Beauty & Tragedy: Our Travels in Cambodia

When most people think of places they’ve always wanted to visit, I think Cambodia rarely makes the list. Cambodia has only recently started to benefit from the SE Asian tourist boom, but still is not as popular as nearby Thailand and Vietnam. Originally, Cambodia was not part of our route, but we travel wherever the wind blows us, and it happened to blow us towards Siem Reap, Cambodia.

After the high of Thailand, we were feeling adventurous and decided to take a bus to Siem Reap. Upon doing some research, we realized that it might not be as simple as we thought. Crossing into Cambodia by bus required you to leave the bus, walk across the border and return, all while avoiding scammers, pick pockets, and women with babies asking for formula (a common scam in Cambodia). Many people will actually take tourists to “customs” to get their fake visas, only to realize they paid extra for a useless piece of paper when they reach the actual border. We were thankful that other travelers posted some great tips with photos of where to go, and we felt confident we would make it!

So, we hopped on this bus, and drove 4 hours until we get to the Cambodian border. From the wonderful blog we read, we knew to ignore EVERYONE until we found this one specific building, the actual customs building, and to hold on tight to everything we owned. When we pulled up to the border, our bus was swarmed by locals claiming they would take us to get our visas. People on our bus ahead of us had their passports out, which were quickly stolen from them, forcing them to follow these scammers in order to recover their passports. With our backpacks strapped tight and all our valuables zipped away, we trudged through the locals like Mel Gibson in Braveheart yelling “Follow us!!” Thankfully we found the correct building and got some fellow travelers there too! Success! After filling out some paperwork and paying the local cops a little bribe, we received our Cambodian visas. As we walked through the gates to Cambodia, we felt triumphant that we made it through without getting ripped off and in under an hour! It was another hour before the rest of our poor bus mates made it through, paying double, even triple what we did after following bad directions. It honestly was the most chaotic, confusing and savage country crossing we’ve ever encountered!

On the bus, we met an amazing Swiss/French couple from Canada. They were one of the followers in our little visa heist, and we asked if they wanted to take a tour together the next day! Our tour was on tuk tuk and took us to three temples outside of Siem Reap’s major attractions. Our favorite was the Beng Mealea temple. This temple more resembles a pile of rocks, as most of it is now in ruins. But the beauty was in how nature had literally taken over this temple, winding its roots and moss throughout the rocks in intricate patterns. It almost seemed forgotten and magical, like the setting of a fairy tale. We walked slowly enjoying the sights and the company of our new friends. We also saw a 1 room Cambodian school! In Cambodia, the poverty rate is very high, and children usually have to work to help support the family, therefore many cannot go to school. We would see a lot of children peddling goods at tourist attractions as they were more marketable there than they would be at school. But this school, however small, gave me some hope. These students were eager to learn, ready to work, and even though they were very below American standards, the motivation they had was unlike any I’d ever seen. I literally almost cried when a girl around 8 wrote a sentence “When I grow up, I want to drive a tuk tuk”, and the entire class cheered for her success. That night, we went out with our Canadian friends to find some dinner. We found a small local spot near the main drag and sat for a beer and some fried rice. We were shocked to see that a dinner for 4, along with 4 beers only cost $6 total!

The next day, Matt and I started to explore the many temples of Angkor. We took a tuk tuk again to some of the further out temples. Our favorite this day was a temple we couldn’t even go into! Neak Peon is surrounded by water, and only accessible by boat. There are sculptures of serpents literally rising out of the water around the temple, seemingly protecting it from intruders. After about five temples, we decided the heat was too much to bear, and went back to our hotel for a break. Later that night, we met up with our Canadian friends for one last drink together before they moved on. We started at a roof top bar, where we sat on hammocks and watched the streets of Siem Reap below us. We danced, shopped at night markets, and drank 50 cent beers until 3 am!

On our last day in Siem Reap, we saved the best for last – the famous Angkor Wat. One of the 7 wonders of the world, we agreed to see this major tourist attraction at sunrise. We also decided that we would bike around the area, which is how we found ourselves biking at 4 am, in the dark, along abandoned streets in Cambodia. I know they say riding a bike is something you can’t forget…but it was definitely a bumpy ride. We made it to Angkor Wat just as the bright orange sun creased the horizon, giving us the most beautiful view we’d seen yet. We grabbed some food and headed to Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple. This temple was gorgeously detailed with thousands of faces carved into the walls. You could easily lose yourself wondering through the tunnels and pathways. Our next stop was Ta Phrom temple, which was featured in the movie Tomb Raider. I could see why; this place was gorgeous! This temple is somewhere between ruins and still standing, but again nature has dug its claws deep inside it. Magnificent roots and branches weaved their way through the rocks, creating a unique and mesmerizing landscape. We proceeded to climb up and down, in and through small caves that dotted this temple. Even though it was full of people taking obligatory Tomb Raider photos, we often would find yourselves completely alone surrounded by a maze of moss-covered rocks. We continued biking around some of the smaller temples, the task becoming easier each time we rode. By the end of the day, we rode about 30 km and were very sore! It was the perfect way to end our time in Siem Reap.

Our next stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh to see if we could get visas for Vietnam. We quickly realized that after obtaining the visas and travelling to the places we wanted to see, our budget and time would take a serious hit. Instead, we decided to nix the trip to Vietnam and enjoy what this capital city had to offer. Well…there wasn’t much to see. Our first hotel was in a section of town that was currently under renovation – like the whole area of town! Our hotel was obviously a new build and had over 10 floors, but we were their only guests! We explored the city center, the Royal Palace and the Independence monument. But so far, Siem Reap was leagues above Phnom Penh.

The next day, we visited the Cambodian Killing Fields of Choeung Ek – which was a heartbreaking experience, to say the least. The Cambodian Killing Fields were various death camp sites where close to 2 million Cambodian people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Not only did the Khmer Rouge wipe out nearly 25% of the population, they took everything from money, food, medicine and any sort of freedom away from the Cambodian people. Now, I’ve never been interested in history, and so I wasn’t quite sure what I expected. I surely didn’t think I would be seeing a place akin to Auschwitz, possibly even more brutal. Choeung Ek was primarily focused on educating people about what happened, and allowing people to mourn, as opposed to focused on tourism. While we greatly respected that, it also meant that not much was covered up. You could still see the various burial pits where thousands of bodies were thrown after a certain tortuous death. There was a “baby killing tree” with a blood-stained trunk and tiny hairs still stuck in the bark. To say that I felt horrified by these sites would be an understatement. But in full honestly, the blunt education of tragedies we face is sometimes necessary so that we don’t find our way back there again. I can see that the Cambodian people we met, including 2 survivors of the killing fields, were strong and persistent people. While society had still not recovered from this terrible era, the people are bravely keeping their heads up and working on bettering their lives. We are greatly astonished by the will of the Cambodian people and hope that they find the peace they so deeply deserve.

While I hate to end on a sad note, Cambodia was surely an eye-opening adventure for us. We saw poverty that we didn’t even know was possible. We saw the horrific aftermath of a terrible dictator. But we also saw remarkable beauty and growth. We saw thousand-year-old temples still standing against all odds. We saw people who were genuinely happy with the simple lives they led. Not every trip is full of excitement or amusement. Some trips impact us in ways we will never understand, changing our minds and opening our hearts. Our trip to Cambodia will always be remembered – for the great sadness, the vital knowledge, and the immense beauty.

Matthew & Stephanie

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