Saturday, July 16, 2016

Southeast Asia Trip: Cambodia

The Kingdom Of Wonder

Angkor Wat at sunrise
I have to admit that no other place has had such a powerful impact on me the way Cambodia did. Full of contrasts, this inspiring as well as troubled country offers an overwhelming history that will make you both ascend to heaven at Angkor Wat and descend into hell at Prison 21. No matter which, Cambodia will leave you breathless.

The first city that we headed to was Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s riverside capital, where I can assure you that, if you’re a sensitive person, at least one or more tears will roll down your eyes. Several tears rolled down mine. But I don’t want to go into details right away. Scroll down to keep reading about our travel experience in Cambodia. 

Phnom Penh 

This was our first city in Cambodia after traveling throughout Vietnam. We bused into Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City using the country’s only reliable bus company, that is to say, Giant Ibis. The staff are incredibly nice and they even do your visa for you. Just make sure to hand them your passport and USD 30, or however much your visa costs depending on your nationality. For both Chileans and Americans, the visa is upon arrival and it costs USD 30. 

Bus company
If you cross into Cambodia by land from Vietnam, you will probably go through Bavet International Border. 

Bavet International Border
The ride from HCMC to Phnom Penh is about seven hours, but don’t worry about it. The Giant Ibis buses are comfortable and safe, so you won’t have a bad experience. And speaking of bad experiences, trust us when we tell you not to book your bus tickets with any other agency other than Giant Ibis. We heard stories of people being robbed of their belongings or scared to death while on the road because their bus driver was speeding up. Better to be safe than sorry! 

Here’s what we did while staying in Phnom Penh: 

The Genocide Museum
Have you ever entered a place and felt immediately overwhelmed by an inexplicable sense of hopelessness? That’s exactly how I felt when I first set foot on the Genocide Museum, or more commonly known as Prison 21. No words can describe the feelings that we all experienced while walking through what once was an ordinary Cambodian school for children of all ages. 

Prison 21 in Phnom Penh
During Pol Pot’s regime from 1975 to 1979, millions of Cambodians were forced to leave their houses overnight and move into the countryside in order to work in labor camps. All the cities in Cambodia were emptied and torture centers, such as Prison 21, were established across the country. An estimated two million Cambodians were arrested, tortured and, ultimately, killed over the course of this time. 

I’m sure you’re wondering why just like me. Unfortunately, I don’t have a reasonable answer to that question. Just like I also don’t have a reasonable answer to Hitler’s Nazism in Germany or Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. For me, none of these acts makes any sense whatsoever, especially when there are so many innocent people involved. It was just another politically obsessive ideal gone horribly wrong. 

Once again and out of respect, I decided not to post too many photos of this horrifying place other than the one above. This picture portrays a woman being photographed before being tortured and, sooner or later, killed. Her baby was also killed. The Khmer Rouge spared no lives as they didn’t want surviving family members to seek revenge in the future. The hopelessness in this woman’s eyes is heart-breaking. 

The Killing Fields
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the atrocities that the Cambodian people went through didn’t stop at Prison 21. After being sent to labor camps in the countryside, those accused of treason to the regime – or considered a threat to it – were taken to what is known today as the Killing Fields, or in more simple terms, mass graves where they were killed in the most inhuman ways possible. In order to save on ammunition, they used all kinds of tools, such as axes, spears, hatchets, etc., to kill prisoners. 

The Killing Fields in Siem Reap
In the photo above, you can see several mass graves in the ground as well as a towering memorial that was built in order to pay respect to all the victims who died during Pol Pot’s regime. Since then, at least 20,000 mass graves have been uncovered across the entire country. 

On a personal note, coming to these fields was emotionally shattering. Reading about Cambodia’s disturbing past is one thing, but being at the locations where everything took place is a completely different story. I genuinely hope that we learn from our mistakes so that tragedies like the Cambodian genocide are never to be repeated again. 

Loung Ung
If you are interested in learning more about the Cambodian genocide, I recommend that you read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. In her book, this brilliantly eloquent writer talks intimately about all the atrocities that her people had to go through for long four years. It’s a personal account of what millions of Cambodians experienced in the flesh during Pol Pot’s regime. 

Reading Luong Ung’s book will give you not only a better, but also a real appreciation of the brutality that the Cambodian people endured from 1975 to 1979. It’s a book that most of you will read through tears. My friend Megan and I read it together in order to discuss details afterward. 

Rooftop Bar
We didn’t book a hostel before arriving in Phnom Penh, so we ended up at 11 Happy Backpackers hostel. It was NOT the best place to spend the night, but its rooftop bar is amazing. There’s fast WiFi, nice food and drinks, smiling waiters, a great view of the city, and the bar also provides a nice, refreshing breeze which helps to cool down. If you have a chance to stop by, check it out! You won’t regret it. You can also meet more backpackers and exchange information about your trip.

Hanging out at the rooftop bar
What’s also great about this place is that it’s cheap, like pretty much everything in Cambodia. 

