A country still visibly showing the scars of recent bloodshed and war, yet filled with beauty and an enormous history still beats strong.
We began our journey in the capital city of Pnom Penh and spent most of our time volunteering at the YMCA, which you can read about here, but when we weren’t working we were often found eating at Mad Monkey!
MM was our first hostel in Cambodia and probably the favourite of our travels! A bold statement to make, however, this is a hostel that offers unlimited beers two nights a week, a backpackers paradise… Yet this wasn’t even the highlight of our time here. With multiple themed nights during our stay, knowledgeable staff and most importantly, a restaurant that featured some of the finest meals we have had in Asia, this was a westerner’s dream in Cambodia.
As a backpacker you will appreciate after plenty of rice, rice and urm… more rice, a menu offering succulent BBQ ribs, fiery fajitas, a vast array of burgers featuring juicy beef patties cooked to perfection, this place was like a heaven for us. This may sound like a sales piece but it really isn’t, if you’re backpacking in Cambodia, definitely spend some time at Mad Monkey, even if it’s just for the free beer. Alternatively head down to the local market to try the famous PP delicacies including the Angry birds fish .. on a stick! Yes, you heard that right!
Killing fields and Toul Sleng
Onto the serious stuff now and we did do things other than eat and drink in Cambodia. Visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng museum was a truly harrowing experience. Within the last half a century, Cambodia lost 2/3 of its population when the Khmer Rouge campaign, led by Pol Pot, slaughtered millions of men, women and children.
The Killing Fields were unimaginable. When entering the site, you face a huge tower filled with the bones of hundreds of people, separated into different age groups, type of death and even body parts. When walking through the site, you pass sign after sign asking you to respect the deceased by not stepping on the bones which surface along the beaten path among the now green fields. Continuing your journey, you arrive at the killing tree and immediately feel your insides turn as you are told the gruesome stories of how children were flung against the tree to their death in front of their mothers.
The Tuol Sleng museum was another heartbreaking experience. A former school before the Khmer Rouge takeover, the museum takes you on a journey through what it was like to be tortured, often to your death, by your own people. Once you pass the thousands of head shots of the men, women and children that came and never left, you reach an old, gentle and happy man selling books.
Chum Mey was a survivor of Tuol Sleng and had now published a book on his experiences. The most extraordinary thing about this man was his smile. Sitting in the same complex where he heard the screams of his family and friends being tortured to death, he was at peace now, knowing his beloved Cambodia had moved on from the terror that roamed the lands not so long ago.
Siem Reap is made for tourists, in complete contrast to Pnom Penh.
Full of restaurants, bars and fantastic markets, we spent eight days relaxing and taking in all that this wonderful town had to offer. Of course you really only go to Siem Reap for one thing; Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat was a wonderful experience which you could not compare to any other. Built in the 12th century and yet still standing strong, the structures of these temples are breathtaking.
Arriving at 5am, find yourself a quiet spot in the grounds amongst the grass and rocks, and watch the blazing sun rise up as the first rays of light creep over the temple. This was a moment that will stick in our memories forever.
Later in the day, we spent our time meandering from one temple to another, each unique and each as awesome as the next. From the “Bayon” temple featuring hundreds of faces carved into the stone, to “Ta Prohm” used to film Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider. Trees the size of sky scrapers, drape over, around and even through the stone to the earth following hundreds of years of growth, epitomising the phrase, “life will find a way”.
Exploring Siem Reap
Siem Reap is also a place where we experienced a lot of firsts, with plenty on offer to do, these were a few of our favourites…
We encountered the famous fish foot spa, of course with a free Cambodia beer!
We also took part in a Khmer cooking class, choosing from traditional dishes such as curries, banana leaf salads, sticky mango rice, fried banana, spicy shrimp salads and more. Learning about the spices used and how to get the flavours just right was great fun! After a few hours in the kitchen we were able to sit down and enjoy the masterpieces we had created!
Lastly, we ventured onto a street food walking tour. Up to this point we hadn’t been too adventurous in terms of trying strange delicacies in Asia so we braved it out and did it all at once! Stuffed Frogs, chicken hearts, crickets, cockroaches… You name it we tried it! Would we do it again? No. But it’s something to tick off the bucket list! Whatever it is you want to do, Siem Reap is sure to offer it.
Cambodia is a country which you visit for its people as much as you do its sights. A nation crippled by murder and injustice in the not too distant past that recovered and prospered in the face of near extinction. The smiles that greet you still bear the scars of death but shine brightly and with hope.