Hidden city of Angkor

Jordan and I had the real treat of leaving behind the dirt roads of rural Cambodia and going to Siem Reap, the town nearest the jungle and Angkor Wat.

Angkor is usually recognized in pictures, and definitely in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as a half-forgotten jungle temple somewhere in exotic Asia. It’s not forgotten–it’s actually big business. But it is exotic and jungle-y, and we loved it.

After hemming and hawing over saving money vs. seeing more ruins, we decided to just go with the one-day ticket into Angkor Archeological Park (20 USD apiece) and forgo a guide. We certainly weren’t going to bike there and back, so we rented a tuktuk driver for the day. The best way to do the park is early: you miss most of the heat and some of the crowds. So our driver picked us up at 5 am to head to the park to buy tickets. Well, I say our driver picked us up. We had agreed with a driver from town to take us around for 17 USD (it was an extra 5 because it was so early in the morning), but when we met up he told us that he couldn’t take us, he was going with his wife and brother to Phnom Penh. So he found a friend of a friend to take us. We agreed readily enough and off we went.

At the entrance to the park we bought tickets (with our photos on them). From there we had to convince our very confused driver (who didn’t know English) that we didn’t want to see the sun rise behind Angkor Wat. That temple is the iconic figure of Angkor, and it is very popular to go see the sunrise, with hundreds of other people. With the help of another driver who knew more English, we finally got across what we wanted. Our driver was still very confused that the white tourists weren’t followed the normal path that all the other white tourists do.

So we ended up watching the sunrise at Srah Srang. We shared the view with about 20 other people, all very quiet, and it was much, much better than the elbows and feet of hundreds across the park at Angkor Wat.

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Sunrise was at 6:31, and afterward we drove to another temple. Our driver got lost once or twice (I think we got the only driver in the city who didn’t know Angkor like the back of his hand) and eventually we passed through the south gates of Ankor Thom, on our way to parts of the old city.

_MG_8556 lowAngkor  was the capital of the great Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries, and its remains are considered some of the most beautiful and important Asian ruins today. THe Khmer Empire was, more or less, Cambodia. The people of Cambodia are still called Khmer (Kuh-my). The empire ruled most of Cambodia and pieces of modern-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and the founding date is usually recognized as 802 AD, when King Jayavarman II declared himself king. The area of Angkor, mostly farmland and woods near Tonle Sap lake, had settlements there for many many years, but the Empire era saw an explosion of culture, art, building, and now we had the roads and ruins to show for it. Wikipedia has a long article on the Khmer Empire if you wish to learn more.

Eventually they built Angkor Thom, the heart of the city of the Khmer, beginning in the 12th century. It was abandoned after the Ayutthaya Kingdom (in modern-day central Thailand) sacked the city. The city was never lost, even as it crumbled to ruins, though we are stilling learning about the people that used to live there.

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One of the entrances to Angkor Thom, this is near the Terrace of the Elephants, an appendage of the royal palace. Here is an educated guess as to what the royal palace and connecting walls inside Angkor Thom could’ve looked like. We unfortunately weren’t able to spend much time here, but it larger than we had first thought it was. Much of the carvings here (and elsewhere) were of Hindu and Buddhist mythical heros, deities, and magical animals, especially naga. According to legend, the naga were mythical creatures banished from their own kingdom in the Pacific by invading forces, many eventually settling in India. A prince of the naga fell in love with an Indian woman. Their children were the Cambodian people, and the prince’s father, the king of the naga, drew water away from the land to create modern-day Cambodia.


(That’s not from Angkor, but from the royal palace in Phnom Penh. But the naga still look like that.)

From the edge of the royal palace we drove to Bayon, the state temple in the city. Bayon, as a part of the city, was also built in the late 12th century, and is famous now for its massive stone faces. By the time it was built, the Khmer were more Buddhist than Hindu, so the decorations and arrangement of the temple reflect the religion. Jayavarman VII was the king at this time, and he was known for being devoutly Buddhist and encouraging a campaign for greater buildings and growth in culture. The Golden Age of the empire was during his reign.

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Throughout the archeological park are small temples and shrines to Buddha. Many of the ruins are still active shrine sites, which is why visitors are required to where modest clothing.


By this time it was around 8 am, and the day was growing warmer. We convinced our tuktuk driver to take us to Ta Prohm, a very popular sight due to its fame from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Our driver got a little lost taking us there. I’m not really sure how. But we got there finally, before most of the crowds.

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Ta Prohm was a Buddhist monastery and university, built a couple of decades after Bayon. While other temples have been mostly restored, Ta Prohm has barely been touched (in comparison, at least). This is probably what made it my favorite temple–the trees and vines growing everywhere gave it a “lost” feel, and the winding pathways between fallen stones invited exploration and discovery. We slipped away from the main path through the ruins to wander through some of the half-lit corridors and skirt around stone piles near crumbled walls.

