Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields


The largest religious complex in the world.  Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing structures in the world.

Sure, Karnak in Luxor, Egypt is the largest religious structure, but Angkor Wat stretches over miles and miles including many many buildings.  I’d like to see a comparison of Tikal to Angkor Wat.  It’s a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason.  The complex itself was built 1110-1150.  It’s estimated it would take 300 years to do today, but took 40 years back then with thousands of workers brining in stones from all over.  Ok, read more on Wikipedia article on Angkor Wat beyond my research… If this was the only building that was constructed it would still be one of the most amazing in the world, but it is among 74 others in the complex of buildings many many miles apart.

This is definitely a bucket list item.  A New Seven Wonders runner up.  One of the most amazing places in the world!

I visited over a dozen temples over the course of a couple of days.  There is an entrance fee for the complex.  It’s definitely worth it.  You can buy multi day passes.  This is not the only thing to see in Cambodia, but it is reason enough to get you there.

Cambodia is a beautiful country, tons of rice paddies, and lakes.  The people are very fun loving.  I arranged from my guest house to get a ride.  A tuk tuk driver was holding a sign for me.  For $15 a day, I had a driver and his tuk tuk.  Seriously though it was 15 USD. They use USD for money.  I got money out of the ATM and I got a 50 USD bill.  First time that’s ever happened.  They don’t use US Coins though.  They use Cambodian money for change.  So it’s all bills.  Funny enough, when I arrived at the airport in Siem Reap, (that’s the closest airport,) I gave them some Thai bot and got a stack of bills so thick it they had to use two very thick envelopes.

Cambodia is a relatively poor country. They’ve had a rough history this past century, I’ll share more about this through the post.  The people are humble.  Siem Reap gets about 700K visitors a year.  The airport is very nice, and really Siem Reap is a very decent city with some great international hotels if you need that.  I stayed at a $6 a night guest house with a fan, and black and white TV.  I had my own room and western bathroom.  I stayed there for 3 days.  The ride from the airport was also included (maybe 5 miles from the city.) Breakfast was even included in my room!  The locals it seems simply string up a sling.  No air con, no walls even.  You’ll see tons of people in a house, with a simple sling.  Looked really relaxing.  I hear you can get one of those even… if that’s the authentic experience you want.  I encourage you to loose yourself here… because what you’ll find here is something better.

Angkor Wat is the main building in a greater complex of many buildings.  I mentioned that there were 74.  I did some research with my local contacts at the hotel, and with other tourists who had visited. Wat means temple.  So when you see Wat it’s synonomous with temple.  You’ll see that word in Thailand as well.

Angkor Wat temple complex: $20/day or $40 for 3 days within a week, 7 days for $60 used over a month. Carry your pass with you always.  Buy the pass the day before at 5pm so you can catch the sunrise otherwise you’ll be waiting in line. (Cash only, No credit cards!)

Here are some of those that I visited over the course of a 2 day pass:

  • Angkor Wat – The main temple.  Worth a visit or two.  Try to visit at Sunrise and or sunset.  There are some amazing shots.  Toward the back of the temple is a some of the steepest steps I’ve ever seen.  I saw a monkey wandering around.  There are some great bas-reliefs including apsara carvings (angels).  You won’t believe how well preserved the carvings are in the stone.   Incredibly intricate carvings. The moat is very significant. The best place for sunrise is the reflection pool to the north.
  • Ta Phrom – The best of the Trees took over the temple shots.  This is a photographers paradise.  Incredible shots.  You can see some examples below.
  • Bayon – 37 towers, with many that have four faces on the towers.  Each of the faces are different expressions and many are different people.  Another photographers paradise.  Fun place to explore.
  • Angkor Thom – (Big Angkor) this is the final capital city. Very accessible and well preserved.  Gate with 4 faces on each gate.
  • Banteay Srey -  small temple with pink sandstone.  Great stone hand carvings.
  • Preah Khan – Sacred sword.  Huge complex that’s fun to explore.  Use to house thousands of monks as a school.
  • Phnom Bakheng – first major temple in 9th century

Below: Ta Phrom – The Banyon trees have taken over the temple.  This is as well where Tomb Raider 2 was filmed.

Seeing these two pictures in color and black and white, you can see why the black and white one really brings a different element to the picture.  I just love taking photos of the temple and going exploring imagining myself as Indiana Jones or Laura Croft.

You may read online that there are land mines in some of the temples.  Basically every temple you can get to reasonably has been demined.  There has been a lot of work to restore the temples, but there’s still a LOT of work to be done in reconstruction.  You’ll find lots of these temples have piles of stones still to be reclassified and put back together.  You should purposely pick some of the best and some of the worst so you can get the contrast.  There are a few that really haven’t been put back together.  Exploring where you’re climbing through vines and trees adds another whole element to the adventure.

