“To gain you is no win. To lose you is no loss.” -Khmer Rouge
My lovely time in Vietnam had come to an end and I was headed to the Siem Reap airport from Ho Chi Minh. My hostel was located 20 minutes away from the Siem Reap airport but luckily my hostel did airport pick ups. This is rare for a hostel because normally it’s just airport drop offs. As I was seating in the back of a tuk tuk heading to my hostel, I noticed the Cambodian people have darker skin compared to the other countries I had visited in SEA. But later on I would discover they still possess the same mentality that lighter skin is better than darker skin. I eventually found out why some people in SEA think lighter skin is superior to darker skin. The belief is that if you have darker skin, it probably means, you work in the fields and that means you’re lower class and that’s looked down upon. My hope for those people who have dark skin and resent it will someday realize that dark skin is beautiful and a gift for God. Amen.
The main reason and probably the only reason people visit Siem Reap is to visit one of UNESCO famous world heritage sites Angkor. Angkor Archeological Park encompasses massive stone temples built during the time of the Khmer Empire and it’s the largest religious monument ever constructed. It’s a vast complex with beautifully crafted remains of multiple temples, the most famous temple being Angkor Wat. The admission passes are sold at the Angkor Archeological Park visitors center which closes at 6pm. Passes are sold for 1day ($37), 3 day ($62), or 7 day ($72) (all prices are quoted from 2016) be sure to bring your passport. If you buy a pass for next day admission (which opens that evening at 5pm for the next day passes) the ticket includes entrance to the sunset viewing that night. Angkor closes at 6pm but the sunset viewing is from 6pm to 7pm.
My hostel was located in walking distance of the Siem Reap Night Market and Angkor Night Market. Since I arrived in Siem Reap in the early afternoon it was to hot to really explore the town but I did head out that evening. In order to get to the Angkor visitors center, you can either hire a driver or head to one of the bike shops and rent a bike; I did the latter. The bike rental cost $5 and it’s a 20 minute bike ride to the visitors center. I bought a one day pass for the next day which included my entrance for the sunset viewing that night. I headed to Angkor Wat to watch the sunset and boy was that a mistake; biking there. There are no maps and it’s a huge site with roads that seem to go on forever and the site is surrounded by trees so I couldn’t even see any temples. I was hot and tried and I made up my mind that for my tour tomorrow I would hire a driver to that me around the different sites. I finally found Angkor Wat and was able to watch the amazing sunset. Once I reached my hostel I met Rachel who was staying in the same room as me and she wanted to join someone to tour Angkor together; well it was hers and mine lucky day.
The next morning we started our day at 4:30am so we could watch the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temple. Opening time for the sunrise viewing is at 5am. Be sure to get there before opening because there are a lot of tourist and this is a popular attraction. Once inside Angkor Wat stand to the left of the temple facing the sunrise, its suppose to be a better view than the right side. The sun starts rising around 6am, so be patient and bring mosquito repellent because you’re standing still near stagnant water and that makes you a nice snack for them. After Rachel and I watched the sunrise, we walked around Angkor Wat temple which is quite impressive. The history of the Khmer Empire is reflected in the architecture of these massive ancient temples. The skill and labor that went into constructing such extraordinary temples is something everyone can admire and appreciate. Some of the lesser known but just as impressive sites we also visited were Angkor Thom with Bayon temple, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei. They are all amazing sites with historical significants. My personal favorites were Bayon temple with the carvings of Khmer faces in the stones and Ta Prohm which has trees growing over stones and rocks (don’t ask me why but I was obsessed with it).
Our tuk tuk driver gave us a half day tour and we were back at our hostel at 1pm. The cost of a driver for a half day tour is $20 no matter how many people are in the tuk tuk; at least that was my experience. In my opinion a 1 day ticket with a half day tour will allow you to see all the main temples and some sub temples. But if you would like to see all of what Angkor has to ofter than the 3 day or 7 day ticket will be best. However as that old SEA saying goes all the temples start to become “same same but different.”
We arrived back at the hostel exhausted, hot, and in need of a nap. That evening we went out to dinner at a vegan restaurant called Chamkar. If you get a chance to eat here I highly recommend the wedding day dip; it’s one of the best things I have ever tasted. Later on that night Rachel and I explored Siem Reap’s night market and shops. The prices for souvenir tops and bottoms are better here than any other SEA country I visited. The next day we were both headed to Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia. As for Angkor Archeological Park this was truly one of the most impressive sites I have ever had the privilege of visiting and I don’t understand why it didn’t make the list to be apart of the New World Wonders.
