The kingdom of Cambodia
A recount of our travels, their way of live and untouched marvels.
Legend has it that the city was founded when an old woman named Penh found 4 Buddha statues in a tree trunk on the banks of the Mekong River. She asked her neighbour to build a hill to house them and so the town grew to become known as Phnom Penh, meaning hill of Penh. Situated on the banks of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, the Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to about 2.2 million of Cambodia’s population of over 14.8 million in 2014, up from about 1.9 million in 2008. The city is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia and is now the country’s political hub.
Early evening we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital city. As the plane descended we were quick to notice that there were very few lights and on arrival we realized that much of the city did not have electricity. The city was busy but peaceful. There were few street lights, many scooters, people quietly cooked their dinner on the side walk and numerous abandoned buildings surrounded by much rubbish. Our eyes were glued to the taxi window as we had arrived in a lost world full of poverty and simplicity. On arrival at our lovely hotel we immediately dashed off for a full body Thai massage for only $10.
Due to a delayed flight we had missed our first day of touring so we were eager to get going and explore. After noodles for breakfast we were fetched by a driver and tour guide to start a private tour. We headed 100km out of town passing street vendors selling frogs and crabs. We caught a small boat down a canal which had been built between Thailand and Cambodia as it was cheaper than building a road. It was a lovely trip as we passed tiny fishing villages and meandered through lush overgrown canals. Once arriving we walked up a hill to see a temple built in the 6th century. This temple hidden far away with only a few villages to protect it was beautiful. It had a caved in roof and large gashes out its stone side from the USA’s bombs which tore through the country not so many years ago. Cambodian temples are built from brick, laterite, wood and sandstone. A small girl from the village had followed us and picked flowers for me as we all silently admired the temple. After a picnic lunch in hammocks we went to Yeay Peau temple, built in the late 11th century. We were the only tourists at this large, ruined temple and spent ages exploring it, watching monks and being taught about all the carvings on the stone walls by our guide.
After such beauty we were taken to the Pol Pot genocide killing fields. We hated this and made it a quick stop as the victims’ clothes and bones were still sticking out the ground of their shallow graves. We saw a tree that was used to murder children as they were thrown against it and bamboo clubs used to kill their parents. Loud music speakers throughout the site were used to brainwash the Khumer people into committing such acts. During this Khumer period of just over 3 years Cambodia lost almost half their population. Our tour guide told us many stories of what his people and even his own family went through at this time as they fled into the jungle. More people died in the genocide in Cambodia than Jews dies in the German concentration camps. The tragedy was that it was Cambodians killing their own people. Many of the perpetrators were still in government and trials were only just starting.
We were amazed at how inexpensive everything was and found many times we did not even bargin with the people. We visited the king’s palace which was decorative and touristy. The national museum was boring although the English tour guide that could not really speak more than 5 words of English made it particularity amusing for us as we pretended to understand what he was saying so the tour could end quicker. This really is one of those countries that you need to explore for yourself and the history in the museums does no justice to the interesting stuff just outside its door. During our 2 days we ate tasty, beautifully presented food, including the famous ‘happy pizza’ Lorna had warned us about. This made our giggle filled, hair raising scooter trip home quite the adventure. In the market place we saw baskets full of crickets, cockroaches and my absolute best, massive hairy spiders – YUK! These are apparently tasty snacks!? We were adventurous but this is where we drew the line without ANY hesitation. Our tour guide said everything gets eaten, even pet dogs but we kept to lemon grass fish and beef – we think.
Finally we visited lady Penh’s hill which was awesome. We let a tiny captured bird go (2 for $1). This is supposed to be done once you’ve finished praying to signify the release of your sins. This was fun and symbolic until my bird bit me. At the top of the hill we saw people in a trans-like state praying and shoving raw meat and eggs into the dog/tiger/well-it-had-4-legs statues’ mouth. They then burnt money (Photostatted US$ – we checked!). Quite strange but cool to watch. At the base of the hill we went on an elephant ride around the hill. This was such a highlight. We had no seatbelt on the bumpy ride so it was like riding on the back of a toothbrush.
Meaning ‘Siamese Defeated’ – not the most tactful name for a major city near Thailand. A lost city “re-discovered” by the French in the 19th century. A small city taking not more than an hour or two to navigate. In 2014, Siem Reap was ranked as the world’s fourth best city for tourists by TripAdvisor‘s Travelers’ Choice Awards.
