Our Cambodia itinerary consisted of two cities: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. While the primary language spoken is Khmer, everyone we met spoke English quite well.
Siem Reap is famous because of its proximity to Angkor Archeological Park. Our hotel sent a tuk tuk driver to pick us up at the airport. This driver, Mr. Kong, was also our driver for the rest of our stay.
When visiting Angkor, you can buy a 1-, 3-, or 7-day passes. Since we had 2 full days to dedicate, we went for the 3-day pass. Mr. Kong would map out an itinerary for us then take us to each temple, always explaining where he’d be waiting for us afterwards. What many tourists do is opt to come to Angkor Wat for sunrise. There is a mass pilgrimage to the ticket office and then temple at about 4am. Naturally, we participated in this early excursion. While you don’t really “beat the crowd,” it does afford you the opportunity to explore the temple during a relatively cool time of day. As it was 86°+ F/30°+ C (with a minimum of 90% humidity) on average, we appreciated the ice cold water bottles Mr. Kong provided after just about every temple.
If you wanted to see the most well known temples, and didn’t care about getting all the background history from a tour guide (person or book), you could probably see a fair amount of Angkor in 1 full day (from the sunrise to the sunset). It would be a very full, very exhausting day, but it could be done. We had downloaded guides to the temples, so aside from taking pictures of these unbelievable pieces of architecture, we also always found a spot in the shade to read about the history of the temple. I should also say that it was enjoyable to visit the “less popular” temples as well (i.e. the ones you don’t necessarily find all over Instagram). Each temple had its own unique architectural qualities, history, and ornamentation.
Unfortunately, we do not have any great photos to share from Phnom Penh. Upon arrival we started doing a bit of research about things to see and do (better late than never?), and read a few disconcerting travel forum threads. As a result, we decided not to bring out photography gear and keep our smart phones in our pockets to the extent possible. These fears may have been (were probably) unfounded, but after the photographic rumspringa throughout the Angkor Archeological Park we felt a pictorial reprieve would be acceptable. We did visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was an upsetting, horrifying, and imperative part of our trip to Cambodia. The museum was once a school that was converted to a prison under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The museum is very well designed, beginning from the destabilization of Southeast Asia as a result of the Vietnam War (not to get too off track, but did you know that the U.S. dropped 110,000 tons of bombs in Cambodia between 1969-1970? I didn’t), and chronicling the lead up to the Cambodian Civil War, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the internment, torture, and genocide thereafter. The Khmer Rouge wanted to create a “better,” agrarian society in Cambodia, and thus imprisoned and executed anyone whom it deemed an enemy (this included intellectuals, people with any connections to the former government, and ethnic/religious minorities, to name a few). The museum is filled with stories and images of the prisoners as well as the young soldiers recruited by the Khmer Rouge. It’s difficult to confront this atrocity, especially considering how recent in history it is. I keep thinking about a quote presented by one of my public health professors:
Acknowledging the genocide is an important step. This entire trip has provided a lot of insight into the influence of powerful countries, and the effects of their action—or inaction—on those less powerful, especially in an increasingly globalized world. It’s also important to understand the impacts of the tourism industry, for better or worse.
Despite the awful events of recent history, the people of Cambodia are resilient, lovely, and among the friendliest we’ve encountered.
A few useful tips for those who plan to visit Cambodia:
- U.S. dollars are accepted as currency,* credit/debit cards are not commonly accepted
- You can have your visa processed upon entry; bring a passport photo
- What I (Melissa) wish I packed: A cotton, short-sleeved—i.e. shoulder-covering—dress that covers just past knees
*We had some trouble getting rid of a $20 bill with a very small rip in it. We were guessing it was because the banks won’t exchange U.S. dollars that aren’t in very good condition for Cambodian riel. We were correct, sort of.