Ruins, Beaches and a Horrifying History: One Week in Cambodia

After recovering from my dengue-like illness in Bangkok, I rolled out of bed at an ungodly hour for the 5:55am train to Aranyaprathet, the border town to Cambodia. When I hit Khao San road at sunrise, there was still people sitting in the gutter being sick all over themselves. Ah, youth.

I got a tuk-tuk to the train station and bought my ticket with plenty of time to spare. It cost me only $1 for the seven hour journey through the beautiful Thai countryside. Getting another tuk-tuk to the immigration and going through passport control and into Cambodia was easy as pie. The four hour bus to Siem Reap cost $9 and I was told that it included drop off at my accommodation. This was a total lie, as I had to pay another $5 to get from the bus station to the first hostel I could find. It was pissing down rain (as usual) and I was exhausted. I headed straight out for some food glorious food, wandered around the night market and then went to bed. 

The next day was another early start. My new German friend Roxanne and I were up before dawn to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. “Angkor what?” I hear you ask? Don’t worry, I’d never heard of it either to be real. The Temples of Angkor are located just outside Siem Reap and span over 400 square kilometres. The archeological site contains the ruins of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. It is the largest religious monument as well as the largest preindustrial city in the world. Angkor Wat is actually the name of one particular structure, but the name has come to be used to refer to the entire site. 

Sunrise over Angkor Wat is supposed to be mind-blowingly beautiful, but due to the unfortunate weather, the sunrise that we saw was rather an anti-climax. 

Expectations:

(Image by Michael and Faye Johnson, 2011. http://www.travelblog.org/Photos/6573717)
(Image by Michael and Faye Johnson, 2011. http://www.travelblog.org/Photos/6573717)

Reality:

IMG_3211Both Roxanne and I found the actual Angkor Wat ruins a little bit disappointing, but we did really enjoy the Bayon Temple, which has hundreds of detailed faces intricately carved into its stone structure. I’m so annoyed at myself because the combination of the horrible overcast weather and me not knowing how to use my camera like a pro meant that all my photos of the ruins were terrible!

Image by Next Trip Tourism, 2012. http://nexttriptourism.com/bayon-temple-tourism-in-cambodia/
Image by Next Trip Tourism, 2012. http://nexttriptourism.com/bayon-temple-tourism-in-cambodia/

IMG_3775Siem Reap has  very seedy bar scene which I decided not to investigate. Instead, Roxanne and I took an overnight bus to Sihanoukville, the backpacker beach town on the South Coast of Cambodia. Our overnight bus was ridiculous. Roxanne and I basically had to share a single bed. We were told that we would arrive in Sihanoukville at 7am. Nope, we arrived in Phnom Penh at 7am and had to get on another bus that got us to Sihanoukville at 2pm. As is tradition, it was pouring with rain when we arrived. Also, I lost a shoe! Somewhere between Siem Reap and changing buses in Phnom Penh, one of my beautiful Nikes became detached from my backpack that was being held in the storage compartment underneath the bus. Gutted! 

I’m sure Sihanoukville, or “Snooky” as I heard somebody call it, is beautiful in the dry season when the sun is shining but, of course, it was either raining or cloudy the whole time I was there. Classic. The rather unimpressive beach is packed with ladies selling mani-pedis and massages, and seven year olds selling bracelets. My two new friends made up for all of that though, James and Ash from Sydney! We got along really well. It was so nice to meet some fellow Aussies with my same sense of humour! We ended up travelling to Phnom Penh together where I visited the Killing Fields and S21 Prison Museum to learn about the absolute horror of the Khmer Rouge. 

Ash, myself and James
Ash, myself and James

Between 1975 and 1978, the Khmer Rouge senselessly tortured and murdered up to an estimated 3 million people, including women and children. Under the reign of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge invaded the entire country, capturing anyone who was skilled or educated. These people were seen as a threat to Pol Pot’s horrifying regime. I won’t go into details about exactly what happened back then because it is honestly too disturbing to discuss.

What shocks me most, is that I didn’t learn about any of this in school. I’d vaguely heard of the Khmer Rouge, but I had no idea of the extent of the atrocity that went on. How the hell did I not know about this? This was surely one of the most evil crimes ever committed against humanity and it happened less than forty years ago. In fact, just two days ago the two most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge were finally convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison (Fuller & Wallace, 2014). It absolutely stuns me that this is such modern history. In a time when TVs and radios were very much a reality, absolute terror was taking place in a country not too far from my own, and nothing was done to stop it. That being said, there are apparently 41 wars being fought around the world right now, and here I am, writing a blog.

If you’d like to know more about the Khmer Rouge, educate yo’self here.

IMG_3312

"Magic Tree.. The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed."
“Magic Tree.. The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.”

IMG_3315 IMG_3303 IMG_3319 IMG_3309 IMG_3307

Obviously this was a very sobering experience but one of Cambodia’s absolute must-sees. There is no other way to even begin to understand the horrendous past of this still-recovering country. 

I spent one final night in Phnom Penh with James and Ash. We ate some pizza to boost my happiness levels after that day’s confronting activities and drank a cocktail at one of Phnom Penh’s swankiest rooftop bars (although, it wasn’t very swanky at all to be honest).

The following day I flew out to Singapore to see my girl, Georgina (YAY!) and to eat literally every delicious thing we could get our hands on!

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