May 23-May 30, 2023
Warning: this article contains topics and images of prison, war, and genocide that may be sensitive or triggering to readers.
Day 1: Saigon/Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
May 23, 2023
It’s funny how time works once you’ve travelled quite a bit. You look at long stretches of time in different ways. For example, today our bus ride from Saigon to the capital of Cambodia was a “short” six-hour bus ride. After long overnight journeys that could stretch 12+ hours, six hours felt like a breeze.
It was an uneventful bus ride other than the crossing of the border from Vietnam into Cambodia. The Vietnam bus company failed to give us any instructions (at least in English) leaving more than half the bus wandering around, confused when we arrived at the border.
In actuality the process is simple by bus. You leave all your belongings, save for your passport and visas, which will have been collected at the beginning of the trip by the bus coordinator. Before getting screened at the Cambodia border you must first officially leave Vietnam. To do this is simple, you just need your original Vietnam visa used to enter the country and passport. Everyone gets off the bus and waits while the coordinators has your documents checked for you. Then you get back on the bus and drive a few meters down to the next crossing. Get off the bus and repeat the process, this time with your Cambodia visa. It takes a bit longer entering Cambodia than it does to leave Vietnam, so our bus driver took us down the street to have lunch while the coordinator had all our documents checked for us at the border. He then met us at the café and off we went towards Phnom Pehn.
It all should have been very easy, but we were told literally nothing. I was very on edge not having my passport on my person for a good hour, and thought we were done once we exited Vietnam only to be surprised by a second border stop. The rest of the westerners on the bus seemed to mirror my feelings. With just a little information it would’ve been a completely stress-free experience.
There’s an immediate difference when you enter Cambodia. The landscape goes from modern and infrastructure-filled to feeling like you’ve been thrust back in time. It is also the dirtiest country I have seen so far. Trash litters every inch of open land. It is mixed in with crops, gardens, lawns, streets, gutters. The animals eat and play with it. The residents exist in unison with the garbage and somehow seem to not even notice it.
The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Pehn, was reasonably cleaner due to a recent sporting tournament that the city was hosting. They had cleaned the city streets of trash to be good hosts for the Southeast Asia Games.
Later in the afternoon we arrived in Phnom Pehn, we enjoyed a traditional, buffet-style, Cambodian dinner at our hostel. We made some friends both human and animal, then planned our next day activities.
Day 2: Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
May 24, 2023
After some breakfast at a nearby café Lawrence, our new roommate-friend, and I set off to perhaps the heaviest day thus far. First, we would go to the Cheoeung Ek Genocidal Center, otherwise known as the Killing Fields, and then the S-21 Prison Museum.
The Killing Fields
When thinking of Cambodia all that really comes to mind is the great temple of Angkor Wat (which we’ll get to later), but Cambodia has a very gruesome, recent, and fresh history. In the late 1970’s after taking devastating hits by American bombs meant to cripple the Ho Chi Minh trail which used Cambodia to transport weapons from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, Cambodians were in search of salvation.
What they thought would be their saviors came in the form of a government overthrow. Pol Pot, Cambodia’s new leader had military march into cities, including Phnom Pehn and “rescue” the residents. Cambodians, thinking they were being evacuated because of more bombings, eagerly cheered on the soldiers, and followed them. What was to come next was instead one of the most horrific genocides in modern history.
The residents were separated from their families and sent to work camps. Those who were suspected of being enemies of the state were sent to the killing fields or to the S-21 Prison. Pol Pot believed the best of the Cambodian’s were the uneducated farmers, this meant that if you were in politics, went to college, spoke another language, had a large head, wore glasses, had soft hands, or bore any other trait that could mean you were an “intellectual” you and your entire family would be killed. Pol Pot wanted to pull out all the roots to snuff out the whole tree. In other words, he wanted no living relatives to carry on your legacy or come back for revenge.
They are still finding bones and items from the estimated 1.3 million victims of this genocide which knocked out nearly a third of Cambodia’s population. As you make your way around the memorial area the last stop is a giant temple that houses the skulls and bones of just a fraction of the victims. It is not an easy place to visit, but it sure is important.
After some lunch our next stop was to the S-21 Prison. I personally found this museum much more difficult than the Killing Fields themselves. In the center of Phnom Pehn, the S-21 Prison is where those suspected of being against the new government (those showing any signs of being an intellectual) were held and tortured until they “confessed” to a crime so they could be properly executed.
Since this event is so recent there is still research being done and many of the victims are still unknown. Many were accidentally killed during torture and some guards made into prisoners themselves when not correctly carrying out their duties. 14 unidentified victims, who were of the last found abandoned in their torture cells, are buried and memorialized on the grounds today.