The next morning Rachel left for Phnom Penh as I got ready to check out; I would be meeting her later on that evening. I had a driver pick me up from my hostel to take me to the bus stop. When I booked the bus I decided to pay the extra dollar to be on a middle class bus but I think me and Cambodia have different definitions of middle class. This bus was the shadiest looking bus I have ever seen or been on. It didn’t even look like it would make it out of Siem Reap let alone make it to Phnom Penh. I would have hated to see what the lower costing bus would have looked like. The bus was filled with Cambodians and one other tourist besides myself. Well, remember when it comes to traveling, you just got to roll with the punches. I enjoyed looking out at the country side along the way to the capital and seeing a different side of Cambodia that I didn’t get to see in Siem Reap. The bus made a few stops along the way before arriving in Phnom Penh.
Always my first obstacle when arriving to a new city is to find out how to get from where I am to the hostel (the story of my travel life, ugh). Right when I stepped off the bus I was hounded by tuk tuk drivers saying they can take me where I needed to go for a good price. Already I knew when they said that they were going to rip me off. So I decided to find my own tuk tuk driver and I spotted a disabled tuk tuk driver off in the distance. I asked him if he could take me to Happy Hostel, he said he would and the price that he gave me was more than reasonable. Boy, oh boy, getting me to my hostel was a struggle for him (poor thing), he took me to two wrong locations even though he had a map and he kept getting confused on where he was going. Finally with the help of another tuk tuk driver pointing us in the right direction and myself, with my hand drawn map of where my hostel was, we finally made it. He was super sweet so I made sure to tip him for all his hard work.
The hostel wasn’t that great looking but I would only have to be here 2 nights. My room was a 4 floor walkup with no AC, whomp whomp. Rachel was on the porch and she introduced me to the other girls she was chatting with. We decided to go out to dinner at Friends, a creative tapas that helps provide jobs to street kids. The conversations, atmosphere, and food were delightful and delicious. After dinner we headed back to our hostel to shoot the breeze and relax till bedtime.
The next day Rachel and myself were headed off to our tour of the S21 Museum and the killing fields. Cambodians suffered a traumatic history from 1975-1979 at the hands of an evil vile dictator Pol Pot. The Tuol Sleng prison or S21 Museum takes you back in history during the time when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled. Pol Pot dreams of having a classless utopian society was founded on killing people who had a higher education, spoke multiple languages, or anyone he felt was against him. His troops were called the Khmer Rouge who carried out the rounding up and execution of the people which lead to the Cambodian genocide. Tuol Sleng was the first stop for the Cambodian people before they were sentenced to death. Tuol Sleng use to be a school which was converted into a prison. Before people were sentenced to death the Khmer Rouge would torture them into confessing anything they deemed was satisfactory for execution. People would end up confessing to being part of the FBI, American spies, working for the American government, and many others coerced confessions. People would confess to anything, just so they could stop being tortured. The museum has the beds that people were tied to and multiple dunking tanks that were used as torture devises. As you walk through the different rooms you have a listening device that talks about what you’re seeing. Some rooms have pictures of the people that lost their life at the hands of Khmer Rouge. Be sure to listen to all the audio chapters and visit every room; there is a lot of history here that doesn’t get mentioned in our history books even though this was a pivotal point in history.
After the S21 museum the next stop was the Phnom Penh killing fields. Choeung Ek is one of the massive genocide graveyard sites of the Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge era. This is where a lot of Cambodians lost their life from adults to babies. The Khmer Rouge didn’t believe in wasting bullets so they would use whatever was around to bash the heads of people and throw their bodies into a pit. If people were still alive the Khmer Rouge would pour lye on them to finish the job. For babies they would take them by the legs and slam their heads against a trunk of a tree and throw their bodies into a pit. The Khmer Rouge had a saying “in order to kill the grass, you must pull it from the roots” which means they would kill the entire family so no one could seek revenge. It’s still unknown how many bodies were buried here but still to this day when it rains bones rise to the surface. If you are unable to visit Phnom Penh I would highly suggest reading or watching a documentary about the genocide of the Cambodian people during the tyranny of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
The SEA chapter of my life has come to a close and I hope you enjoyed coming on this journey with me. Till the next travel episode.
Adventure is out there.