Siem Reap, Cambodia
Cambodia was our fourth and final leg of our trip to Southeast Asia. After stepping off the airplane we could tell right away the air was different here. Thailand had a lot of exhaust in the air, Luang Prabang had a lot of smoke in the air, and Cambodia had a lot of dust in the air. In fact there was dust everywhere. We also noticed from the first Tuk Tuk driver that took us from the airport to the hotel, that the local people are much more aggressive about getting your business. The local economy is very dependent on tourism and the locals are very poor, so they make sure they get your business by either stalking you, asking to drive you around the next day, yelling at you to get your attention, or touching you to get you into their store. This definitely distracted from the amazing sights in Siem Reap, but you get used to ignoring it after a couple hours.
While in Cambodia, I spent some time reading about the recent history of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's rule. During the 1970's, the Khmer Rouge pushed all the people out of the cities to be farmers in the rural areas of Cambodia, killed off all the teachers and educated people or anyone who looked educated, and dismantled the banking system. Millions of people were killed or died from starvation and disease during the 5 year rule of the Khmer Rouge and there are still millions of active land mines scattered around the jungles of Cambodia. Because of this, you can understand why the region is so poor and uneducated. There are also local bands of people playing music with missing limbs because they stumbled across an active land mine while looking for food or wood in the Jungle. In fact, our tour guide lost a sister and uncle during the Khmer Rouge from starvation. The region has an interesting history and you can still see the impacts of the recent history on the region, but the Cambodian people's resolve is strong and they are building their economy again and working to educate their people. I don't want to be a downer about the history, but it helps to put things into perspective while visiting the country.
So, with that out of the way, our first evening in Siem Reap we spent walking around "Pub Street" and the surrounding area. Pub street is a small section of the city, full of night life and restaurants and this is where many of the tourists go to eat and drink. There were yellow umbrellas hanging above the street to denote the area, which was hard to miss from the large neon sign pointing you in the right direction. We also walked around a night market there before heading back to the hotel for the evening.
The first full day in the city we spent walking around town, exploring what the city had to offer. We found an artisan workshop, where they train local people in arts of metal working, stone work, wood work, silk textiles, painting and more. Many of the goods are then sold to tourists, but some of the stonework was used to reconstruct parts of the temples in the area. We also walked through a food market full of fresh seafood, produce, meats, and other goods. The whole place smelled strongly of fish, so it took some mouth-breathing to get through parts of the market.
Our final two days in the city were consumed with a 2-day tour of the Angkor Wat temple complex. We decided to hire a private tour guide and driver for the next two days. The price was reasonable, plus we wouldn't have to deal with aggressive Tuk Tuk drivers, large crowds of tourists, being rushed through the temples, and we had the benefit of someone who knew the temples and their history. I would definitely recommend doing this when you visit the complex.
So we started off at Angkor Wat, known for being the largest religious monument in the world and one of the world wonders. Angkor Wat was amazing! The entire temple was surrounding by a huge wall and a wide moat, which symbolized the outer world or universe from the Hindu religion. The temple itself had three levels, each representing different levels of enlightenment from the religion. Angkor Wat was actually a Hindu temple built in the 12th century and then converted over to a Buddhist temple. There is so much history to the temple that it would probably be best to read more about it here, rather than me screw it all up. It was an amazing site and is definitely not to be missed on your way through the region.
That day we also spent going through some of the other temples in the complex, which included the famous Tomb Raider temple. This is where parts of the movie were filmed with Angelina Jolie. I tried to go back and watch the movie, but it was pretty bad. However, it was neat to see some of the places we visited in the movie.
What was fascinating about some of the other temples, were the trees growing out of the temples. During the history of Cambodia, Angkor Thom (in the Angkor complex) was the capital of the country, before it was moved to Phnom Phen. When the capital moved, so did all of the people and the region was deserted. The temples were swallowed by the surrounding jungle and it wasn't until a French biologist studying butterflies stumbled across the temples, did they start to excavate and restore them. Some of the temples still have the trees growing over them because removing them would further damage the temple structure. These trees made for some amazing photos, symbolizing the constant struggle between humans and nature.
After the second day of touring the Angkor Wat region, we spent a half day in a local fishing village. The entire village floats or is on 8 meter stilts because during the wet season the whole area floods with 8 meters of water. I could not imagine what it must be like to live on the water like that, but it was a pretty neat village to see. We then took a boat out to see the sunset on the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. We also had dinner at a venue in Siem Reap that has dancers performing some of the traditional dances of the religions.
Before we knew it, our trip in Cambodia was over and we were back on a plane to Bangkok, and then to Washington, DC. When we touched down in DC, there was snow falling and covering the runway. We just left 70 and 80 degree weather for 30 degrees and snow. If it wasn't for the 24 hours of travel time, I would have staying on the plane and headed back!
Our trip was an amazing experience, full of great people, awesome food, and amazing sights. I only wish we had a year to explore the region, but I guess that is why we have to go back at some point. I would definitely recommend the area for anyone looking for a change in scenery and wanting to see and learn about some eastern traditions. With that, I hope you enjoy some of the images of Cambodia.
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