The eeriest part of the prison is that it used to be a high school and was make-shifted into a horrific prison by cutting holes through the walls and connecting all the classrooms. Walking through you can see it was probably a relatively nice high school, too. The genocide took place 1974-1979. That means my father was 16 years old when Cambodia was liberated. Imagine your parent’s school becoming a horrible, torture-filled, prison. It reminded me of my high school. This was a place where kids studied, made friends, found first loves, doodled on the walls, gossiped in the hallways, did homework in the gardens. I could see the place it was supposed to be so clearly, and it had been ruined. Stripped away of all its innocence and made into something evil.
What angers me the most about both the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison is that I had no idea it had even happened. I have been told one-sided accounts of the Vietnam war for ages, but never in my history of education has anyone even mentioned this horrible event. I had heard of the Killing Fields, but thought it had to do with a battle that took place, similar to Gettysburg in the U.S.
I knew nothing about the abominable genocide that took place less than 50 years ago. The effects left Cambodia extremely impoverished, and with their brightest citizens slaughtered, they are still trying to put the country back together again to this day.
There’s so much more that can be said about the Killing Fields, S-21 Prison, and Cambodian genocide, it’ll have to go into its own fleshed-out article.
The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison are some of the most educational and informative places I’ve yet to visit. And though very disturbing, I have glad to have visited and to know more than before.
We returned to the hostel in need of some levity. We spent the evening cooling off in the pool and having some drinks and food before we turned in for the night.
Day 3: Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
May 25, 2023
Phnom Pehn was much nicer than I expected. It’s perhaps the only city in the country with some modern infrastructure. It makes me wonder what it could’ve been if not for the events during the 1970’s.
But, with that being said, there’s really not that much to do. The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison can take 2-4 hours each. We left the breakfast café at around 10:00 a.m. and got back to the hostel a little after 5:00 p.m. and save for the royal palace, which closes at 5:00 p.m., you could in theory see almost everything there is worth seeing in one day.
We spent the hottest hours of the day doing some work and travel planning before taking a walk downtown. We looked around the outskirts of the royal palace but were unwilling to pay the expensive entry price. Lastly, we visited the Freedom Monument and the Vietnam Friendship Monument.
Vietnam is kind of the hero of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Not only did they succeed in snuffing out the Americans in their own civil war, but they came to Cambodia’s rescue and liberated them from the rule of Pol Pot. I must give the Vietnamese credit. While they were pretty one-sided about the North-vs.-South-vs.-U.S. in their own historic centers, they never mentioned being Cambodia’s knight in shining armor, which they totally could have. So good job Vietnam, a well-earned monument indeed.
And that was about it for the capital city! On to the next.
Day 4: Phnom Pehn, Cambodia to Siem Reap, Cambodia
May 26, 2023
Another 6-hour(ish) bus ride North to Siem Reap. This city is known for being the launching point to visit the Angkor Park and all its many temples, including Angkor Wat.
We admittedly had too much time in Cambodia, even though we only had a week. We probably only needed one day in Phnom Pehn and MAYBE two days in Siem Reap. The country is so impoverished there’s not a ton to do, and weirdly, the things they do have are expensive even by American standards. It cost more to do laundry in Cambodia than in New Zealand. They took U.S. dollars, but not coins making it extremely complicated when receiving a mix of Riel and USD back as change. With U.S. currency came U.S. prices…. but not U.S. quality. It was a little frustrating, especially when trying to stay on budget.
Needless to say, we didn’t do much the first night besides hanging out and exploring our hostel.
Day 5: Siem Reap, Cambodia
May 27, 2023
With the intent on exploring the town we left for an early lunch. It was hot. So very hot. The place we had wanted to go was less than a mile away, but we couldn’t make it. We stopped instead at a local place on the side of the road. It was an authentic Cambodian experience to say the least. Lawrence found some unexpected ingredients in his dish. A few beetles and gnats mixed in with his rice put both of us off. We did not finish our meals and instead paid and left quickly.
Unsuccessful in our day plans, hot, hungry, yet un-appetized, we cut our losses and returned to the hostel for the cool swimming pool and some overpriced western food.
Day 6: Siem Reap, Cambodia
May 28, 2023
Today was the day I was most anticipating. We had to be ready at 4:30 a.m. for a sunrise tour of Angkor Park. After getting picked up by our driver and tour guide, we headed first to the ticket center to purchase our 1-day passes for access into all the temples in the Siem Reap area.
Angkor Wat Temple
We started off strong with Angkor Wat, the largest religious center in the world. It was too cloudy to see much of a sunrise, but we were thankful for the cooler temperatures that came with the weather.