After a short 45 min flight on a tiny plane not much bigger than my car, we arrived in Siem Reap – home of the thousands of years old Ankor civilization and way cool temples. It is a city known as the gateway to Cambodia’s spiritual and cultural heartbeat. Around the centre, it remains a charming town with rural qualities. Old French shops, shady tree-lined boulevards and a gentle winding river are remnants of the past, while 5 star hotels, air-con busses and international restaurants are pointers to the future. Our new friendly private tour guide and driver collected us and took us straight to Ankor Wat to see the sun set. It cost just $40 for a 3 day pass to all the temples in the area. We never spoke for the first few moments of entering the massive gates and we were so amazed at its size and grandeur. Unlike in Phnom Penh, there were now many tourists politely scattered all over Siem Reap taking in the splendor. We noticed that the type of traveler to such a country is not generally your ‘loud-over-the-top-know-everything-capitalist’ type but rather your ‘I’m-not-afraid-to-wear-ugly-shoes-cos-they’re-comfortable’ type. Ankor Wat is the largest of all the temples scattered throughout Cambodia. Lengthy books have been written about its history and design.
The history of Angkor according to inscriptions and existing temples begins in the 9th century but many believe that these kingdoms existed from the 6th century. It was from trading with India that Hinduism, and then after the 12th century Mahayana Buddhism, were introduced into Cambodia (previously known as the Khumers and Chams). It is thought the Cambodians adopted these religions as they believed the Indians received divine protection from them. Most temples are dedicate to the god Siva (he’s the god with lots of arms), considered by the kings to be the supreme protector of their empire. The people also worshiped evil gods whom were believed to roam the land and bring sickness and death. They were worshiped to keep them happy so they’d stay away. What’s interesting is that they did not know all the Indian Hindu or Buddhist doctrines and so many of their beliefs are quite simple compared to the more in-depth Indian religions. The Khmer temples were not a meeting place of followers but a palace for the actual gods, to allow them to bestow their beneficence on the temples founder and his family. A great temple would not be a vast palace for one god but a grouping of multiple shrines with a main divinity at the centre.
The record of daily life at Angkor during this time is limited as most inscriptions and carvings were matters of religion and state only. It is just known that the people living during this time had many, in some cases hundreds of slaves. Men and woman all wore only a strip of cloth bound round their waist. They tendered rice fields as they still do today. Something I found particularly disturbing was that many of the temples not only have to worry about the centuries of natural elements and then the odd war every few years but now countries like Thailand are getting thieves to go in and steal pieces of the temples to sell to Westerners and so many carvings have been defaced.
The temple of all temples – Angkor Wat
This is the world’s largest religious monument and was built in the 12th century. It is a completely realised microcosm of the Hindu universe, culminating in the five peaks of Mount Meru. It is an architectural masterpiece in fine proportions and rich in detail. It is not only one of the grandest Khumer temple but was a city in its own right. The outer limits of Angkor Wat are set by its extremely broad moat (almost as wide as Hartebeespoort Dam) and are over a total of 200 hectares of land. Angkor Wat is, to put it simply, a pyramid of 3 levels, each one enclosed by a well developed gallery with 4 gopuras (gateway building through which one enters) and corner towers. The summit is crowned with 5 towers. Apparently the Angkor king had 16 000 concubines and to build this city it took the hard work of 4 000 elephants, 385 000 people, 6 000 boats and almost 400 years. Each person dedicated their lives and best talents to building the temple as they believed that then they would then go to heaven.
We spent hours wondering around the large temple with our tour guide relaying stories of battles, gods and power all carved and painted onto the mighty limestone walls. What amazed us in this and all the temples was that we were allowed to walk freely and in most cases touch whatever we wanted. There were seldom any form of security and so we were left to explore at our own pace, feeling the stone and really getting a sense of how mighty these kingdoms must have been.
This was my favorite temple. We arrived early in the morning and were virtually the only ones at this site. It was here where Angelina Jolie’s Lara Craft, Tomb Raider movie was filmed. This temple was deep in the jungle and completely overgrown with bulky tree roots. These strangler figs and silk cotton trees are entwined among the gently declining ruins. The sound of noisy crickets and birds filled the air and we felt like we have gone back into a world many thousands of years before. This airy place had such a romantic and mystical atmosphere. Most of this temples ruin has been caused by the trees. The plant takes hold of a crevice usually were a bird has deposited its seeds, the tree then extends its roots downwards to the ground. In doing this the roots then wedge themselves between the stone growing thicker, slowly wedging open the blocks. Eventually the trees become a support for the building and when it dies or is felled by a storm the loosened blocks collapse.
