Backpacking IndoChina: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

The next leg of our Indo-China tour a few holidays ago, was a couple of days in Cambodia. What is true about travelling, is that every country, every city has its story, one or many places that makes them famous for, a must-see sight when visiting. For this country in the southern part of what is Southeast Asia, it would definitely be Angkor Wat.

In Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist, it was voted as number 1. The ultimate must-see because as the book describes, it is the “literal representation of heaven on earth”. And while I am fond of beaches myself, I would have to agree that Ankor Wat was really, for lack of better term, magnificent.

Our guide had a great idea of starting his tour from the back. And it was well thought of, because instead of coming with all the other thousands of tourists visiting, we slowly walked into an unpaved road lined with trees, a few minutes in you would find a small lake, and a few more strides you begin to see some parts of what you would later realize was a small portion of a massive structure. And down the road is one of the greatest wonders mankind has ever built.   

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As we walked into the crumbling remnants of stones and carved images of Gods, their shrines, the ambitious rulers who dedicated it to them, down to their royal concubines, I thought that what was so fascinating to me about this place was the fact that just like the Roman ruins, this Hindu temple is one of the oldest testaments of what was once a great civilization.

We were told that during important events, representatives from all sides would come with a parade of servants their masters in their elephants bearing gifts to pay homage to the ruling host. But was even more fascinating, is that however mighty it was once, the giant trees whose roots had taken hold of almost every corner of this great structure is also proof that even great rules can be consumed by time. And it is truly amazing to think what a society can accomplish, perhaps even then, everyone who was part of its creation from the architects to the lowliest worker knew, that this was going to be his legacy for the world to remember them by.

There isn’t much I can say about the place, as it is the ultimate sight, you would really have to go see it for yourselves. Our guide’s great idea was cemented because our tour was capped off with a great view of its entrance…

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The night before we also visited Siem Reap’s night market, where you can find all sorts of souvenirs to take home, Budhist art works, and if you were up for it, even party at their Pub Street. The evening after our Ankor Wat visit, our group decided to go to a special buffet a few minutes away from the hotel, where the food was accompanied by a live stage performance of cultural Cambodian dances.

I really liked how as everywhere in the world, our dances are inspired by our local legends as well as everyday events before modern metropolitan life became the newnormal. Traditional instruments learned and taught by generation playing for a routine showing young love blossoming between river dwellers trying to get the catch of the day.

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In the capital of Phnom Penh we visited the Royal Palace which was interesting in a way that like in Thailand, you get to see a different kind of grandeur in terms of monarchies. In European countries, the palaces are made according to the taste of each ruler, the art that was in style at the time, a glimpse into the personality of each royal.

The Asean rulers were inspired by their beliefs, in this case their Budhist faiths. Their palaces are revered the same as one would show respect to a church, for them and its people, it is a holy place. I had to purchase a special kind of pants because I went wearing shorts, and that was not allowed. At first I thought it was a bother, but it has become one of my favorite summer wears, for its comfort and unique style. You could probably but it in any souvenir shop, but I decided it was made special because it came with my memories of visiting their palace.

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Our next stops in the capital were the kind that I believe is also an important part of travelling. Marvelling at great historical monuments and palaces are truly fun and interesting, but sometimes we go to places where we are reminded and can take home lessons from tragedy and perhaps the triumph of the human spirit.

Visiting the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and the S-21 Prison are probably one of the saddest places I have ever been to. While in some places where tragic events in history have taken place are commemorated by moving and thought provoking art works, these two places are simply maintained to give us a glimpse of a really dark part of the story of their country.

There is a feeling of dread and a certain amount of disbelief that ran through my body as I stood by the tree where babies’ heads were bashed into in Choeung Ek. My heart constricted with a sharp pain, as I looked at the lines of pictures of the men and women who were detained and endured torture in S-21.

I do have something to share about my visit there, and I direct this perhaps to the younger travellers out there. I understand that you are part of a generation where technology provides you an avenue to share your experiences. Selfies and instagram worthy shots are cool and all, and I get that, I do that too, not as good as you guys have it down, but I try.

In the middle of the Genocidal Center is a small tower that shelters collected bones and remains of the victims of the time of the Khmer Rouge. Needless to say it was a sacredplace simply because it was a structure that was both a monument and a tombstone. If you wanted a closer look you would be asked to take off your shoes. I personally did not join the group photo in front of it because I did not know how I would pose or what purpose it would be to take it for. In the Philippines, we sometimes say “remembrance” when we take a photo. As with all photos it’s a statement to declare making a memory of that moment. And I understand and respect the others wanted to capture their time there together, but I felt that being there was something so unforgettably sad no shot could do it justice, especially to look back and smile fondly about. So I respectfully declined to join and started walking around.

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As I turned to a direction, I saw a small group of teenage kids was left in front of the building to take their own shots. One of the girls, hopped up the stairs, turned cheerily to face her friend’s camera. Her shoulders did a little shake as she let her arms down, her left leg bent slightly so that her toes would be pointing to the ground, she then flipped her long hair in place and smiled gloriously for her photo-op. Simultaneous to this, I saw the local man seated just below the steps, in-charge of selling flowers and scented sticks as offerings, he was looking up at them, a stern look on his face and in that instant I felt ashamed for those kids. Sometimes I think about whether I should’ve talked to them, or asked them to stop, whether it was my place to do so, comforting myself into thinking that perhaps the guy selling flowers and candles, were used to the ignorance of tourists and the follies of the youth. But I will always remember that feeling.

During our trip, many of these younger travellers would often take too much time posing for their shots. Disregarding the many others who are patiently waiting for their turn. And it has become a welcome part of travelling now, these Pineterest hungry, view hogging, borderline narcissistic kinds of tourists. We take it in stride because like them we are but visitors, we all paid good money to get there, so we understand how we each have our ways of seizing the moment.

There have been several articles online about being a sensitive and respectful tourist, most angled at sharing stories and photos of those who were not and how we should learn from them. 

But what I am saying is, that while it is good to be able to take share-worthy photos of your trips, it would not hurt to be a bit more sensitive about where you are and what that place you are in means. We are all willing to use up precious internet data to share such moments, what is a few more MBs to google about it, maybe see if invoking your inner Taylor Swift would be the right time to do so. And maybe perhaps you learn something about as well, I would definitely click like if you shared whatever it is you took from that visit.

Anyway, I know my posts are not exactly up to date, but hey, better late than never I guess. The final leg of this tour ends at Vietnam, and I will do my best not to wait a year to write about it. I leave you with this, I photo I choose to remember Cambodia by. It’s something we saw ourselves while there, I captured it nonchantly, not to share online, but as a true kind of “remembrance”. 

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2 thoughts on “Backpacking IndoChina: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

  1. Zac says:

    Glad to hear Angkor Wat is as good as it’s cracked up to be! Can’t wait to see it in a few weeks! How long do you think you need there to get the full experience? 😁

  2. JoannaCays says:

    Hi Zac, sorry for the late reply. I assume by now, you’ve been to Cambodia, I hope you like it as much as I did. I think the day trip to Ankor Wat is more than enough, the trick is to find the time where there are less people, but I don’t really think that’s possible as you will see. I think the earlier the better? Have a good trip!

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