Three weeks in Cambodia
Cambodia had been a blank page in my mind, I’d never dreamed of coming here and knew little about it other than it was home to the Angkors and had been ravaged by external and internal war. I’m leaving changed, with a deep affection for the country and its resilient kind hearted people who have suffered unimaginably and with growing awareness how much even one person can affect the world, positively or negatively.
In our three weeks here we delved into the marvels at Angkor Wat and Thom, loving not only the main temples but also our exploration of those farther afield; Beng Mealea the furthest at 62km from Siem Reap, in some ways the most unrestored of the sites we visited, where we were able to wander off the beaten track, carefully climbing over gargantuan stone blocks into secluded courtyards, as if transported into another world. The much raved about Banteay Srei, some 32km from Siem Reap which had the most crowded and Disneyesque feel of any of the temple sites and where we enjoyed the pond of browsing water buffalo more than anything else. Preah Khan, one of our favourites, originally a Buddhist monastery now a sprawling highly explorable complex. But Bayon remains my favourite with its seemingly endless faces smiling benevolently down, every direction bringing another into view.
The market in Siem Reap where I had a gorgeous henna tattoo drawn on my hand and fore arm, the food and the people we encountered made this a city I would love to return to. People come for a few days but if you ever come I would recommend staying a week at least, it’s a lovely little city and the temples really are worth more than a few rushed days. You can read about our initial exploration of the Angkors here, our day trip to Kompong Khleang and Tonle Sap Lake here and our food tour here.
We had initially planned to dive at Koh Rong in our third week but having spoken with friends changed our plans to go to Phnom Penh where we explored the wonderful Central and Russian Markets. The former with its huge domed roof and endless aisles of goods and the later with its narrow claustrophobic and yet fabulous lanes where you can buy anything from clothing, souvenirs, the latest bootleg DVDs to dishwasher and even moped parts. It was here that we discovered our favourite meal in Cambodia, a noodle salad with chopped spring roll which was so good we went back three days in a row. We stocked up on DVDs, had my by now fading henna tattoo covered with a lovely new design and replaced J’s worn out flip flops with a new pair. We visited the National Museum and having wondered where they all were in Siem Reap, found many of the hands and feet that had been missing from the Angkor statues, along with many other wonderful carvings and statues large and small. We skipped the Palace, we’ve only recently done the Bangkok Palace and a lot of temples and what can I say the queue was just too long. We drove along the waterfront before visiting Wat Phnom, a Buddhist Temple and I think the stupa the city is named after and one day I gave blood. As some of you may know I have hereditary haemochromatosis, simply put my body does not know how much iron it needs so keeps it all, which if untreated is toxic. Luckily I only need to give blood every three months to stay healthy and there’s nothing wrong with my blood, so during my travels it gives me the opportunity to donate, something desperately needed in most developing countries. Before starting the trip we’d planned out the stops and Cambodia has a great need of blood and a great reputation for clean and safe donor locations. On my first visit to the National Blood Transfusion Centre my blood pressure was a pretty ideal 90/60 but despite this being my usual they won’t accept blood from anyone with a top pressure less than a hundred so before returning a few days later I ate several doughnuts and had J make me laugh for a good thirty minutes, resulting in a pressure of 110/70 woohoo! Blood taken I was handed a t-shirt, which I promptly handed back for several reasons; we’ve no room, I’m unlikely to wear it and hopefully it can go to someone who needs it and then a box of pastries which I of course kept and devoured later with J. I have to give blood to stay healthy but people need blood to stay alive and maybe you’ve never thought of it before but your giving blood while on holiday or business in developing countries would save lives. Go on give blood!
In coming to Phnom Penh we had wanted to learn more about the countries past, both recent and ancient. More than a quarter of the population lost their lives during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, through murder and starvation and we wanted to pay our respects by visiting Choeung Ek, the largest of the memorials at one of the 300 Killing fields that have been discovered across Cambodia. It is a harrowing visit, listening to stories of this innocuous looking place, were people brought here for one reason only. A tree stands tall by one of the many pits that dot the site; here babies were smashed against its bark before being thrown into the pit below alongside their murdered mothers. The pathways have mainly been covered by wooden walkways, where they have not you can look down and see pieces of bone, fragments of skulls and clothing poking out from the soil at your feet. Every few months the staff collect these pieces that the earth has released and add them to those already retrieved. At the centre of the site stands a tall memorial Pagoda filled with the bones of the victims. The bottom levels reserved for skulls on many of which you can see the blows that ended their lives. When we had talked about visiting Cambodia in the weeks before we arrived we had said we would not visit the killing fields, it felt too horrific and perhaps even a little macabre. But having been in Cambodia and spoken with many of our guides about the family and friends they lost it felt essential to our being here. The audio guide ends with a plea that this never happen again, the heart-breaking reality is that it several places around the world it already is.
I’ve been left deeply moved and contemplative by our time in Cambodia, I don’t know what the answer is but I do know I want to be someone who adds rather than takes from the world Xx