Phnom Penh, Cambodia
After our trip through Vietnam, we hopped on a bus and crossed the border into Cambodia. Our first stop was the city of Phnom Penh. One of the employees on the bus asked if we were interested to hire his cousin as our tuk tuk driver for the day. We were nervous about walking into a scam, but figured we could be cheated by any driver in town anyway. So we took a chance, and it worked out great!
Our driver was named Mony. He weaved through gridlocked traffic like one hunting deals in Wal-Mart on Black Friday. Since we only had one full day in Phnom Penh, he made sure we saw the highlights and drove us around at a quick pace. He was also very polite and had a great sense of humor.
Our day in the city was easily the most sobering day of our entire trip. It’s almost too morbid to post these on our blog, but we decided it would be even more tragic to remain ignorant of the past. We don’t want to forget the victims or the effects that sin can have on the human race.
In case you don’t know, a man named Pol Pot usurped power in the 1970’s. He instituted a Communist Regime called the Khmer Rouge and forced everyone living in cities to go out and work in the rice fields. He believed urbanization was evil and targeted intellectuals for ridiculous schemes and conspiracies. He accused and killed many people thought to be spies. Malnutrition, physical labor, torture, and murder wiped out between 2 and 3 million people under the Khmer Rouge regime.
The population of Cambodia at the time was 8 million.
As a curious history buff, I (Morgan) was really interested to learn more about this country’s past. We started our day in Phnom Penh at the Killing Fields. This large plot of land is the final resting place for thousands of Pol Pot’s victims. Once every ounce of information was recorded from civilians through hours of torture, victims were sent to these fields to be brutally murdered. We walked past mass graves of men, women, and children. We even saw bones and pieces of clothing along the walkways, resurfacing after recent rains. The most devastating part of our tour was standing by the tree on which they crushed infants’ heads before tossing them into a mass grave. The mausoleum housed hundreds of skulls that showed evidence to how the victim was murdered: most were killed by hoes, axes, metal rods, or hammers, as bullets were too expensive for the Khmer Rouge.
The mausoleum that housed bones of victims
The tree next to the mass grave for infants. Pol Pot believed that all members of the family needed to be killed so no one would grow up to seek revenge.
You can see holes and cracks in the skulls noting how the victim died.
Bones along walkways that had resurfaced from recent rains
Visitors left bracelets from countries across the world as symbols of respect and remembrance to the victims and international support for victims’ families.
Thousands of victims have been exhumed from mass graves
After we left the Killing Fields, we went to Tuol Sleng. This was once a high school, but the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and torture chamber. In the 3.5 years that the Khmer Rouge ruled, this prison housed 20,000 victims before sending them to the Killing Fields. The torture devices and sloppily-erected cinderblock prison cells are still in place. Of the 20,000 confined within the prison’s walls, only 11 survivors walked away once the Khmer Rouge was disbanded. We even got to meet Chum Mey, one of the only two remaining survivors alive today. It was amazing and devastating that something like this happened, without much of the western world knowing about it, in the last 40 years. It was also a clear reminder that we need a God who can redeem broken situations.
It was amazing and devastating that something like this happened, without much of the western world knowing about it, in the last 40 years. It was also a clear reminder that we need a God who will redeem broken situations.
Tuol Sleng: the high school converted into a prison
Chum Mey: one of the only two survivors of Tuol Sleng still alive today.
Counting the days: markings inside one of the cells
Barbed wires on the second and third stories prevented prisoners from committing suicide
Chains and torture devices still lingered in some of the rooms
One of the rooms where victims were interrogated and tortured.
We needed a change of scenery, so Mony took us to the Russian Market and then to the Royal Palace. The grounds were HUGE! It was unfortunately boiling hot, but we had to cover shoulders and knees! Why do the hottest countries in the world require the most clothing?
One of the highlights of the Royal Palace was the Silver Pagoda. The floor of this temple was made entirely of pure silver!
Silver Pagoda in the background
On the steps of the Silver Pagoda
One of the many buildings within the palace grounds
The Victory Gate at the Royal Palace
We then went to Wat Phnom. Legend has it that couples who visit Wat Phnom together are doomed to split up. We decided to risk the old wives tale and visit…together. We weren’t particularly impressed, but we enjoyed watching the monkeys jump from branch to branch overhead.
Small temples sat on stands in front of most homes and wats. These were meant to give a home to the spirits of men and women wandering the grounds.
Inside Wat Phnom
Cruising around town in Mony’s tuk tuk
The final stop of our long day in Phnom Penh was the King Statue and Independence Monument. These were stunning stops at dusk, and we happily welcomed the cool night air after a LONG, HOT day. We ate dinner along the Mekong River and had a nice walk along Sisowath Quay. We then boarded an overnight bus heading toward Siem Reap.
