Unlike the neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia has only experienced a surge in tourism in the recent decade or so. Most tourists visit the Temples of Angkor and skip the rest of the country. The capital city of Phnom Penh in particular receives mixed reviews. While researching our trip, we were often told to either skip it altogether or spend only a day there. But after 26 hours spent travelling from Vientiane, Laos to Phnom Penh on a sleeper bus, various vans and minibuses, and finally a large tourist bus, we were so exhausted that we decided to spend four days in the capital. And we’re glad we did.
Cambodia has a dark history that not many people know about. Just over forty years ago, the country fell victim to mass genocide that wiped out about 20% of its population (or about 2 million people) and left the country in disarray. Visiting Phnom Penh allowed us to tour a former high school that was turned into a prison and torture centre called the S-21. We also visited a nearby Killing Field where people were hacked to death with farming tools and their bodies dumped into mass graves. It was a heavy, but eye-opening experience.
But what we found remarkable is how Cambodia is rebuilding itself despite this dark history. We really enjoyed exploring the rest of Phnom Penh that seems to be growing really quickly. We spotted many new high-rise buildings being built all over the city, while restaurants of all cuisines dotted the streets. Large, western-style shopping malls complemented the local markets, selling handicrafts and produce.
In our interactions, we found that Cambodians spoke more English than Thai and Lao people, which shows just how quickly the country bounced back. Even the prices for absolutely everything are actually in US dollars. The Cambodian riel is only used to give change. For example, if you are buying something for $10.50 and you give a $20 US bill, you will receive $9 back in USD and 50 cents equivalent in Cambodian riel.
One of the highlights of our stay in Phnom Penh was going to the movie theatre to watch “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” because the experience was very different from the one in Canada. Inside the theatre, there were many red velvet chairs with high backs and coffee tables for movie-goers to sit down and relax. Large chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and the bathrooms were bright, modern and immaculately clean. Popcorn was served in vintage-looking paper bags, and all of the movie-goers were dressed up as if it was a special occasion. The Cambodian girls were wearing mini-dresses and skirts, with their hair done and their skin covered flawlessly in make-up. The guys were also well-dressed in trousers and shirts. Rami and I were probably the most under-dressed people in the theatre!
The actual theatre was very comfortable and clean. The chair reclined, the screen was large, the sound was excellent, and the movie was in English with Cambodian subtitles in a barely noticeable white font. No wonder Cambodians speak English very well!
Overall, Phnom Penh surprised us with how developed it felt. As any city in Southeast Asia, it was definitely busy with tuk tuks zooming by you and people everywhere. But after doing some sight-seeing, visiting a large shopping mall with everything you could possibly need, gulping down several bowls of pho, treating ourselves to a fresh-salad in a cute restaurant that was a blend of Freshii and iQ back in Toronto, and going out to the movies, we had to pinch ourselves to remind us we were not somewhere in North America.
While Phnom Penh turned out to be a great little break that we were craving, our trip to Siem Reap was packed with sight-seeing. And rightly so! Siem Reap is a city in the northern part of Cambodia that is basically a pit-stop for anyone wishing to see the numerous Temples of Angkor.
We bought a three-day pass to the temples, which are scattered around a very vast geographical area. As a result, we had to either hire a tuk tuk for each day to take us from one temple to another, or go on a group tour. Since we actually wanted to learn a bit about the history of the temples and their architecture, we decided to take a couple of tours.
On the first day we visited all the most famous temples, which are grouped into a tour called the Small Circuit tour. On the second day, we visited the temples that are a bit further away and a little less known, dubbed as the Grand Circuit tour. And on our third day, we ended up hiring a tuk tuk for half a day to take us back to our favourite two temples so we can take a closer look at them and snap a few more photos.
I won’t go into the details of each tour, but I would say that both the Small and the Grand Circuits are worth doing. While some temples on our second day of touring were less famous, they were not less impressive.
But our favourite temples (and the ones we went back to see again) were Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. Angkor Wat is an easy favourite. Its scale and magnificence is incomparable. We were even more impressed to learn about how it was built in the absence of modern technology. Similar to the method of construction of the pyramids in Egypt, Angkor Wat was constructed by making a very tall pile of dirt and using elephants to haul rocks up to the top. As the towers of the temple were completed, the dirt was removed a little bit to allow for the construction of the lower portion of the temple.
Without any kind of modern engineering, Angkor Wat is actually constructed with astrology and cosmology in mind. The temple is constructed with precise angles, allowing for the sun to line up with the middle tower several times a year. There are twelve major staircases corresponding to twelve months of the year. There are many other various dimensions and aspects of the temple that correspond to the measurement of time or various stars and constellations in the sky. It is truly remarkable that close to a thousand years ago, people were able to build a structure of this massive scale with such precision and only using reflection of the structure in the water for measurement.
My personal favourite was a temple of Ta Prohm, made famous by the “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” movie. Situated deep in the Cambodian jungle, this temple is literally being swallowed by nature. Trees are growing on top of its towers with massive roots coming down the walls. The stones are covered in moss, painting the temple in green colour. Birds are heard chirping away as you’re walking around, and cold temperatures are felt in certain places of the temple hidden away from the sun.
Due to its popularity, both Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm were swarmed with tourists, but depending on the time of day that you visit, it is possible to find peaceful and serene places within the temples to catch your breath and take it all in.
We also really enjoyed visiting the other temples on our tours. Somehow each one was surrounded by nature and felt very historical in its own way. It’s amazing that centuries later these structures are still standing.
We would definitely recommend Cambodia as a country to visit to anyone travelling in Southeast Asia. Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap should not be missed.