Many cities have their own peculiar human-like characteristic and traits. I’ve found the same of countries. Take for example Cambodia, a country that holds the 4th position as the world’s friendliest place. This is not a bit surprising when you visit Cambodia and are greeted by warm, gentle, smiling faces everywhere. Coincidently, even some faces carved in stone on the iconic ancient temples smile as well, but Cambodia is far from perfect and beneath the cool-tempered façade of it people mask a traumatic past.
STAGGERING NUMBERS FROM A BRUTAL WAR
On the way to my hotel, I got to discover how brutal a past it was. When my taxi driver and I went past the typical “where are you from” conversation and pleasant niceties I cautiously inquired about the war. I was only vaguely acquainted with the island’s tragic history, but I knew just enough to know it was terrible and gruesome. He got straight to the numbers, which brought home the savagery of the period.
Between 1975 to 1979 Cambodia was enmeshed in an internal war. A rural communist guerrilla movement – Khmer Rouge – was responsible for the death of 1.5 million Cambodians. i.e. 20 percent of Cambodia’s population was killed or died as a result of the war. No family was left unscathed by this.
Yet, if you think about it for a second 1979 was not so far away and here I was surrounded by people who had first-hand experience with the brutality of the war and yet went about their daily life with an ease and warmth that seemed to want not to “weep for the past.”
Cambodia’s story is one of recovery, resilience, and transformation. Strangely Cambodia’s morbid history has become a draw for travellers interested in, “dark tourism.” These are tourists who are interested in travelling to destinations marked by tragedy and disaster.
Cambodia also attracts travellers like myself, who visit Cambodia as part of a South Asian travel package. Cambodia started off piggybacking on more popular destinations like Thailand and Bali (Cambodia sits west and northwest of Thailand, to the northeast there is Laos, to its east and southeast, Vietnam) however today Cambodia has pulled itself up, standing on its own as an amazingly interesting destination. The once improvised agrarian country experienced the third-largest increase in international tourists in Asean during 2018. With a rapidly maturing tourism sector, Cambodia’s popularity as a travel destination is gaining traction.
While Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia; it is the city of Siem Reap located in the northwest that is drawing in over a million tourists annually. It is also where my introduction to Cambodia began, in Siem Reap’s open-air museum, better known as-Angkor Archaeological Park.
A UNESCO world heritage site, containing sprawling complexes of ancient temples and ruins- dating back 802 years ago, Angok Park still holds the title as the largest religious site in the world and is home to over 51 major temples, which pay homage to Cambodia’s rich history and impressive architecture.
By the way, here is an important tip to consider when visiting Angok Park. The reality is there are over 50 temples in an always crowded tourist park. Although it’s not an awful option to discover the temples on your own, I would strongly recommend a guide.
The stones tell stories. There are so many intricate wonders and hidden elements within each temple, having someone unravel the mysteries of these ancient ruins make them immeasurably more meaningful. On my own, I wouldn’t have found the purifying wall at Angkor Wat, or the detailed stories behind the endless battles of good and evil depicted in the stone reliefs at the Banteay Srei temple.
A Look At Cambodia BEAUTIFUL TEMPLES
Ta Prohm temple is one of the most famous temples in Siem Reap. It’s known as the “Tomb Raider” as it was used as the backdrop for the famous Lara Croft movie. Tourists flock to see the temple with massive silk-cotton trees growing over, under, around and through it.
This complex occupies 138 acres, and its boundaries are defined by a protective moat and fortified walls adorned by monumental carved stone guardians. The temple complex includes entryways, towers, ceremonial spaces, courtyards, shrines, and a variety of connecting corridors.
Bayon is one of the most popular temples in the Angkor complex. It’s where you’ll see the famous faces of King Jayavarman II looking down at you from the towers. It’s definitely not a temple to be missed.
Banteay Srei translates as the “Citadel of the Women” – it’s thought that the carvings are so fine that they could only have been carved by the hands of a woman. The intricate details on the pink sandstone and well-preserved carvings make for a fascinating visit.
Angkor Thom is not simply a temple complex, it’s a city. In fact, Angkor Thom translates as the “Great City” and was once the capital city of the Khmer empire. This complex spans a massive 9 km and the city contains some of the most popular temples including Bayon, Phimeanakas, Baphuon and other major sites popular with visitors.
Angkor Wat temple is the main reason why most people visit Siem Reap. It is the largest religious monument in the world- measuring 162.6 hectares. It was constructed by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. Originally a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was later transformed into a Buddhist temple. It has become a symbol of Cambodia and even appears on the country’s flag.
As a travel destination, Cambodia’s allure and appeal go beyond just Angkor Park and has much more to offer in term of activities and attractions. There are beautiful coastal destinations along the Gulf of Thailand to the south-west. In the north, Virachey National Park teems with biodiverse wildlife and the country also offers great cultural treats like the many musical and cultural productions. If a dose of reality is you are searching for, a jarring but interesting visit to the Tonle Sap, a floating village, can be a real eye-opener.
Cambodia’s wounds are real and deep, but so is its heart and soul. While its glorious temples and ruins of its past are absolutely impressive and definitely worth your time to discover, so too is the vibrantly friendly and beautiful people that occupy this part of Asia. I encourage you to visit.
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