Captivated by Cambodia: a land shaped by history
Cambodia is arguably the road less travelled in south-east Asia and offers a range of experiences suited to almost any traveller.
You can kick back and relax in a tropical paradise, party on Pub Street for next to nothing and learn about the country’s harrowing recent history. The people are friendly and always willing to help but as we discovered on our holiday, Cambodia’s beauty is somewhat tarnished by its plastic problem.
I had the most enjoyable flight over with Emirates, flying from Dublin via Dubai into Bangkok where I spent a night before travelling on to Cambodia.
The first stop of our two-week journey was in Siem Reap, a resort town in the north-western part of the country. Our hotel is a tuk-tuk journey from the airport, along dusty roads with the odd food stand peppered along the side.
Water buffalo roam the fields and the odd snake slithers from the grass into the path of our tuk-tuk and other vehicles which are travelling at speed.
Siem Reap is the gateway to the temples of Angkor, one of the world’s largest religious monuments, which dates back to the 12th century. It attracts tourists year-round. We were there during the rainy season, but the 30C heat and clear sky made us question if the showers would ever arrive (they did).
Most tour companies offer a two-day visit to Angkor but the experience can be done in one day and most guides will accommodate this. Our entry ticket, travel and tour cost US$70 each, but cheaper options are available and the site could be explored without a guide.
Our English-speaking guide took us there by taxi with air conditioning, which in the heat was greatly appreciated. The setting is beautiful; a body of water surrounds the main temple area, wildflowers attract butterflies and the large trees gave us a real sense that we had left the buzz of the world behind.
We learned about the history of each temple and its transformation from a Hindu place of worship to Buddhist. The main complex, Angkor Wat, appears on Cambodia’s national flag and it is a sight to behold. Its large towers leave you asking how this majestic structure was constructed and in such a way that it has lasted the test of time.
Inside each temple there are carvings on the walls; some depict religious symbols while others tell stories of battle and survival. Some of these carvings were modified centuries ago during the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism.
The temple of Ta Prohm was used as a location in the 2001 Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie which has made it a popular spot for tourists.
Siem Reap is also home to the aptly named Pub Street, which is much like any strip you would find in holiday resorts across Europe.
It is here you can buy a large glass of local draught beer for 50c which is around 39 pence. Most of the pubs offer the same price but the food is varied from one to the next, with some offering authentic Khmer food which is well worth trying.
However, if you want a different pace after a long day touring the temples, the night market offers an enjoyable experience. Both sides of the streets are lined with stalls and shops selling a wide selection of clothes, jewellery and locally produced art.
If you do visit the market it is worth remembering that everything can be haggled, so don’t accept the first price as you can pick yourself up some good deals.
There are plenty of other activities in this part of Cambodia including quad biking through rice fields, various boat cruises and the opportunity to cook with local families in their homes. However, we opted to relax by the pool before our next stop, Kep.
Kep province is in the south-west of Cambodia and is known for its crab market, with every bar and restaurant offering crab on the menu, including as a pizza topping. You can see market vendors bringing their daily catch back from the sea so you know it is fresh. The old buildings around Kep remind you of its former glory as a French colonial resort town and it appears it is still popular with the French, with many socialising in the few bars we visited.
The highlight of our time here was a visit to the Tada Waterfalls. It is a place of natural beauty which also offers the chance to relax in a natural pool on the mountain. The clear water is so deep you can’t see the bottom, which means people are jumping from the rocks above.
Our journey to Kep and its surrounding areas, and our time there, brought home the reality of plastic waste and the problems it is causing. It’s almost impossible to find an area of land or a body of water without discarded plastic bottles, cutlery, food packaging and polystyrene. While it is hard to say if the plastic strewn across the beach has come from elsewhere, carried by the ocean, it is obvious that the waste discarded on land is being generated right here.
It raises the question as to how this global problem can be addressed if such populous countries have such a reliance on the material. It has been reported that 10 million plastic bags are used in the capital Phnom Penh every single day. And it’s the country’s capital which is our next stop.
The bustling city is a far cry from the tropical paradise we had been enjoying. It was a base for both the Khmer Empire and French colonists, and that French influence is still felt as you look at some of the many buildings along the riverfront. The bars and restaurants here overlook the Mekong River and the cool, evening breeze is a welcome relief from the daytime heat.
There is no shortage of things to do here including visiting the Royal Palace, the National Museum and the massive, art deco Central Market.
Visiting the capital gave us the chance to learn about Cambodia’s recent, harrowing history. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. An estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned here. It was just one of at least 150 torture and execution centres established by the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot.
His regime executed those regarded as enemies of the then new government. These mass killings, coupled with malnutrition, strenuous working conditions and poor medical care, killed between 1.5 and three million Cambodians.
An audio tour allows visitors to learn about the horrific acts committed at the prison and gives you a chance to listen to the translated accounts of survivors. One of the most poignant moments is viewing the clothes of children and adults who were tortured and murdered. The pictures of both victims and perpetrators line the walls of each room within the prison blocks.
It was from here that some of the victims were transported 11 miles by truck to be executed at one of Cambodia’s many killing fields. These sites, dotted around the country, saw more than a million people killed and buried in mass graves. At this killing field, Choeung Ek, a mass grave containing almost 9,000 bodies was discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Human bones and pieces of clothing still emerge from the ground, washed up by heavy rain. Again, an audio tour offers a graphic insight into what the people of this country had to endure. A memorial here holds 5,000 human skulls which acts as a reminder of the past and a warning that such cannot happen again.
Cambodia is a country which is undergoing change as it tries to catch up with its south-east Asia neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. The people are working hard to move on from its recent history which destroyed so much, while also ensuring what happened here is never forgotten. The country has so much to offer no matter your plans or budget, and should be a place every traveller would want to visit.
• Dublin to Phnom Penh Economy Class return, inclusive of all taxes & charges from €654
• Dublin to Phnom Penh Business Class return, inclusive of all taxes & charges from €2,360
• Dublin to Bangkok Business Class return, inclusive of all taxes & charges from €2,549
• Emirates operates two daily departures (daytime or overnight) from Dublin to Dubai with excellent onward connections to Phnom Penh
• Emirates is the only airline flying direct between Dublin and Dubai with a flight time of approximately 7.5 hours
• From Dubai, Emirates connects customers to 150+ onward destinations including Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand
For bookings, visit emirates.ie or see your travel agent
Belfast Telegraph Digital