After arriving at KL on the afternoon of 11 October, we enjoyed the evening at the Pavilion with our friends Harriet and Duncan who have only recently moved to KL for work. Next day it was another early morning flight from KL to Phnom Penh, Cambodia!
We arrived in the capital of Cambodia mid morning and after checking into our hotel we embarked on learning more of another great Asian country.
Cambodia has a population of around 15 million and is now a majority Buddhist country. The local people are known as “Khmer” and it is this name that can be traced back to the Khmer Empire of King Jayavarman the second around 800 AD. In the Khmer language Cambodia is known as Kampuchea. The English name Cambodia is a derivation of the French name Cambodge!
The Khmer Empire, symbolized by the incredible structure and Wonder of the World known as Angkor Wat, was one of the largest empires in Asia in its day spanning what is now Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Laos and southern China. The Khmer Empire, lead by King Jayavarman who commissioned the building of Angkor Wat, was home to the largest city in the world with a population of over 1 million. Astonishingly and unbeknown to us until our visit, the Khmer Empire’s incredible power and wealth dominated south east Asia for over 600 years!
Cambodia was part of French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) during the mid 19th century and only gained independence in 1953. In 1975 the country was again under rule, but this time it was one of their own, Pol Pot and his communist regime the Khmer Rouge. In 1978 the Vietnamese army defeated Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
We arrived at Orussey Market Hotel despite some difficulties by our taxi man in finding the place. The Orussey Market hotel can best be described as; a hotel randomly located on top of an old local market in central Phnom Pehn; reasonably modern and clean; it had an empty food court on the ground floor foyer; men frequently legged it in and out of a random entrance about thirty yards to the left of the main entrance from 9pm to the early hours of the morning (I am sure you know what I am getting at); and it seemed as though no one was staying at the hotel apart from us!
Anyway our adventure began in Phnom Penh in our usual fashion…on foot. We walked around the city all afternoon, which included visiting the Phnom Wat, Central Market and many old French colonial buildings. It was once again a fantastic experience just walking around the city streets taking in the historical sights and watching traders go about their daily business!
The next day we continued on foot visiting the Royal Palace, Independence Monument, Cambodia / Vietnam Friendship Monument and the Tuolsleng Genocide Museum (known locally as S21 prison). The Royal Palace was an absolute treat and probably one of the most beautiful, well maintained palaces I have visited in Asia – well worth the entrance fee if you are in the area. Contrastingly, S21 was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Yes, it was one of the highlights of our trip to Phnom Penh, but only for the reason to remind us of the atrocities of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge during the 1970s.
Pol Pot, educated himself, imposed strict communist ideals upon his own people by wanting to return power to the ordinary people of Cambodia. He targeted uneducated villagers with powerful propaganda, which was enough to build an army to take control of the capital Phnom Penh and eventually the country.
Pol Pot’s regime wanted to eradicate all educated nationals and any persons who worked for the government. These people were tricked, deceived and led to believe he wanted them for this regime. Instead they were taken to Tuolsleng, S21 Prison. Here they were subjected to the harshest of treatments, which included torture, beatings, and in nearly all cases death. They were forced to lie that they were undermining the regime when in fact they had done absolutely nothing wrong. It was the most chilling of experiences inside the prison walls because tens of thousands of innocent people were murdered here during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime – only 7 people survived this hellish place. It was an emotional experience and every time you felt the need to swallow it seemed like a whole apple was going straight down your throat.
The following day we made the journey out to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. This experience only made the prison visit more real. At the killing fields we watched a video about the horrors of the regime. After this you take a stroll outside and see the monument built in memory of the people who lost their lives. If you look carefully at some of our photos you will see that the inner section of the monument has been filled with the skulls dug up from the fields. Whilst walking around the killing fields you can see the clothing of those buried gradually making its way to the top of the soil due to years of natural erosion of the earth’s surface. It is easy to understand why people in this country / region may not be so warm at first to visitors, given their history of foreign invasion and civil war. Surprisingly and to their credit we found the Khmer people to be extremely warm and welcoming.
Finally in November 1978 the Vietnamese army defeated Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was not killed in this defeat, rather he was allowed to seek exile in neighbouring Thailand where he stayed until his death years later.
Our trip to Siem Reap involved a two-day stop over in Battambang. Our journey from Phnom Penh to Battambang was hair raising at times, especially when either side of the two-lane road was completely submerged with water from the floods. It was quite something to be on the only dry piece of land within eyes’ sight! We managed to “couch surf” with a Khmer family and enjoyed their superb hospitality, whilst getting to see some of Battambang’s local attractions. Pictures of our visit and Sarin’s family are included in our photo section. Please take a look at these photos as we felt it was a most humbling experience staying with Sarin and his family. Sarin has a wife and two children and they live in the upstairs section of their house. The kitchen is downstairs along with the eating area. Sarin is a tuk tuk driver by day from 9am to 7pm. After his dinner he then works as a security guard at a nearby hotel from 9pm to 5am. At the end of his shift, Sarin has about 4 hours sleep before starting the day again! Fairly impressive stuff!
Sarin also organized trips to the killing caves, bamboo train and other local attractions. If any of our friends do make it to this area in Cambodia, then we would recommend staying with Sarin and his family if you are looking for a true Khmer experience!
We arrived at Siem Reap to a significant amount of flooding. The main tourist area around the central and old markets was completely inundated with water so visiting these markets was impossible. We had to do with just visiting the night market, although reaching this was even an effort!
Of course the main reason for our visit was to see Angkor Wat - one cannot visit Siem Reap without this experience! As mentioned earlier, the incredible Angkor Wat symbolized the Khmer Empire.
Angkor Wat, meaning “city temple”, was built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. King Suryavarman demanded the temple be built before he died in order for him to pass to heaven. It is the world’s largest religious building and was a significant religious place of worship for the Vishnu people who were Hindu descendants. Angkor Wat has two sections of Khmer temple architecture in the temple mountain and the upper level galleried temple. Its design was based on early southern Indian Hindu architecture, which included key features such as the Jagati. Within the moat and outer wall of nearly 4km long there are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers.
No doubt about it, Angkor Wat was one of the most significant and special sights we have visited during our time in Asia to date. The vast nature of the structure and trying to contemplate the extremes required to build it is almost incomprehensible. Also worth mentioning is the impressive detail on the walls of the temple – it must have taken much time and dedication! Simply, Angkor Wat is a must see in one’s lifetime!
Siem Reap, Cambodia to Pakse, Laos
As we had no visas to cross the Cambodia / Laos border our only options were to return to Phnom Penh and get visas or travel to Laos via Thailand (as you could get a visa on arrival at the border). We opted for the trek and decided to head via Thailand!
A taxi for two hours to Poipet on the Cambodia / Thailand border was relatively smooth thanks to our brilliant driver. He was a most interesting man who was willing to tell us stories about his life and accomplishments since the Khmer Rouge days. One story he told us was about his experience during the war years – one day when he was a teenager he witnessed 274 people from his village killed before his eyes. Included in that number were his brother and sister! It was a very sad story, yet he told it without dropping a tear or breaking sentence. It is hard to imagine how the people, who experienced the not so long ago war, deal with these horrible memories on a daily basis.
After reaching Poipet we had to catch a bus to Ubon Ratchanthani in the far east of Thailand. This took about 8 hours in total so by the end of the day we were ready for bed! The next day we had a short journey of about 2 hours to Pakse, Laos…border crossing successful as no unofficial backhanders required to satisfy any corrupt officials!
I hope this has not been too long for you! I also hope you enjoyed it. That is it for me and now it is over to Fudgie for the report on Laos…