The trip was planned as a surprise visit for mother bear’s birthday. A colleague had recommended Cambodia as a lovely place to visit and was in Zen-mode upon returning from his holiday. I got the details of a personal hire car/tour guide from him and set out to plan the short getaway. Co-coordinating a trip from scratch was a tad bit hard with the guide having intermittent access to internet and delayed replies. All bookings and arrangements were made via internet/email and luckily, most things went well.
Places Visited (over 5 days):
Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre
Angkor Night Markets
Angkor Wat , Bayon Temple, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei & others
Phnom Kulen National Park, Big Buddha
Tonle Sap Lake Wonder (Cruise)
Smile of Angkor Show
We planned the 5 days and 4 nights trip to coincide with a public holiday as taking leave was a tad bit hard in the corporate world that I was in, at that time (back in 2013). We arrived in Phnom Penh on the 1st day (6th Feb) and stayed for a night before starting the bumpy and rickety journey by road to Siem Reap the next day.
There was a member of the royal family who had passed on and there was an obligatory mourning period that was declared. Hence, our plan to visit the royal palace on Day 1 of the trip was a flop. Surprisingly, I saw fireworks on that night and was told that it is a part of the “mourning”. We made do with travel lag and body massages by masseuses who came straight to our hotel! I also checked out one of the central markets in the area and was surprised by the variety of goods up for sale.
The next day, I visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and it was quite a saddening traipse through. We had audio players with numbers to listen to, at various places throughout the centre. I was deeply moved by how realistic the players were – there were sounds of the trauma that people had endured and looking at the present day marked sites, I was transported in time. After this, we were meant to visit killing fields that made this centre apparently pale in comparison, but even this was too much to handle emotionally, hence we skipped the fields. There was a stupa full of skulls as a memorial for those who passed on. Cambodia was filled with prayer structures and memorials (there is a way to tell the difference, but I just wasn’t able to).
We visited a couple of other pit stops along the way and also tried local Cambodian cuisine. I loved the Fish Amok. It’s a traditional Khmer dish of fish cooked in coconut milk gravy that was fragrant, Zesty and Flavourful. I had this quite a few times during the trip and there were minor variations of it that I enjoyed.
Along the way, we stopped by Skuon and there was a street buffet of fried creepy crawlies. Fried Tarantulas, Maggots, Crickets, Roaches and the lot. I’m all for trying local delicacies when I travel, but this made me squeamish even before I contemplated it- I should’ve brought along more bug repellant!! There were heaps of local potteries, artsy places and local fruit stalls along the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep. The corns on the cob (sold at random roadside stalls) were delicious and the statues at some of the pottery places were larger than life sized.
The next day we rested and took it fairly easy after a long drive to Siem Reap. One of the Must-Dos and main things on our list was a visit to the Angkor Wat. I left in the early hours of the morning hoping to catch a glimpse of sunrise at Angkor, but alas, the clouds were low and unfavourable to the much hyped spectacle. The grounds were massive and I got quite a workout just exploring it. Some structures and the highest point required vertigo inducing climbs on tiny, ancient stairs.
We also visited other temples like Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and I walked the grounds of the place where tomb raider (which starred Angelina Jolie) was shot. My quick star moment awaited me – minus any Hollywood producers at that time! I visited quite a few temples over a day and gave myself an amazing workout. I skipped out other temples that we had planned as the group was exhausted. The gazillion pics that I had do not do the sight justice and it is a challenge just streamlining them for this blog post.
Over the next few days, I visited quite a few places. My first fish spa experience at the Angkor Night Markets was hilariously ticklish. I was convinced to try it out by a fellow traveller who was nonchalantly trying it out with a drink in hand. The markets held a variety of goods at low prices and smelt of delicious food. Pub Street and the night markets was an interesting checkout. I also weaseled in a visit to the silk farm to see where my silk shawls came from and no visit to such a place is complete without token goods. The visit to Phnom Kulen National Park with 1000 lingams near a waterfall and a massive Buddha temple with a huge reclining Buddha atop a mountain was mesmerizing. I was lost in the transience of peacefulness in the area. A minor culture shock was seeing creepy crawlies in bottles (ranging from snakes to insects and crickets. These are apparently meant as good luck charms.
One of the texts that I’d read for literature while in school was set in Cambodia and I’d heard of the Tonle Sap Lake back then. The crew and I went for a Tonle Sap Lake Wonder cruise and saw first-hand how people literally lived in the middle of the lake. It wasn’t quite a cruise, more like a rickety speed boat ride in the murky salt water. Bits of the lake splashed onto us and I was left feeling “fishy”! Mid-ride, we hopped onto a platform like structure that housed yet another ‘market’ of sorts. There was a live alligator/croc farm on the stilt structure and a mini-fishing village. I’m a sucker for lovely sights and catching sunset on this river wonder, made sense of the name.
I watch the sun fall behind the horizon, painting the sky shades of red and pink. One of the best descriptions of sunset that I’d read was literally translated before my eyes. “I watched with an unwavering gaze, as a fiery red orb of light slowly sank beneath the horizon, and threads of light lingered in the sky, mingling with the rolling clouds, dyeing the heavens first orange, then red, then dark blue, until all that was left of the sunset was a chalky mauve, and then that melted away in turn as stygian darkness took over the sky”.
Smile of Angkor Show was a show that our guide had suggested. The show depicted the story of Cambodia from past to present (folk tales through to present norms) in a culturally enhancing performance. The performance contains traditional Cambodian dances such as Apsara Dance, Peacock Dance, Shiva Dance, Bokator (traditional Khmer martial art). The characters transported the audience in time and were perfectly executed. We bought the tickets including the buffet dinner, but sadly, we had to skip the dinner and head to the show directly as we were caught in traffic and had some delays in travel. It is said that there were 54 towers with 216 faces of Buddha (Avolokitesvara) in Bayon Temple with only one of them smiling. This smiling face, freezes thousands of years of history and has become one of the most recognizable images of classic Khmer architecture. Hence, the show got its name – we were told. The show was 70 minutes long and was divided into 6 chapters: “Dialogue with God”, “Glorious Kingdom”, “Resurrection of the Gods”, “Churning the Sea of Milk”, “Prayer for Life and “Smile of Angkor”.
We made the long trip back to Phnom Penh on day 4 and had yet another in-hotel massage after catching the Smile of Angkor show. On the last day of our trip (and day of the flight), we visited the Royal Palace that was re-opened for tourists. The structures in there were covered in lovely carvings and very well maintained. Some of the chambers were jaw-droppingly amazing and pretty.
At the end of the trip, I returned home to work and was still in a nirvana inducing state of mind. I’ve always had a somewhat religious upbringing but the peace felt after visiting some ancient temples and one of the oldest Hindu temples in the world (with carvings of folklore that I’d heard of) can’t be put into words. A memorable trip and this Angel smiled!