Siem Reap & Phnom Penh

I didn’t spend quite as much time in Cambodia as I’d expected. I enjoyed Siem Reap – after I’d wandered around Angkor Wat, I spent a day cycling around the town and its canals, taking in the view and enjoying the vibe. It gave me a bit of the same feeling that I’d had in Chiang Mai, that of a chilled town where it felt good to just stop and hang out. I forked out on hipster coffee at Sister Srey and drank cheap beer high on the skate ramp on the roof of X Bar, watching Pub Street come alive.

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem Reap

Siem Reap felt to me like one of those cities that’s evolved very quick to accommodate for tourism and sort of lost itself in the process. While the centre is busy, bright and loud, the outskirts are light-years away from that. When I went to buy a sim card, I met Savuth, a graphic designer who moved from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to get a foot into the tourism industry, opening his own travel agency next door to his relocated design business. He asked me dozens of questions on what travellers want and how to provide the best possible service for them. His keenness to do good and succeed in this industry was testament to the welcome I had in Cambodia: people are warm and happy to see visitors come discover their culture. But it felt like the industry is flying too close to the sun, and I wonder what the next years will bring.

Teaching in Siem Reap

My favourite memory from my few days there was the pair of hours I spent helping out with an English class in a local school. I’d randomly walked past the school and saw a sign asking for volunteers to come help out with English pronunciation daily, so I showed up. The kids were clearly used to it and were completely unfrazzled to see me sitting by myself on a bench in the playground, waiting for an adult to show up. The tiniest woman finally did, inviting me in to recite the words of the family. The kids and I read about the moon landing and fishermen, then I took them up to the world map to show them where I was from. I showed them France and England; while they couldn’t pinpoint Cambodia on a map. Always that perspective.

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem Reap

Cambodia Siem ReapNot actually a giant, just very small Cambodians #stillnotasiansized

Phnom Penh

It didn’t feel like there was much else to do, though, and I got bored quick. So I set off for Phnom Penh, which left me with a lasting memory… but a rather negative one. A mess up with my night bus meant I arrived at 2am, and found every single hostel closed, and a dormant, even slightly ominous vibe. Perhaps fittingly, most (if not all) of that there is to do in Phnom Penh is war tourism. The two main destinations, the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum were both incredibly powerful and I would highly recommend making the trip to Phnom Penh just for those.

They do make for a tough day. Casually walking past mass graves and human skulls feels entirely out of place. A part of me felt I shouldn’t be there. But, at the same time, I think it’s crucial of us to know and remember that such things can happen, and have, and still do. It’s out duty to do our utmost to stop it, and to keep in our minds the thousands who passed away because of the madness of a few.

Cambodia Phnom Penh Killing Fields

Cambodia Phnom Penh Killing Fields

Cambodia Phnom Penh Killing Fields

Cambodia Phnom Penh Genocide museumTuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Cambodia Phnom Penh Genocide museum

Cambodia Phnom Penh Genocide museum

Cambodia Phnom Penh

Cambodia Phnom Penh

Cambodia Phnom Penh

I know for a fact people are better than this. As I walked around the centre of Phnom Penh on my second day there to get a glimpse of the palace, two different women stopped me to start a conversation. I was wary – I’m still ready for that terrible travelling scam. But both of them were simply very sweet Malaysian women visiting Phnom Penh who felt like talking, and opening up to them, sitting down with those strangers to talk about jobs, and life in London, reminded me that all that we need is a bit of kindness and trust.

Cambodia Phnom Penh

Cambodia Phnom Penh

Cambodia Phnom Penh flag

Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple

I bet you’ve seen pictures of Angkor Wat before. One of the most famous temples in the world – and a Unesco World Heritage site, obviously – it’s the most popular destination in Cambodia. It’s actually made up of several temples, one of which is called Angkor Wat, and altogether makes up the world’s biggest religious site. It might also make up this website’s biggest ever photo post. Only time will tell…

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat means city of monasteries. Back when it was built in the 12th century, and for hundreds of years after that, it was actually a city, with people living around the temples. It was built as a Hindu temple to one of the three main gods, Vishnu. With Shiva and Bhrama, they form the supreme god/holy trinity of Hinduism, called Trimurti. And as Vishnu was born from the left side of the supreme spirit, Angkor Wat faces west. But to acknowledge the two other divinities, the temple features three of the towers seen above.*

There is a lot more religious symbolism to be found in the architecture of the temples, but the temples were many and our guide’s English limited, so the rest of my notes were pretty muddled…

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Today Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are very much a tourist destination. Bus tours are everywhere, and the guide’s references to Tomb Raider were plentiful. It’s sometimes hard to go past that and experience the temples for that they are: ruins of centuries-old religious buildings, that show incredible architectural feats for the times, with beautiful displays of art and craftsmanship. And there can be a peacefulness to it all. Even in the afternoon sun, the inside of the temples is dim and cool, there’ll be incense burning in a back room, maybe a monk chanting as they bless a visitor. Close your eyes for a second and you could almost picture what it used to be like.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

The one thing I really liked was the diversity in the temples I visited. I have to admit that after a month travelling around Thailand and Laos, I was a bit templed out. There are only so many pagodas you can visit before never wanting to see any ever again. But here you’d walk from one site to another and see changing architecture, surroundings and details – such as the jungle of Angkor Thom and the many faces of Bayon Temple.

angkor wat

angkor wat

angkor wat

angkor wat

angkor wat

angkor wat

angkor wat

angkor watI am not Cambodian-sized

angkor wat

20161003-img_angkor wat0228Wtf is this dinosaur doing here?!

angkor wat

angkor wat

The Archeological Park of Angkor is big. Like, real big – 400sq km big. The best way to visit is to stay in Siem Reap for a while, buy a three-day or week pass to Angkor, and explore over several days to make the most of all the sites. It’s a good idea to hire a bicycle to make your way around in your own time. Otherwise, tuk-tuks offer day-long tours of various sites, and plenty of travel agencies have day tours of the main temples.

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Many travellers make it down to Angkor Wat for sunrise or sunset – like, many each day – but I managed to miss both. However, my day at Angkor Wat ended atop the Phnom Bakheng hill, passionately discussing politics with a group of travellers I’d met that day. This I love about being on the road: certainly not the politics chat, but the ability to have the most normal conversations about rather banal subjects in the most exceptional of places.

Not that it makes Brexit or Trump any less bloody depressing.

 

*Full disclaimer: my knowledge of Hinduism is pretty much non-existent, and this is collated from my guide’s information and the internet. Apologies if anything is incorrect.