Unfortunately my visit to Cambodia was just short of two weeks. It was hardly enough time to take in all the sights and appreciate the people as much as I had hoped. Yet I loved what I saw and know I will return again to enjoy the country with a more leisurely pace.
Here are some of the highlights of my travels in Cambodia:
1 — The temples of Angkor
I simply cannot put to words the magnificence and marvel of the temples of Angkor. This sprawling, massive concentration of architectural richness is one of the most extraordinary places on earth. My days exploring the ancient sites were exceptional and enjoyable.
Spanning three periods of the great Khmer empire which prospered from the 9th to the 15th centuries, the temples that remain are awe inspiring. I spent three exhausting days trying to take it all in: the early Hindu temples and terraces, lofty imperial palaces, the enormous playgrounds and pools of mighty kings, the later Buddhist temples and stupas.
There were crowds aplenty at the significant sites: iconic Angkor Wat, enormous Angkor Thom and the surreal Bayon, and the root-ravened Ta Prohm. Yet I found many other temples and structures that were completely off the tourist beat so I enjoyed these sites in complete solitude. These were my most magical moments.
I visited the sites early (setting out between 5-6 am) by bicycle and pedaled over 30 kilometers per day. Tired and sweaty by lunchtime, I returned to my hotel and to laze away the afternoon hours, reading by the refreshing pool. The good restaurants of Siem Reap (the gateway city to the temples) kept me well nourished for the energetic sightseeing.
I did not come close to completing all there is at Angkor, but it was a great introduction. I look forward to the day I return to this unquestionable Wonder of the World to further explore and admire its splendid beauty.
2 — The superb yet solemn torture and genocide museums
Nearly one out of every four Cambodians died in the brutal and bloody civil war and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge that followed. When the ruthless regime was defeated in 1979, the country was collapsed with no infrastructure, the people were starving, and communities and families were broken apart. The Academy Award-winning filmThe Killing Fields and numerous acclaimed memoirs such as Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and journalist Jon Swain’s River of Time document the horror, bloodshed and suffering of those dreadful years.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Cambodia. Only one generation has passed since this tragedy so the Cambodian victims’ memories are still raw and injuries healing. Yet I was impressed by the outstanding museums in Phnom Penh, notably the Killing Fields Genocide Museum of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Torture Museum.
The Killing Fields, on the outskirts of the city, is where victims by the thousands were taken secretly and brutally killed and today a reverential temple presides over the sacred ground. Tuol Sleng, a former high school, was converted to the notorious S-21 prison where countless genocide victims were processed and tortured before execution. The extremely detailed records left by the Khmer Rouge document the indiscriminate war of terror waged against its own people.
These were weighty and sorrowful visits but a necessary part of my travels through Cambodia. I am thankful that this country is keeping the memory alive in appropriate and respectful ways; an important aim is that the Khmer people and the world can learn and prevent this from happening again.
The memorial sites are presented with dignity and sincerity. Cambodia rightfully honors the millions of its people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and those survivors who continue to live with these nightmares today.
3 — The welcoming, waving children
The gregariousness of the people was obvious as soon as I crossed the Cambodian border, and this was most pronounced with the young. In the streets of Phenm Penh, young children in their mothers’ arms waved enthusiastically as I passed by. In Battambang, a city not yet firmly on the traveler’s beaten path, youngsters beamed and shouted Hello! Hello! Hello! Grinning village kids bicycling to school along the ancient paths of Angkor never hesitated to greet me as I pedaled by my own two wheels.
A generation after the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and brutal treatment, Cambodia’s young emit amazingly positive vigor, friendliness and an enthusiasm for life. Such affirming energy fills me with hope and happiness for Cambodia’s future.
4 — The time spent with travel friends
It was a gift to spend time in each of my Cambodian stops with traveling friends I met earlier in Laos. In Phenm Penh, I got lost with Dave on our rented scooters on our excursion to the killing fields. I downed some cold Angkor beers with Ethan at the open mic just down the road from our hotels.
I chanced upon Claire and Evelin in Battambang and we all enjoyed a fun day in a tuk-tuk, drinking coconut water and eating sweet sticky rice, riding the bamboo train, visiting temples and witnessing the odd evening migration of thousands of bats.
I met up with Dave again in Siem Reap, tippng some beers at the Angkor What? bar on Pub Street, on the edge of the magnificent temples of Angkor, the ancient Khmer empire.
I’ve met so many wonderful people on this trip, friends who share my love of travel and pursue inspired lives. I will miss them all. And I know that I will meet many more as my wanderings continue.
5 — The many fine flavors
Like the other countries I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s cuisine is superb. But there are some standouts and new discoveries here that I particularly enjoy:
- Ice cream! This was not standard fare in Laos or Vietnam so to my great delight the tropical flavors in Cambodia were exotically delicious: green lemon & kaffir lime leaf, mint & coconut, mango & passion fruit, khmer fruit blend (jackfruit, durian, mandarin orange), galangal ginger & black sesame.
