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Janaline's World Journey “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

Travelling in Cambodia the country of genocide and temples.

VIETNAM | Sunday, 13 September 2009 | Views [3508] | Comments [1]

I know Cambodia is not at the top of everybody’s sightseeing list but I think it is an absolute must see. We took the bus from Saigon to Phnom Phen, a very dirty and bumpy 6-hour drive. We quickly learnt that toilets are nearly non-existent at rest stops; they end up being a shower drain in the floor of a tiled room with a huge bucket of water. I still haven’t figured out how you are supposed to use the bucket of water and get out of there dry! Thinking we might have better luck at the border crossing we realised its not a place where you want to be for too long as the toilets are unusable, just walking into the facilities you want to puke.  After a gruelling 6-hour bus ride we arrived in a hectic Phnom Pehn.


 Phnom Pehn is a busy, dirty city filled with people who want to swindle you out of every dollar you have. Getting a motorbike taxi or a tuc-tuc is the easiest way around the city. Just be sure to negotiate a price beforehand otherwise you will be charged a ridiculously high price. We got into a tuc-tuc with our luggage and asked him to head to the main area where we were going to book into a hotel. First our tuc-tuc driver drove us down a very dodgy alley where he wanted us to check into his friend’s hotel and then refused to take us to where we wanted to go to in the first place. After some shouting he took us very reluctantly to the tourist area where we searched for a cheap hotel, as we did not book anything in advance. It was relatively easy to find a place to stay in and the area along the riverfront and it is filled with little bars and restaurants where you can eat relatively cheap



That afternoon we walked along the riverfront to the oldest structure Wat Phom constructed in 1373. Along the way we passed some of the most dilapidated apartment blocks that I have ever seen. I could not believe that the buildings were still standing, let alone still housing people.

Unfortunately if you want to go into a temple or shrine you have to be dressed a bit conservatively with knees and shoulders covered, not always the easiest thing to do in the heat. The Royal Palace with the Silver Pagoda is the first thing you see when you walk into the grounds.The complex is divided by walls into three main compounds, the Silver Pagoda , the Khemarin Palace and a central compound containing the Throne Hall.


 The Throne Hall, its real namemeaning the "Sacred Seat of Judgement" was the first structure we entered. It is still in use today as a place for religious and royal ceremonies as well as a meeting place for guests of the King. The cross-shaped building is crowned with three very tall spires. The central spire is 59 meters long and topped with the white, four-faced head of Brahma. Inside the Throne Hall is  a royal throne and busts of Cambodian kings of the past. The beautiful ceiling frescoes of the Reamker is definitely worth taking a couple of pictures of.




The whole place is filled with rows and rows of little Buddha’s and lotus flowers everywhere.  The most magnificent temple though is the Silver Pagoda. Its main building houses many national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues. You will most definitely notice a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha (the "Emerald Buddha" of Cambodia) and can not possibly mis the near-life-size, Maitreya Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds and dressed in royal regalia. During King Sihanouk's pre-Khmer Rouge reign, the Silver Pagoda was inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles and some of its outer facade was remodeled with Italian marble. The silver floor is now covered with a red carpet but you can still see an exposed part of the silver stunning silver floor.



Our last stop was the Khemarin Palace which is used as residence by the King of Cambodia. This compound is separated from other buildings by a small wall and is located to the right of the Throne Hall. The main building is topped with a single spired prang but not even closely as magnificent as the silver pagoda.




History of torture


The next morning after a well deserved nights rest we headed off to The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former high scool which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. In August 1975 the Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire which you can still see, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes. You can not even imagine that this once was a school, you can feel that it is now a place of sadness.


From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned and murered at Tuol Sleng. Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. As you walk through the prison these photographs are displayed and tells the story of thousands of innocent lives lost. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor, these shackles are still there just as the Khmer Rouge left them. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blanketsand were forbidden to talk to each other.


They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. Most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks andengineers. During torture and at the end of their long torture just before they were taken away to be killed, they were photograpohed again. While walking throught the rooms where these photos are displayed you can not heklp but recognise some of these people from their arrival photos. It was a big shock and again I was stunned at the cuelty that humans can inflict on each other.


 In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army and reopened by the government of the People's Republic of Kampuchea in 1980, as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.


 Mass graves

Our day of mass killing did not end there as we headed for the well-known Killing Fields.Driving through the dusty countryside looking out over dry rice paddies and lonesome palm trees scattered about it was hard to believe that we were on our way to the famous killing fields of Cambodia. I tried to find out more about what happened here before I arrived and watched Roland Joffé’s movie The Killing Fields. It was shocking and you could hardly believe that things like that really happened. But it was a big eye opener to what actually went on in Cambodia.

 Choeung Ek is one of thousands of Killing fields around the country where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide. Horrified and fascinated at the same time I walked around the mass graves and could still see untouched graves in between. People were brought to the Killing Fields from all over and were then killed and dumped in mass graves. All the people who did not die at Tuol Sleng from torture were transported here and then killed. They did not actually shoot everyone, most were bludgeoned to death and their bodies were then covered in lime to prevent the whole place from smelling like rotting corpses.

