Jani Jermans – Travel Diaries

May 31, 2024

Cambodia: A Journey through Temples, Culture and Heart-wrenching past

Filed under: International Travel — jani @ 6:28 pm

About Cambodia: It’s a captivating nation in Southeast Asia, is renowned for its stunning array of temples that dot its landscape. These temples, both discovered and still undiscovered, stand as a testament to Cambodia’s rich history and cultural heritage. Among them, the iconic ruins of Angkor Wat reign supreme, capturing the imagination of travelers from around the world.

Cambodia boasts thousands of temples, each with its own unique charm and significance. Many of these temples date back centuries and showcase exquisite architectural styles influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. While some temples have been meticulously restored and are popular tourist destinations, others remain hidden gems waiting to be explored.

Visa: Indian nationals traveling to Cambodia can conveniently apply for an e-visa through the official Cambodian e-visa website (https://www.evisa.gov.kh/). The e-visa application process is straightforward and typically results in the visa being issued within 2-3 days. This e-visa allows entry into Cambodia for tourism or business purposes and is essential for a hassle-free arrival.

This destination had been on my bucket list ever since I watched the movie Tomb Raider, which was filmed in Cambodia. Initially, I hadn’t planned to join the trip due to work commitments, but when my last-minute work trips were postponed, I seized the opportunity to join Santosh’s group from Exotic Expeditions.

Given that there are no direct flights from India to Cambodia, our itinerary included a stopover in Bangkok, Thailand on the way there, and a return journey through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Despite the additional travel legs, I was excited for the adventure ahead and eager to explore the captivating landscapes and ancient wonders that Cambodia has to offer, inspired by the cinematic allure of Tomb Raider.

Navigating transit hurdles during international travel can be daunting, especially when faced with unexpected ticketing issues requiring immigration clearance during layovers. In this instance, Thai Air Asia’s ticketing error resulted in separate booking references (PNRs), necessitating immigration clearance and recheck-in during the Thailand layover. During the travel period, both Thailand and Malaysia offered visa waivers for transit passengers, alleviating the need for additional visas and filling out the arrival form for Malaysia ensured compliance with immigration protocols, facilitating a smoother entry process. These proactive measures helped mitigate transit challenges, allowing for a more seamless journey to Cambodia.

Day 1: Arrival in Phnom Penh and Exploring

Our journey began as Sur, Titli, and I boarded our flight from Bangalore, filled with anticipation for our adventure in Cambodia. Titli, arriving early at the airport, checked in ahead of us, while I had different PNR due to airline’s fault and ground staff couldn’t help either. Sur came to the rescue by suggesting we check in my luggage under his PNR, which was issued with a single PNR for both legs of the journey. This clever workaround saved me time during our layovers.

However, my arrival in Bangkok Phnom Penh encountered a hiccup as the transfer desk directed me to clear immigration, as I had different PNRs, even though it was a connecting ticket. Thai immigration was initially perplexed by this request, leading to a delay as Sur’s attempts to accompany me were refused. After some back-and-forth with immigration officers, I was eventually cleared and directed to the check-in counter. Thanks to not having checked baggage, I swiftly obtained my boarding pass with the assistance of airline staff, skipping the queue and reuniting with Sur and Titli in time for our onward flight.

Upon landing in Phnom Penh, we navigated immigration smoothly and made our way to the SIM Boutique Hotel. Despite arriving early for check-in, we patiently waited for our rooms to be allocated. Exhausted from the journey, we dozed off in the lobby until the receptionist kindly accommodated us with an early check-in.

Later in the day, our group expanded with the arrival of Divya, Sapna, Santosh, and newcomers Reema and Fatima who were coming joining us post their Vietnam trip. Eager to explore the local scene, Sur and I grabbed a quick lunch at a nearby spot, Wheat and Beans Café, before taking a leisurely stroll in the area.

As evening descended, we immersed ourselves in the vibrant night market, browsing through stalls filled with local crafts and souvenirs. Santosh and I ventured further to indulge in authentic Cambodian cuisine, tasting pork porridge, chicken soup, and the unique bird’s nest drink.

Meanwhile, some in our group opted for Indian fare at Indian Royal Food, only to be disappointed by the portion sizes, prices, and lacklustre hospitality.

After a full day of travel and exploration, we retreated to our accommodations for a well-deserved rest, eagerly anticipating the adventures that awaited us in the days ahead.

Day 2: Royal Palace Museum, Killing Fields, and Museum Visit

The second day of our Cambodia adventure was filled with profound experiences and historical insights.

We began the day with a quick breakfast before heading to the Royal Palace Museum in Phnom Penh. Upon arrival, we encountered a dress code requirement prohibiting sleeveless attire. Despite Divya’s resourcefulness in bringing a shawl to cover up, the staff insisted she purchase a loose t-shirt to comply with the dress code. Surprisingly, the t-shirt matched her outfit and became a humorous anecdote amidst our sightseeing.