- Baguettes and baked goods: an enduring legacy of French Indochine: I happily ate the warm, crisp baguettes served with breakfast each morning, a perfect complement to the strong Cambodian coffee that got me moving. And the bakeries were filled with all sorts of croissants, muffins, cakes and cookies that kept me energized as I cycled the temples of Angkor.
- Sugarcane juice: extracted by hand-cranked machines on the street corners near markets, I discovered the wonderfully revitalizing properties of raw sugarcane to keep my energy up in the sweltering heat of Cambodia. Each afternoon I treated myself to “glass” served over ice in a plastic bag with a straw. At $0.12 a serving, it certainly beats a can of Coca-Cola for taste, price and nutritional value. Sugar: nothing better than the real thing!
- Fish amok: a delicate and thick fish curry steamed in banana leaves. I had the great fortune to make this in a cooking class in Battambang, so expect this to be served when I return!
- Khmer grilled sticky rice: Slightly sweetened with coconut milk and sugar, sticky rice and kidney beans are stuffed into a bamboo segment, sealed with a rolled banana leaf, and grilled slowly over a wood fire. The result? An exquisite snack food, this got me through several strenuous days of sightseeing, even a dinner or two. And it’s fun to eat: you peel the bamboo back like a banana, tear off a segment and use it as a spoon. Who wouldn’t like eating this?!?
- Juicy fruits: And while not unique to Cambodia, I find myself devouring ripe, juicy mangoes and rambutans (similar to lychees, below the skin is revealed an egg-sized white fruit as sweet as grapes) on an almost daily basis. So freakin’ good!
- Cambodian beer (cans): well, to be honest, the national beers taste pretty much like the lagers elsewhere in Asia, very same-same indeed. But what I loved about the beer cans here is that many of them have the old pull-tops that have been banned for decades in the United States (remember people swallowing them and children cutting themselves?). It was truly a blast from the past and I got a kick out of popping these beers open (although the last time I did it I was probably opening a Tab, not a beer)!
6 — The monks
I noticed monks everywhere in Cambodia, more than in Laos and certainly more than in Vietnam. I just love their gentle manner, the bright orange robes, the seemingly simple life in monasteries, meditating and smiling. It is always a treat to see the saffron-clad monks in temples and on the streets!
7 — The rains
The sweltering heat of April and early May has finally broken in Cambodia. The rainy season has started. I entered the country during a thunderstorm and for the next week every afternoon produced heavy downpours lasting an hour. While the humidity has increased, the fierce 100F temps have broken and mornings and evenings are now regularly fresh and cool.
In Phenm Penh the streets actually flooded, even the main thoroughfares. I had rented a scooter at the time and had to wait an hour or so in a cafe as the waters slowly receded. The roads were impassable by scooter and the traffic and congestion was frenzied.
In the countryside the rice paddies are starting to shimmer with the collecting waters, signs that the growing season will begin soon. I am a big fan of the four seasons in North America, I look forward to every cyclical change so to experience a transition from the dry to wet season is Asia is great for me.
8 — The bicycles
The places I visited in Cambodia are full of flat roads, unlike mountainous Laos and Vietnam. So I did what any bicycle-loving traveler does: I grabbed the nearest rental and started pedaling. I spent three entire days on two wheels during my visit to Angkor. The great distances between sites and the burning heat of the midday sun proved challenging, but my bicycle afforded me healthy exercise and mindful, meditative time as I quietly rolled past the ancient temples. Bicycling is a favorite pastime of mine, no matter the place, but to do so in Cambodia was sweet indeed.
9 — The tuk-tuks
Cambodia and tuk-tuks go hand-in hand. They whisk you to and from the bus station, on day tours, and around town and beyond… always great value and loads of fun. Every day in Cambodia I found myself in a tuk-tuk; in previous countries I visited this was not an everyday experience.
In Battambang my laid-back driver even let me take over for a while. We certainly go some surprised looks from the locals as I drove him around the streets!
10 — The animals
There were some fine animal moments in Cambodia for sure:
Cats are everywhere in Phenm Penh, I even got the timid kitty “Miss Money” to sit in my lap at my regular breakfast spot. Dogs are also ubiquitous and very mild-mannered, usually accepting a friendly pat as I passed by.
In Angkor, I watched young monkeys play with each other. I especially got a kick out of the mama monkeys scolding the little rascals when they got too rambunctious. I also saw elephants walking beside the temples, a truly memorable and evocative scene.
Perhaps the most bizarre encounter was watching hundreds of thousands of bats flying out of a cave near Battambang. This daily migration begins just before sunset and takes over half an hour for all the bats to exit the cave. We could see and hear the screeching bats for miles over the rice paddies, trailing in the distance like long black ribbons of smoke. So oddly awesome!