The bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh was out first experience with Cambodians. Our bus driver and his assistants were limited with English and we read that it’s usual for the assistants to ask for your passports and visa fees before getting to the border. However, when we arrived at the border, the only instructions we received were, “off, go there” as the assistant pointed to an unmarked building. With everyone off and in the building, we realized we didn’t know what to do nor did we have our passports or the money for our visas since they collected them earlier. Looking through the window, we see our bus passing through security and out on the other side. It was about a half hour of waiting with everyone from the bus without knowing what to do or where to go, wondering if we had been scammed until one of the assistants showed up from the Cambodian side entrance holding all our passports stamped with visas and ready to go. What we learned that continued to resonate throughout the 11 days was that Cambodians are incredibly helpful and kind, just not transparent about their good deeds.
It wasn’t too long until we were in Phnom Penh. Our plan was to just spend a couple nights as there wasn’t much we wanted to see and or primary goal was to figure out how to get to an island we had heard about from several different travelers.
The highlight of our time in Phnom Penh was a gut wrenching one. We visited a genocide site from the Khmer Rouge rightly named, the Killing Fields. We knew nothing of the Khmer Rouge before coming to Cambodia. We knew Pol Pot was a horrible dictator, but we truly didn’t know to what extent until visiting the Killing Fields. The site was comprised of mass graves of around 8,400 people executed either for opposing the Khmer Rouge, being a teacher or intellectual, or simply because, “a dead innocent is better than an alive enemy” as one of Pol Pot’s commanding officers once said. Trenches covered the fields where men, women, and children were brutally murdered. One tree, known as the Killing Tree, was next to a mass grave where small children, babies, and women were discovered; all of whom were naked. The Khmer Rouge used the tree as a weapon by beating the babies against it before they threw them in the grave over their mothers. Today, the tree is covered in notes and bracelets in memoriam of those who suffered this tragedy. In the center of the grounds was a recently erected Pagoda raised over 5 stories in which the bones of the excavated victims of the mass killings rest. The skulls were organized by age, sex, and way of death. The Khmer Rouge did not use guns as they needed to keep the neighboring villages unsuspecting. Weapons of choice were bamboo swords, bayonets, iron rods, hammers, knives, and even the serrated edges of banana tree leaves to slit throats. We couldn’t imagine the brainwashing that had to happen and mindset you would have to be in to do these things to another human. Because of this atrocious regime, almost 2 million Cambodians lost their lives in the span of 3-4 years leaving a whole generation nearly lost. This gave incredible contrast to Communism regimes after coming from Vietnam and shed light on the painful past of many of the kind people we met along the way.
Koh Rong Sanloem
Luckily, our hotel in Phnom Penh organized all our transportation to Koh Rong Sanloem, the smaller island by Koh Rong. While Koh Rong is swarming with casinos, resorts, and party culture, Koh Rong Sanloem is peaceful and lesser known. There are no roads on the island so when we arrived, we had to hire a boat taxi since our hotel was on the opposite side of the island.
We thought Bai Xep in Vietnam was paradise until we discovered Koh Rong Sanloem. Untouched white sand beaches that seemed to stretch forever, clear blue water, and $.50 draft beers. Paradise found.
Our time on the island was limited as we quickly discovered there were no atms and nobody accepted card. Luckily, our room was cheap, food and drink inexpensive, and all we wanted to do was relax on the beach and explore the island life. We stretched around $80 to last the both of us for 4 full days.
The island also has an expat community. We met another American who invited us to a party for a new hostel opening and gin bar. She had been living there and teaching yoga for 5 months. Not a bad gig! We met her while searching for somewhere to do yoga in the morning. Her classes were taught on a shaded wooden platform overlooking the ocean. We had planned to go there the next morning to practice until we found a perfectly flat sand bar on the beach just asking for some sunrise yoga. We returned to that same spot for an evening swim around 9pm to see the much talked about bioluminescent plankton. This was a highlight of the island for Rachael! It was incredible to see your whole arm or leg light up in a bright blue under the clear starry night sky. If you swim with your eyes level to the water, the horizon seems to blend with the blue speckled sea creating the sensation of swimming with the stars.
It was a difficult place to leave. We both thought we were leaving too early. We also noticed development happening on different parts of the island so the experience we had may be a thing of the past in the next couple years.
We took a “hotel bus” overnight to Battambang that was surprisingly comfortable compared to the awkward sleeper buses in Vietnam. We heard there wasn’t much to do in the town of Battambang but a lot on the outskirts. We were advised to hire a tuk tuk driver for a full day tour and to see the Battambang circus. We arrived too late for the tuk tuk tour so we booked that for the following day for about $10 each and rented bicycles to tour the town and end at the circus for our first day.
The town was surprisingly charming. Battambang also has an expat community and a thriving arts community. One local man was excited to tell us that 90% of singers and actors are from Battambang, including the two nationally famous singers, Ros Sereysothea and Sin Sisamuth, who were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Once we arrived at the circus grounds, we realized how much of an impact the circus has on the town with regards to the arts. On the circus grounds is an arts school for digital art, theater, visual arts, and of course the circus acts. The circus itself and Apsara dancers blew us away. We were expecting some shamble of a performances however it was an incredible show using acrobats interpreting the rise and fall of the khmer rouge.