The King’s Statue
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Littered with hundreds of temples, Siem Reap and Angkor Archaeological Park were some of the highlights of our trip. We started our first day exhausted, as our overnight bus trip from Phnom Penh was not a decent night of sleep. In fact, it was probably Evan’s least favorite part of the entire 5 weeks. Imagine riding a wooden roller coaster, like the Georgia Cyclone, but doing it for 7 hours while you try to sleep and are really hot.
Despite the bags under our eyes, we made the most of our day and toured the Outer Circuit of Angkor Archaeological Park. The temples were stunning! …Much more so than those that lie in ruin in Vietnam. Our first stop was Pre Rup. This temple had 3 monuments atop a set of steep steps.
Our next stops along the Circuit loop were East Mebon, Ta Som, and Neak Pean. Some temples were more impressive than others, but each had a unique aspect to them that we could appreciate.
Neak Pean was surrounding by a large moat
King Jayavarman VII spread most of the Khmer empire to its greatest extent around the 1100-1200s. Preah Khan was part of a grand urban plan, but he also built Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. He built hospitals, highways, bridges and more.
Alleyways of Preah Khan, one of the more impressive temples
Preah Khan-not supposed to be exposing my shoulders…but it was SO HOT!
After finishing our circuit around Angkor Archaeologial Park, we were exhausted and overheated. Tuk-tuks are fun to travel in, but air conditioning is a distant memory. We decided to head back to the hotel, but I jumped at the opportunity to stop to take photos of the wild monkeys playing in the trees and dirt alongside the road.
We quickly learned that our time in Cambodia would consist of avoiding the hot sun by starting early and going until 1 or 2pm, napping during the hottest part of the day, and going back out again at night. The perfect Cambodian sandwich!
Day Two in Siem Reap started with a fantastic wake-up call at Angkor Wat! Getting up at 4:30am, cruising along for a 45-minute tuk tuk ride, and waiting in anticipation for another hour while trying to find a place away from crowds for our 7am sunrise was well worth it. Here is a taste of our anticipation…
Well then proceeded to hire a tour guide to take us through the complex. Here are some interesting facts we learned:
- Angkor Wat was built 901 years ago and took 37 years to build
- At the time, it was only used twice a month on the New Moon and the Full Moon
- It was built as a Hindu temple, with the 3 main spires representing the three main gods of Hinduism: Vishnu, Burma, and Shiva
- It was later transformed into a Buddhist temple
- Angkor Wat is the only temple to face west (as west represents ‘death’), but the king who built it knew he was reaching the end of his life and wanted it to be one of his last lifetime achievements.
- Angkor means ‘city’ and Wat is the Buddhist word for ‘temple’
We even met some monks along the way!
Feeling authentic with Buddhist monks
Angkor Wat from behind
Eastern-most end of Angkor Wat
Seems to go on forever!
The 37 steps are very steep, as this symbolizes the Buddhists’ belief of the very difficult road one must take to reach heaven.
Stunning sun rays rising above Angkor Wat
After Angkor Wat, we continued around the smaller park circuit towards Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was the actual city a few kilometers from Angkor Wat. We saw a lot of the ruined palace grounds, living quarters and local temples.
Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom
One of the highlights of Bayon is the many carved heads into the temple’s walls
Nice view at Bayon!
We also climbed Baphuon (the oldest structure in Angkor Thom), the Royal Palace ruins, Phimeanakas and Preah Palilay. One our our favorite temples, though, was Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm became famous when it was used at the set of TombRaider. Although, we loved it for the trees that grew in and through the structures. How cool!
In touring 2 days through Angkor Archaeological Park, we quickly realized that our tuk tuk driver was a dud. He was 30 minutes late to pick us up from lunch, picked up the WRONG people the next day, and was often hidden from our view when we came out of temples, only to be found snoozing. Well, at least he was cheap….
One of the many times our tuk tuk driver was busy sleeping when we needed a ride…
After our much needed afternoon siesta, we enjoyed the sunset over the rice paddy fields by ATV.
Water Buffalos at sunset
ATV at sunset
Cambodian rice paddies at sunset
Downtown Siem Reap had its fascinations as well. We enjoyed the restaurants, street food, live music, markets, and especially the fish foot spas!
Evan was much more ticklish than me Also, please appreciate the Cambodian English sign behind me.
Fun night out on the town!
Evan is trying to decide which street food option suited his craving
I convinced Evan to wake up for another Angkor Wat sunrise, but after returning to our hotel, we couldn’t last any longer. The heat and many hours of walking had finally caught up to us. We took a 4-5 hour nap and hit the town for one last, late-night fling on Pub Street.
The following day we wished Cambodia farewell, flew to Bangkok, and hopped on an overnight train towards Chiang Mai. The chapter of our Thailand adventure had begun.
Final sunrise at Angkor Wat
2nd class overnight Thai sleeper train