Our first stop in Cambodia was the capital, Phnom Penh. During our drive to our hotel from the airport we were actually surprised at how western the city was; we saw big car dealerships we recognized, and lots of chain restaurants. Our hotel was so cool, the lobby had detailed wood carvings all around it and we had a rooftop pool and restaurant. Our first day we went to explore the Royal Palace, which is one of the few buildings that survived the Khmer Rouge era. It was built in the 1860’s and now continues to be the residence of the King. It reminded us a bit of the Grand Palace in Thailand and was interesting to learn about. Our first day in Phnom Penh was also Cory’s birthday! We decided to do a food tour at night – the same company that we did a food tour with in China. This was so much fun! It was just us and one other guy from the states, Pierce, who fit right in with us. We drank local beer the whole time while riding around town in a tuk tuk going to local spots to try to the food. Everything we tried was delicious. The last stop was a small BBQ place that served us a grilled chicken – the entire chicken, body, head, feet, etc. I also emailed ahead, and they brought out cupcakes with candles in it and we sang happy birthday to Cory.
Our second day we took a tuk tuk around town to see a couple more of the sites which was fun. We went to a huge market that was selling everything you could think of. In addition to the local currency they also use US currency in Cambodia so we were able to get lots of souvenirs for just $1.
While there, we also visited the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It’s really hard to try and fathom the events that occurred in these places, but we thought it was important to go see them. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975. His regime looked to turn Cambodia into a socialist agrarian republic (not unlike what Mao attempted in China) by emptying the cities and forcing citizens into rural labor camps. This led to malnutrition, diseases, abuse, and mass executions of millions of Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot took to executing any of his perceived political opponents, as well as most of Cambodia’s educated class due to the regime’s extreme paranoia of anyone that could oppose them. Choeung Ek is a mass grave and the most known site of the so called “Killing Fields” where the Khmer Rouge carried out their executions. Almost 9,000 bodies were found at Choeung Ek and there are thousands of other mass graves scattered throughout the country. Today the site is marked by a Buddhist stupa filled with thousands of human skulls and bones that were found there. It was sobering to visit and hear horror stories of what happened there. Many of the murder weapons were also on display; they often used objects such as pickaxes in order to save bullets.
Around 20,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng Centre, which was then known as Security Prison S-21. The prison cells had barely enough room to move, and the people contained there were tortured in numerous ways before being shipped off to places like Choeung Ek. Of everyone who entered, only seven adults survived. Two of the remaining survivors were actually there selling their stories about what happened to them. We learned of their stories and couldn’t imagine being in such a position and the choices they had to make. Seeing the Killing Fields and visiting the Genocide Museum was an intense experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
Our 2nd and last destination in Cambodia was Siem Reap. We crammed in a van and drove five or so hours from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We got to see a little more of the country side, and it was definitely a huge contrast to the city, driving through some really small villages. Our hotel was right near the center of town and just a short walk to the main street, Pub Street, which is lined with restaurants and bars and blasting music. Siem Reap is another backpacker haven, and Pub Street is the main hangout. They have multiple 50 cent beer and $2 cocktail deals which we had to take advantage of. Our first night there was actually the World Cup final so that was pretty fun to watch in one of the bars. It seemed like more people were rooting for France so I’m sure there were loads of celebrations that night.
The main reason people go to Siem Reap is to go see Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is just the name of the most famous temple in the Angkor Archeological Park, and there are tons more of all different shapes and sizes. Since it’s such a huge area we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around and we spent two days exploring it. It was all pretty amazing to see in person, and really crazy to think that it’s over 1000 years old. All of the sites we saw were huge and completely different and unique from each other. Angkor Wat itself is the largest religious monument in the world and also the best-preserved temple in the park. We enjoyed wandering through all the sections of it and seeing it from all different angles. Bayon is another of the famous temples and has lots of huge Buddha heads carved in the stone decorating the temple. The faces were all over and some were all tall as we were. Ta Prohm is also famous because of being the most recognizable temple featured in Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. The trees growing out of the ruins, coupled with the surrounding jungle leads this temple to being super photogenic and was one of our favorites.
Our last day in Siem Reap we just spent exploring the town a little, trying different restaurants, shopping, and even getting a $5 foot massage (not sure if that’ll become a new thing for us). Overall, we really enjoyed Cambodia! It was actually not as hot there as it was in Vietnam which we were surprised about. But the food was cheap and delicious, and there’s so many interesting sites to see and so much history to learn about.