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One of the two most famous spung trees in the ruins. We had to wait in line to get a good photo of the tree, but the line that early in the morning was only about three or four groups long–not bad at all. Jayavarman VII dedicated this monastery to his family, and many of the reliefs meant to personify wisdom and other virtues are probably likenesses of his family members.

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Once we finished picking our way around tree roots and rock piles, we left the temple and got breakfast. At each major temple site are stands selling tourist trinkets and food. We got breakfast for around 8 USD (not that cheap, but pretty good for being in a tourist zone) and hopped back in the tuktuk. At Jordan’s insistence, we went to Banteay Kdei. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the gate look pretty amazing.

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Banteay Kdei is Khmer for “citadel of chambers,” and was a Buddhist temple commissioned by Jayvaraman VII (they don’t call him the “Great Builder” for nothing!). Monks have lived in this temple, off and on, until the 1960s. Today it is in a state of disrepair, though some renovations may be made soon. This was Jordan’s favorite stop, because he loved walking through the intricate pathways and seeing the patterned reliefs in tight corners and narrow columns.

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The figures in the walls are legendary heroes and soldiers, or they are the Apsara, asian nymphs or celestial maidens. 20160114_100258_HDR low

By the time we left Bantaey Kdei (around 10:45 am) it was hot. But it was also nearing lunchtime, which meant that the crowds at Angkor Wat should’ve thinned. So onward we went, eager to see the iconic image of the ancient city.


Claimed to be the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is huge.  It was also built during the beginning of the golden age of the Khmer Empire (by Jayvaraman’s predecessor), originally as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. Even after the Khmer Empire fell, the temple wasn’t completely abandoned. Small groups of monks lived in the temple, keeping it up. The moat surrounding the wat also helped keep the jungle from taking over. It is not only the iconic image of the whole park, but also of Cambodia, and Khmer look upon this temple with great pride.

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We ate lunch at a food stall in Angkor Wat, then decided that we were beat and needed a shower from the sweat and dust. There was still so much to see of the park–seeing everything in one day would be like trying to see all of Yosemite in one day–but we were exhausted and communicating with our driver was becoming more complicated and frustrating as the day went on. We had asked him to take us to his favorite temple, but instead he called a friend to translate, who tried to convince us to go to one of the farther-flung temples (Bantaey Srei) about 28 kilometers away–for another price. We weren’t willing to do that, so we called it a day and left the park, tired but happy we’d seen some of the most beautiful ruins in the world.

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7 tips for visiting Angkor

7 Tips for Angkor

Angkor, an ancient megacity hearkening back to the Khmer empire still inspires us today. Holding around 1 million people at the height of its glory, Angkor is remembered today as a crumbling temple complexes hidden in the jungle and begging to be explored.

With over 2 million visitors a year, Angkor is an amazing place to discover and well worth the money, time, and sweat it takes to uncover its beauty. There are many wonderful “what to expect” blog posts out there already, many of which we planned our trip with. But there were a few pieces of information that we gleaned along the way and wanted to pass on to others. So here we go.

  1. The archeological park is huge. You can’t walk there from Siem Reap, and I wouldn’t really recommend biking there and back unless you’re an experienced cyclist. Also, you can’t walk around the park–one of the complexes is a mile wide (Angkor Thom) and most ruins are between two and four kilometers apart. We found that the best option was a tuktuk driver that stayed with us all day (we paid 17 USD, including sunrise, perhaps a little much. Drivers usually charge an extra 5 USD for sunrise). 20160114_110032_HDR
  2. If you want to avoid the crowds, skip the Angkor Wat sunrise photo op and see the morning from somewhere else, perhaps Srah Srang, the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom, or anywhere else your driver or guide suggests. Although sunrise is around 6:30, some of the more famous temples don’t open until 7:30 or 8, so just be mindful about which places you go first to beat the crowds. Angkor Wat has a steady stream of people all day (except during lunchtime), so as long as you are visiting the other sights before 8:30 or 9 am, you won’t be bumping into to many people. 20160114_112508
  3. If you’ve bought the one-day pass (20 USD), it’s best to be more strategic about the places you want to visit. Have in mind what you want to see (because you can’t see it all-it’s like trying to see Yosemite in one day). Jordan loved the crumbling, intricate smaller temples, like Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm where you can get lost among the tumbling columns. I preferred the jungle temples with trees and vines cascading over the remaining walls, like Ta Prohm, Ta Som, Preah Khan. Lovers of heights and grandeur will probably prefer Bayon, Angkor Wat, and parts of Angkor Thom. _MG_8656 low
  4. You’re not handed a map at the entrance of the park, so come with one downloaded on a phone or printed off. While few maps show the dirt paths tuktuks and cyclists take, a map is a great way to indicate to your driver where you want to go next (especially if he doesn’t understand English). Jordan likes this map and this mapTasomeastgop3east LOW
  5. We showed up at the park at 5:15 am, bought our tickets, and then convinced our tuktuk driver to take us somewhere more secluded, around less people. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:31 am, so we sat at the edge of Srah Srang until sunrise, took photos until 6:45, then moved on to the nearest open temple. It was both of our opinions that we really could’ve slept for 30 more minutes and arrived at the park at 5:45 without any problems. The hurry-hurry-hurry attitude is to beat everyone else at Angkor Wat for sunrise. But if you’re not going there, don’t worry so much about getting into the park as quickly as possible.  20160114_100805_HDR Low
  6. When hiring a tuktuk driver, it may be best to arrange one through your hotel or hostel. We decided the cheaper-do-it-yourself method of getting just a driver, not a guide, was best for us (and at the end of the day we were still happy with that decisions), but we did book our tuktuk driver on the street. Through an odd turn of events, he passed off the engagement to a friend of a friend, and we were stuck with a tuktuk driver who didn’t speak English and didn’t know his way around Angkor. I think somehow we got the only driver in Siem Reap that didn’t know the park well. That did put a damper on our experience because we requested a couple of places that he didn’t know of–or at least didn’t understand the English request.  _MG_8682 low
  7. Once there, confronted with the scope of the park, it is easy to summon up determination to see everything you possibly can in one day because you paid for the experience. I started the day that way. By noon I was exhausted and sweaty. We decided that we had seen the most important things to us and left. The temples we visited are still discrete and unique in our minds rather than muddling together from seeing too much. We were there to enjoy Angkor, we said, not to push our way through it, and if leaving a few hours earlier than planned meant we left with a sweeter taste in our mouths, then that was better. So plan your day to maximize your time, but also listen to your bodies and don’t feel guilt over anything you do or don’t do. This is supposed to be fun!  _MG_8556 lowOur itinerary:
  • 5:15 Bought tickets, entered park
  • 5:30 Parked at Srah Srang and waited for sunrise
  • 6:40 Visited Angkor Thom
  • 7:30 Went to Bayon
  • 8:00 Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame)
  • 9:00 Breakfast outside Ta Prohm
  • 9:30 Explored Bantaey Kdei
  • 10:45 Arrived at Angkor Wat
  • 11:45 Ate lunch inside Angkor Wat
  • 12:30 Drove home

