Flying into Cambodia

Asian country offers tourists a chance to walk on the wild side

Posted: Thursday, March 18, 2004

Editor's note: This is part three in a three-part series as Juneau's Kyle Curtis writes about his adventures in Asia last fall.

• Part I (Feb. 19): Curtis was lost in translation as he toured Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan.

• Part II (March 4): Curtis explores the exotic streets of Bangkok, Thailand.

• Today: The series concludes as Curtis explores the temple complex at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

My first impression of Cambodia was definitely an eye-opener. As the plane was coming in for a landing at Siem Reap International Airport, I glanced out the window and saw two tanks sitting in the backyard of a house.

Such signs of Cambodia's turbulent past should be expected. Just a few years removed from a 30-year civil war, Cambodia is on the tourist map and enjoying a resurgence as a sought-after destination. For travelers wishing to walk on the wild side, Cambodia is the place to visit in Southeast Asia.

Siem Reap is representative of Cambodia's tourism industry. Known as the "Gateway to Angkor," Siem Reap is a boomtown. New hotels open every month, and guesthouses and restaurants open weekly. Siem Reap has had a history as a destination for foreign travelers. The biggest reason is its proximity to Angkor Wat, believed to be the largest religious monument in the world.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat and an outside wall, with an entrance on each side. Once through the wall, an avenue leads to the central temple complex, which simulates the world's landscape. The central tower represents Mount Sumeru, the holy mountain of the Hindu religion, where the "aspara" (heavenly nymphs) frolic among the heavens. It is surrounded by four smaller temples (representing smaller mountain peaks), courtyards (continents) and a moat representing the ocean. Of course, it should not be easy to frolic with the heavenly nymphs, so the architects of Angkor Wat designed the staircase to the central tower at a steep angle. The scramble up the staircase should be taken with diligence - it has claimed victims in the past!

Angkor has nearly one hundred temples, providing ample opportunity to fill the needs of the amateur archaeologist. If you have only a day, be sure to view the sunset over Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng, another temple on a hill. However, expect to spend the hour before dusk climbing up the hill with hundreds of other tourists. Be sure to bring a flashlight to help you on the way down, as the hill lacks anything in the way of lighting.

The three-day pass I purchased was a deal as it allowed me to visit plenty of temples, each with its own character. The Bayon's 216 smiling faces of Jayavarman VII (the king responsible for most of Angkor's grandeur) are eerie, as no matter where you turn, a stone face is staring at you. Also of note is Ta Prohm. Left to be consumed by the jungle, Ta Prohm is the ruin at Angkor that most resembles a set from an Indiana Jones film. With tree roots pushing upon huge stones, Ta Prohm is a dangerous place to explore recklessly. Climbing through the temple you nearly expect to find a golden relic sitting upon a pedestal, untouched after a thousand years.

Siem Reap is a vibrant town situated upon the Stung Siem Reap. Typical of Cambodian towns, it has a French colonial feel to it, with its boulevards, open-air dining rooms kept cool by overhead fans, and street-carts selling croissants and French bread. Siem Reap is marked by the poverty so prevalent throughout Cambodia. The constant demands by the sometimes limbless beggars can be overwhelming, but the occasional offering should be handed out. Just keep it small, otherwise their expectations will increase and they will become more aggressive. A different way to support the huge population of Siem Reap's disabled community is visiting "Made in Cambodia," a storefront run by a nonprofit organization selling goods made by people with disabilities. "Made in Cambodia" has been in existence for a decade and helps many Cambodian lives. It's a place that makes you feel good while shopping for souvenirs.

After a few days of Siem Reap, it was time to fly to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. The city is similar to Siem Reap, just bigger. Where Siem Reap has hundreds of motorbikes on the streets, Phnom Penh has thousands. (The streets of Phnom Penh are littered with bomb-sized potholes big enough to swallow a car, making the rush hours very interesting.) The beggars in Siem Reap may give chase a ways before giving up, but in Phnom Penh the beggars watch you at a restaurant and even approach the table as you eat!

On any avenue you can witness the dichotomy of Phnom Penh's extreme poverty and wealth. A woman may be sitting at her food stand on a garbage-cluttered sidewalk while her children play on a pile of debris underneath the shadow of a towering mansion or five-star hotel. The streets of Phnom Penh make for some observations, allowing for an unparalleled atmosphere.

The biggest draw in Phnom Penh is the Toul Sleng Museum, otherwise known as the "Killing Fields" museum. The museum is in a high school used by the Khmer Rouge as their torture chamber and holding cells. The gravity of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge weighs on you as you view hundreds of stark black-and-white photographs of everyone held at Toul Sleng. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, and the photographs show victims of all ages, with a few foreigners mixed in. Nearly everyone in these photographs was killed. When the Vietnamese liberated Toul Sleng in 1979, only seven victims were found alive.

The Khmer Rouge years are a blight on Cambodia's history and the lack of role the United States played in resisting the Khmer Rouge is embarrassing. Most of Cambodia's current leaders have past ties with the Khmer Rouge. With Pol Pot dying a free man in 1998, it appears that justice will never be served for the Cambodian people.

Given the recent history in the country, it is amazing that Cambodians have their character intact. Constant smiles and warm hospitality await visitors to Cambodia. I watched laughing children play amongst the debris left from the civil war, and I hoped for one thing: That Cambodia's situation would improve for these children and that nothing will remove their laughter.

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