Before we entered the main temple, we saw a smaller building facing Angkor Wat known as the library. This building is home to the god of knowledge and is often prayed to as knowledge and education is highly valued in most of Southeast Asia.
Angkor Wat means “City Temple.” Since Siem Reap, which means “defeat of Thailand,” was once the capital of Cambodia Angkor Wat was put in place as a religious monument.
The temple is enormous. Built in the 12th century, between 1013 and 1050, it took nearly 40 years and 300 million tons of volcanic rock moved from sacred mountains and carried by elephants to be built. History/the king at the time claims it was built for free by the people as “volunteers” …. but definitely not slaves.
Originally Hindu, this temple has since been adorned with Buddha statues. Some have subsequently been beheaded in protest during different historical events including World War II and the Cambodian Civil War.
If a temple is multiple levels, it means it is for the gods and religion. If it is one level, it is for royalty. This religious temple continues to keep traditional Hindu gods Civa, Wisnu, and Brava represented through earth, air, and the heavens in the 3 levels that make the inside of the temple. To enter the third “heaven” level you must be properly covered, no knees or shoulders showing, and you must be over the age of 12. This includes women who are pregnant since your baby is not “old” enough. Honestly, the stairs are so steep it’s a bit dangerous going up and down that I’m not surprised the rule to keep children and those who are pregnant is still in place for safety reasons.
Angkor Wat exists today solely for tourism purposes, and while some come to show their respects, it is no longer used as an official place of worship or as a monastery for Cambodian monks. There are large pools that used to hold water that have since been drained, and barriers put in place to preserve intricate carvings.
Angkor Wat was the highlight of the day and of Cambodia in general. I’m glad we did it first because waking up at 4:00 a.m. takes its toll and we were burning out fast.
Throughout the day we we on to visit three other prominent temples.
Ta-Prohm Temple was our second stop. This temple is most well-known as being the filming location for the movie adaptation of Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie. It has dramatic trees and vines growing throughout the cracking stone. Ta-Prohm is a royal temple as it is only one level. It was made in the 12th century by the Buddhist king as a gift for his mother.
In the 12th century all the surrounding jungle found between temples in the Angkor Park would have been houses and villages. Since they were mostly made of wood, they have not stood the test of time and we are instead left with only the massive temples to represent ancient life in Cambodia.
Ta Keo Temple
Ta Keo Temple is a 5-level religious Hindu temple. It was built in the 10th century out of blue sandstone, a material much stronger than the volcanic rock used in Angkor Wat. During its creation a young boy was appointed to be the new king. Because of his age he was not well-respected by his subjects and thus the temple was never completed. To this day it remains unfinished.
This temple is most memorable for is steep sloping steps one must climb to enter and exit. Once inside you are rewarded with a wonderful view. It may be more frightening coming down the tall steps than it is to go up. One wrong step and you’re toast!
Our last stop of the day was Bayon Temple. This religious temple was built for both Buddhism and Hindu alike so that all the people of the kingdom may come together in worship. Bayon is a representation of peace in the kingdom. It has 54 towers one for each of the then 54 provinces. The king at the time of Bayon’s creation was known for erecting the most temples during his rule with an astounding 120 new temples.
Because Bayon, and its sister temples, were built hastily with a lighter more malleable stone it is much more decomposed than Angkor Wat despite having been built more recently. Bayon Temple took a mere 10 years to complete in comparison to Angkor Wat’s nearly 40.
Bayon Temple was visited by married couples hopeful to be blessed with a pregnancy. They have a phallic sculpture demonstrating the creation of life. It sits beneath a large tower and collects rain. Once water passes over it, it is considered holy water and used in blessings to bring forth children. There’s nothing like 12th century sex education!
After the tour we returned to our hostel for a refreshing swim, shower, naps, and some food, we went out in the much-cooler evening air for some dinner.
Pub Street is the place to be for nightlife in Siem Reap. Only a short walk away from the Night Market, the touristy area boasts colorful displays, drink deals, and Cambodian takes on western foods. Well worth taking a stroll down the road even if you’re not one for partying.
Day 7: Siem Reap, Cambodia
May 29, 2023
On our last full day in Cambodia we leisurely strolled around the town while waiting for our laundry to finish. We had a much more successful lunch experience than two days prior, but honestly our hot take on Cambodian food: it’s worth missing. Essentially just less spicy and less MSG-filled Vietnamese food.
We shopped through the day markets and spent some time at a local bar drinking Angkor Beer, the beer of Cambodia.
For dinner we went to Pub Street again, took a stroll through the Night Markets, and finally turned in for the night to prepare for our next day’s journey to Thailand.
Want to see where we went before Cambodia? Catch up with all our travels in Vietnam!