It is a soccer-field-sized area surrounded by farmland, which contains mass graves, slightly sunken, for perhaps 20,000 Cambodians, many of who were tortured before being killed. The bordering trees held nooses for hangings.

 Right in the middle of this place of death they built a memorial to those murdered in the fields, white tower in which they house the sculls of people whom they have dug up so far from the mass graves. They haven’t even dug up al the mass graves yet.



Having seen enough human cruelty and genocide for a lifetime I left the killing fields stunned and silent.

After seeing all this death and realising how cruel people can be towards each other we were too shocked to even attempt talking to each other. I cannot believe that anybody can actually do this to another human being.

 The next day we spent wondering around in the big market just next to our hotel and doing a little bit of shopping. We ended up in a little hidden patio restaurant on the roof of a building right next to the river. A stunning little place with good food but totally over-priced for what we got.


 From Phnom pen we took a local bus down to the coast. It was a long 6-hour bus trip and believe me you didn’t want to use any of the toilet facilities along the road.  At least you could get some good rice and meat dishes at the stalls on the way so that made up for it. As we drove through the Countryside you could see how poor the country is and you can still see signs of war everywhere. We reached Sianoukville, just south of Phnom Pehn early in the afternoon.

We found a couple of bungalows across the road from the main beach where we could stay for about $7 a night. We spent our days lounging on the beach with a good book most of the day. You didn’t even have to move far whenever you got hungry as there were all these ladies walking around selling fresh seafood. They would cook the crab and other sea food right there in front of you and it tasted great, especially with the salt & pepper and lemon mix that you dip most of the sea food into.

Watching the sunset out of a beach chair with a cocktail was the norm of each evening.



We were in Sianoukville over the Chinese New Year so the beach very crowded the last couple of days. Fireworks were set of at night on the beach, with no concerns about safety. I walked past a couple of kids who held the firecrackers in their hands as they lighted it. It amazed me that none of them lost an eye or hand during these festivities.

 We took a day trip on a small boat out to the surrounding islands for the day where we did some snorkelling and some island exploring. On the one island there was only a lone bar and some deck chairs…a real island getaway with no modern facilities. It was a relaxing couple of days and we felt rejuvenated and ready for Siem Reap.




 The first thing I noticed about Siem Reap was how dusty and dry it was. We had a tuc-tuc driver that picked us up at the airport and then helped us find a hotel to stay in.

He was a very nice guy and ended up being our driver slash tour guide for the next 3 days while we were in Siem reap.

We started our first day early and headed out to Angkor where we would be spending most of our time here. Bought a 3 day pass and started our temple/shrine journey. Angkor Wat is a huge temple complex built for the king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. The ancient capital of the Khmer kingdom, Angkor is a spectacular landscape of crumbling stone relieves, great towers, encroaching jungle roots, orange-clad monks and spectacular sunset reflections


Stretching over some 400 sq km, including forests and jungles, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. Angkor Wat, is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world, and there are many other fascinating temples to explore as well




Our first stop was Angkor Wat temple itself. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation. It was first Hindu, dedicated to Vishnu, then became Buddhist. The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia appearing on its national flag, and it is the country's prime attraction for visitors.We even got up before dawn on our second day so that we could go and see the sunrise over Anghor Wat temple. It was absolutely stunning and really worth getting up that early for.

The temple is built within a moat and has an outer wall of 3.6 km long. There are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next and at the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs and for the numerous devatas (guardian spirits) adorning its walls.


 Our next stop was Angkor Thom (Big Angkor), it is a 3km2 walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. There are five entrances (gates) to the city, one for each cardinal point, and the victory gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with 4 giant faces. The South Gate was our first stop.  Standing next to those statues it is hard to believe thay are thousands of years old.

The state-temple, Bayon is set at the centre of the city. If you see only two temples, Angkor Wat and Bayon should be the ones.



The giant stone faces ofBayon have become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. Believe me, they take your breath away every time you see them. There are 37 standing towers, most but not all sporting four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points. Who the faces represent is a matter of debate but they may be Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism's compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII. Bayon was the state-temple and in many ways represents the pinnacle of his massive building campaign.
The best of Bayon are the bas-reliefs on the exterior walls of the lower level and on the upper level where the stone faces are. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham. Even more interesting are extensive carvings of unique and revealing scenes of everyday life that are interspersed among the battle scenes, including market scenes, cockfighting, chess games and childbirth. The surrounding tall jungle makes Bayon a bit dark so its best to visit it during the day.



Preah Khan was a huge, monastic complex. It is full of carvings, passages and photo opportunities. It originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks. For a short period it was also the residence of King Jayavarman VII during the reconstruction of his permanent home in Angkor Thom. Preah Khan means 'sacred sword.’ Unfortunately the Buddha images were vandalized in the later Hindu resurgence. Some Buddha carvings in the central corridor have been crudely carved over with Bodhisattvas, and in a couple of odd cases, a lotus flower and a linga.


