As I sit here, just a couple weeks after returning from my one-week trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, all I can say is that this trip was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Cambodia, a country that has been through so much political unrest, genocide and famine, was one of the most fascinating yet heartbreaking places I have ever been to. Likewise, Vietnam, the first communist country I have visited, also proved to be a reality check, as I saw firsthand how much control the government exerts on information. Additionally, both of these countries were the two most polluted I have ever been to (especially Ho Chi Min City), and I’m still recovering from the cough I picked up from the three straight days of congestion I suffered as a result of the pollution aggravating my allergies.
So the trip came about after I found myself with nearly an entire week off work with the celebration of both Federal Territory Day and Chinese New Year in one week (gotta love the many cultures of Malaysia)! Since it was only a few weeks after the massive preparations for Thailand, I decided to join my Finnish friend Karri on his pre-planned trip, which included four days in Cambodia and four days in Vietnam, with my friend Danielle joining us for the second half.
I must say, in the (rushed) weeks planning my trip to Cambodia, I was pretty terrified and extremely anxious of what was to come. After receiving a typhoid vaccine and accumulating a mini-pharmacy including anti-malaria pills, anti-diarrhea pills, stomach medicine, anti-histamines and rehydration salts, I turned my worries more to the country’s lack of infrastructure, unsafe traffic and crime. Plus the image of the nasty scars on the legs of a New Zealand girl I met in Thailand due to a sink and mirror falling on her in her guest house in Cambodia left quite an impression on me.
But as we arrived at the Siem Reap airport and headed to the city, my fears mostly began to melt away. Cambodia is fascinating! To start with, it’s a lot like Thailand, except poorer and “Frencher.” Like Thailand, we rode around in tuk tuks, though the ones in Cambodia are simply motorbikes dragging the carriage as opposed to one, connected (stable) vehicle. Similarly, the food in Cambodia is like that of Thailand, though less spicy and with more French influence, like baguettes and croissants. Additionally, the country has a history of Buddhism and Hinduism with beautiful palaces and temples built with architecture similar to those of Thailand.
The country is, however, EXTREMELY poor. I’m not kidding, as we looked at all the children running around, some naked, nearly all barefoot, playing in the dirt and the dirty water in the ditches, I felt like I was looking at a Sally Struthers infomercial to adopt a child. Beggars are everywhere, especially in the city’s capital, Phnom Penh, where one child followed me for two blocks, begging me to buy a pirated book, while another waited for more than 15 minutes next to my dinner table at a restaurant to try to get me to buy one. In addition to the children, the country is full of land mine victims, some who beg on the streets and others who have formed a musical band where they play at tourist places and collect money in a basket.
Though I normally don’t give money to beggars, it was especially hard to refuse in Cambodia after seeing and reading about all the hardship these people have endured during the past few decades, especially under the Khmer Rouge communist government from 1975-79 where between 20 and 25 percent of the population died or was executed under the brutal regime. I found myself, instead, doing quite a bit of shopping, including buying two skirts, two books, earrings, a painting and a t-shirt, always justifying my spending that I was supporting this NGO or the local economy. (Plus, some of the stuff was really cool).
So the whole trip started in Siem Reap, Cambodia home of Angkor Wat, one of the most spectacular temples in the world, and an entire complex of ruins spread out outside the city. As some of the ruins are quite far away from each other, many guidebooks recommend spending at least three days to view everything, but since we only had two days, Karri and I decided to hit the ground running on day one and try to see as much as possible.
Our first stop was Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of the entire archeological park. The temple and its surrounding complex were built in the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II. Though now a Buddhist temple, it was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and built to resemble Mount Meru in Hindu mythology, including a massive moat that surrounds the whole thing. Though under some reconstruction at the moment, Angkor Wat was beautiful. The complex is quite large and contains several buildings including a few large entryways, two libraries and the temple itself (side note: make sure to cover your shoulders and legs before you visit, otherwise you will be forced to wait to borrow the temple’s lone scarf for visitors).
After Angkor Wat, Karri and I managed to see the rest of the park’s main circuit, and though exhausting, is quite incredible. Actually, despite the national icon that is Angkor Wat, I think I prefer some of the other ruins we saw that day. Ta Phrom, another 12th century temple nearby, was amazing. Most of the temple has already fallen apart and what remains doesn’t look like it will last much longer. What is really beautiful, though, is that the temple is full of huge, old trees which have grown around the ruins, sometimes framing them with their roots.
Perhaps my favorite ruins, however, were those of the Bayon temple, which were definitely the most unique of all the buildings we saw. The entire thing is covered in FACES! I mean, really, it’s COVERED in actual faces carved into the stone, and they’re all the same face! There are 216 of them, which face all four directions of the building’s 54 towers. Some say the face is of King Jayavarman VII, who commissioned the building in the late 12th or early 13th century, while others say it is supposed to be the Buddhist essence of compassion, the Avalokiteshvara, while others say it is a combination of the two. Whatever the case, the faces are really interesting, albeit, a bit creepy. I’d hate to be stuck there at night…
After more than seven solid hours of ancient ruins, thus ended day one in Cambodia.