Throwaway descriptions of Cambodia often include ‘Angkor Wat’ ‘Genocide Museum’ and ‘Beautiful People’ and I am no exception. We went there for an extended weekend and were told that we would be mystified by the people and the ambiance. Sure enough once I got into a taxi to head for the hotel, I felt pushed back at least three decades into the past in a wonderful way. There is this very indefinable energy specific only to some spots in these parts of the world which I always recognise in an almost carnal way.. the way a specie from the animal kingdom recognises another even in pitch darkness. A lethargic gentleness which hangs in the air – it is a pleasant, humid breeze of sentiment that can however be violently ripped apart once wrath is triggered and a tiger is unleashed.
The Past and Present
On the surface, there is a softness to the local people that is similar to what we experienced in Luang Prabang, yet with an added layer of curiosity for others. Within the first few hours of arriving in Siem Reap, local strangers literally waved at us from across the street, aware that we were foreigners and wanting to convey this awareness. Many people we came across enjoyed conversation only to know your story a little better, and to share a little bit of theirs. It is quite baffling really to absorb the profound acts of inhumanity that reverberated in this small kingdom of 5 million in a not so distant past – and align that with the incredible sweetness of the people that we were acquainted with. It was my first visit to a country that experienced genocide in modern history and a big part of my observation was about trying to fit in the contemporary face with the devastating evil she had just endured. I won’t be dissecting the depth and breadth of Cambodian history and politics in this post of course, but it’s not possible to avoid referring to her dark history entirely particularly as so much of her tourist attractions somehow demands us to remember it.
These are our little crumbs of Kampuchea… (bearing in mind this was a 3 night getaway taken 4 years ago!).
First to Siem Reap
- Angkor Wat
The minute you approach the boulevard which takes you to the temple, your eyes will be drawn to what you have always imagined Siem Reap to be. A stunning feat of ancient architecture, very well preserved, with every corner worth not just a photograph but also a place to sit, observe and reflect on the peace that nature brings. It was very hot so do go as early as possible to avoid the heat which can make you tired quickly and not enjoy the place as much. But there were some parts of the temple which overlooked bright green grass, which offset the bright blue skies, and make unforgettable visuals.
If you are confused about which temple to see, don’t miss the Ta Prohm/ The tree temple/Tomb Raider temple. Beautiful and the ruins are captivating…. note though that the Instagram junkies will be lining up for ages to get a posing shot with this tree so you may need to be patient.
I got stuck here. The amok fish and mango salad is gorgeous and somewhat artistically presented. There was an assortment of wonderful books including good ones about Cambodia. The great thing about Cambodia is that alot of the restaurants/hotels spend quite alot of their proceeds on various different NGO’s/nation-building foundations which makes spending worthwhile. I bought and started reading The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop from this bookstore cafe and basically breached my own promise to myself (no more reading after my last book in 2011, Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa, which made me bawl my eyes out in my flight to Turkey much to the discomfort of fellow passengers). I won’t launch into an analysis of these two books but in a nutshell, read it if you want to throw yourself deep into the raging fires of humanity’s pain.
- Accommodation – The Shinta Mani
We didn’t have much of a criteria when we booked for a place in Cambodia, and The Shinta Mani happened to be rated as the number 1 hotel on Tripadvisor at the time, so we gave it a shot. It’s a very stylish, perfectly located and excelled at service. Every time we entered the place, the treatment we received was remarkable – Shinta Mani staff projected the Cambodian people at their best. It’s a 1 minute walk to the river and then a 7 minute walk (two by tuk tuk costing USD2) to Pub Street/ buzzing town area. The walk was scenic, tree-lined boulevards with pretty street lamps. There are also gorgeous though pricey boutiques right across the hotel selling eclectic jewellery/candles/figurines. The design of the place is aesthetically unique, black, whites and grey are the base palate, with occasional sorbet accents (orange, jade green etc). Do not miss the spa either. (Just to point out that there are no lifts here so beware if you get a room at the third floor). The following are some photos of their eye catching interior deco.
Then to Pnomh Penh
- Killing Fields
I am not really sure if all tourists make a beeline to the Killing Fields the minute they touch down to Pnomh Penh or wether I am specifically more sadistic than others given my line of work but we were basically here within the first few hours of arriving in the capital from Siem Reap. It was sad and quite damaging really to go through the very moving narration with the accompanying audio which basically describes the level of brutality that occurred every step of the way. It brought tears to my eyes… I actually don’t think it’s possible to fathom what this country went through if we were not part of it ourselves and while apart of me is curious about why there is so much effort invested in preserving the memory of Pol Pot’s regime (does it not prolong the hurt), I also get why it’s important to never forget. I do wonder though how many generations it will take to take the pain away. Almost every one we met in our trip spoke of having lost at least one family member from this period.
- The Genocide Museum – Tuol Sleng Museum
This was basically a primary school turned into an incarceration centre for Pol Pot dissidents who were subject to acts of inhumane suffering owing to their perceived defiance of the regime (and defiance encompassed almost every possible action). To understand what the prisoners felt, tourists usually start of here, and then move on to the Killing Fields as the detainees were first tortured here before being sent to their deaths at The Killing Fields. I think if you read the book The Lost Executioner described above, you will be able to catch a glimpse of the horrific going-ons more vividly. I have a headache just recollecting the visit. I won’t put up the images of the museum as I feel that’s almost like torture-porn. I think one of the most disturbing aspects of the book though was how Tuol Sleng’s commander in chief, Comrade Duch, (Chief Torturer) was actually described as a decent, kind and caring teacher by his students before he became part of the Khmer Rouge. I feel part of why the bleakest conditions of humanity captivates me (in a horrifying way) is because it’s so obvious that evil lives in all of us…. I can’t comfortably and dismissively dehumanise inhumane actors of this world because I think it so possible that I too have a beast pumping in my blood and in certain conditions and environments, it becomes aroused…
After a long day of genocide gawping, I physically felt ill I remembered. Nausea and dizziness. I needed to rest for a long time that night. (Weeks after this trip, I also gobbled up every article and youtube video about the Khmer Rouge, including Duch’s statement of apology in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – watch if you are as sadistic as I am).
- Accommodation – Plantation Urban Resort and Spa
I can’t quite remember if we had a reason for choosing this hotel apart from the fact that it was rated quite highly on Tripadvisor. The location is great, service is good and there are good facilities in the hotel such as pool and spa for reasonable prices. The rooms are definitely on the more basic side and feels very much like a posh, upscale hostel room for us to really feel that it was approx 76/80USD worth the price. Perhaps it is unfairly compared to hotels in Bangkok, where for this price (eg Centre Point Suites) you would get something a little more mainstream, spacious and modern. In any case, generally we had little complaint in terms of the service and facilities. There was also gorgeous pieces of art by David Holliday in the foyer selling at reasonable prices. The whole place had a vintage, rustic, arty feel so recommended if you like that kind of thing.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts – a trip to South East Asia is not fully complete without exploring the Indochina trail. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are each so unique and memorable and definitely plays such a significant role in the history and geo-politics of the region. While Luang Prabang is so far my favourite as a place of true innocence and beauty, Cambodia is my favourite in terms of its warmth and soul. She represents something about this region that I am so attached to – the ability to have access to each other’s inner lives and feel energized by it. Do stay longer if you visit her, and go beyond the genocide coverage that we did!