Photo: S21 Museum – Phnom Penh
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I arrived in yet another 3rd world country, another country with a recent, torrid history full of war, and death. Yet even though Cambodia is nestled between Thailand and Vietnam – it really isn’t like these other countries, it has found its own identity. My first experience when entering Cambodia was entering the grand, new Siem Reap International Airport. It was beautifully designed, clean and cool – extremely rare for a third world country. While we were waiting in line for immigration there was an ATM so I decided to quickly get some Riel – however – much to our surprise – the ATM spit out US dollars. This definitely wasn’t like any country I had been in before! I hadn’t seen greenbacks for 6 months! Cambodia also had this amazing visa process that I can only hope the rest of the world adopts – an online visa application. All you need is a credit card, a digital passport picture, and you are good to go. Your visa is sent back via email within 2 days – no need to send your passport anywhere! As our big group transferred into town we saw large hotels, restaurants, and well maintained parks. It seemed as if Cambodia had adopted the theory of “If you build it, they will come” – and they had done a great job of executing. For a 3rd world country that has such a recent history that left the country in shambles, it’s probably the nicest country I’ve visited. It’s clean (for 3rd world country standards), and orderly. People take so much pride in their homes – even if floors are dirt. It felt like everyone in the country was trying to succeed and were putting their heart and soul into everything they did.
Siem Reap was definitely booming from Angkor Wat, the biggest tourist attraction in the whole country. However, the heat was oppressive – I’ve never really encountered anything like it – it felt like you were cooking in a microwave oven. I have no idea how these people could live in this stifling 100+ degree heat. Cambodia has two seasons, making it like a mood ring that changed colors. This was the dry season – it was brown and dry all around us. In July, it starts to get cooler and the monsoon season starts, the rice crops are planted, and the country turns green.
As we went out to the temples, we stopped at one of the local road-side stands and saw how the made palm sugar. They climb the palm trees and cut the flower in order to get the juice. The juice drains all night and they climb back up the tree to retrieve it and boil is until just a solid is left. It’s kind of like maple syrup – and it tastes just as sweet! My favorite part about our little road-side stop was the kids – they came running to us from all over! All of a sudden there were about 15 kids running around. Luckily I had my camera out and ready! This picture of the child with the big knife is a bit disturbing – but he remained in tact while we were there – I can’t tell you what happened to him afterward though! I decided that I can pair this with my picture from Thailand of the little boy playing with a real gun…it can be an exhibit on kids with weapons. I doubt that I will find a kid in Europe with a grenade launcher though!
The Angkor Wat temple complex was slick – they even gave you little laminated tickets with your digital photo on them at the checkpoint. A three day pass cost $40USD – expensive for SE Asia, but definitely worth it. The temples were created from the 10th to 12th century – most of them were over 900 years old. They definitely have experienced some wear and tear throughout history as the wars and changes of power have not been kind to the ancient cities. Plus, now there are throngs of visitors at the temples, so it’s hard to keep them up. Angkor Wat is a mix of Buddhist and Hindu religions. Our guide, Nabine, educated and led us through the many temples and old complexes. Angkor Wat is the grand-daddy of the temples with a large bridge, and a couple of different walled areas. Nabine took us there for sunrise and sunset to see how the light produced different colors on the stones. There were Relief carvings all around the temple that told the stories of ancient times – they would glow red/gold during the sunset. We went to the inner temple and climbed up the very steep stairs to the top structure. You had to literally crawl up the steep incline (about 40 stairs) using your hands – it scared the crap out of me! When I got up there I really wasn’t sure how I would get down. As I walked around the top one of the locals gave me some incense to give to Buddha – he said it was good luck. I took the incense, did the 3 bows, and hoped for the good luck to get back down the steps in one piece…I might as well cover all of my bases!