Vietnam & Cambodia …a magical mystery tour(Part 2)
In October 2018, Carmel Suthons and Paul Saker travelled with Cox & Kings to Vietnam and Cambodia. In Part Two they report on their journey through Cambodia, visiting bustling cities, ancient temples and more recent and tragic reminders of the rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Part Two: Cambodia
Phnom Penh & the Killing Fields
Having been directed from our exquisite La Rose hotel to the main area on the river, we set off to explore. We tried local food – Amok fish curry served in a banana leaf – on the first floor of the Foreign Correspondents Club as we gazed at the bustling activity along the river. We rounded off the evening with a crazy tuk tuk ride back to our hotel.
The following morning our guide explained that we were ‘going to sad places’ later that day, but firstly she led us to the spectacular Royal Palace and the Silver Temple, with its silver floor tiles and some truly magnificent, priceless artefacts.
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
And then we visited the school that was formerly used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and torture facility, known as S21. At first sight it looks like a normal high school, until you notice the barbed wire coils on the perimeter and the gallows in the grassy school quad. From 1975 to 1979, the ruling Khmer Rouge would put to death some two million men, women and children for non-existent “subversive activities”. The methods used to torture were beyond barbaric.
Many unfortunate inmates of S21 were taken to The Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek a few kilometres away from Phnom Penh, and battered to death with farming implements. Bullets were saved for the war that raged between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam. Human remains of bones, especially the skulls, have been collected and placed into a Tower of Remembrance. Clothes of the victims are still being washed to the surface in the flood season and collected. It is not a pleasant day’s picnic but more to honour the people who lost their lives to this senseless revolution.
Temples of Angkor
Most visitors come to Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor. They are set in the jungle of central Cambodia, very close to the former French colonial town of Siem Reap, where we spent the last three nights of our tour.
Angkor Wat and the not-to-be-missed accompanying temples were built by Khmer kings between the ninth and 12th centuries and comprise some of the largest religious buildings in the world. Originally built as Hindu temples worshipping Lord Vishnu, they were converted to become Buddhist temples towards the end of the 12th century. By the 17th century the temples were abandoned after the invasion of the Chan from modern-day Vietnam. The forest closed in around the ruined walls and terraces until it was discovered by a French explorer in the mid-19th century.
Angkor Wat at dusk, Cambodia
The sheer size and grandeur of Angkor Wat and its related temples has to be seen first-hand. The detail and wealth of history and legend carved out in remarkable detail on these walls is beyond description.
Besides the three-tiered pyramid of Angkor Wat, the temple of Angkor Thom and the Terrace of the Elephants is immensely impressive, invoking images of the past when elephants paraded and concubines danced within its walls and armies marched off to war through its gates.
The Temple of Ta Phrom has a very special ambience. It remains as it was found: huge trees and roots entwine around the towers, invoking visions of what all the temples looked like when they were discovered almost 160 years ago. Appropriately it was used as a film set for Tomb Raider.
Tuk tuk is quite the best way to get around downtown Siem Reap. What a place! We were there on Halloween night and the streets were full of revellers with more than a few ghouls and ghosts shuffling about in the shadows. The night market was abuzz selling everything you could possibly want and a few things that you definitely didn’t!
The local draught beer flowed along with a multitude of cocktails, all of which were excellently crafted. The pina coladas are definitely better than the rest in the west, although we steered clear of the local wine. The rice wine is worth a try but beware, it isn’t really wine but a distilled version of it running at 45%. For me personally, best of all was cold coconut water sipped from fresh, chilled coconuts. Delicious in the heat.
Fruit stalls, Siem Reap, Cambodia
On our final day with some time to kill, we visited the Siem Reap National Museum just across the road from our hotel for a bit of a look. We had no idea that we would walk into one of the best orchestrated collections of ancient history we have ever seen: a low-lit hall filled with one thousand Buddha statues made from every conceivable material and in every form, all beautifully arranged. The place zinged with an indescribable presence.
We walked from room to room with the excellent audio guide. Each exhibit was tastefully presented using various different media to enhance the experience and our understanding of Cambodian ancient history. Do not miss it. It has more artefacts than the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
As with most places, there were things we had no time to see. The beautiful highlands of north Vietnam still beckon as do the central parts of the country. Would we recommend it? Absolutely. Would we go again? Yes we would.
We have yet to speak to anybody that has been to Vietnam and Cambodia who did not come away absolutely spellbound. Our experience was exactly that. On this note, we give huge thanks to Cox & Kings who organised this fabulous lifetime experience for us. The itinerary was superb, the logistics ran like clockwork and our guides and drivers were top notch. We could not have had a better trip.
Cox & Kings recommends the Grand Tour of Indochina, a small group tour that visits Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. We also offer suggested private itineraries including Vietnam & Cambodia in Style, a luxury tour that includes many of the same places visited by Carmel and Paul. Alternatively, if you are interested in a tailor-made trip, please either call one of our Far East travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.