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While climbing among the temples every once in a while I would find kids who were playing or working.  One child I met as I was walking to meet one of the temples stopped me.  She asked me, where are you from.  U.S. I said.  Where in the US, what state?  I replied Washington.  She says, Olympia.  What??? Olympia is the capital of your state.  Wow!  I think most Americans think it’s Seattle.  I was so impressed, I told the couple that was looking at her booth.  You think that’s impressive?  She knows where the Queen of England lives, and she knows the capital of our Shire in England.  WOW!!  I was impressed.  I started asking the young girl of about 10, how she knew these things.  She explained she studied it.  As I was standing there, she saw someone coming up the trail.  She spoke in German to the couple.  What?!!  How many languages do you speak?  Well.  I speak Cambodian, Japanese, German, Russian, English, Korean, Thai and I will practice with anyone that comes along.  I was so dumb founded.  I wanted to hire this girl or raise her as my daughter.  Corn was her name.  I asked her why she wasn’t in school.  She said she was in school but out for break.  I explained to her that she would go far in life and that she should dream big.  She continues to be the best T-Shirt salesman I’ve ever met.  She drew a picture for me while I shopped and signed the photo.  I ended up buying 6 T-Shirts that I wasn’t planning on buying.

Speaking of land mines. You should schedule into your trip amongst the temples, the famous land mine museum.  This is NOT your average museum.  It’s a collection of land mines from Russia, USA, France, England etc… It is NOT fair that the people of Cambodia have had to deal with the remnants of war for over 30 years.  People still die from land mines.  It’s not hard to find victims that were affected.  Imagine plowing your garden and hitting a land mine that’s been wasting away, but still active for the last 30-40 years.  I saw a band playing music for money at one of the temples missing various limbs.  Very sad.  As well I saw one guy missing both arms and both legs… very sad state.  Land mines are such an ugly thing.  While they are designed to set borders, they are designed disable the other force and keep them out.  In their history they have caused way more damage to civilians than military.  There is an initiative to end the use of land mines.  Many countries have signed the agreement, but the Koreas, USA, and Russia have not signed.  They obviously still use these at various borders.  The US says they track where they are placed and remove them whenever they pull out.  I’d like to see them eliminated period, but if they can’t they should be replaced with something that can be remotely deactivated just in case someone loses it.  Land mines are cheap.  War is so ugly.

I found a win win situation… After a long day of hiking, I stopped in for a massage at the blind school.  I was in such a giving mood I got a massage for my tuk tuk driver as well.  He told me I was an awesome tourist for him, he felt so blessed to be working.  I think I spent $10 on the massages.

One place my driver took me was to the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake a UNESCO Biosphere reserve.  In contrast to the floating village outside of Bangkok, this village is very much about necessity.  This isn’t about tourism, it’s about fish farms, crocodile farms, fishing, and selling fruit to the people who live out here.  Here is a family who chased down our boat to try to sell us bananas.

I paid about $15 for a boat ride out to the place on the edge of the lake where we passed by many homes where you’d see families and fisherman.  The entire community evolved around water.  As the waters rise the people deal with it.  Floating houses, floating shops, floating, schools.

The Tonle Sab ranks first in the world for its fish productivity and fourth for its total catch.  If you’re lucky you’ll see kids playing in the water and just plane having fun.

It was amazing what you could get out on the water.  People are interested in selling you fruits, vegetables, and snakes!  Yes, when we arrived back there was snake grilling up.  I joked that it looked pretty good.  My guide said it was pretty good, so I bought one and gave him half.  Surprising, it was good, I ended up eating my share.  I thought I’d eat and bite and pass

After a rich few days in the touristy Siem Reap area and less than day trip excursions out to the lake and land mine museum, I really wanted to see Phnom Penh

There’s a recent history here that took a generation from the world. There is no tip toeing around it. The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were worse than Hitler. Pol Pot was so ruthless.  He didn’t trust anyone.  He had anyone of any leadership killed periodically.  The smart people, the musical people, the doctors, the lawyers, the families, millions of people were killed, slaughtered in Cambodia in the 70s.  In my lifetime!!!  How could such a savage thing happen?  I know the US had such a horrible experience in Vietnam, but going to the killing fields of Cambodia has to be one of the worst tragedies in our human existence.  I’ve been to extermination camps, and seen the ovens, and felt such sadness. Pol Pot was never tried.  He died of old age. Over the last 2-3 years there have been some investigation.  This is still fresh.  I hope those who participated will be held accountable and never repeat this awful awful tragedy.  Tears well up in my eyes as I remember this part of the trip.  Reading on… this part isn’t for kids, but this happened.

This tree pictured below is the killing tree.  To save bullets a megaphone looking speaker was mounted to the tree and played loud music so as they bludgeoned or slaughtered the victim to death other people wouldn’t hear their screams or yells.

