Trip to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh
04.09.2012 - 08.09.2012 22 °C
Cambodia. Mention of this country reminds one of a country ravaged by war and the dark days of Pol Pot’s reign. Today, however, it is a country on the road to recovery and very much into tourism. There are two areas to cover in Cambodia which are so vastly different from one another – the magnificent ancient structures of Angkor located in Siem Reap (as depicted by the Cambodian national flag) and the horrible atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 where an estimated one quarter of the population were exterminated through torture, mass execution, disease and starvation. It is hoped that valuable lessons can be learnt from such acts and never be repeated again.
This was my second trip to Cambodia, having previously been there in March 2011. During my previous trip, I had spent 5 days in Siem Reap, the highlight being a 3-day excursion through the Angkor Archaeological Park but I did not get a chance to drop by Phnom Penh. Thus this time a visit to Phnom Penh was definitely on the cards.
Thus I felt a return to familiar territory in making this second trip to visit the magnificent Angkor structures once again. I has actually liked Siem Reap, as it was not as crowded like other major neighbouring cities like Bangkok and Hanoi. Traffic here was also not as chaotic as other neighbouring regions. And surprise, surprise, there were more Caucasians than Asian tourists! From observations, Siem Reap is a relatively undiscovered gem so it is a good time to go now before more people uncover this gem!
The first day was meant to be a relaxed day, with me reaching Siem Reap in the afternoon and spending the rest of the day roaming round town. And of course, my number one mission: to search for pate (French loaf sandwich with meat) . During my previous trip I was addicted to it and this time round I totally skipped dinner on the first night and has 2 loafs at one go!
The key attraction of any Siem Reap trip is always to visit the Angkor structures particularly the world renowned Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This time round I had only allocated a 1-day trip, so the logical choice was to visit the Big Circle, which would cover the main sights of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Despite my second visit, I was still awed by its magnificent structure, particularly from the outside of the temple. I spent a few hours just in Angkor Wat itself, wandering around the structure, admiring at the way the structure was created and the delicate carvings on the walls. Efforts are still continuing to restore the ruins after years of neglect and decay. Thus when visiting the site, it is not surprising to see parts of it in ruins while other areas might be cordon off for restoration works. I did not hire a guide however, who would definitely be able to explain in more precise details the history and particularly the depiction behind different structural carvings. A hired guide is highly recommended if one wants to delve more into the history of the sites while exploring the temples at same time. Otherwise, if you are just a visitor like me, just relax, enjoy the magificent sights and shoot some nice photos to bring home. Since this is also not a blog on Angkor wat, I will not cover the history of the structure and the different carvings I've seen. Also with the internet it is now very easy for people who are interested to understand more to do their own reading and research. Next was to Angkor Thom where I also saw similar looking structures.
To visit the full Angkor structures will take at least 2 full days as there are lots of other smaller structures scattered around the area worth visiting like Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm etc just to name a few. But after a while you tend to realize that the structures in various locations look more or less similar. So if one only has a day to spare, just stick to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and drop by a few smaller sites if time permits. But the sad thing is that most of the structures were in ruins although efforts are made to restore them through various partnerships with overseas organizations and governments. So some inconveinence may be expected.
After a hard day’s walking and trekking, it was back to Siem Reap town for a nice simple dinner, inclusive another round of pate, and a relaxing massage to ease the aches and pains from all the walking. After that I returned to the hotel for a quick change up. Unfortunately the sky then began to open up and I was stuck in the hotel and unable to roam the night market.
The rain continued to be relentless the next day, despite that, I went for a quick hike round the city before braving the rain in the tuk tuk to the airport to catch a plane to the next destination – Phnom Penh.
The highlight of Phnom Penh was to visit Tho Slang Museum (S21) & the Killing Fields of Chong Ek to understand more the horrific history of Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Upon bidding farewell to rainy Siem Reap, I reached sunny Phnom Penh and checked into the hotel. The first day was meant to be relaxed so I spent the day visiting the National Museum of Cambodia, which was located near the hotel and then onto the nearby Sisowath Quey, also known as the Riverside. Surprisingly, Cambodia is more open to foreign investment than neighbouring Vietnam and I saw a lot of familiar restaurants and of course there were also many pubs and bars frequented by foreigners. I thoroughly enjoy my slow walk down the river, taking in the street scene and observing locals enjoying and relaxing by the riverside. There was one group playing chaptek and yet another ground of mostly middle aged women doing mass exercise to the sound of music. I also took a slow river cruise but unfortunately, as it was a night cruise, I did not get to see a lot of the activities by the riverside.
During the next day, I managed to find a tuk tuk driver willing to take me on a round trip through Phnom Penh for around USD $20 for a full day. I packed my day tour into 4 destinations –Wat Phnom, Tho Slang Museum, Killing Fields and the Russian Market.
The first stop was Wat Phnom. It is a temple located in the heart of the city and a place for locals to gather and relax. The image that still rings fresh in my mind are the cobra structures located at the entrance of the temple.