Siem Reap 

In order to arrive in Siem Reap, we took a night bus with Giant Ibis. Once again, the bus was very comfortable and we had no inconveniences during the ride. After getting off the bus, we took a Tuk Tuk to our hostel in the city center. We stayed at One Stop hostel, which turned out to be a very nice place to spend the night. They have comfortable shared rooms for USD 6 a night. Our night bus, by the way, is worth describing. It had no seats that turn into beds, but actual individual beds on one side and two-person beds on the other side. In other words, what I’m trying to say is that, if you are a solo traveler, you’d better get an individual bed or you’ll be sharing your night’s sleep with God knows who! 

Siem Reap is mainly notorious for being the gateway to Angkor Wat. However, it has also slowly become the chic epicenter of Cambodia, where you will find plenty to do in and around the city, so don’t worry if you get templed out. 

While staying in Siem Reap, we did the following activities: 

Angkor Wat 
This ancient temple complex is nothing short of extraordinary. Impressive for both its grand scale and unbelievable detail, this place will blow your mind away as soon as you set foot on it. 

The long walk to Angkor Wat
Starting the never-ending tour around the temples!
Stretching for several kilometers around, the Angkor Wat complex contains the magnificent remains of the different temples built by the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century. The most famous temples within the complex are Angkor Wat – Cambodia’s iconic monument –, Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple, among many others. 

Angkor Wat was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992 and, a year later, Unesco launched a campaign to restore and safeguard Angkor Wat against pillaging, illegal excavations and land mines.

On a personal note, Angkor Wat was my all-time favorite destination in Cambodia. I would go back a hundred times despite the scorching heat and the incessant climbing to view all the temples. It is ABSOLUTELY worth it. If you go - which I hope you do - go in the early morning, or be prepared to get dehydrated every five minutes. 

Sunrise Tour
When visiting Angkor Wat, there are two famous tours that all tourists go on: the sunrise tour and the sunset tour. We took the sunrise tour and it was a beautiful experience. Here is a picture of Angkor Wat at sunrise:

One more picture of Angkor Wat at sunrise
In order to have the chance to take good shots, you need to arrive at the location before 5 in the morning. Ask your Tuk Tuk driver to pick you up before that time; otherwise, you will have to wait forever to take a decent photo. Likewise, don’t expect to have the place just to yourself. It will be crowded, so the earlier you get there, the more you will enjoy your tour. 

Happy Pizza
OH MY GOD! What can I say? Worst experience ever. Yes, all three of us, Megan, Alejandro and I had smoked weed before. Had also eaten weed before. Had pretty much done what everyone else does with weed before. But mind you, what we experienced after having happy pizza - or pizza with marihuana - in Cambodia was fucking nuts. We had a really bad marihuana trip that lasted all night long, like where are our bodies? kind of thing. 

And to top it all, the next day we had an early flight to southern Thailand. Somehow, we staggered our way out of our rooms and into Kim’s Tuk Tuk. I have literally no idea how I got on the plane. All I know is we are not having happy pizza ever again, much less in a remote land like Cambodia. 

  • Cambodia uses the Cambodian Riel (KHR) as its local currency. However, the U.S. dollar is Cambodia’s second unofficial currency and, nowadays, it’s largely used in everyday transactions. As a matter of fact, when you withdraw money from an ATM, it comes out in dollars. 
  • The Cambodian Riel is mostly used for change. For example, if you pay USD 5 for a USD 4.5 bill, you will get your 5 cents in Cambodian Riel as change. 
  • One U.S. dollar equals about 4,000 Cambodian Riel. Crazy! 
  • An average hostel room in Cambodia is about USD 5-6 per night. 
  • To visit both the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields, you can get a Tuk Tuk driver or book a tour through a travel agency. As always, ask around and double check the information before you make any decisions. 
  • At the Genocide Museum, request a tour guide for your group. If you all put in a dollar or two, it will be cheap for you and a good deal for your tour guide. And at the Killing Fields, you can get a multilingual audio tour for 3 dollars. By all means, pay for it. It’s worth it. 
  • There are three entrance fees to the Angkor Wat complex: the one-day pass (USD 20), the three-day pass (USD 40) and the one-week pass (USD 60). We bought the three-day pass, but did the whole Angkor Wat tour in two days. 
  • Doing the whole Angkor Wat tour is physically challenging, especially during dry reason (December-April), so be prepared to move and sweat like crazy. You have three options to do the tour: you can book a tour with a travel agency (which will be more expensive), you can bike (better be in good shape!), or you can hire a local Tuk Tuk driver to show you around. We chose the last option and it was great. Our Tuk Tuk driver’s name was Kim and he was excellent, so don’t hesitate to contact him. Here’s his Facebook account. 
  • When visiting the temples, dress respectfully. Wear a lot of sunscreen and bring a lot of water. Avoid bringing heavy bags. You’ll do a lot of walking and climbing. 
  • Make sure to check out the night market in Siem Reap. It’s got everything from handicrafts to delicious fruit shakes and more. 
  • Try the local food. It’s AMAZING. We recommend dishes cooked through the Cambodian culinary Amok technique, which is the process of steam-cooking different kinds of curry in banana leaves. 
And that’s it about Cambodia, guys. I hope you’ve enjoyed my post and, once again, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Spread the word!

Stay tuned for my next post about southern Thailand.