While there are so many more worthy things to see, that’s about all we have energy for (and anything else would’ve caused communication problems). Our two regrets? Not visiting Ta Som or Preah Khan and not exploring Angkor Thom longer. If we’d been able to communicate we wanted to visit Preah Khan and/or Ta Som, we would’ve stayed longer. But we saw some gorgeous sights and really enjoyed the experience, so no big complaints here.

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Good luck on your trip! And, of course, brings lots of water and sunscreen, and don’t forget to cover your shoulders and knees at the active temples sites.

For anyone that’s been before, what do you suggest?


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Kampong Luong: Floating village on Tonle Sap

One of the things we really wanted to do in Cambodia was a homestay. And once I heard there are homestays in floating villages, well, that cinched the deal.

Our goal was to stay at Kampong Luong, a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, a few kilometers from Krakor. This is off the beaten tourist path, so we did all the research we could online before venturing off. An ethnically mixed village (Khmer and Vietnamese, though mostly Vietnamese), around 10,000 people live on houseboats year round, with cats, dogs, chickens, and more. I saw three German shepherds on one boat (I can’t imagine living in a two-room houseboat with three huge dogs) and overheard several roosters in the wee hours of the morning. Everything they do is on the lake: they live there, fish there, wash clothes there, cook with the water, and their squatty potties empty right back into the water (yes, very unhygienic, and there are many health problems with children because of it). It’s most subsistence living, though the village is entirely self-sustaining, with it’s own health clinic and school to boot.

We left Phnom Penh at 10:30 on a Capitol Tours bus that cost 11 USD per ticket. We purchased tickets that took us all the way to Battambang, on the northwestern end of the country, but needed to hop off halfway through the trip (and yes, we still had to pay the full price).


About four hours into the trip the bus stopped at Krakor. Jordan had asked the bus driver twice to let us off at Krakor (because obviously we can’t read Khmer). They forgot or didn’t care, but the nice old woman behind us overheard and thumped our seat, pointing out the window and saying, “Krakor!” insistently. I swear, our backpacking would be doomed to failure if it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers. Countless times they have helped us figure out where the heck we were going.

Krakor has two guesthouses in town, Paris Guesthouse as 59 Guesthouse. Paris is visible from the main road. We hopped off, grabbed our backpacks, and looked around, hoping for the next step to present itself before us. After 30 seconds it did, in the form of a very determined and slightly stalker-y tuktuk driver intent upon making money from us.

“Homestay? Kampong Luong?”

“Yes, yes,” I said. “Kampong Luong. Homestay. Sleep. Where?”

“I take you,” he said. “Ten dollar there.”

I wasn’t entirely sure of a fair charge, but knew that was far too much. We didn’t know what we were doing, so we told him no and ducked into the local market. He followed us just one aisle over. Eventually we decided that if he wanted us that badly, he would barter with us. So we turned and met up with him and a friend who knew more English.