The next stop was one of the place I had penciled in and maked out in my itinerary – Tuol Slang Genocide Museum aka S21 Prison. This was a school compound that was converted in to a prison cum torture chamber during the dark years under Khmer Rough control. Anybody and everybody, from the old to the young, to doctors, academic, monks and peasants, men and women would be sent here for interrogation and torture. Upon entering the compound, I saw a grave site commemorating the last 14 victims of this notorious facility. This was only the start of more horror to come. The compound was divided into 4 buildings and along the way, I saw the torture instruments, prison cell blocks, photos after photos of victims and of course bones and skulls. I also took time to watch part of a documentary of the Khmer genocide. The artifacts on display were already considered very mild when compared to what actually happened here and the compound itself is now a quiet and peaceful place, as if to let the souls who perished here rest in peace. Once cannot imagine such a serene location once brought horrors to ordinary Cambodians. And the ironic thing is S21 prison is located in a school compound in a busy intersection; one really cannot imagine this used to be a house of horror and torture.
To sum it off, this was the 10 rules detainees had to follow as inscribed below, plastered at the side of the museum. I left the museum with a heavy heart.
1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Next was to lunch and a trip to Russian Market. Known as Psar Toul Tom Poung to the locals, this was where the bargain hunting starts. The place itself was packed full of people and some of the walkways were very cramped. But whatever one is looking for, one can get it here, from replica watches to t-shirts, foodstuff, lunch, handicraft etc. Basically this place sells anything and everything and is the best place in town for souvenir hunting. You can even have a haircut and do a pedicure! But the place was rather cramped and I just had this eerie feeling that if a fire ever broke out… (Touch wood!).
After the Russian Market, it was the last stop of the day – a 1 hour ride to the outskirts of Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields of Chong Ek. The killing fields were a grim reminder of the brutalities of the genocide during Khmer Rouge regime. The ride on the tuk-tuk itself was uncomfortable as the roads were bumpy. I was just glad it didn’t rain and that smoke emitted from heavy vehicles didn’t choke my lungs. But this uncomfortable ride was nothing compared to the last journey that many ordinary Cambodians made to the execution ground. Just like Tho Slang, I felt a serene sense of peace and quiet upon arrival – one could not imagine this was the site of the last stop for many innocent Cambodians massacred during the dark days. To help visitors understand more of this terrible history, all visitors were loaned an audio player upon entry to the Killing Fields in which a narrator would describe the events as well as told stories that took place at various spots as visitors moved slowly from point to point. I felt that this was a systematic and organized way of helping visitors who had no prior knowledge of or had wanted to understand more of the atrocities committed by human beings on fellow human beings. For this, I was very grateful for a clearer insight via the audio player which made the field trip very meaningful. And to reach wider audience, several languages were available so do not worry if one does not understand English. Along the walking trail, just to quote a few, there was a truck stop whereby the victims would alight at their final destination, a spot marked the executioner’s office, the storage room for killing tools, mass graves etc. This was a sombre place to visit and I have to emphasise that at all times that upmost respect must be given to the deceased.
I understand that only a portion of the site is open to visitors as the area of execution was simply too far and too wide for visitors to cover fully. Also fears of unexploded landmines limited the areas that one could walk. Along the way, I could still spot bone and teeth fragments located on the ground as well as remains of clothing pieces. A chilly reminder of what actually happened here.
The main attraction was a 17 storey glass stupa which contained skulls and bones of victims exhumed from mass graves. All visitors were encouraged to pay their respects to the victims by bowing 3 times. Visitors were allowed to enter the stupa to view the bones and pay their respects.
A visit to Phnom Penh, especially if one wish to visit S21 prison and the Killing Fields should always be a somber occasion and one must pay upmost respect to the victims of this unimaginable mass murder. One is advised to avoid these places if one cannot stomach such cruel brutalities. I had already been mentally preparing myself to see these horrors before embaking on this trip but still I left the compound with a heavy heart. Outside the compound, I also caught sight of a group of handicapped people enjoying a game of sitting volleyball. Another grim reminder of the damage unexploded landmines can cause.
On the last day of the tour, I had the morning to spare before the flight home so I dropped by the Royal Palace. The Silver Pagoda and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, located inside the Palace, was certainly worth seeing. The last mission of the day was a late dash for some souvenirs and of course another round of pate!
To sum it up, Cambodia is certainly a place worth visiting. Angkor Wat itself is a place to marvel. And a trip to the Killing Fields reminds one of the kind of devastation that humans can do and that we should appreciate the years of peace and tranquillity we enjoy back home. And of course, I can never forget my favourite pate!
Some information to share:
1. Official currency is Riel although USD is widely accepted everywhere. So it is ok to pay in USD. Just expect small change to be given in Riel. Estimated USD$1 is about 4,000 riel.
2. There are regular buses from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh which can be easily be purchased from any bus company in Siem Reap. Just be ready to endure a 6 hour journey. To save hotel money, one can consider an overnight bus ride while sleeping in the bus. Buses are also available from Phnom Penh to nearby Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, if one is considering a cross country visit.
3. Tuk tuk is widely available and is considered a safe mode of transport. In fact you will be bombarded with requests from tuk tuk drivers! Just remember to agree on the price before boarding to avoid complications. Do provide a tip to show your appreciation if their service is good, especially those on full day trips.
4. There are no mega malls in sight but pubs and restaurants are widely available, especially along the Riverside. So it is a good place to get merry and drunk. It will also be good to stay around that area.
5. Do try pate! I still love it. It costs between Rh 4,000 to Rh 6,000.