Two weeks of travelling in Cambodia provided me a basic outlook about the country. First I’ve visited Siem Reap together with its surrounding like the floating villages and the great temples of Angkor Wat. And then visiting the capital Phnom Penh gave me a broad idea about the recent tragic history of the country. After that I made my way down to south to Kampot and Koh Rong Sanloem to see the coast lines and the islands. So in this essay one by one I am going to take you to these places and display what I have come across in Cambodia regarding nature, history and the culture.
I have singled out a seperate writing to Angkor Wat. You will find all about it in the other essay. Ok, let’s begin.
I entered Cambodia overland from Thailand using Chong Chom border check point and arrived at Siem Reap first. It is a popular destination in northwest Cambodia as it is the gateway to Angkor Wat. In my opinion there is not much to tell about the hyper touristy Siem Reap. The only reason I was there was to visit Angkor Wat.
The cities are losing their distinctive qualities and becoming alike world wide due to the globalization. Because of that, to trace the unique properties of the countries I prefer to see the rural areas. Because they are the perfect places to observe the culture in its authentic way.
When I heard about the floating villages close to Siem Reap it attracted my attention right away. So I payed a visit to the floating village Kampong Phluk that is 30 km close to Siem Reap.
You come up until a point with a vehicle where the road finishes. This is the point where the Tonle Sap lake starts. Great Mekong river that comes all the way from north Laos feeds this lake. You take the boat to go to the floating village.
All the structures, houses, schools, monasteries, markets, health clinics are built on stilts on the Tonle Sap lake. Since it was the rainy season the water level was quite high. At other times when the lake loses its mass the stilts become more visible. The boat ride along the village gives an opportunity to observe how the life is engaged with the water here. I adored their humble and simple way of living.
The community largely depends on fishing for survival in wet season and during the dry season many turn to farming to supplement their income. In the rainy season the lake reaches to ten times more of its size, bringing rich alluvium onto the lands. Therefore this creates highly fertile soil for agriculture.
Above is the floating market where the villagers bring their goods to sell. It is located by the mangrove forests in the flooded areas. After being in Thailand, the culture didn’t really seem so different in this neighbor country. The people’s faces, the tone of the language, the food and the markets were looking quite similar.
Around 18 million people living in the country and it attracts around 3 million tourists a year. Tourism has an important role but mainly textile industry is supporting the economy. China has been investing in Cambodia to a large extent. Nevertheless regarding poverty Cambodia is in rank number 158 amongst 180 countries.
After discovering Siem Reap and its surrounding and visiting Angkor Wat, I made my way to the capital Phnom Penh. The reason that brought me here was to learn about the tragic recent history of the country by visiting Genocide Museum and Killing Fields.
Phnom Penh fell into Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodia Civil War. The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the entire city after taking it, what has been described as a death march. All of its residents that were evacuated were forced to do difficult labour on rural farms. Many of them starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society. Hundreds thousands of people perceived as educated or political enemies were systematically murdered or driven into exile. The mass killings are widely regarded as part of a broad Cambodian genocide. Finally the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is one of the places that displays this tragic history. This building was once a high school but then turned into a prison by the regime’s forces. The classrooms were converted into tiny prison and torture chambers and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides. It soon became the largest centre of torture in the country that was just one of at least 150 torture and execution centers. From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng.
A visit to Tuol Sleng is a profoundly depressing experience. It demonstrates the darkest side of the human spirit that lurks within us all. Photograph of prisoners display the records of the barbarism. Virtually all of the men, women and children pictured were tortured and later killed. I met a man in the garden of the museum and listened to his story. He used to be a prisoner here who was released at the age of 8. He, his wife and I couldn’t help ourselves but cry to this great sadness.
Some of the prisoners were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek that is also known as Killing Fields. Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge regime.
It is a silent place today, where visitors can learn of the horrors that unfolded here decades ago. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the memorial stupa. While walking in the surrounding you can take an audio tour and listen to the voice recordings of the prisoners. It is so heart breaking really to learn about the deep ignorance of humanity, barbarity, despair and great suffering.
It is estimated that almost one third of the population get killed during these times. All this data enables every visitor to build empathy to understand the current state of people in this country. Almost everyone you see on the streets have tragic stories either individually or in their families.
Leaving Phnom Penh behind I hit the road to south coast of Cambodia. Since it is a quite small country I reached my next destination to Kampot by a 3 hour shared taxi journey.
Kampot is a relaxed riverside town just a few kilometers close to the coastline. It has a laid back vibe with some backpacker guesthouses that line on the banks of the river. And the small cute town center is composed of 19th century French colonial architecture. As always my interest was into the rural areas.
I explored the surrounding area of Kampot with a tuk tuk. They were pleasant rides on the dirt roads through to the village life of Cambodia. Monsoon rains were dominating the days.
I saw many farmers working in their fields and rice paddies. The river meandering along the region plays a big part in the abundance of agricultural production. Above we see some traditional tools and baskets used in agriculture. The ride around Kampot also takes you to the beautiful Secret Lake and couple of caves.
The region and the town are known for high quality pepper which is exported worldwide. You can visit pepper plantations and attend a free guided tour to see how pepper is grown, harvested and processed.
Prek Tuek Chhou river flows through Kampot. Especially around sunset times I recommend a traditional Khmer boat tour that takes you to beautiful places along the river where the flora, fauna and people dwell harmoniously. Tour voyages up the river towards the heart of Bokor National Park. By the way, 25% of Cambodia consists of national parks.
There is also a small seaside town Kep that is 30km south of Kampot. I paid a day visit here and didn’t hang around so much. Because before going back to Thailand for the south part of it, I was looking forward to spend my last week in Cambodia in the islands and discover the vibe there.
I chose Koh Rong Sanloem island to visit as it was said that it was a quieter island compared to the other more touristy ones. First you need to arrive at the coast at Sihanoukville town then take the ferry to reach the island. When I was approaching for the first time to the shores of the island I was already amazed by the lush green jungles reaching the sea.
Its eastern side, facing towards the mainland is less exposed to the weather and the monsoon, that’s why I chose to stay at the east. Beautiful guesthouses, cute little bamboo huts were in line along the beach.
Koh Rong Sanloem is famous for its pristine white beaches and clear turquoise waters. It was such a pleasant experience to walk barefoot on the soft and glittering white sand. I so much enjoyed the quiet times of the island in the off season. You could hardly see people here and there. It was like I was alone with the island itself.
The island is mainly hilly and the interior is almost entirely covered in dense jungle. It was such a great experience to wander around in the tropical jungle wilderness in the heavy monsoon rain. When you cross the island from the hills to the other side you come across some yellow beaches. Lazy beach is one of those. The waves were so high and strong in this side that is facing the open ocean.
Sitting at the terrace, listening to the rain I am so glad to be in this silent island. This silence is going along with the silence within. Seeing that the mind is always there, I am letting myself intuitively listen to what is there beyond the mind in the background. In the most conscious way as possible. The recognition of the limitless source inside is gradually bringing an immense meaning into life.
Great Persian poet, beloved Hafiz is voicing my heart in the most beautiful way;
“When the words stop and you can endure the silence
That reveals your heart’s pain of emptiness
Or that great wrenching sweet longing
That is the time to try and listen
To what the Beloved’s eyes most want to say.”