Next was Ta Keo a towering but plainly decorated temple-mountain dedicated to Shiva. Known in its time as ‘the mountain with golden peaks.’ This was the first temple to be constructed wholly of huge sandstone blocks. Construction on Ta Keo seems to have stopped particularly early in the decoration phase as evidenced by the lack of carvings. Ta Keo was well worth the visit.

Our last stop for the day was Baksei Chamkrong a towering 12-meter tall brick and laterite step-pyramid, which served as a funery temple. We were way too tired to walk all the way up. We headed back to the hotel to rest our tired feet for the day.


The next morning after our early sunrise photo session at Angkor Wat we headed off to Phimeanakas.

It is an impressive laterite and sandstone pyramid. The lack of surviving carvings leaves it artistically uninteresting, but it is the tallest scalable temple in Angkor Thom, providing a nice view from the top. There is a very steep staircase (at the back) but luckily we climbed this first thing in the morning. Legend has it that the golden tower crowned the temple and was inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman. The kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night, lest disaster befall him or the kingdom.


 We then headed off into the jungle. Beng melea is a sprawling jungle temple covering over one square kilometre. This temple is largely overrun by vegetation and not very touristy, giving it an adventurous, ‘lost temple’ feel. There are trees growing from the broken towers and galleries offer some of the best ‘tree in temple’ shots aside from Ta Prohm. Though there are some lintel and doorway carvings, there are no bas-reliefs and the carvings are comparatively sparse.



Our next jungle temple was Ta nei, its fallen wals covered in trees asif the jumgle tried to reclaim this space. It was a small (55m x 47m), semi-ruined, untouristed jungle temple. Some of the apsara and lintel carvings are in pretty good condition but the temple itself is In much rougher shape than most of the temples on the main tour circuit. The primary road to Ta Neifrom where it meets the Grand Circuit road was so to get there we had to a walk the dirt road about 1km just outside the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom to the 'French Dam.'

For luch we ate something close to the Terrace of the Elephants. Itis an impressive, two and a half-meter tall, 300 meter long terrace wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas that spans the heart of Angkor Thom in front of Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Royal Palacearea. The northern section of the wall displays some particularly fine sculpture including the five headed horse and scenes of warriors and dancers.. The wall faces east so the best lighting for photography would be before noon.

We headed off to the well known Ta prohm temple. Known for its part it played in tomb raider.It is a quiet, sprawling monastic complex and only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth and intentionally left partially unrestored. There are massive fig and silk-cotton trees that grow from the towers and corridors offering some of the best ‘tree-in-temple’ photo opportunities at Angkor. Flocks of noisy parrots flit from tree to tree adding to the jungle atmosphere. We explored its dark corridors and open plazas having an adventure climbing over the fallen walls and rubble everywhere


East Mebon is a large temple-mountain-like ruin, rising three levels and crowned by five towers. The temple is dedicated to Shiva in honour of the king’s parents. Inscriptions indicate that it was also built to help re-establish the continuity of kingship at Angkor in light of the interruption that occurred when the seat of power had been moved to Koh Ker.

We ended the afternoon of sightseeing by taking a hot air balloon up from where you could look out over the whole of Angkor Wat. It looked amazing and was great to get an overall picture of all the temples we have been visiting.



That night we attended a culture dance show just across from our Hotel. We were entertained by traditional Cambodian music and dance show including a buffet of Cambodian food




Tired but ready for the day our tuc-tuc driver took us to Pre rup a large temple-mountain. It was traditionally believed to be a funerary temple There were beautifully carved false doors on the upper level, as well as an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. It has richly detailed and well-preserved carvings.

Phnom Bakheng was another temple mountain on Bakheng Hill, the first major temple to be constructed in the Angkor area. The foundation of Bakheng is carved from the existing rock edifice rather than laterite and earth fill like most of the other temples. Its hilltop location makes it the most popular sunset location in the area, offering a view of the Tonle Sap Lake and a distant Angkor Wat in the jungle. We heard that  the temple is usually overcrowded at sunset, sometimes even completely overrun by tourists, so we made it an afternoon visit. Due to overuse and damage, the main stairway up the mountain has been closed and an alternate path to the top has been opened, but it isn’t any easier climbing up these steps. 

 The last temple we saw before we returned to Saigon was Banteay Srey loosely translates to ‘citadel of the women,’ but this is a modern appellation that probably refers to the delicate beauty of the carvings.. The walls are densely covered with some of the most beautiful, deep and intricate carvings of any temple in Angkor Wat. The temple is relatively small, built from pink sandstone and has a very ornate design giving it a fairyland ambiance.

Thus our big Cambodian adventure ended on a high note. I will certainly be returning to Angkor Wat someday to see all the other temples I didn’t have time to see.



Tags: angkor wat, cambodia, janline smalman, phnom pehn, siam reap, sianoukville, travel




Hey treefrog,

We really liked your journal and decided to feature it this week so that others can enjoy it too.

Happy travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Sep 14, 2009 10:00 AM



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