Having been forced to take the over-land route into Siem Reap I’m up early to take the minibus to the Thai border. The minibus is unable to take you across the border so you have to literally walk across. It was a surprisingly odd experience. And crossing the Thai-Cambodia border is like walking into a different world. Literally. The smooth, paved roads of Thailand meet the dirt, hole-ridden tracks of Cambodia. We are greeted by a pre-arranged taxi to take us to Siem Reap.
Along the way we stop off at a small roadside settlement for a quick break. Asides from our driver, this is the first real contact I have with the people of Cambodia. A young girl greets us and instantly melts my heart with her sweet charm and quick wit. It’s an experience which will later reveal itself to be indicative of most of the people I meet.
So onwards to Siem Reap and we arrive at dusk in a town that caught me a bit by surprise. My initial motivation to visit Siem Reap was purely driven by my desire to visit the Angkor temples. But I instantly loved the town. I stayed in the quieter north-east part of town at European Guesthouse – a more than adequate place to rest my head with a great host and, at $6 a night, a bargain! This side of town can also be identified by the pretty river which is nicely decorated with white fairy-lights.
The south-west of town is the busier end where you can find a plethora of bars and restaurants on Bar/Pub St and the Alley. Granted it’s a bit touristy but has a great chilled-out vibe. Check out Temple Club for some Cambodian dancing while you dine and Angkor What? – a cool, graffiti-ridden bar where you can leave a message of your own on the wall.
The next mornng I’m up at 4am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We had a pre-arranged a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the main temples for the day. For $15-20 they spend the whole day with you, taking you to as many temples as you can take and waiting for you for as long as you want outside each temple you visit (although renting a bike for $2 a day would’ve been a cool alternative).
The Angkor temples have got to be one of the most fascinating, awe-inspiring structures you could find anywhere on this planet. I can’t really use words to describe them. You’ll just have to check them out for yourself! And it doesn’t matter how many temples you go to you’ll never get bored because each temple has it’s own unique charm or story, riddled with Buddhist and Hindu symbolism. It’s a tough one to choose but here are my top 3 temples:
- Angkor Wat – impressively vast, it’s a Cambodian icon featuring on the flag and even their beer!
- Bayon (pictured) – it’s a bizarre one but my favourite. Built by King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist temple in the city of Angkor Thom, it is recognisable for the 11,000+ carved figures sculptured into the walls
- Ta Prohm – the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple for it’s appearance in the film. Once upon a time the jungle was allowed to engulf all the Angkor temples. To preserve the temples, this jungle has been removed although some of it has been allowed to remain at Ta Prohm, demonstrating it’s awesome power. This temple is like something straight out of Indiana Jones.
My experience at the temples though doesn’t just educate me on the awesome power of the Angkor people of the past. It educates me on the greatness of the Cambodian people today. Our young tuk-tuk driver is a kind, quiet lad who, by demonstrating an unnecessary level of gratefulness that he is our ride for the day, really makes you warm to him. And there are many young children who, initially, are desperate to sell you an assortment of goods with crys of “one dollar!”. But stop to talk to them and you instantly fall in love with their sweet, bright, charming nature. Outside of one temple, twins Corn and Choi were quite happy to forgo the hard sell when we stopped to talk to them, gleefully talking us through their school work. Excitedly Corn shows us her school workbook while we calculate algebra in the dirt floor with Choi.
I came to Cambodia to visit the magnificant temples of Angkor. Little did I realise that Cambodia’s biggest attraction would be it’s people.
As I was now travelling overland instead of by plane, my stay had been cut to 2 days instead of 4. If I had more time I would’ve visited the floating villages of lake Tonle Sap. Instead I went into the countryside to visit a couple more temples and the landmine museum.
The countryside dwellings consist of wooden huts on stilts and we are greeted by child after child smiling and waving ecstatically at the sight of us. We visit another impressive temple, Bantaey Srei, before heading for the landmine museum. Run admirably by dedicated landmine clearer Aki Ra (who also runs a care home for children affected by landmines), the museum is a small simple structure but, in it’s simplicity, really gets the message across. Not only do you learn of the life shattering impact the landmines have (and it is estimated that there are still over 6 million still active in Cambodia), you learn of the devastating Khmer Rouge genocide. Their inhumane reign brought about the deaths of 2 million (out of a population of 7 million). If this is not a subject you are very familiar with, I’d urge you to read more. These events are all too recent in our history.
Visiting our final temple for the day, I feel a little depressed. Having grown quite attached to the people here I can only thank God that these amazing people no longer suffer at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. And I am relieved that it is something the children I’ve met will never experience.
The next day I’m back over the border to Thailand on the taxi-minibus combo. I leave feeling almost like my time away is over. Like it’s the end of a holiday. I fell in love with Cambodia, it’s people, the town of Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. But I’ll be back and I’d urge anyone else to make their way there.