Our shaky propellor plane arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport. Craig and I had made our way to Siem Reap to finally see the incredible Angkor Wat area.
Phnom Penh is an interesting city. It feels basic but is a curious mix of bustling tourism, emerging business and dark nightlife.
We had to keep our wits about us. The taxi driver persistently tried to redirect us away from our booked hotel.
It’s a creative but unwelcome way for them to try to make a bit of extra money.
I often think of trust when I am travelling. Small things can make you feel unsafe in a foreign place, and suspicion is a mostly helpful reaction.
Yet too much suspicion closes doors and can mean missing out on exciting and unusual opportunities.
With that in mind, we arrived in Siem Reap and immediately hired a Tuk Tuk driver to be our guide for our time there. It turned out to be a great decision.
The main attraction for Siem Reap is a rich area of ancient temples known as Angkor Wat. It covers over 400 square kilometres and has been the setting for films such as Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones.
It’s a famous and popular tourist destination for most visitors to South East Asia.
I had seen many Wats (Temples) around Asia before this trip, but I was still blown away. These are the Asian temples I had imagined as a child; gigantic faces carved in stone, ancient ruins covered in vines and trees, monkeys scurrying around and smiling locals selling handmade crafts.
Our smiling guide drove us to the best spots over three days and, while we saw the most famous parts, you could easily spend a couple of weeks here. There was much more to see and learn about, but our time was short.
Monkeys are a common sight in Asia, and they especially thrive in Angkor Wat. The tourists happily pay a dollar for some bananas to feed them. They are unsurprisingly tame and ever entertaining.
One clever little fella took his banana, hid it behind his back and asked for another!
Cambodia had a very different feel from other countries in South East Asia. This is a place that not long ago experienced the genocide of over 2 million people under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
This is visible in the faces of every Cambodian, young or old, and in every desolate street or building.
There is a big divide between rich and poor. The streets reflect that contrast with crumbling buildings neighbouring high-class restaurants.
This genocide hangover is a dark cloud touching everything in Cambodia. The city streets are shared by limbless beggars and crying infants. At times, this was an extremely upsetting place, and I carried a feeling of guilt with me for being so fortunate.
A particularly harrowing moment occurred late one night. After a few drinks in a local club, we left to find the streets full of small children carrying screaming newborn babies. The children tried to put the babies into our arms while begging for food.
It is hard to turn a blind eye to this… and it is not for me to debate whether handing out money helps or hinders.
What I can say is that begging is an art form in Cambodia. The children speak excellent English and have an answer to every question.
Here was a typical exchange:
- Child: Hi, how are you, would you like to buy a postcard/keyring/book for your girlfriend?
- Me: Hi, no sorry I don’t have a girlfriend..
- Child: Oh sorry, then for your wife?
- Me: I am not married!
- Child: That is because you didn’t buy her any gifts! You should buy for your mother
- Me: Haha, sorry no I don’t have any change..
- Child: Ok then you can buy later after you have got some change?
- Me: Yes sure..
- Child: What is your name?
- Me: Carey…
- …THE NEXT DAY…
- Child: Hi Carey, did you find a girlfriend yet? You said you would buy later, how many would you like?
They will play Noughts and Crosses with you for a free book, but of course, they never lose. Craig found this out the hard way!
Around Angkor Wat, you are regularly mobbed by curious faces selling water, books and other souvenirs.
Despite all this extreme poverty, everything is still done in typical Asian style, with a big smile.
One day, around the temple area, Craig and I walked towards a group of stalls and sellers. As was typical, a small crowd began to gather as we approached.
Between us was a single tree, and as we slowly walked towards them, we gently zig-zagged. The small crowd moved with us to each side of the tree.
They didn’t realise what we were doing until we got close and hid behind the tree. I can still hear their shrieks of laughter.
It was a simple moment, but these are the ones I remember most fondly.
Our guide recommended visiting a local “Floating Village” inhabited by Vietnamese immigrants. This was a taste of rural life as we rode out of the tourist area and into the real Cambodia.
The streets we drove through were lined with tin shacks, backing onto a river, and people stopped to stare as we drove past.
We arrived at a river leading to the Tonle Sap lake and boarded a small boat to take us to the village. Suddenly, a small boat with a noisy engine approached ours. It came up to the side of us at a good speed, and a boy, no older than 5, jumped onto our boat carrying a little basket of beer and drinks.
If I wasn’t so struck with awe, I would have bought something off the little guy purely for his resourcefulness, but he was gone quicker than he came. He was fast enough to avoid our driver’s wrath.
We traveled along the river and I became fascinated with the shacks lining the river bank. The people cooking, showering, talking and watching small TVs in their little shack houses were oblivious to us speeding by.
Eventually, we arrived at the Lake and, after some photo opportunities, travelled a bit further to a docking point. A few other tourists and guides had arrived. Here was a gift shop, a sunken enclosure filled with crocodiles and a small square pond teeming with hungry fish.
We sat with our tour guide and his friends, shared a beer and politely declined a dish of what looked like river prawns. As the light faded, we climbed to a raised platform and watched the sunset over the lake.
In another curious example of opportunism, a young girl carrying a live snake paddled up to the platform in a large kitchen bowl. She asked for a dollar in exchange for posing for this picture.
We packed a lot into our Cambodian visit, including some much-needed sunbathing after the cool of North Laos.
While I would have liked to visit the more famous Killing Fields of Cambodia near Phnom Penh, we did see some of the other tributes. This tower was filled with unidentified human bones from the massacres and helped to illustrate the real scale of this tragedy.
We also visited an interesting war museum containing tanks, guns, land mines and more from the violent history of Cambodia.
Unusually, most of the guns and war equipment were free for anyone to hold and play around with.
My time in Cambodia made me feel mixed, and the experience was bittersweet. It was upsetting to see the poverty but uplifting to see the faces smiling and laughing. I was inspired by the majestic history but disheartened by the corruption and cruelty.
One day, I would love to visit again and take more time to understand this troubled yet beautiful country.
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