Cambodia: Khmer Temples, Khmer Peoples, Khmer Rouge

On Sunday 30th June we flew from Changi Airport over to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was highly surprised at how nice the plane was, after all ‘Jetstar’ is the economically-valued equivalent of Ryanair. 

As soon as I stepped off the plane I experienced heat, not the humid heat that I had become accustomed to in Singapore, this was the heat of a roaring fire or a furnace! 

After adjusting we went through customs, which was highly frustrating as none of the representatives or staff of the airport could speak English, only Khmer. Now I feel hypocritical for saying this, but who in the world is going to know Khmer except people from Cambodia and researchers with interests in the country. 

Talking of researchers I forgot to mention that on the plane I met Geok, a specialist in the history of Myanmar (Burma), and by far the most interesting and fun person on the trip! It was a bit awkward because when we were given seats on the plane they were random, I ended up near Geok, and we didn’t really speak until we had to fill in the Visa forms. Once we did speak, however, I found out that she was a very interesting person and over the trip I learnt a lot from her. 

We then met the tour guide, and found the coach, eventually embarking to our new destination, the Lin Ratanak Angkor Hotel. 

During the drive there the tour guide introduced us to various aspects of Khmer life, society and culture, so I was highly shocked when we arrived at, what seemed to be in comparison to everything else, our luxury hotel! 

Once everything was unloaded we were paired into rooms, I was paired with David which I was quite happy with. 

We settled in, freshened up, then David and I met with the wonderful Rahavie in the lobby, and she then took us to the market area, which was a few metres away from the hotel. 

Never in my life have I experienced what I felt in that Market. My senses were continuously attacked and my emotions couldn’t keep up. The smell of human fluids mixed with durian; the sight of children wandering parentless; the sight of trash everywhere; within this unlit shelter there was the impossible comprehension that these peoples homes were their markets, and their markets were their homes. POVERTY! POVERTY! POVERTY! my mind screamed at me. Yet just a few metres behind me RICHES! WEALTH! PROSPERITY!. You hear and view articles, TV programmes, and radio programmes about things like this, but nothing ever informs you like the empirical attack of reality. 

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Just from 10 minutes in this market my entire outlook of life immediately changed. I was completely thrown outside of everything I was ever used to. Thankfully we eventually left and returned to the hotel. We (uncomfortably) wined and dined (I had my first ever cocktail – Blue Lagoon) on Western cuisine. WAIT! WHAT?! Yes, the hotel served western food as Khmer food is notorious for being terribly unhygienic. 

Post-dinner events included a trip to the Night Market, a very charming place. Now, transport in Cambodia is interesting to say the least. In Siem Reap there are only 5 sets of traffic lights, so naturally there are a lot of accidents and deaths on the road. Similarly there aren’t many cars! What there is, are these fantastic little vehicles called Tuk-Tuk’s, which is the most exciting form of transport I have ever been on! A tuk-tuk is a carriage attached to a motorbike. Most Tuk-Tuk drivers have 4 customers a day which would be about $12-16…Not a lot really! Their vehicles are usually given as donations from sponsors. Although it sounds like this would be incredibly unsafe it’s ironically the safest form of transport in Cambodia. 

The Night Market was a fantastic and vibrant place, so much was going on! I knew that I would have to buy things there, which I eventually did, at a later date. 

After the Night Market we went to an Irish bar where we got raped by mosquitos. We then returned to our hotel. 

We started the next day bright and early and went to various places. We first visited the Centre for Khmer Studies, where two monks gave a lecture on the types of activities that went on there. We then visited Artisans creating various things such as paintings and Buddhist statues. Following this we went on to the War Museum where we met with a Vietnamese man who had lost an arm. His story was saddening as was the environment we were surrounded by. Through everything the man had been through he still managed to relay his experiences. The site included all manner of treacherous weapons of war: tanks, anti-air artillery, land-mines etc. 

What struck me most was the pictures from the war that were stuck to boards. To see children wielding guns is incredibly distressing. 

After the museum we went forward to Tonle Sap. He was my first experience of Traditional Khmer Music and what a wonderful experience it was! The sound was glorious! I even bought a CD of Traditional Khmer Wedding Music! 

The group then boarded the boat and we started our journey through the Floating Villages of the Tonle Sap Lake. 

Just like my 10 minutes in the market by Lin Ratanak, I experienced a further attack on my senses, only this time I couldn’t escape! Here lived people who spent their entire time on the water, none lived past the age of 40 and children were tools used as benefactors of tourism. One dollar for picture! they would scream. Children in boats were wearing snakes around their necks; babies were left without clothes, children were forced to learn to swim, else they would perish (understandable considering the surrounded terrain); people would bathe in large groups not cleansing themselves, only adding to the lake of watery hell. On numerous occassions I felt ill. I even found some things incredibly difficult to comprehend, which is why it took a while to take pictures. It is here in Tonle Sap that I took, or at least by my own thoughts, my most powerful picture from the entire trip. 

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I was glad once we returned to land. 

After our time on the lake we trekked up a mountain to experience one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. We went to Phnom Krom, a 9th Century temple, where we stood on a hill for about 40 minutes watching the sunset. It was ironic that the next morning I was going to experience the sunrise at an equally splendid place.

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The company then went onwards to dinner. Here I had a rather heated debate about ‘Art’ with the photographer Eric, who invited us to join him at 4AM to experience the sunrise at either Bayon or Angkor Wat (it wasn’t yet decided). We returned back to the hotel with a rather drab talk with a historian…

The most wonderful part of Monday was that I met up, or at least was visited, by my most wonderful friend Dom! He joined me at the hotel and we chatted for about four hours! I then decided, as it was 3AM (at this point Dom, sadly, went back to where he was staying) to get ready! Yes! I had no sleep! Haha.

I met Eric in the lobby, and then, to my surprise, Lina also joined us! A tuk-tuk driver then picked us up and we travelled for about 20 minutes to the most fascinating of all, Bayon. (Angkor Wat is so overrated).

Watching the sunrise at Bayon was an absolute glorious experience, and definitely a once in a life time one. We arrived in total darkness. The entrance to the temple was unlit. I think we were all about nervous. The tuk-tuk driver guided the three of us into the temple and then left us there. We explored the temple of the Four Faces and watched as the sun illuminated the marvellous display of stonework that was, seconds before, cast in shadow. The temple maintained its mystical feel even in broad daylight. This was by far my most memorable experience of Cambodia, if not my whole time in Southeast Asia. 
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Many photos and 2 hours and a half later we departed for Angkor Wat; but before that, BREAKFAST! We then explored a small part of Angkor before rendezvousing with the rest of the group. 

After my time at Bayon no other temple impressed me, so I shall not go into the details of how wonderful and sublime each and every one was; from this point we visited A LOT of temples, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm included. We also revisited Bayon, although this time I forgot my pass in the Bus, so Julius had to accompany me back to where the bus was parked to retrieve it, which was incredibly embarrassing. 

After the many MANY temples we had dinner and watched an Apsara show,  only I fell asleep in it. Quite embarrassing as my topic of research for the field trip was “Performing Arts and how they are affected by tourism”. 

You would have thought that after getting back to the hotel I would have gone to bed. Nope. I went out clubbing instead, and this was my first time! Never again! As if people enjoy that?!

The next day arrived and we visited several museums, none of which enchanted me that much, except for a small art gallery in the corner of one. We then had dinner. After finishing everything in the day we had a talk on the evening about what we were going to write about. We then went back to our rooms to get ready to depart to Thailand on the following morning. 

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