Unravelling Cambodia

For mainstream travel, some might consider Cambodia off the beaten track. It wasn’t the kind of place we expected or wanted to be a luxury holiday. That’s why we chose it. When we first arrived the sun was just going down and as we drove through town we crossed the foyers of Thai inspired hotels, piles of rubble and fruit carts that resembled many Asian villages and French colonial buildings with whitewashed and pale grey walls with pops of Bougainvillea like South India. There is a feel to Siem Reap that is a calming mix of so many places that you see across the South East, it’s a shame it’s no longer referred to as Indochina, because it really fits.

Though Phnom Penh is the bustling capital, the serenity of Siem Reap attracts so many travellers because of the 12th century temple ruins of Angkor Wat and smaller well hidden temples honouring Lord Shiva and Buddha that mesmerise with their sheer size as symbols of devoted dedication. Siem Reap, whose name literally means “Siam defeated” is now a laid-back and quaint colourful city, home to hordes of tourists, eager tuk-tuk drivers who for USD$2 will take you anywhere they didn’t even know existed and lines and lines of comfy outdoor chairs for foot massages. We struggled for the first day with understanding the local currency, where everything costs millions, and more confusing to us was why everything is also priced in USD. By mid week we were paying for meals in a combination of dollars and Cambodian Riel and it all felt a bit like Monopoly money. Because of its centre as a tourist hub, Siem Reap is one of the more expensive cities in Cambodia and we overheard the owner of a local Indian dhaba saying that it’s become all about money and if someone offered enough, they would even sell Angkor Wat. As a guest in Cambodia it certainly doesn’t feel like that, everything is cheap and accessible and if you can measure a country by the warmth and character of the people, then it’s a charming and loveable place to be.

Away from the history that Siem Reap is built around, Cambodia offers a slice of rural life that is enriching to experience and humbling to see. When you’re sitting in the back of a tuk-tuk driving through the lush jungle heights, the weather is warm and humid and life along the roadside is humming along. Makeshift market stalls, tarps ripped in the wind and rain, bamboo table legs and large woven baskets full of fruit sitting on the dusty ground. Sometimes you see the woven checked fabric of shawls and cloth hanging in the wind or the traditional Sampot skirt or checkered scarves called krama’s folded neatly on bamboo racks. Rows and rows of dried palm leaf hats are displayed on wicker racks by the road and it’s really special to see the women and children sitting under the shade of the tents and trees, crafting and weaving these hats with the same deft hands that have worked this skill for generations. In large open woks and smoky hotplates chicken feet, fresh pork or amok coconut fish curry are prepared outside and you’ll often see plates of crickets, roaches and scorpions, charred to a crisp, on long skewers piled high. We passed.

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One of the most wonderful surprises in this simple yet hard life was the floating village of Kampong Phluk. Along the way we kept wondering when we would come across the river as even the low lying vegetation looked pale and parched until turn after dusty turn finally led us to a thin stream of brown muddy water. Bobbing gently against the clay banks a line of turquoise, red and orange plank-built boats waited. As we boarded one and headed for the broad bow we smiled as we took in the scenery. Emerging from both sides of the clumpy shores of grass, tall stilted houses stood on fragile looking wooden and bamboo frames, balconies adorned with pots of palms and blooming bougainvillea, piles of buckets, chairs and golden temples. The village is home to some 3,000 people and at the waters edge children splashed around, hanging off the boats their father’s repaired and helping their families trawl in the fishing nets at the end of the day. The real surprise came when we reached a cluster of wooden boats, with their low flat hulls and wide centres, gently lapping in the flooded forest. We spent the next 45 minutes taking in the quiet, hearing only the sound of water against the boat and the soft whistle of our boatsman. Once back on the main boat we headed out to the panoramic Tonle Sap freshwater lake which strikes you most for its murky pale brown rough water and yet still gives sustenance to the people today as it did in the Angkorean civilisation. The whole village experience was a taste of Cambodian life that overwhelmed us with all the complexity of a harsh, unsophisticated, placid and innocent life.

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To know anything at all about Cambodia is to understand something of it’s brutal and sad past. There are plenty of museums to highlight the impact of the Khmer Rouge and their deadly legacy but we wanted to experience something a little more tangible so we sought out one of the genocide memorials in the heart of a Buddhist community. As we walked around the commune we had no idea really what we had stumbled into, there were rooms with roughly hand painted scenes of the multitude of execution styles (not for the faint-hearted), a glass cylindrical hut stacked high with skulls and bones pressing into the windows and large halls with beautiful Buddha statues wearing gold silk fabric. We bowed before them, lighting incense and just trying to comprehend the diversity and sadness of Cambodia in our lifetime. Towards the back of the complex, behind all the buildings, bright saffron tunics dried in the morning sun, while boys with freshly shaved heads played football in the dirt. One little boy followed us everywhere, poking his beautiful face around the door-frames watching us and smiling with his warm brown eyes. Sadness and hope rolled into one.

Siem Reap is a warm and cultural collective of beautiful Asian hospitality and rich history and the smiling faces and warm hearts of the people just add to this next unfolding chapter in Cambodia’s story. We loved it, laughed every time our tuk-tuk driver got us lost, or rode 37km to a town we were told was only 5 minutes away; soaked up the temples in awe and wonder and enjoyed the warmth and easiness of charming villages and magical markets. It brings together all the wonderful elements of a great story, just the way travel should be.

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