After a relatively hassle-free border crossing from Thailand into Cambodia, we stepped off our bus in Siem Reap and were pleased to see a smiling Tuk-Tuk driver holding a sign, “Le Malika d’Angkor Welcomes Jon Vohlers!” Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor, the epicenter of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from 802 – 1432. At its peak in the 12th century, the city surrounding Angkor Wat had a population of over 1 million (vs. 50,000 in London at that same time).
Jen had visited Cambodia and Angkor seven years before, and instantly she remarked how more developed Siem Reap was – roads were nicer, buildings bigger, shops more extravagant – it was cool to see the progress made. But since Jen had visited Angkor before, she decided to only join Jon for one of the three days planned to visit the temples – the other two were used to stay back at the hotel in Siem Reap and do much needed travel planning for future legs of our trip.
It would be fair to say Jon got WAY into Angkor and the Khmer Empire. Jon spent over 27 hours in three days visiting 25 temples, all via Tuk-Tuk, driven by Sokea (our now Facebook friend, hi Sokea!) Over the three days, at and in-between Temples, Jon would read the guide book he purchased cover-to-cover, which explained the Khmer Empire history, the drivers of their Buddhist and Hindu religions, and each of the Angkor temples in detail. It was really fun, and definitely a highlight of the trip – it’s easy to see why Angkor, and its main attraction Angkor Wat, is considered to be “the 8th Wonder of the World”
We spent our last night in Siem Reap going to the Cambodian Circus, based on the recommendation of our friends we met in Thailand. It was a great show, a great cause – the acrobatics were amazing.
The next day we took the bus to Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city in Cambodia. We enjoyed our two days there, seeing the National Palace and exploring some of the bars and restaurants scattered throughout the busy streets and alleys. We were especially pleased to explore the cocktail culture in Cambodia – somehow, creative cocktails have caught on, and we even enjoyed a gin and tonic spiced with young (green) black pepper! Delicious.
Since Jen had visited it already, Jon also went to S-21, a high school built in the 1960s, then turned into one of hundreds of prisons used across the country when the Khmer Rouge communist party took power in the mid-70s and 80s. It was one of the most secret detention facilities, and one of the cruelest, torturing their detainees into admitting “crimes” against the Khmer Rouge state many often did not commit. As soon as they admitted guilt, they were bused to the killing fields a few kilometers outside of the city – thus how over 20,000 people from S-21 were killed. Over 2 million people were killed in total, a quarter of the population, most from the cities where the educated or those “corrupted” by the West lived. The museum was moving, and it makes you think and reflect on what anyone over the age of 40 must have lived through in Cambodia… it’s awesome to see the country bounce-back, and meet and visit with the friendly, warm, present-day Cambodians.