Unlike the tourist hotspot that is Thailand, her neighbour Cambodia receives far fewer visitors and as a result leaves much more to be explored. Western influences are at a minimum here, and it is entirely possible to immerse yourself in an authentic experience without feeling like you’re in a tourist trap. However, a tourist you will certainly be; a spectacle to be marvelled at by the locals as small children wave to you and try to sell you their colourful bracelets.
Siem Reap – small town, lots of character and the perfect gateway to Angkor Wat
A Street in Siem Reap – Cambodia
I began my trip in Siem Reap, a small town near the world famous Angkor Wat temple complex. This small town is very used to visitors, and as such, it is easy to be very comfortable here. International cuisine is served in beautiful restaurants, and you can grab a somewhat expensive drink at the Red Piano in Pub Street – famous as Angelina Jolie’s hangout when she was filming Tomb Raider in the temples nearby. Away from the hustle and bustle of the centre, it is still very easy to find authentic Cambodian shops and market stalls, but Siem Reap’s success is as a result of its tourism and it certainly caters to that.
Getting from Siem Reap to the temples was perhaps one of my favourite experiences in Cambodia. You can opt for a “tuk tuk” – a motorcycle with a cabin attached at the back that comes complete with a driver who will happily ferry you from temple to temple at your leisure and be yours for the day for a nominal fee. However, the road to the temples was long and straight, and in the spirit of adventure, we decided to cycle there.
I soon learned that you actually don’t forget how to ride a bike, but it does take a while to get used to it again. However, it was the traffic that amazed me the most. On first glance, it appears that no one follows the rules of the road. Although normally this would be a disaster, in Cambodia it oddly enough seems to work. Because no one is following the rules, everyone is looking out for each other.
Busy traffic on the streets – Cambodia
I found myself on my bicycle stuck amidst a crowd of cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks and other cyclists at an intersection, all of whom were simply inching their way across the road. At home, I would have been on the receiving end of some serious road rage, or at the very least, some honking of horns. But not here – on the Cambodian streets, everyone was looking around at each other, smiling, laughing, and trying their best to squeeze through any available gap in the crowd.
Upon reaching the temples, I soon discovered I would need at least a week here to see each one the way I wanted to. Spanning over 400 km2, including forested areas, the Angkor Wat temple complex was once a working city, and why it was abandoned is still an unsolved mystery. Conservation work is always happening here, but it does not interfere with the experience as you roam through the crumbling temple structures.
Angkor Wat – the most amazing sight to behold
Angkor Wat Temple – Cambodia
As the largest religious monument in the world, the Angkor Wat temple itself is certainly impressive, but it is the delicate and intricate carvings of both Hindu and Buddhist origin that are the most awe-inspiring. The temple is still in use as a religious site, so modest dress is a requirement. As you make your way along its many halls, you will come across modern statues of the Buddha, where men and women invite you to burn incense as they bless you with ‘good luck and long life’, tying pieces of coloured string on your arm.
Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor Wat – Cambodia
The photos I took home from this place are among my most precious. From the many faces of Bayon to the Mayan-like square pyramid structures outside the main temple, the entire complex is peaceful, beautiful and feels largely untouched as nature weaves its way through, slowly reclaiming the land. The most popular temple was perhaps Ta Prohm, most famous as the location for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider. Although surrounded by snapping photographers, the unique beauty of this temple and its monstrous trees are not lost.
Final call at Phnom Penh, the thriving capital
Phnom Penh – Cambodia
My next stop after Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat complex was the capital city of Cambodia: Phnom Penh. Unlike the abject poverty I encountered in more rural areas, Phnom Penh appears to be a thriving city, and it has made a huge effort to keep its most recent atrocities from falling into obscurity.
Visitors can take a sobering trip to S21 prison, an old school converted into a place of torture during the Pol Pot regime. The Killing Fields themselves are a short bus ride away, and the experiences of the prisoners are recounted on audio guides as you wander among the now peaceful landscape. A monument to the dead towers above you, reminding everyone of what was lost here. Sadly, everything has not yet been recovered, and you are asked to leave pieces of bone and clothing where you find them, should you come across them on your walk.
Parting thoughts of a land
Despite the grim reality of Cambodia’s recent history, I found the the country to be truly beautiful and awe-inspiring as its young population strives to build a better future. Their ability to continuously smile, laugh, and look on the bright side makes touring Cambodia and its wonderful sights all the more rewarding. It’s a place I will never forget and would go back to in a heartbeat.