Our guided tour of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda was enlightening. The Royal Palace, serving as the official residence of the Cambodian monarchs since its construction in the 1860s, showcased distinctive Khmer architecture. Divided into four main compounds, the palace complex included the Silver Pagoda, Khemarin Palace, and Throne Hall, each with its own historical significance and architectural marvels.

The Silver Pagoda, situated within the palace complex, housed precious national treasures, including the “Emerald Buddha” and a Maitreya Buddha adorned with diamonds. Murals depicting local interpretations of the Ramayana adorned the walls, showcasing the blending of cultural influences.

Following the palace visit, we visited the chilling yet essential Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, also known as the Killing Fields. Here, we confronted the harrowing atrocities committed by Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, which claimed nearly three million lives. The audio tour provided haunting details of the brutal executions and forced labor inflicted upon victims who were educated specially the doctors, lawyers and teachers, He wanted only people who were uneducated and peasants who were working in the field inspite of him being educated in France. So he lied to the people in the city, saying due to war they are relocating them to the new place and they killed all them in secrecy. The minors were hired from peasant community, brainwashed to torture these people. There was a diplomat who was asked to come back to the country to help, only to be executed, another New Zealand citizen who was sailing and his bad luck he was in Cambodian waters and he also was executed. Wrong stories were written to say they were spies and the victims didn’t have an option as they know no matter what they are going to be tortured and killed. This site was earlier Chinese cemetery and its little outskirts, so while they were killing, they were hanging a loudspeaker with their local song so that no one could hear the victim’s cry. The women were stripped and children’s head was hit in the tree and killed. They used farming tools like pickaxe and palm leaves steam which is very sharp to hit and slit the throat as buying guns were expensive. There are more to be unearthed specially around the small water body as they wanted to leave these souls at rest. The field were found when a potato farmer while harvesting he ended up seeing the skulls and stains etc. Walking through the mass burial sites and reflecting on the profound loss, we were deeply moved by the memorial’s solemn reminder of Cambodia’s tragic past.

After this emotional visit, we gathered for lunch at Lotus Restaurant, opting for familiar Indian cuisine.

Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly a school turned torture center under the Khmer Rouge. Sur and I listened to the audio guide as others found it too overwhelming to hear more of the gruesome details. The museum’s classrooms, once scenes of unimaginable horror, left an indelible impression on us all.

To conclude the day on a reflective note, we visited Wat Phnom, a historic Buddhist temple symbolizing Phnom Penh’s identity. Returning to our accommodations, some of us relaxed by the pool while others caught up on work. We opted for room service, enjoying duck breast and French fries before retiring for the night, contemplating the weight of the day’s experiences.

As we processed the complexities of Cambodia’s history, the resilience of its people, and the impact of the Khmer Rouge era, we carried with us a profound sense of reflection and reverence for the country’s journey of healing and remembrance.

Day 3: Journey to Siem Reap and Exploring the Local Culture

After a restful sleep, we began our day with a quick breakfast and set out for Siem Reap. The drive was almost eight hours long. Along the way, we made a stop to taste local fruits and observed roadside vendors selling fried insects as snacks, though none of us tried them. The variety of fruits we encountered was vast and surprisingly familiar, reminiscent of those found in India. We saw jackfruit, durian, tender coconut, mango, mangosteen, longan, rambutan, Indian date, star fruit, monkey pod, jicama, wood apple, June plum, rose apple, bilimbi, eggfruit, santol soaked in chili and salt, star gooseberry, jujube, and many others. This familiarity made us feel as if we were back in India.

Upon arriving at Siem Reap, we stopped for a meal at Vanakkam Restaurant, an Indian restaurant. The food was good, providing a comforting taste of home. Afterward, we proceeded to the Central Privilege Hotel. Initially, the hotel was a bit disappointing. It lacked an elevator, which posed a challenge for those with suitcases, though we managed with our backpacks. We were assigned a room on the fourth floor, providing a good workout but not much fun under the hot sun, especially when tired.

Our room was decent but had a quirky bathroom setup. The showerhead was positioned near the washbasin without a separate shower space, resulting in the entire floor getting wet. We also found a wooden ladder inside the room, which Divya pointed out was for drying towels. The shower water pressure was low, making it a lengthy process to shower. Even after informing the housekeeping staff, the issue remained unresolved. Despite these hiccups, the hotel’s sustainable model, using mostly wooden and locally sourced materials, was impressive. Their exceptional hospitality made up for the initial disappointments.

In the evening, we headed to the riverside night market for some street shopping and then visited Pub Street. The area had a lively atmosphere with good pubs and restaurants. We tried some ice cream rolls, which were okay, and then returned to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Day 4: Exploring the Majestic Temples of Angkor

After breakfast, we set out for another exciting day, finally visiting Angkor Wat. First, we collected our tickets, which were issued with photos and necessary for entry to multiple sites. It’s crucial to keep the ticket safe until the end of your visit, as losing it can prevent entry to other sites.

