I’ve been doing a terrible job at keeping up with my blogging and it’s now been a whole month since I came back from Cambodia! It’s probably about time that I wrote the second instalment of my adventures there: all about the sightseeing and touristy things I did.
While Cambodia may not be the tourism hotspot of South East Asia, and that’s really part of it’s unspoilt beauty, the town I stayed in – Siem Reap – was the main tourist city of the country so there was always a lot to see and do when I wasn’t teaching. The city itself was very small, but with all the touristy bits focussed into one long street called ‘Pub Street’. Along here were plenty of bars, clubs and restaurants to cater to a wide variety of tastes. I had everything from Khmer to Mexican food and with beer practically cheaper than water at $0.75 a can, it was a nice, if not noisy, place to relax, eat and drink. I also experienced clubbing in Cambodia which was a bit surreal, just because it was pretty much the same as clubbing in England, only a lot hotter! The eclectic group of people out on this street, of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds made it an unforgettable experience, as well as a great place to people watch.
The biggest tourism attraction in the whole of Cambodia is Angkor Wat; the sprawling mass of Medieval temples so integral to their culture that it made its way onto the Cambodian flag. We wanted to visit the temples for sunrise but unfortunately picked a cloudy day where the only thing we got up at 4 am for was an anti-climax. It didn’t matter, however, the greyness of the morning added an almost ethereal atmosphere to the temples and it brightened up a little later.
The temples were amazing, a beautiful juxtaposition between the intricate detailed carvings that were everywhere, and the huge crumbling ruins which stood side by side. I loved the main temple Angkor Wat, but felt that it was more impressive from afar, whereas the underrated Bayon Temple was far more impressive close up – the huge faces of hundreds of smiling kings looking down on you as you explored the doors and steps of the ancient temple.
The infamous Lara Croft temples used in Tomb Raider were also pretty spectacular, huge trees growing alongside the ancient temple in a strange kind of harmony.
Yet while the Angkor Wat temple complex was certainly a highlight of my trip, it was by no means the only amazing thing I saw in Cambodia. A weekend trip to the quieter town of Battambang in the west of the country provided the chance to find out a bit about the Khmer Rouge genocide at the Killing Caves, as well as to experience the infamous Bamboo Train, and even a trip to the Cambodian circus.
It felt wrong to come to a country with such a tragic recent history and a visit to the Killing Caves gave us the chance to rectify the problem. To get to the caves we had to climb a small mountain, and the eerie tranquillity by the entrance to the caves made a compelling difference to the touristy area at the bottom. I’ve never been anywhere with an atmosphere quite as tangible as that of the Killing Caves. It was creepy, beautiful and tragic all rolled into one and it gives me a chill to think of it, even now.
The bamboo train was a more light-hearted excursion and a typically Cambodian experience. It was a straight wooden track on which wooden ‘trains’ ran (pieces of wood with wheels and a motor attached) ran. But because there was only one track, if your train met with another going in the other direction, one of the parties had to stand up, dismantle their train off the tracks and let the other train go past before reassembling their own one. It was so bumpy and so fun hurtling through the middle of the Cambodian countryside, hoping not to meet an oncoming train.
Visits to a mini Angkor Wat carved by a local stonemason in his back garden and to a beautiful lake frequented by local Khmer families comprised my last weekend in Cambodia. There was so much more I wanted to see and do – like a trip to the capital Phnom Penh and to the famous floating villages nearby – but a lack of time and money means that I’ll just have to save up so that I can come back and finish off seeing this beautiful country which I miss everyday.
To read about my teaching English in Cambodia, click here