After a very convoluted exchange we bought bus tickets to Siem Reap (11 USD apiece again, roughly five or six hours away) for 9 am the next morning. They said there wasn’t a later time. I didn’t (and still don’t) believe them, but I went with it anyway.

Jordan bargained the tuktuk driver down to eight dollars, and then I got him down to four dollars one-way. We explained we wanted to sleep in the village, and everyone nodded in agreement.

20160112_173246-1The village is between five and seven kilometers from Krakor and is one of the few towns that changes its geography. During the low season the villagers tow their homes out farther into the lake, which they were in the middle of when we arrived.

Our driver got us to a little hut down a long, bumpy red dirt road where three or four boatmen stood. There’s a faded sign nailed to a wall of the hut, and we pointed to what we wanted: a private room, overnight, and a boat ride there. The private room was 6 USD and the alternative was a cot with a mosquito net in the main living area for 4 USD a person. We paid a man 4 USD to take us to our homestay. The boat ride was less than ten minutes because our homestay location hadn’t been pulled away from shore yet.

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The homestay was more of a hostel than an actual homestay, and we were a little disappointed to be so far from the rest of the village. But our host and his mother were kind and they gave us a fan for our room. He spoke no English and the extent of our Khmer is “hello” and “thank you,” so he would give us pieces of paper with English/Khmer on them and have us pick options.


Dinner was 5 USD for the both of us. We were unaware that we had to pay for dinner (and drinks, which are pricier than on land), but the food was tasty and somewhat cheap. He also let us pick a one-hour tour, either the Vietnamese half of the village or the Cambodian half, with the possibility of crocodile feeding. That was 5 USD per person, and it ended up almost being a waste of time and money. We didn’t stop at any of the sights (ice factory, hospital, school), he just drove past them and we took pictures from his boat. There were no crocodile feedings. It was only worth the money because we actually got to go to the rest of the village, rather than staying behind with the stragglers nearer shore. We also got to watch six or seven families begin tugging their homes by their boats, which was fun.


While Kampong Luong isn’t well known, it is mentioned in the Lonely Planet travel guide. We had a French couple stay across the hall from us, and in the roster I saw around 10 other names from that day, staying at the village. However, fair-skinned people are still a rarity, and the children love waving and yelling, “hello!” at the top of their lungs. We laughed and waved, enjoying their enthusiasm.

I had thought that being on a lake meant peace and quiet, but I forgot I was in southeast Asia. Boats with loud motors passed frequently until about midnight, then started up again at five. I guess it’s one of those things that you get used to if you live there, kind of like living next to railroad tracks. It got chilly at night, and we were grateful for the blanket they provided us with.


We had to leave early the next morning, at 7:45, to get back to the bus stop in Krakor by 8:15, just in case the bus came early. The bus came at 9, on time, and the ticket-seller made sure we got on and were headed the right direction.

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A breakdown of costs for two people:

  • $6 for homestay
  • $10 for “tour”
  • $5 for dinner
  • $2 for water
  • $2.50 for two cans of coke
  • $8 tuktuk roundtrip
  • $4 boat ride (one-way)
  • Total: $37.50 for two people

This was more than we meant to pay, more than we had budgeted for (especially the $5 per person “tour). We had anticipated something around 19 or perhaps 20 USD. After we got over the sticker shock (the French couple had sticker shock also), we reflected on the uniqueness of seeing a floating village in the middle of its migration to deeper waters. That made the cost more worth it.

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Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, Pt. II

Our second stop of the day was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, known simply as the Killing Fields.

Although only about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh, it was about a 40 minute tuktuk ride to get there. The streets are dusty and dirty, and the exposed tuktuk allows exhaust and other pollution to get in your eyes or up your nose. Not the best experience, but it wasn’t that bad. And it is cheaper than a taxi.


Outside the area are plenty of Western-friendly restaurants, with Western prices ($6.90 for a hamburger). But we were hungry and sat at one of the restaurants and ate Cambodian food. It was really good, we had to admit. Really good sweet/sour pork with stir fried vegetables.

When we felt prepared, we entered the center. Admission was 6 USD apiece and comes with an audio guide. In the center of the field is a Buddhist stupa, or memorial to the victims of the regime. I’ve already discussed the political and cultural background of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, so I won’t do any more here. There are over 100 klling fields in Cambodia, exactly like this one, though Choeng Ek is the most well-known. Other fields lie hidden in the jungle or have land mines surrounding them, making it slightly hazardous for visitors.


Everything here happened at night. The regime didn’t want anyone to know what they were doing, so all trucks delivering prisoners did so at night. Loudspeakers in trees broadcasted recorded music and party sounds to muffle the screams of people being murdered. At the beginning of the four-year regime people were taken off the trucks and bludgeoned to death right there. But as more and more people were sent to die the guards couldn’t keep up with the demand. Eventually they built huts to keep prisoners until the next night, when the killing would resume. Sheds held killing tools, which were knifes, cleaning rods, crowbars, and other things. Guns would make too much sound and bullets were too expensive. The field was chosen because it was somewhat isolated. It had been a Chinese cemetery until 1975, and they built a fence around three sides of the field. The fourth side was a small lake and sheltered by large trees. People passing by thought it was a military center, perhaps for soldier training or cadre leader meetings.


