Cambodia Eye Opener : Phnom Penh & Siem Reap

Cambodia Eye Opener : Phnom Penh & Siem Reap

Alfred Meng

I travel all around Southeast Asia from my home in Hong Kong, but one country I have not visited for decades is Cambodia. I lived there when I was a young child, but have never considered returning. I guess reading about all the troubles in that poor country in the 1970’s had a particularly negative effect on me. The nightmare of Pol Pot’s regime figured prominently on the news and in our daily conversations about current events. Almost three million Cambodians perished during Pol Pot’s reign of terror, most of them innocent children and women. I never wanted to go there, lest the ghosts of the victims would be all around.

As the years passed on, more and more of my Hong Kong friends decided to take a whirl and visit Cambodia. They’d arrive back and rave about how beautiful, yet undeveloped, the land was. Backpacking and cycling seemed to be the favourite ways to explore for Western travellers in the land of the Khmer Empire, but I don’t really do either, so I never tagged along.

However, the stories I heard intrigued me and I finally gave in and booked accommodation in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the two major destinations for tourists. I picked the middle of July to travel there because that’s when the weather is tolerable at an average of 32 degrees Celsius and though it can be rainy, I like it that way because cloud cover is cooler for me than the bright sunshine of high season. To plan my way around, I consulted the travel guides for Phnom Penh and Cambodia and off I went.

Landing in Phnom Penh, I was amazed at how modern some parts of the city were, yet how undeveloped other parts still are. Unlike Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, which have their share of gleaming shopping malls and ever-present hustle and bustle, Phnom Penh has a distinctive feel of a place once grand (it was considered the “Pearl of the Orient” in the 1920’s) and is now trying to find its place in the modern world.

I spent three days walking everywhere, to better tap into the vibe of the town. To make it easy to centre myself, I decided to book my room at the Imperial Garden Villa and Hotel. It turned out to be a really good choice, with all the modern amenities like internet and even a tennis court!

Architecturally it is an exotic mix of Khmer and French influences, which you’d expect given its past as a French colony. It has some fantastic bars and restaurants and exudes a surprisingly fun ambience, especially at night. The city also has many temples such as the Wat Phnom and the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace, a testament to the strength of the country’s love of Buddhism. All kinds of spectacular Khmer and French-styled buildings abound in and around Phnom Penh, as France controlled the city for more than a hundred years until the 1940’s, building canals and roads.

Due to my Chinese heritage, of course, Asian food is not unfamiliar to me, but I had heard that the food in Cambodia can be very interesting. As Cambodia is next door to Thailand, I expected a lot of Thai-style cuisine to be prevalent around Phnom Penh, and that turned out to be true. I did enjoy eating Thai-type food available at small stalls scattered throughout the city, but also was drawn to the French-influenced dishes available all around.

In the early mornings I would awake to the smell of freshly baked bread wafting from local bakeries. Also, being from Hong Kong I really love fish, the more exotic the better. They make a dish in Phnom Penh which is a delicacy known as prahok: a strong, fermented fish paste used in many traditional dishes in Cambodia.

Before departing for Siem Reap I paid a very solemn visit to the infamous S-21 detention camp and the one of the many Killing Fields around Phnom Penh. No one will ever forget the atrocities inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge. How ironic that a country steeped in a rich Buddhist history could have ever descended into that hell on earth.

Siem Reap is a favourite destination in Cambodia because it lies beside the famed Angkor Wat, an UNESCO World Heritage site. The Angkor Wat is an incredible temple that is quite simply the world’s largest religious structure. The town itself is quite pleasant to visit, fused with French colonial flavouring and with numerous hotels and restaurants. For my choice of accommodation I chose to splurge on a wonderful room at the  Le Meridien Angkor Hotel, a beautiful resort-styled hotel highly recommended by reviewers.

The name Siem Reap itself means “defeat of Siam”, alluding to its centuries-old wars with its neighbour to the north, and there are many monuments commemorating the victory. So much of the history of Cambodia involves conquests of and being conquered by the Siamese, now known as Thais.

The imaginary line separating the two countries today doesn’t account for the settlements and villages that still exist on either side, left behind by history. You’ll find Khmer villages scattered throughout the hillsides on the Thailand side, just as you’ll find heavy Thai influences on the Cambodian side.

The Angkor Wat is a stunning temple, surrounded by a moat of water. Nothing can prepare one for the intricacies and details that comprise this fabulous landmark. Think Taj Mahal; think Egyptian pyramids; for they are the only ancient structures that really compare to the Angkor Wat. I wandered about the site in wondrous amazement that something so beautiful and magnificent could have been built and survived for almost 900 years.

Siem Reap was a fun, interesting place to visit as it is growing quickly to accommodate the ever increasing flow of visitors who, like myself, have decided it’s time to visit the land of the Khmer Empire once again.

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