We walked around these mass graves.  Bits of teeth, cloth, and bones are still around.  While this area reports nearly 9000 in these 86 graves.  There may be as many as 3 million Cambodians who were killed.  Nearly every family was directly affected with death.

Below you can see right on the surface… human bones and clothing.  There is no question as to the tragedy here.

I don’t think many will want to see what I saw.  It was a moving experience.  If that wasn’t enough, as I was leaving I was approached by a guy with no arms right on the outside of the place.  I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know what to do.  I just wanted to get out of the situation.  Of course I wanted to help him, but I didn’t want to teach him that this was a great place to beg.

What I didn’t tell you was back in Siem Reap, I had less than 24 hours before my flight, and there was no way for me to take a bus round trip and still catch my flight.  I had been working with my driver to see if he could find any way to make it work.  I didn’t care… cheap bus, expensive bus… I wasn’t too excited to pay $80 or more for a private car one way and the flights were going to cost about $100 or so for last minute tickets.  I really really wanted to see that side of Cambodia I wanted to hear the raw stories and witness recent history for myself.  I’m one that doesn’t want to see history repeat itself.  I’m hoping this blog can help play a role in preventing war, and tragedies such as this.

While in Phnom Penh I saw the palace, the stupas as well, but after Thailand’s I wasn’t as impressed and ultimately that wasn’t the history I was interested in at the time. There was a silver stupa that was on a bunch of post cards and was the thing they were talking about. So we worked on tracking that down.

Well getting back to the story, I took the bus, one way to Phnom Penh.  I had such a great My%2520cool%2520tuk%2520tuk%2520driver%2520with%2520his%2520traditional%2520breakftime with my driver that I brought him with me.  It was great to get to know him and ask him questions along the way.  He was actually from a village outside of that area, and hadn’t been back in years.  So for the price of the bus ticket, he was happy to join me.  I gave him a good tip at the end of this trip and we both had a fabulous time.

I think its always important to connect with someone in the country, and we really had some great conversations about life, his wife and children, and hope for the future.  He was thinking about buying some land.  He owned his tuk tuk, which was cool.  He definitely had hope for a brighter future.  There are many who have not.  One of the workers at the temple, a young lady propositioned me in one of the temples, and I had to think how sad it was.  It made me think about the sex trade in Cambodia and really that region.

So, I wasn’t exactly stranded.  I knew I could pay for a taxi if I had to, and still catch my plane, but a 6-8 hour ride back though a rainstorm wasn’t going to be cheap.  Lucky for me our Phnom Penh driver knew a place where vehicles gathered to drive to various parts of the country.  This was kind of like a bus stop, but not for busses.  It was a place where people could get in trucks to save even more money that riding a bus.  No need to post a schedule.  The truck could be hauling whatever supplies and then fill up the rest of the way with people sticking out on top, out the back and where ever.  I was wondering if I’d end up in the back of a truck.  Lucky for me there was a car making a transport up to Siem Reap.  I got shotgun, my driver friend jumped in the back seat, and in a few moments the other seats were sold.  The car was primarily mine, so I could determine when it was full enough and for $30 we were on our way.  (I think the bus ride was $14 or so.)

On our ride back, I noticed that our driver was turning off his headlights every so often.  There was also a lot of honking as is common in the developing world.  What concerned me is I saw people picking up frogs off the road.  They would see from our headlights the frogs jumping around and run out to grab the large frogs.  There was nothing reflective or really bright at all in their wardrobes.  It wasn’t that they were wearing black, but they often were wearing brown or light colored clothes that had been earthened and warn.  Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve thought about how I or we could help them by getting these villagers out near the roads reflective strips.  We could literally save lives.  I’ve seen 2-3 deaths in my travels directly related to getting hit by cars.  Could these people have been saved by better being seen?  I think so.  I plan to do something about this.  Others have any ideas here?  Is it a strip on the ankle?  Is it a wrist band with a cool saying?

There is much we can do to help the people of Cambodia.  I have a place for them in my heart.  I encourage you to spread the wealth while there.  I bought so many magnets, figurines, t-shirts, and all the stuff I normally wouldn’t buy because I wanted to help the people.  I think you’ll feel something as well.  Cambodia is a fascinating place thrown back in it’s own history due to savage acts.  Their people struggle from world decisions, bad leaders, and a sad sad time.  Cambodia will grow past this time.  I have high hopes, and the Angkor Wat is proof they will rise again… It’s on their flag, it’s the pride and destiny.

6 thoughts on “Secrets of Cambodia from Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

  1. Although extreme poverty and the lack of law enforcement are mainly to blame for child sex trafficking in Cambodia, I think the Cambodian people’s casual attitudes toward sexual predation also contribute to the problem. Cambodians generally look up to foreigners, especially Westerners, as wealthy and benevolent. It’s unfortunate that some foreigners are in the country to take advantage of children.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I was just in Siem Reap and your peice brought history and context to what I saw there!

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