A Journey through... Cambodia
Far East expert Michael Allford travelled to Cambodia where he explored the temples of Angkor Wat, made a trip to the Killing Fields and visited Artisans de Angkor – a professional handicrafts training school helping young Cambodians.
After spending 10 busy days travelling through Vietnam, it was time to bid farewell and head on to my next destination, a place that I have dreamed about visiting for many years – Siem Reap in Cambodia. I arrived after a one-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City. Opened just one year ago, the airport’s new terminal building looks like a luxury resort, set in a garden of palm trees and exotic plants and built in traditional Cambodian architectural style. The drive from the airport to the Raffles Grand Hotel took less than 15 minutes and, as I gazed out of my air-conditioned car, I was amazed at the number of large hotels that lined the road from the airport to the centre of town, Siem Reap was definitely well and truly on the tourist map.
Siem Reap is home to Cambodia's proudest sites. The Temples of Angkor are the must-see tourist attraction of south-east Asia - and deservedly so. The hundreds of temples scattered about are all that remains of the vast Khmer empire that stretched from Burma to Vietnam. Angkor was once a glorious city of 1,000,000 people, but, as most buildings were built of wood, all that remains are the stone temples. It would be easy to spend several days exploring all the temples, but on my whistle-stop visit I would have to squeeze in as much as possible in only one full day.
I met my local guide, Kim, in the hotel lobby at 4:30am to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. After a 10-minute dash to the outskirts of the town and a short-walk, my guide informed me that we were in the best location. So along with many other excited visitors of all ages and nationalities, I got my camera ready. The familiar towers of Angkor Wat appeared before me in the distance, as well as being magically reflected in the lake in front of me. It was a truly breath-taking and unforgettable experience.
From here we entered the temple and proceeded to climb the narrow, steep steps to gain access to the main corridors. There were a few people about, but it wasn’t too busy. Buddhist monks wandered around the grounds in their vivid orange robes, providing an attractive contrast against the grey stone of the temple and wonderful photographic opportunities.
My guide then took me to see the ancient city of Angkor Thom and in particular the centrepiece, Bayon, with its towers displaying a stone face on each of the four sides. My next stop was Ta Prohm, which is renowned for the roots of the enormous surrounding trees that literally claw at the walls of the temple - almost as though the jungle is consuming it. There was something slightly haunting about the way nature has pushed through these magnificent monuments - a strong reminder that nature is far stronger than anything man can create. Ta Prohm is, of course, also famous for its role as the location for the Tomb Raider movie. With thanks to my knowledgeable guide I was able to enjoy a small glimpse into the past of a magnificent empire.
Another highlight of the trip was my visit to Artisans de Angkor, which provided a real-life insight into the nature of how local handicrafts are made. The company, which employs graduates from the nearby Chantiers-Écoles de Formation Professionnelle, is a professional training school set up with the aim of providing skills and training to unemployed local people between the ages of 18 and 25, particularly after the reign of the Khmer Rouge. This helps ensure the Cambodian arts and cultures survive and can be enjoyed in the future. You can visit different workshops to see skilled young craftsmen at work and can feel safe in the knowledge that the any purchase made in the beautifully laid out shop is authentic and, more importantly, helping the local economy.
From Siem Reap I took a short flight to Phnom Penh - the bustling capital of Cambodia and a city with a troubled past. When the Khmer Rouge party were in power, led by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979, one of the worst acts of genocide known in recent times was committed. An estimated 1.47 million people were killed, around 20% of the population. To remember the victims, a memorial was erected at Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields.
This memorial park is the site where more than 17,000 Cambodians, who were believed to be a threat to the regime, were transferred and executed by the Khmer Rouge. Mass graves are apparent throughout the area and a tall stupa, filled with thousands of the victims’ skulls, reminds locals and tourists alike of the horror of genocide.
Many of the victims were transferred from S21 prison, which I visited in the stifling heat of the afternoon sun. Known today as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, S21 was a detention centre for interrogating and torturing prisoners. Originally built as a high school, classrooms became torture chambers where barbaric instruments were used to extract information and force fabricated confessions. As I walked through the corridors viewing the harrowing black and white photos of many innocent victims, I was hot, bothered and drenched wet with sweat, but I didn't complain about being uncomfortable, it just wasn’t important.
The visit left me with a heavy heart and a great appreciation for the perseverance of the Cambodian people. Of the over 20,000 prisoners held at S21, only 12 survived. It's a brutal past for a country to live with, but despite it being only 30 years ago, they seem to be doing well - the people are some of the friendliest and most sincere that I have come across in my travels.
Even though Cambodia has a rich, ancient and turbulent history, it is still a young country figuring things out, making mistakes, trying to embrace and quickly catch up with the 21st century - while simultaneously working to heal the wounds of the recent past. Many are succeeding - there is no shortage of large homes and high-end luxury cars. Yet most people still live very simple lives, working in the booming tourist sector, selling produce or handicrafts, working on the land, or fishing in the great Tonle Sap Lake, eking a rural existence - often within or just outside the cities. And yet, each day they face the world with a 1,000-watt smile and a refined grace – something I grew to expect, but always appreciated on the Cambodian people I met during my short visit.
Cox & Kings offers tailor-made holidays to Cambodia.