Angkor Wat is a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex in Cambodia, located within the ancient Khmer capital city of Angkor. Spanning 162.6 hectares, it holds the title of the largest religious structure in the world according to Guinness World Records. Our knowledgeable guide provided detailed explanations, enhancing our understanding and appreciation of the site. Though much of the complex lies in ruins due to destruction during the Thai war, restoration efforts are evident, though the patchwork is visible.

One of the highlights was the stunning reflection of the temple in a nearby water body, creating an almost surreal image. Before entering the main complex, we visited the Vishnu temple, featuring intricate 12th-century carvings, including the largest depiction of the churning of the sea of milk.

We also ascended to the top of the temple, an area where hats and umbrellas are not allowed despite the scorching heat. This part of the temple is believed to be the stairway to heaven. Some of us made the climb while others waited below.

Next, a short drive brought us to Ta Prohm temple, famous for the massive trees growing out of its ruins. The temple, built without mortar, was abandoned and subsequently overtaken by the jungle. The intertwining roots and stones create a striking and picturesque scene, making it one of the most popular temples in the area. Ta Prohm has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992 and is often referred to as the “Tomb Raider” temple due to its appearance in the 2000 Lara Croft movie.

Our journey continued with another drive to Bayon Temple. This richly decorated Khmer temple is related to Buddhism and was built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of King Jayavarman VII. Located at the center of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom, Bayon is known for its multitude of serene and smiling stone faces of Buddha, believed to be modeled on King Jayavarman VII. These faces adorn the many towers that jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around the central peak.

After a tiring day under the hot sun, we returned to the hotel. In the evening, we headed back to Pub Street and enjoyed a great meal at Café Latino. The food was excellent, providing a perfect end to our day before we returned to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

Day 5: Leisure and a Visit to Kampong Phluk

Due to the heatwave, we decided to take it easy in the morning. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and relaxed for the first half of the day. In the afternoon, we headed to Kampong Phluk, a commune in the Prasat Bakong District of Siem Reap Province. The name Kampong Phluk means “Harbor of the Tusks.” This community primarily relies on fishing, especially shrimp, for survival during Cambodia’s wet season.

First, we visited the local market before heading to the village. Since it was summer, the water levels were low, allowing us to explore the stilted houses that are usually surrounded by water during the wet season. Interacting with the locals was a delightful experience. We tasted a delicious sweet potato cutlet and saw a lady making crispy thin pancakes. Another woman was eating these pancakes with an assortment of fresh leaves. Intrigued, Santosh and I tried it as well. The dish had a distinct shrimp flavor, which we mostly enjoyed.

We then took a boat ride, but the low water levels made navigation difficult. Our boat faced some technical issues, moving slowly until we eventually reached a floating restaurant. After having some drinks, we waited for sunset. The restaurant also had a few crocodiles, adding an element of excitement. We captured some beautiful sunset photos before heading back. Unfortunately, our boat encountered more trouble on the return trip, leaving us stuck until another boat came to our rescue and brought us back to the shore.

Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to unwind with some drinks. The hotel staff were kind enough to allow us to use their restaurant area, even letting us bring alcohol from outside, which is usually not permitted. Since we returned late, we had the place to ourselves, and we were grateful for their hospitality. We ordered food from outside, enjoyed a relaxing evening, and then went to rest, ending our day on a comfortable note.

Day 6: Departure from Siem Reap

Our day of departure arrived, marking the end of our brief but memorable trip. Santosh usually organizes nine-day trips, but this one was shortened as it was customized for another group who were combining their visit to Cambodia with a trip to Vietnam. Had I known this beforehand, I might have planned to join separately for a longer duration. Despite my disappointment over the shorter trip, it was time to head back home.

We made our way to Siem Reap Airport. Since Titli had excess luggage, we helped her out. The airport was quite empty with only a few flights operating. We took the opportunity to explore the duty-free shops, particularly those featuring Cambodian products, and picked up some local drinks as souvenirs.

Boarding the flight was smooth, but as usual, I had a different PNR from the group, so upon landing in Kuala Lumpur, I needed to check in separately. Fortunately, the transfer desk informed me that I did not need to clear immigration and could proceed directly to the gate, which was a relief. Unfortunately, we missed the duty-free shopping at Kuala Lumpur Airport, assuming there would be shops near the gate, but there were none.

Hungry, we found the only open restaurant and had chicken rice. Most vegetarian options were sold out, so the others had pastries. After our meal, we boarded our flight to Bangalore. Upon arrival, we picked up our luggage and returned Titli’s excess luggage that we had carried. Despite the trip being shorter than expected, it was filled with good memories and experiences.


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