The mass graves here vary in size, from less than 100 to around 450 people. Sometimes the prisoners were required to dig their own graves, but due to their weakness the graves weren’t very deep. Even today bits of blindfolds, rags, teeth, and bones find their way to the surface. Every few months the center workers collects them and put them in memorial cases or hand over to forensic researchers to learn more about the people that died. Very few of the bodies were ever identified, though it was usually easy to see where the graves were. The dirt bulged after a few days, the gas expanding in the grave. Some graves have been left alone, half submerged in the lake, and visitors are encouraged to watch where they step.


According to Cambodian legend (pre-Buddhist belief), if a body is not properly buried they cannot go on to the afterlife, but will remain as ghosts in this world, searching endlessly for rest. This has caused particular heartbreak to the families of victims, who not only were never able to recover a body, but believe their loved one’s spirit is alone and restless. To provide some comfort, spirit houses have been nailed to trees in the field. This gives the roaming spirits a place to rest. Incense is left in jars and vases at the bottom of the tree to soothe the spirits and the mourners, along with flowers or other tokens.

Many visitors leave tokens at the center, like small bills of riel or woven bracelets.


The most disturbing grave, at least to me, was the grave of the women and their babies. Many of the women were found naked, presumably raped, next to the bashed-in heads of their children. This spot is known as the “Killing Tree,” where the soldiers took the feet of infants and toddlers and swung them against the tree until the skull cracked and the child died. As we stopped there to listen to the guide, you could hear many people sighing and see them turning away from the remains of the grave. I was tempted to leave before the track of my audio guide ended, to get away before I cried, but decided to stay and look at the tree, covered in bracelets and flowers, until the end.


The tour ended at the stupa, famous for the towering glass case filled with skulls and bone fragments. We were told to take off our shoes and quietly enter at our own pace, listening to the music as we went. Outside, people prayed or sat quietly. With the tour officially over, we went to the small museum on the center’s grounds, which showed familiar photos of victims, the regime leaders, and maps of the forced migration patterns.

This, too, was difficult to get through, but I’m so glad I did. We went back to our tuktuk driver in silence, thinking of the injustice and cruelty. “We couldn’t believe it happened to us,” the audio guide said. “But genocide can happen anywhere–in Cambodia, in Russia under Stalin, in Chinaunder Mao, in Rwanda, in the United States with Native Americans.”

The Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979 to the Vietnamese. Although they had previously been allied, the Vietnamese fought against the Cambodians, and the regime had to send thousands to fight back. On January 7, 1979 the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge fled into the jungle, trying to regoup. Because the invading forces were communist, the United Nations recognized the resistance (which included the Khmer Rouge) as the government, retaining a seat in the General Assembly for the fallen regime. Although they were in all practical sense out of power, the Cambodian people were still left with war, famine, and trouble through the 1980s. All of this is why Cambodia is still so poor. You can learn more information here, including about the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders and the tribunal.


If anyone is interested in what order to see the two museums, I don’t think it particularly matters. But I liked the chronology of going first to the torture center, then the mass graves. It provided a sense of continuity for me, but I don’t think a different order would necessarily distract from the experience.

The long ride back into town gave us time to decompress, and I think we were both grateful for that. We went to the Russian Market, which isn’t named such because “everyone is always rushin’ around,” as Jordan suggested. No, the Russian Market is one of several popular markets in Phnom Penh, and is called such because when it became popular with foreigners in the 1980s, most of the people that lived there were Soviet expats. In the market you can buy almost anything.


The back part is food, tires, tools, children’s clothing, and anything else a Cambodian would want, while the front half is more designed for tourists. Silk scarves and ties, elaborate stone buddha carvings, and lovely sarongs are everywhere. The market is dim, damp, and sweltering, but lots of fun. We bought Jordan a silk tie for 3 USD (she started at 5, I started at 2, and we worked out a deal) and I admired all the scarves.


Jordan said the tool section of the market was better than Home Depot. After all of that in the heat, we were done. It was only 2 pm, but we asked our tuktuk driver to get us back to our hostel so we could wash all the dirt and sweat off. Resting after such an emotional day was important, too.


And now, unfortunately, we are done with Phnom Penh and will be moving northward through Cambodia.

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Legacy of the Khmer Rouge, Pt. I

Note: Due to internet shortage, I’ve not added a lot of photos. I will add more later.

Yesterday we did a lot of the fun touristy things in Phnom Penh. Today we did the sad things.

Tourism in Cambodia is really taking off, increasing every year since 1998. There’s plenty of reasons for this, like Cambodia proximity to backpacker paradise Thailand, how cheap Cambodia is, how exotic everything seems, and how all backpackers rave about Cambodia (to other backpackers, word-of-mouth is the best research tool and recommendation process). While almost ever tourist visits the iconic Angkor Wat, tourism is also picking up in the dark parts of Cambodia’s history, like the sites and remnants of Pol Pot and his horrific regime, known in English as Khmer Rouge. One source I read said that about 30% of tourists to Cambodia visit Tuol Sleng, the infamous S21 torture detention center used by the regime from 1975-1979.