This temple is viewed as one of the most enigmatic and powerful religious constructions in the world. The temple is extremely complex both in terms of meaning and structure. It uniquely uses a mass of face-towers to create a stone mountain of ascending peaks. Today 37 of the original 54 peaks are still standing (I think we tool at least 12 photos of each of them). There are normally 4 faces which are meant to symbolize that the god could look north, south, east and west at the same time and see everything, with no good or wrong doing to be missed.
Over the few days we were in Siem Reap we were taken to many different temples. They all varied in design, material, gods, size and intricateness. All told elaborate stories through carvings which served as teachings for the people.
Eventually our feet got sore and we tired of temples and so we went in search of new adventures which our friendly tour guide was only to happy to take us to (I think he has told the stories of the Naga, Garudas and Rama too many times). Out in the sticks we drove past tall grass houses, rice fields, water buffalo and many genuinely happy people. Unlike in SA, these people may be poor but there are rivers to fish in and rice fields allowing 80% of the 15 million people in Cambodia to rely on agriculture to make a living. By 214 the statistics reflect that the unemployment rate was well under 5%. We often stopped on the side of the road to see the locals at work in the fields or making coconut sweets for sale. We once drove past a few guys with an odd looking machine looking for landmines. They apparently dig them up with knives once they find them. Ummm ok!
Somehow we ended up at an old virtually abandoned military base which looked like a school dormitory. Slowly and carefully we emerged from the car as we were greeted by some serious military men. It was so strange to see Cambodians without beaming smiles full of love and warmth. The man who spoke with us (through out guides censored translation) spoke with military confidence and led us to a wall full of weapons. By this point our poor driver was hiding behind me which made this adventure feel anything but safe. We decided on a very illegal AK-47, paid $40 without any bartering and we were given a magazine with 30 bullets. Within 2 minutes it was all over, We got our badly abused target to take home with us. We took a few photos posing with different weapons of gross destruction and left with a dash of speed before they decided to use us for target practice.
One morning we went on a hike through the jungle. The hike ended at a river which flowed over statues carved in the rock and thousands of linga’s which were carved to purify the water and make it holy. I am sure it was very pretty but I was panting so much from the hike I don’t remember much through my hyperventilation.
Back at our hotel we had dinner in the pool at the pool bar and many ridiculously cheap massages. All the food we ate was decorative and tasty. The bowls are weaved from leaves so each meal was beautifully decorated. It’s worth going there just for the food. We went to dinner with a entertaining local show and a butterfly enclosure for coffee. Pub street was a big hit with all the tourists with a whole street full of completely different pubs – there are bound to be a few for everyone’s taste. We had dinner at the FCC and stared at the snake wine which contained a cobra with a scorpion in it’s mouth. I smuggled a small bottle into SA for our mate Si. One night we discovered a relaxed night market to wonder around and at its centre was a great little bar with a guy who was only to happy to show off his flaring skills. After some bad cocktails and good local beer we hopped on the back of a scooter to take us home to the hotel.
As we packed our things to leave and got dropped off at the airport we were genuinely sad to leave. We loved our stay and enjoyed seeing a country in such a natural, raw state, without high rise building, without Mc Donalds or any other western influence. We joked about their adorable accents always saying “same, same” and “$1 please lady”. I hadn’t opened a single door in the week we were there as these people were everywhere and literally waiting to do thing for us. They seemed to love their jobs, from the sweeper to the waiters to the guides – everyone genuinely seemed so happy and content with life. Anything goes in Cambodia, we really felt like we could do whatever we wanted and soon noticed that street signs, when there were some, served mainly as a guideline only. In 2007 they had 5 000 scooter accidents and only 2 000 car accidents. The people warmly put their hands together to bow to say hello and thank you – we thought this was cool and picked the habit up quickly. Cambodia truly is the calmest, warmest, most peace loving, naïve, gentle nation. Cambodia will forever be one of my most favorite places in the world. It was a raw spiritual experience with allowed for much simple extravagance.
“Memories are treasures
that time cannot destroy.
They are the happy pathways
to yesterday’s bright job.”