Cambodia: A Tale of Two Cities

Words by Ben Walker
Photos by Ben Walker

The Kingdom of Cambodia. The Khmer Empire. The tyrant, Pol Pot. Call it ignorance or an active imagination, but words like kingdom, empire, and tyrant evoke a sense of fantasy within me. They’re things that exist outside of this realm, in a world not quite like ours. Somewhere unknown.

Try as I may, I can’t actually remember a time in my life that I learned much about Cambodia. Of course, I was familiar with it as a country of the world and I did know that the Khmer Rouge occurred and that Pol Pot was a name to be despised. More than anything, I knew Siem Reap was a place with beautiful temples. The extent of my knowledge of Cambodia was sad, but that’s the truth of it.

 

The Cities

There is assuredly more to Cambodia than its two most visited cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but having followed our local travel clinic nurse’s advice to stay within the low-risk areas of Malaria, these were our only stops in the country.

 

Phnom Penh

I’m not sure I ever actually pronounced the name of the Cambodian capital correctly, but at least I think I improved once we started hearing the local pronunciation. Here’s a tip, don’t pronounce the “Ph” like you would the letter “f”.

Phnom Penh was our first stop in Cambodia after having arrived by bus from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Other than being the capital, it’s also the largest city in the country and is quite busy. Located along the banks of the famed Mekong River, Phnom Penh is less frequently visited by tourists than the much smaller Siem Reap to the northwest. I’m sure this is mostly due to the fact that Siem Reap has long been known as a “tourist town” because of the many beautiful temples located in the area.

The general consensus we found from research and talking to other travelers was that most people don’t spend much time in Phnom Penh. As a matter of fact, a lot of people will fly into Phnom Penh, spend one night, and then immediately leave for Siem Reap. Having done our research, we knew we wanted at least a few days to explore the city, so that is exactly what we planned for.

 

S-21

Our main interest in Phnom Penh, other than some simple exploration, was to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly known as S-21 or Security Prison 21. This was a secondary school that was turned into a secret prison during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s. Although this didn’t occur during mine or my wife’s lifetimes it still feels like it may as well have because it was so recent.

As expected, it was a harrowing experience. Walking through the buildings and along the grounds while listening to firsthand accounts via audio players really sets the tone. Seeing actual photographs of victims further deepens the grim atmosphere.

The word “travel” is often used synonymously with the word “vacation,” but I don’t think they’re quite the same thing. A vacation would typically denote the involvement of fun activities, which is a category the S-21 Museum wouldn’t fall under. However, I think activities like these are especially worthwhile if you are interested in understanding a people and their culture and history.

 

General Exploration

Apart from visiting S-21 we were able to see just a bit more of the city as well as try some of the local dishes. If you like seafood then Fish Amok should be on your list of dishes to try. If not, then I’d recommend some Beef Lok Lak!

I’d also recommend, if possible, catching a sunset from across the Mekong so you can see the sun go down behind the Phnom Penh skyline. Sunsets in general are gorgeous, but the sunset on our first evening from a floating restaurant on the river was particularly beautiful.

 

Siem Reap

This touristy temple town seems to me to be the golden jewel of Cambodia. Here, you will find Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer Empire and the location of the Angkor Wat complex, which is visited by more than a million people each year. You will also find many other temples!

 

Angkor Wat

Obviously this will be the main reason to come to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is actually a temple complex (not just a temple) that will take some time to walk around and explore. One of the most popular ways to start your exploration is to get to the area in front of the main complex for sunrise. This will offer great views and colors as light comes into the sky, especially if you’re in a good location by one of the two pools of water. Also, when we were there the whole area just seemed to come alive with an extreme buzzing of insects and monkeys jumping down from their treetops as the sun came up, which made the whole experience just a bit more surreal.

Yes, there will be a lot of tourists, even at sunrise, but since the complex is pretty big you can find plenty of little spots to enjoy some alone time and even capture some nice shots with hardly anyone around.

 

Ta Prohm

This was our second stop along our temple route for the day. We actually just let our driver choose what he thought the best temples were and as far as we know that’s exactly what we got.

This temple is popular because of the huge, overgrown trees throughout the site. In many places you will see the trees and their roots/branches growing straight out of the ruins, which makes for a nice visual treat.

The ruins were a bit run-down (kind of a funny sentence), but there were some crews there while we visited that looked like they would be shoring up some spots.

 

Banteay Srei

Our driver called this temple the “Lady Temple.” I believe that’s because its modern name is translated to mean “citadel of beauty.”

We found this temple to be unique because of the many delicately carved details found around the grounds. Also, it’s built from red sandstone, which is immediately different from other temples in the area.

This temple did not take us very long to visit. I’m not sure if that was because of the lack of shade at midday or because it just wasn’t very big.

 

Angkor Thom

The last temple we visited was quite large. I believe, technically, we visited the Bayon temple inside the Angkor Thom complex.

One of the unique features of this temple were the many, many smiling faces located all over the place. Other features included carved depictions of daily life or other events on the walls.

You can explore all around and inside this temple, which was quite nice. It’s a lot different than visiting many other historical and/or religious sites around the world where you’re severely limited to the places you can actually walk through and see.

 

Fantasy and Reality

Cambodia is filled with history, equally unnerving and fantastical. One day you’re standing in somber silence at S-21 while the next you’re imagining yourself as Indiana Jones or Lara Croft exploring ancient ruins—and that’s just two cities!

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