Paying money and being, well, tourists, to some of the darkest places of human brutality and suffering is an odd thing. It is a little disquieting, if one thinks about it. Visiting Aushwitz and Hiroshima leaves a person feeling troubled, but I think that is as it should be. I strongly recommend anyone in Cambodia not to miss either the Choeung Euk Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng, for two reasons. Firstly, I think an understanding of the 1970s is important to understanding Khmer culture. This is a recent scar in the people’s memory, and it bears looking at. Secondly, I personally think it is important to not shy away from the suffering of others, even if it is from the past. While we all have emotional walls that protect our hearts from the tragedies in the world (and this isn’t a bad thing), it is important that we learn when to lower those walls, to empathize with the hurt around us, and “sit in the dirt with them,” to borrow a term from the book of Job. To me, visiting these sights is a way to honor the innocent, to remember, and to learn how to prevent something like this from happening again. In a small, insignificant way, witnessing the legacy of the tragedies is me saying, “I see you. I stand with you.” Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, especially to those murdered 40 years ago, but it is the only thing I can do.

We hired a tuktuk driver to take us to three places (Tuol Sleng, Killing Fields, and the Russian Market–in that order) and paid 19 USD through our hostel. At the end of the trip we tipped him 2 USD.

Tuol Sleng was a high school until the Khmer Rouge took over the country and closed almost every school, learning institution, hospital, and anything that smacked of modernism. To understand what happened during the Cambodian Genocide you have to look a little further back, to what was happening in the decade previously.


A map of the school/security prison.

Cambodia had been a colony of France for roughly 90 years 1953. This period was, of course, rife with ideological conflict and a mixture of retaining Khmer ways and embracing French culture. The rich sent their sons to Paris to be educated, while the poor labored in rural areas in subsistence farming. During WWII Japan took over Cambodia, but when the war ended France resumed its protectorate. You can imagine what life under martial Japanese law looked like. Communism spread in the 1960s and 70s, and the North Vietnamese set up camps and alliances in Cambodia with the prime minister Sihanouk, ending diplomatic ties with the United States. This wasn’t well received, and there was a coup in 1970. The prime minister (who had abdicated the throne for that title, oddly enough) escaped and a new prime minister, Lon Nol, reordered Cambodia as a republic rather than a monarchy. He also began fighting against the communist Vietnamese at this point.

The Khmer Rouge was founded during this time, with the name the Communist Party of Kompuchea. It grew and developed its ideology, which was a branch of Marxism combined with Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. There was also a worship of the past. French-educated leaders in the political party harshly criticized the country’s reliance on Western, developed states in economic matters. The US led a bombing campaign in rural Cambodia, which lead to the death of around 100,000 peasants. Political scientist and scholars debate whether the campaign pushed the peasants over the edge, to joining ranks with the Khmer Rouge, or if is did destroy key parts of the Khmer and North Vietnamese communist strongholds. Regardless, it did push thousands of poor, uneducated farmers into the urban centers of Cambodia with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Pol Pot (known as Brother Number 1) and the Khmer Rouge came to power through the help of the North Vietnamese, eventually taking the government from Lon Nol. Thousands rejoiced, thinking it meant the return of their former king, help in the farming fields, and hope for their children. They were very, very wrong.

In 1975 and 1976 Khmer Rouge forced the people out of the cities to repopulate the farms, to work as the “Old People” did, without the help of tractors or even horses. Families were separated and sent to live in communal areas, guarded by cadres of the regime, and forced to work on empty stomachs. Those were the lucky ones. Everyone else was killed–around 1.7 million of them.

The Khmer Rouge regime outlawed education, religion, medicine, international travel and interests, and old grammar (in this, they were similar to the French Reign of Terror in calling everyone “comrade”). The old ways were venerated, the new ways obliterated in any way possible, from destroying tractors to breaking eyeglasses to encouraging illiteracy. Anyone that could speak a foreign language, wore glasses, had soft hands, had medical or law training, or worked at an education facility was murdered. They justified these killings by claiming the Khmer people were working for the CIA, when most of these people hadn’t even heard of the CIA before. Ethnic minorities were, of course, targeted just as harshly as anyone with international ties or advanced degrees.  You can learn more about Cambodia’s recent history here and about the Khmer Rouge here. Before they were killed, however, the people were tortured.

That’s where our first stop of the day was: Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S21 (Security-Prison S21). Until 1979, when the regime fell, few people knew what this place was. They assumed it was a meeting place or lodging house for soldiers in the regime. Music blared and people and trucks came and went frequently. Even now, we don’t know that much about the individuals that moved through, because the records were mostly destroyed at the fall. But during the four years between 12,000 to 20,000 people were incarcerated and imprisoned here. There were 12 survivors. Men did anything they could to kill themselves–from jumping off the third-floor balcony to stabbing his neck with a pen to pouring burning Kerosene over his head.


