The best of Cambodia by Exodus' Imran Arshad

After a wonderful 10 days in Vietnam, it was now time to enter Cambodia. I had to arrange my Visa for Cambodia at the border crossing so a picture, 25 USDs and a few minutes later I was walking towards our guide, Rith, who was waiting anxiously to meet us all.

Cambodia is full of surprises and the picture painted by our guide during his 45 minute pitch was even more surprising. I had read about Cambodia a bit before this visit, but to hear it from Rith was truly amazing. He touched on a bit of history we needed to know and supported his comments with some hardcore statistics. He delved into the life of Cambodians and highlighted some issues which they are facing even today.

Cambodia is a third world country again. It had the right ingredients to be one of the tiger economies of Southeast Asia, but the cruel Pol Pot regime has left an impression which is now beginning to fade away. There is hope for Cambodians and guess who are to help them…us the tourists!

In Cambodia tourists are not a new species. Travellers have been flocking to this beautiful country for centuries and no one leaves without being touched by Cambodia's history, culture and people. Like most tourists travelling to Cambodia, I spent most of my time in Phnom Phen and Siem Reap - both these cities offer something different to the visitors.

Phnom Phen

Phnom Phen, is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. It is also the commercial, political and cultural hub and is home to more than one million of Cambodia's population of over 14 million. Rith's home town is Phnom Phen, so he knew all about it. One of the advantages of travelling with Exodus is we hire local services wherever possible. The riverside hotel provided by Exodus couldn't be more ideally located. The Museum and Royal Palace both were literally 5 minutes walk away from us. I even looked out of my hotel window to see if I could spot the King and his kids running around in the Royal gardens!

Exodus sets aside at least two or three days on all holidays to Cambodia to visit the major points of interest in Phnom Penh.

National Museum

The distinctive rust-red National Museum next to the Royal Palace was dedicated by King Sisowath in 1920. Over 5000 objects are on display including Angkorian era statues, lingas and other artifacts, most notably the legendary statue of the ‘Leper King'. Though the emphasis is on Angkorian artifacts, there is also a good collection of pieces from later periods, including a special exhibition of post-Angkorian Buddha figures.

Royal Palace and ‘Silver Pagoda’

The Royal Palace complex and attached 'Silver Pagoda' compound consist of several buildings, structures and gardens all located within walled grounds overlooking a riverfront park. It is no doubt an ideal starting point for anyone visiting Cambodia as you get some basic education from your guide about the monuments which awaits you in Siem Reap.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

I thought I was a brave soul, but some of the images I saw in Toul Sleng Genocide Museum shook me so badly that I had tears in my eyes, as I sat in a remote corner, awaiting the rest of the group to finish their visit. Prior to 1975, Toul Sleng was a high school. When the Khmer Rouge came to power it was converted into the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. Inmates were systematically tortured, sometimes over a period of months, to extract confessions, after which they were executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. S-21 processed over 17,000 people, seven of whom survived. Rith's dad and a few other family members were also taken by the cruel Pol Pot regime and this is when he last saw them.

Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields)

The killing fields were essentially ad hoc places of execution and dumping grounds for dead bodies. The memorial at Choeung Ek just outside Phnom Penh was an orchard and a Chinese cemetery prior to 1975. During the Khmer Rouge regime it became one of the killing fields - this particular killing field is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the S-21 Prison (Toul Sleng) in Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek is now a group of mass graves and a memorial stupa containing thousands of skulls. It’s about a 20-40 minute drive from the center of Phnom Phen. (No picture, as I just did not feel right to take any!)

If you like shopping then visit the Central Market (Psah Thmei), the Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Poung) and the Old Market (Psah Chas).

Drive to Siem Reap

I found myself snoozing through most of this journey. I cannot forget the moment when I was woken by a complete silence in the bus. I stepped out to see where everybody was and found myself facing Spean Brab Tes (Bridge of indication). I was stunned by a 80m long red sandstone Naga (scared snake!). In fact there were two of these Nagas, one on the either side of the bridge. An amazing sight if you love ancient sandstone and lava stone mega structures. Located in Kampong Kdey district, Siem Reap Province, the land of foremost world heritage site complex, Spean Brab Tes is the oldest historical bridge in Cambodia, which was constructed during the era of the King Jayavaraman the VII. This Bridge is about 1000 years old and is 80m long and 12m wide. I knew I was in for a few similar treats in Siem Reap but I was wrong. This was just a taster of what is to follow!

Also, If you like crickets and spiders, then try them fresh at the famous rest stop, the town of Skuon.

Siem Reap

Nestled between rice paddies and stretched along the Siem Reap River, the provincial capital of Siem Reap serves as the gateway to the millennium-old temple ruins of the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire. Siem Reap town is where you will stay during your visit. Again our hotel was ideally located to explore the old town and the various markets of Siem Reap. The town is actually a cluster of old villages, which originally developed around individual pagodas, and was later overlain with a French colonial-era center. Night life is not bad if you like to venture out late at night!

Phnom Bakheng Temple

Located atop a hill, it is now a popular tourist spot for sunset views of the much bigger temple Angkor Wat, which lies amid the jungle about 1.5 km to the southeast. Constructed more than two centuries before Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng was in its day the principal temple of the Angkor region, historians believe.

Angkor Wat

To visit Phnom Bakheng and Ta Prohm you pass Angkor Wat so I had my first glimpse of it and there was much more to discover. Our local guide Chenny, supported by Rith, did a wonderful job organising this visit in the middle of the day, when there were only a few tourists around. Angkor Wat is visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking. Angkor Wat is the centerpiece of any visit to the temples of Angkor.

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm temple is a superior example of Angkorian-era Khmer temples. We visited Ta Prohm early in the morning so we had the site to ourselves. I was not sure what to expect when we walked for 500m towards it from the entrance gate. And there it was, a monastic complex, partially unrestored, covered with massive fig and silk-cotton trees.

Ta Prohm was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery. It is an awesome site and was featured in the Hollywood blockbuster "Tomb Raider". It is also known as Lara Croft's temple!

Angkor Thom

Another treat in the Angkor complex is Angkor Thom (Big Angkor). Angkor Thom is a royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian Empire, and was the centre of his massive building programme. Almost every stone used depicts scenes of war and conquest, but also everyday life of peasants and scenes of the Khmer monarchy. A real treat if you like your archaeology!

Bayon

Bayon is located in the Angkor Thom complex. The Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. There are 54 towers representing 54 states under the control of the emperor of the time. Every tower features 4 smiling Buddhas. Another great site. I thought Angkor Wat was over-rated after seeing Bayon.

Banteay Seri

To see this temple, plan a visit between 10.30 and 2.00 pm when the colours of the red, pink and yellow sandstone used in the construction are at their best. Banteay Seri loosely translates to "Citadel of the women", thus referring to the delicate beauty of its carving.

If you want to add some spice to your trip then make best use of your free time by trying these optional activities:

1) Chopper ride over Angkor Wat. (Subject to weather)

2) Anchored hot air balloon near Angkor Wat. (Subject to weather)

3) Elephant ride near Phnom Bakheng.

4) A trip to Chong Khneas. (A floating village near Siem Reap)

5) Traditional Khmer massage. (Countrywide!)

Just go!

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