The next day we woke up early to get the most out of the tuk tuk tour. The first destination was the bamboo train. A rickety bamboo platform with a lawnmower engine on rails is an accurate portrayal of what these contraptions are. They can speed up to 50 km/hr which makes for a wild ride. Eventually, you start to see another bamboo train on the same rails as you heading directly towards you. We were perplexed but both platforms slowed down only to find out we had to get off to disassemble our platform so the other could pass by and we could reassemble ours. A hilarious sight.
After the bamboo train, the tour heads to a steep hillside where we hike to a cave and a Buddhist/Hindu temple. The cave, appropriately named the Killing Cave, is another Khmer Rouge mass grave site. Before you enter, you notice a hole into the cave on your left. Once at the bottom and looking back up at the hole, you learn this was an area where soldiers would throw innocent children and babies down into the cave to their death. Further down you find the mass grave where the adults were killed. The whole cave has an undeniably heavy silence as you walk around. The cave ends with another Buddhist stupa filled with the bones of the adult victims.
The Buddhist/Hindu temple was an odd mix of religious deities under the same roof. Buddha hanging out with Shiva as you burn incense for both. The temples in Cambodia are our favorite form of temple architecture so far. Ornate gold roofs lined with serpents and nagas with a steep gold spike jutting from the middle of the roof.
The tour ends at the bat cave. Dan was secretly hoping for a Christian Bale, George Clooney, Adam West, Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer sighting (sorry Ben Afflack, you’re not a real Batman) but alas, only real bats at this bat cave. Our tuk tuk driver took us to the less popular side of the cave during sunset. As the sun was nearing the horizon, millions of bats swarm out of the sky creating a snake-like formation flying into the glowing red sun in the background and along the tops of the palm tree forest. We thought the bats would all eventually fly out and then we would leave but we eventually found out there were so many bats that the swarm doesn’t come completely out until late in the night.
Our time in Battambang was short but a perfect amount of time to spend. We heard there was a boat that could take you all the way to Siem Reap however it was the dry season and would have taken 10 hours with some boat pushing. A grand adventure, it would have been but so we opted for yet another bus to save time.
No trip to Cambodia would be complete without visiting Angkor Wat. We arrived in Siem Reap midday which have us enough time to explore the cute but touristy town. Pub Street is a great example of how tourism can change an area. Lined by restaurants and bars, you can find almost all types of food options of the developed world. It was International Women’s Day so the local club was gearing up by decorating the streets for all the ladies.
We read the best way to see Angkor Wat was by tuk tuk for two days. Dan found a highly rated driver on trip advisor so we booked for just one day thinking we would figure out if we wanted to hire them again the second day.
We started our first day with a 4am alarm clock to catch the sunrise over Angkor. A blissful sight as the red sun peaks over the center stupa of Angkor. It is a must see! You just have to get a spot early to avoid the crowds of people. A piece of advice we got from other travelers was to end the tour with Angkor and begin with Ta Promh Temple. After sunrise we hustled to Ta Promh and were one of the first to enter.
Ta Promh is the epic temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. Cambodians love Angelina Jolie because of this. The temple is known for the banyan trees growing out of the some ruins with root systems cascading down the sides adding to the structural integrity of the temple. We were glad we got there early as the temple can be cramped later in the day. Enjoying the solitude with the sounds of the jungle and soft morning light peeking through trees and painting 12th century temple walls made it even more memorable.
There were a few temples we visited before Bayon Temple, the next big temple. Although they were similar in size to Mayan ruins in Mexico, they are like pimples in comparison to the surrounding temples. Bayon is another picturesque temple. Unique with over 100 giant Buddha faces intricately carved throughout the complex, this temple is a beacon for tourists and Buddhist monks.
We ended the day with Angkor Wat. Although an impressive main attraction, we found the some of the other temples to be overall more intricate and loved the takeover from Mother Nature. It’s 5 stories tall but overall bland in comparison to the other temples. We learned about the series of Bas Relief Gallery stone carvings on the first floor interpreting the Mahabharata in Hinduism.
During our first day on the Tuk Tuk tour, we noticed several people on bicycles touring Angkor Wat complex. We opted to rent bikes instead on the second day and tour the lesser known temples. The ride to the complex took about 45min but once in the complex we realized how easy it is to visit all the temples by bike yet we struggled with finding detailed info on biking routes in Angkor. Dan decided to write a guide for biking Angkor Wat since there was little to no detailed information on it. Check it out!
We rode the Grand Circuit the second day visiting equally impressive but lesser known temples. Temples like Preah Khan which looked like a mix of Bayon and Ta Promh with giant Buddha heads and banyan trees growing out of the ruins. The day was a long exhausting, but rewarding day in the heat. Dan road back while Rachael stayed behind to admire the sunset falling behind Angkor Wat.
After a stressful ordeal involving our hotel giving Dan’s shoes to another guest (not kidding. You have to take your shoes off at the front door of some shops and hotels in Asia), we woke the following day to catch an early van to Don Det island in Laos. Although our time in Cambodia was short, we felt we spent our time well. From devastating genocide sites to picture perfect paradise beaches to yet another World Wonder, Cambodia is a beautiful place that did not cease to amaze us.
Until next time,
~Dan and Rach
Wanna see more? Check out this video Dan made on about our trip in Kampuchea!