It was a very quiet tour as we looked into the 4×3′ cells, the torture chambers with metal bed frames and electric chargers, and the photos of the prison guards and victims. When a victim entered, they were usually forced to write a short biography, were stripped, and assigned a number. Everything after that was to purposefully dehumanize them, from calling people “it” to making them completely silent. Interrogations, or torture sessions, could happen up to twice a day, and were usually electric shock on metal bed frames, water boarding, or hanging on gallows. Women were raped, though it was discouraged by the prison chief, Comrade Duch. Even if they weren’t raped, their bodies were violated by poisonous bugs in orifices and hot pliers. In short, it was a nightmare.

“When you cut grass, take out the roots,” Pol Pot recommended. In practice, this meant not only killing suspected CIA activists or any “New People,” like railway engineers, but also their wives and children. There would be no one left for revenge, the regime decided. Tuol Sleng was a detention facility, not an execution place. This was where people were tortured for months on end, sometimes up to six months, before being taken away and killed. While there were “mistakes,” or people being electrocuted to death, usually if a prisoner was near dead they were left in their cell and had a medic attend them. These medics had roughly four months of training and no actual medicine. Injections of Vitamin C were a mixture of sugar, saltwater, and vinegar. Pills were hardened vegetable matter. Most of the actual medical professionals were prisoners in S21 or a place similar. The prison guards were young, some not even teenagers yet, and were given only basic education that was mostly brainwashing. At least one guard didn’t know how to count past seven. These were often boys recruited from farm villages, frightened into performing some of the most heinous acts we could imagine, for fear of becoming the tortured rather than the torturer. A few believed in the regime’s goals, many were frightened into compliance, and the few that did defect were hunted down and killed.


Tuol Sleng was only one of around 200 torture sights around the country, though it is the most famous.

As we left (we had to move quickly, we were given an hour by our tuktuk driver and ran out of time) I was on the verge of tears. Actually, I was on the verge of tears through the whole museum. Most people are, by the end, I think. We had purchased one audio guide (3 USD) with our tickets (3 USD apiece) and it was well worth it. Most of the information and signs in English or French come at the end of the museum, and I think hiring a guide (they sit just outside the gate) or getting the audio is a smart move.

As we left, we passed two booths under the shade of some trees in the courtyard. There were several souvenir shops stalls, but these were different and had more writing in English. An old Khmer man sat at a table in the booth on the left, another man in the booth on the right. Both tables had signs that read, “Tuol Sleng SURVIVOR.” Two of the twelve, two of the ones still alive, sitting quietly in the shade selling a books they wrote.

I was surprised. It’s one thing to know this happened. It’s completely different to come face-to-face with someone that experienced and lived through that horror.” My step faltered as I realized what I was looking at. The man on the left saw my gaze and smiled at me. And then he bowed to me.

He clasped his hands under his chin and dipped his head to me, a sampeah, the Cambodian greeting.

My eyes widened and filled with tears again. He bowed to me. Humbled, embarrassed really, I returned the bow (though awkwardly). And then we left. We were out of time, unable to stay and meet the unassuming men that survived hell.

It’s the end of the day and I’m still surprised and humbled. He bowed to me.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kingdom of Cambodia

We’re here! Winter break is finally here and we’re celebrating that in Southeast Asia! Our work, CEV, has us on winter break now. We get three weeks(!) to do whatever we please. Jordan and I knew that Cambodia was the top of our “to-go list” before we even got to Korea, so now we’re here and loving the heat. Korea got cold for winter. Where we live it isn’t normally below freezing, but when your ondol floors don’t heat well and you have to wear your coat to work because they don’t heat hallways, it is cold enough. We got off on Friday and immediately headed south to Busan, to get closer to the airport. Saturday morning we flew out of Korea and headed to Cambodia.

As soon as we landed we shed our jackets and scarves (it is hot and humid!) and got in line to buy a visa. After waiting in a disorganized line with equally confused people, we paid our 3o USD per person, got our papers, and left. A tuktuk from our hostel met us and took us to our hostel, where we collapsed in bed. Because we’re only spending two full days in Phnom Penh (three nights, though), we wanted to get up and hit the pavement.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was founded in 1372. Phnom Penh was the capital for around 70 years after its founding. It only became the capital again, however, in 1865 under the jurisdiction of Siam. When  French colonialization began, they made the river village into an urban center with hospitals and schools. The Royal Palace was built there afterward. The city takes it’s name from the oldest temple there, Wat Penh, which is in turn named after the woman who founded the shrine in 1373.

