On our way back from Malaysia, we decided to detour for a few days in Cambodia.
For us, Cambodia has always been one of those “inaccessible” countries, mostly due to the fact that they’ve been at war or still reeling from it for our entire lives. Since the fall of the dynasties that built temples at Angkor Wat – sometime in the 12th Century – the lands and peoples of the Khmer Empire (what we now consider Cambodia) had their own identity but were controlled by someone else. In ancient times, it was neighboring Khmer kingdoms. Later it was Thailand, then Vietnam, then France, then Vietnam again.
During the Vietnam War, the Cambodian monarchy in place since the French colonization was overthrown in a military coup, and the new Khmer Republic kicked out the communist Vietnamese leadership, establishing themselves as an independent nation. Soon North Vietnam was attacking Cambodia, and revolutionary groups started popping up all over within the Khmer people.
Enter Pol Pot. A Vietnamese sympathizer and communist revolutionary, Pol Pot’s involvement with the revolutionary groups unified many of them and brought full-scale civil war. Soon three regimes were fighting all throughout the country, with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge becoming the strongest. Pol Pot’s regime turned out to be pretty horrible for many reasons, but I won’t go into that here.
As we all know, countries involved in civil wars tend to be pretty dangerous places to live. Cambodia was no different, as all three factions made extensive use of land mines throughout the country. There wasn’t much in the way of records as to where they all were, so even as Cambodia found peace in 1989, the scourge of the land mines remained.
Due to the hazards on the ground, the thousand-year old monuments built by the Khmer Empire had been rendered completely inaccessible to anything but helicopter. Most temples had been reclaimed by the jungle, so that even that was impossible. But since the nineties, work has been done to restore accessibility to these ancient sites. They’ve reached the point now where they’re safe – and practical – to visit.
Siem Reap (Khmer for Siam Defeat, Siam being the old name for Thailand – seeing a pattern here?) is the city closest to the temple complexes at Angkor. Cambodia’s GDP is close to that of Afghanistan, and most of that is made up of tourism, so Siem Reap has evolved into a town exclusively geared towards tourism. Large, grand hotels stand looming over dirt roads, all transactions are conducted in US Dollars, and most everyone speaks some English.
Tuk-tuks are everywhere, and there are plenty of tourists around, even though we were here in July at the lowest point in the year for tourists. Just like in Kuala Lumpur, it’s crazy hot and even more humid. Siem Reap, however, feels completely undeveloped by comparison, and more than a little intimidating.
We hired a tuk-tuk a couple times during our stay. At one point, we got stuck on a muddy road. Our driver politely asked us to get out as he got it un-stuck, and then we hopped back in and continued on.
Most tourists are out visiting temples during the day, so town is a little sleepy. Once the sun goes down, however, it cools off by a degree or two and the night markets open up.
Tuk-tuk carts zip by carrying fruit by the wagon load, while others stand on the side of the road selling street food to brave eaters.
Roasted snakes, fried grasshoppers, bugs as large as my thumb and unknown to me sauteed in some kind of garlic sauce. It smells good, but looks horrifying.
We stuck to restaurants recommended by friends. Our first dinner was in the middle of the night market, where I had some delicious wok-fried garlic with chicken.
The food was good, somewhere between Thai food and Malaysian. Convenient that, since we were physically somewhere between Thailand and Malaysia.
But we weren’t here for the cuisine. We were here for the temples.