During spring break (for the Germans: Easter), I took some additional time off and went abroad.
Cambodia turned out to be quite amazing, even though my time there was quite the emotional roller-coaster ride.
So, as amazing as it was, coming back to Taipei was really hard, and I’m still figuring some things out. Or, as my wise travel companion Michael said, life isn’t always easy.
Back to Cambodia and its history: The country has been through a violent period during the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, which means this violence is still very much alive in the memory of many citizens who survived. So some of the content you will see here is quite the opposite of easygoing. Enter at your own risk.
I started my trip in Siem Reap, where the nice Tuktuk driver of the “Golden Mango” picked me up at the airport.
The hotel was quite lovely and sweet, if a little ways outside of the city.
I was dead tired after a night of traveling, so I took the best nap ever before I went to the hotel pool.
Room, breakfast and pool at the Mango were awesome, but there was a lot to see (and eat!) in the city, too. So I met some people for dinner and a beer (50 cents! Yey! Reasonable prices!).
This is the uh… “Christmas card shot” with Michael (left) and Ders (middle):
The next day we did what every tourist has to do: See the temples. Angkor Wat might be the most well-known site, but there are many smaller ones around the area. For only 40 USD you get a three day pass (you probably won’t need three days, though).
Following the recommendations of Tong, our awesome driver, on day one we did the small tour (green) and day two was the big one (red). And after that, you really don’t need to see another temple.
Fun fact: I ripped the backside of my pants on day one and I only brought the one long pair, so I wore it again the next day, until I could find a replacement. That too, ripped the next day. So, I spent a lot of my time in Cambodia sort-of-bottomless.
Here are some impressions from the ride:
Michael in all his glory:
Guess what this is?
A gas station.
The temples in the area were built roughly 800-900 years ago, and were first Hindu and then Buddhist. Every ruler during that time added his own temple complex and nowadays the whole world heritage site is rented by a private company.
I’m only giving you some pictures of my favorites (because, well, after a while, they all start too look very similar).
This is Ta Som, by far my favorite site:
And this is Angkor Wat… because it’s famous. Honestly, I didn’t really connect with that place. It’s big, but there are much more beautiful temples. Also, sunrises are totally overrated, if you ask me. Micheal is an early riser anyway, so he didn’t mind.
The other temple that really stood out, was the last one on our tour, Ta Prohm. At that time, Michael and I were already templed out and sitting in the shade, contemplating life. Perseverance is a virtue I may not possess in infinite quantities.
Quote of the day: There are some mighty cool trees in Cambodia.
We also took the obligatory monk shot:
Siem Reap is a nice town, touristy but relaxed, lots of markets, restaurants and food stalls, and well, there is the cheap beer (called Angkor, go figure).
This market was next to the hotel:
On day three we took a “luxury VIP bus” to Phnom Penh, the capital.
This photo was a lucky accident:
The six hour bus ride was uneventful. The first evening in Phnom Penh was weird, the night market was closed (how???) and the restaurants there were quite strange (one hosted a bachelor party so loud we could barely hear ourselves).
And here comes the serious part:
The next day was tough. Sightseeing in Phnom Penh may involve the Royal Palace, but I opted for the Choeung Ek Killing Field and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum instead. You can see where this is going.
Tuol Sleng was a prison in which “traitors” against the regime were held captive and tortured. When the “traitors” became too many, the Killing Fields were established. Collectively, more than a million people were killed and buried and these sites by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime.
Let me just say that it is amazing what has become of the Choeung Ek site. It is almost unreal to walk there in the sun, while listening to the audio guide’s voice speak of unspeakable crimes. The site has a solemnity and serenity that is framed by the highest respect for the victims and their dignity.
Here are a few impressions:
I cried. And I wasn’t the only one.
At Tuol Sleng Prison, I didn’t take any pictures. The cells there are open to the public. On the ground floor, single cells are outfitted with metal bed frames. There were photos on the walls, which documented the torture and abuse. You could see the mangled human bodies curling up on those bed frames, while blood was dripping on the floor.
At that point, it became too much for me and I sat outside on a bench, while Michael finished the tour. I felt close to fainting by then. These pictures, taken by the torturers for stone-cold “documentation purposes”, really got to me.
Nevertheless, I strongly recommend visiting both sites, when you’re in Phnom Penh.
Serious part over.
That evening we were in need of distraction. So we sought out a Hungarian piercer operating out of the backroom of a seedy bar (sounds like a bad idea, right?). Since I was already there, I got two new earrings, one on each side:
Michael, who has a very chic nose ring, documented the process for me. We went back to the hostel to wait for our bus, and dozed off, sweaty and curled up on the benches of the cafe downstairs. At 2am we took a sleeper bus to Sihanoukville, where we parted ways for a few days.
That bus was the most ridiculous vehicle ever. It had the narrowest sleeping bunks, which were tilted in the entirely wrong angle, so you kept sliding down. Each bunk was separated by a metal rod in the middle. The bunk was barely long enough for my 160 cm, much less for my 190 cm tall travel companion. I spent the night in a haze, twisted into the space as well as possible. I had bruises on my knees the next day. We couldn’t see the window from the bottom bunk and the whole thing felt like a cattle transport. At some point we stopped inexplicably for about an hour and the air con was turned off. Forget about sleeping, that bus was a nightmare on wheels.
Upon arrival, I took the ferry to Koh Rong Island, which turned out to be not quite my style. Too many party people and nothing but bars and beaches. So I only stayed one night.
I went on a 90 minute hike to the other side of the island, where a pristine beach with squeaky smooth sand was waiting. That experience gave me a muscle ache for two days. So yeah, I’m going back to working out now.
The last stop on this journey, and probably my favorite, was the small town of Kampot. The “bus” ride there was the second most ridiculous drive ever. There were about 30 people crammed into a minivan, some sat on the luggage with their feet hanging out of the trunk. It took us about 6 hours to drive roughly 100 km, because the bus just kept picking up more people.
For me it was a really stressful situation, because I was having the worst stomach cramps and too afraid to eat or drink much. I just wanted to lie down. I tried to sleep, but I was never so happy to arrive at a destination.
The Baraca hostel in Kampot was wonderful. It’s run by two Belgian girls and has a tapas bar. I really liked the style.
And the bed, a glorious, glorious bed.
I spent the last 2 days exploring the area on motorbikes, seeing a lot of the landscape, some modern temples, a cave, a market and a lake.
I didn’t dare to drive along the muddied tracks after a short and heavy rain, but became a passenger on Ders’ bike.
I bought some Kampot pepper as a souvenir and two pairs of pants, since I obviously have a habit of destroying them.
I definitely want to come back to Cambodia some day. It’s a tough, but beautiful country.