Trip to Cambodia, February 2006
 
 
comments and photos by Dimos
 
   
  From Bangkok, Thailand or from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam you can get a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia (1-2 hour long). Few kilometeres outside of Siem Reap are the Temples of Angkor, the capital of the once-powerful Khmer Empire of Southeast Asia.  
   
  NOTHING can prepare you for the Temples of Angkor. No words or photos can describe the experience. It is as mystical and breathtaking as Machu Picchu in Peru. An area inside the rainforest, with temples build by different people between 800 and 1300. From far away they look like a collection of stones…and once you are next to them you are amazed by the drawings and sculpturing on the walls. The tourists wake up happily at 5am so they can be at the temples by 6am to enjoy the sunrise. Without question, the temples of Angkor is a MUST place to see.
Photos of the Temples of Angkor:
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei , Preah Khan , Ta Keo , Ta Prohm , Ta Som Read a tourist's "mental" photo
 
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  Siem Reap is nothing special as a town but the food is amazing. I think that it is better than Vietnamese or Thai food… Most tourists arrive in groups and dine at the hotels. So the restaurants are eager to do their best to serve the independent travelers.  
   
  There are a lot of people in Seam Reap and children at the Temples ready to sell you postcards, books, souvenirs and also people asking for money. It is very hard to escape...  
   
  Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was designed in 1925 by the french urban planner Ernest Hébrard (1875-1933) who a few years earlier had designed my hometown, Thessaloniki, Greece (photos from Thessaloniki). The city was a ghost town from April 17, 1975 till January 7, 1979.The Khmer Rouge had evacuated the city and moved everybody to the fields. I was told that it is the best colonial city build by French in Indonesia. Today you can still admire some buildings. More importantly it allows you to compare the culture in the countryside (Siem Reap) with a city. Well, I found both the city and the country side similarly "laid back". This gives a certain tranquillity, rare for capital cities. If you have seen the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, you will find the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh pretty "basic"... I was told by locals that it is not safe for a traveler to walk around at night. You may find more rewarding to stay an extra day at the Temples of Angkor than to visit Phnom Penh.  
 
 
 
The ideal of the Khmer Rouge (who controlled various parts of the country from 1970 till 1996), under the leadership of Saloth Sar - later known as Pol Pot- was to create a nation of peasants working in an agrarian society where family, wealth and status were irrelevant. They executed monks, the elite, the educated, those who spoke a foreign language, those who wore glasses... The eventual downfall was orchestrated by their original mentors, the Vietnamese. For more info CLIK
 
 
 
 
In Phnom Penh, I visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, a school used as prison (code named S-21) and interrogation centre between 1975-1979 by the Khmer Rouge who run the country and killed 1-2mil people, equal to 20% of the population. An old building with rooms with photos and some dusty offices where they store some photos. As I was walking around the rooms, groups of Cambodian visitors started arriving. Suddenly I noticed them identifying the faces of the dead (there were no names on the photos), pointing them to the co-visitors, crying and photographing them. The visitors - I was told - were from a province of Cambodia and were visiting the Museum for the first time. They were identifying their killed relatives. The atmosphere in the room got electrified. I was emotionally shaken. I was looking at the visitors : they were the lucky ones who escaped the genocide. I was thinking of the dead: as whole families were killed, some may have no living relatives. No one will cry for them.
 
   
  There is no public transport in the cities in Cambodia.  
   
  You will notice that in Cambodia no one walks. People ride on their bikes, motorbikes or on taxi-motorbikes. And the drive them in any part of the road they like! You can be driving on the right lane and see bikes driving towards you to hit you! (see motorbikes driving towards my tuk-tuk) Taxi-motorbikes can not understand why someone wants to walk and they will keep offering (constantly) to drive you. I tried to get used to it, but I still consider it very annoying.  
   
  I was told that in the building, the lower floors are more expensive to buy or rent compared to the top floors. This is because Cambodians do no like to have to walk to the top floors...  
   
  The local music has a slow rhythm. It is the very opposite of the music in Latin America. Nevertheless, Cambodians are very smiley people. I have not seen a nation that smiles so much!  
   
  Compared to Vietnamese, Cambodians working in the tourist industry speak very good English. The Cambodian's that had studied in France during the French occupation were killed during the Pol Pot era... The UNTAC and NGOs that arrived after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge made English the most popular second language. Signs in all public buildings are both in English and in French.  
   
  If you start a conversation with someone, others will gather around to listen. If you are eating alone, they will come and stand or sit near you. You can label this as "very friendly" or as "no concept of privacy".  
   
 

The Cambodians are not as hard working as the Vietnamese. The difference is probably due to the fact that Cambodia is the least densely populated country in the developing world. Vietnam is very densely populated. The average Cambodian farmer has a bigger piece of land to farm and a bigger house compared to the Vietnamese. Hence the Vietnamese have to work much harder to get as much as possible produce from their small pieces of farms.
 
   
  In Cambodia as in Vietnam, people eat in the morning and in the evening. You can see that by the many restaurants that set up in the street for breakfast and dinner. In Thailand, on the other hand, street-restaurants are set up all day giving the impression that Thai people eat all day… Also you will not find knifes on the tables : only spoons and forks are used...and a lot of toothpicks to remove the sticky rice (funny how in France toothpicks are only needed to support "canapes" as the food is almost always very soft)  
   
  You can read more about the Cambodians here  
   
  Be prepared to bargain. Outside the temples they sell tourist books. They are all reproductions (you will not find originals even at the stores). I was offered the same book for $20, $18, $11, $ 7…I bought it for $4… The postcards are not of high quality. Clearly a business opportunity here… Big souvenir shops in Siem Reap are 10 times more expensive than the ones outside the temples. The same silk tie is sold in a big souvenir shop in Siem Reap for $10 and in Hoi An in Vietnam for $1 (before bargaining…). The designs on the ties are so bad that even $1 is too much! Photos from the market  
   
  If you can go to Asia, you must go to the Temples of Angkor! You can easily combine it with a trip to fascinating Bangkok in Thailand.  
   
 
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