In the morning we dressed (me with a long dress and little jacket for holy places) and ventured out, taking another tuktuk for 3 USD to Wat Phnom. Cambodia is overwhelmingly Buddhist (around 93%) and filled with temples (called wats in Khmer). Wat Phnom is one of the grandest, tallest temples in Phnom Penh, as well as one of the oldest. Founded in 1373, the legend goes that a grandmother (Lady Penh) found four statues of Buddha in a tree by the river. She built a shrine on a small hill nearby, and people flocked to pray and worship there. Later, in 1437 King Ponhea Yat raised the hill and the shrine, making it more prominent. His and his family’s ashes are in a stupa on Wat Phnom, nearby the sanctuary. Tourists must pay a dollar to enter. When we were there, a ceremony was taking place at a pagoda near the sanctuary. People were burning incense, preparing a meal of vegetables and pork, and children were playing. Around the wat are people selling birds to release or incense sticks to burn.

When we finished (we spent about 20 minutes there), our tuktuk driver waited on us and took us to the national museum. This cost 5 USD apiece to enter, which I thought was kind of pricey considering what we got. The building itself is lovely, though a little worn down, and the courtyard is worth sitting and resting in (provided you can sit in the shade). There are few signs, however, and most of the artifacts are stone or bronze sculptures of the Angkor period. We went through the museum in about 30 or 40 minutes, though if we had bought an audio guide, it would’ve been longer.


The Royal Palace was next on our list, but it’s closed from 11 am to 2 pm every day. So instead we tracked down lunch. A coworker of ours went to Cambodia a year ago, and she recommended a restaurant called Friends. It has a blend of Khmer and western dishes, all delicious (though a little pricier than regular Khmer fare). However, we happily handed over our money because it is a branch of a nonprofit, Friends International, that offers former street children a chance at gainful employment as servers, hosts, and cooks. Through the restaurant are posters strongly discouraging tourist visits to orphanages (I didn’t even know that was a thing, but I guess it is in Cambodia) and sometimes even donations to orphanages. The nonprofit states that 80% of children in these orphanages aren’t actually orphans, and the money donated to orphanages would be better spent raising the child’s family out of poverty so the families can remain intact. It is a very convincing argument, and they also urge people to reconsider short-term trips (even mission trips) to orphanages, because it can unfortunately foster attachment disorders in the children (even though everyone knows that these short-term trips are made out of kindness, not willful ignorance or intentional harm). They also have a souvenir shop next door (that gives 30 minute foot massages for 5 USD!!) which we visited.

Kravan House, our next stop, is a silk handicraft store specifically designed to market the handiwork of disabled women (usually from polio or landmine accidents) as well as weavers and sewers from the most rural parts of Cambodia. It is part of a larger organization, KhmerCreations, and while the cost of items is higher than what you’d find at one of the markets, it goes to support women that would otherwise probably be destitute. Jordan and I hemmed and hawed a little, thinking of our budgt, but went ahead and purchased a silk wallet for 7 USD. It’s still ridiculously cheap compared to US standards.

Finally, the royal palace was open. We stood in line and filtered through the corridors with the other tourists (foreign and Khmer) until we bought our tickets for 6 USD apiece. Because the Silver Pagoda is here, people are required to dress modestly. This basically means shoulders and knees covered. I slipped on my shrug (it was ridiculously hot though), and we didn’t have to pay to rent any tshirts or sarongs to cover ourselves.

Men and women in red shirts offered themselves as guides, and we politely declined. Unfortunately, there are very little signs or other forms of information throughout the royal compound, so perhaps it was a mistake. However, I’ve heard some of the guides aren’t exactly knowledgeable (“that is Italian marble. It comes from Italy”), so perhaps we didn’t miss out on much anyway.

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Built in 1873 (mostly, at least–renovations and additions came later) during the French protectorate/colonization phase, it is ornate and beautiful. The king and his family still lives in part of the compound (nothing that we saw, though), and the palace has been used by the royal family since construction. During the time Cambodia was a republic 1970-1975 the palace was closed or used as a museum, and during the Khmer Rouge regime the former king and his family was imprisoned there. In 1993 the monarchy of Cambodia was reestablished and the palace was renovated to make a fitting place for the king.


We wandered from building to building, not always sure what we were looking at, but I’ve since found more information online. It would be a little redundant to rewrite all the information about the buildings when you can look up much of the construction, function, and style here.


The Silver Pagoda complex is connected to the Royal Palace, and is made up of an Angkor Wat model, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is commonly known as the Silver Pagoda), statues, small buildings for Buddhist monks to sing and pray, stupas, and Phnom Mondop. This is a manmade hill meant to represent Mount Kailassa, a sacred place in Cambodia. Throughout all of this are Khmer worshippers and Buddhist monks clothed in orange and maroon. These aren’t just tourist attractions, but religious sites in use. The smell of incense followed us almost everywhere we went, adding to the environment.

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When we finished with the palace we were tired. We found a tuktuk driver who knew where our hostel was and paid him 4 USD to return. We were out for only about six hours, but we walked for miles in the heat and needed a break. I’m enchanted with Khmer culture (of which I previously knew nothing about) and I think we’re both ready for a good night’s sleep and then another day searching out the beautiful sights of Phnom Penh.

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Categories: Cambodia, CEV | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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