists would come in and buy that from her.
We had a few Angkor beers at a stand by the river, then went to have our Easter Sunday dinner. It was a cheap Indian place - US$2 each for more food than we could possibly eat. Curry chicken, two whole fishes with curry, big bowls of vegetables and dal (lentils), and unlimited rice and chapatis (flat breads). We sat in the open-air shop and watched the geckos running over the walls, keeping the bug population down. (The next day we would have a small, light dinner - we split a small pizza, a small eggplant appetizer, and two beers in Hong Kong for US$40).
The flight between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was on Royal Air Cambodia, whose flagship airplanes are a pair of 737s bought used from Malaysia Airlines. And we got the *good* planes (mentioned a couple of times by our guides) - the ATRs and other prop planes were the downgrade option, apparently.
We might go back to Cambodia again - there is a beach resort in the south that is still relatively unspoiled, and only 2-3 hours drive from Phnom Penh. We want to go before it gets crowded with tourists- if the political situation stays stable for longer than a couple of years, there will undoubtedly be more investment and tourists on the way. It was only a couple of years ago that they finally caught Pol Pot, and there are still Khmer Rouge in some remote jungles.
Mekong River, Phnom Penh