Today, I am in absolute awe.
“Cambodia is life-changing. Get ready – you won’t ever be the same.” This was a comment made to me a few days ago, and while at the time it seemed like an impossibly grand statement, I feel today that I am able to echo this praise. Truly, Cambodia is an unforgettable place, one that opens your eyes to beautiful sights, heartbreaking history and limitless warmth, kindness and hospitality. There is something unique about this country that tugs at my heartstrings, and today’s tour of Siem Reap and Angkor showed me exactly why Cambodia is a favourite destination for so many travelers. In merely 12 hours, here is how I fell in love with Cambodia:
Our morning began with a short drive to Ta Prohm, one of Angkor’s most popular temples due to its distinctive jungle location and eerie aesthetic with trees sprouting out from the temple’s ruins. Featured in the popular movie Tomb Raider, this temple is an awe-inspiring collision of manmade creations and Mother Nature. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. With tree roots wrapping like tentacles around the crumbed ruins of the temple, and intricate carvings found on every wall, wandering around is as awe-inspiring as it is magical.
After a brief tour, I was given free time by my guide to explore the temple grounds at my own pace. This is where one of the coolest moments of my day began. As I wandered, I was approached by a man who calls the temple home. With a toothy grin, he told me “I’ve been sleeping here for 10 years… I know all the good spots where tourists don’t go.” He asked me to join him on a little tour, and just like that, I began to follow his lead as he leaped from path to path and from rock to rock with familiarity and finesse, pointing out scenic viewpoints that had gone undetected by the hordes of other tour groups visiting the temple. It was like I got a secret tour of the temple’s best spots, all because of one man’s random kindness. Amazing!
Our next stop of the day was Banteay Srei, or the “Citadel of Women”, a name alluding to the temple’s small size, pinkish red sandstone facades, and spectacularly intricate carvings. This 10th century Hindu temple was rediscovered in 1914 and subsequently restored in the 30s using anastylosis, a reconstruction technique that aims to use original architectural elements whenever possible. The temple structure may be small compared to others in the area, but its detailed carvings, which depict famous Hindu tales, are so beautiful that they are well worth the visit!
After touring the temple, my guide Pisit and I realized we had some free time before lunch, so we spent some time exploring the temple’s market, which was only a few metres away. I was eager to get my hands on a fresh coconut, whose glossy greenness taunted me from every food cart since my arrival in Siem Reap. As I sipped on my cool, refreshing treat, Pisit asked if I wanted to try a little bit of Cambodian fish noodle soup. My answer was yes, of course. I mean, who says no to soup?
Well, as it turned out, this “little bit” was more like a whole lot. I watched nervously as a smiling woman brought over a big bowl of soup, complete with a cluster of rice noodles and crunchy slices of papaya. After dropping off the bowl, she returned with plates of toppings, from vegetables and sauces to even a big canister of sugar. Knowing nothing, I followed Pisit’s lead as he walked me through how to best enjoy my meal: a dopple of tangy red sauce to top the bowl, a handful of freshly-picked greens for crunch and a tiny hot pepper for extra kick. After some thorough mixing with my chopsticks, I took my first bite... and it was delicious! The sweet coconut fish broth, the perfectly textured noodles and the overload of fresh toppings… Here, under a grass-canopied roof by the temples of Banteay Srei, I slurped up the whole bowl, breathing in the unfamiliarity of my surroundings… I laughed to myself as I realized there was still lunch on the itinerary, but hey, there are worse things in the world than too much food.
After leaving Banteay Srei, we drove to Siem Reap’s city centre and took refuge from the heat in a cute Cambodian restaurant. With a platter of starters including palm heart chicken salad, deep fried shrimp cakes and sour fish soup, followed by an assortment of main courses including lemongrass chicken, sweet and sour grilled fish and Khmer Satay Pork. To finish off, we had roasted fruit skewers, with juicy chunks of pineapple and watermelon cooked in a bath of coconut and honey. Cambodian cuisine is unfamiliar to me, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it already.
After lunch, our explorations continued at Angkor Thom, (“Great City”), a 9km2 complex that was formerly the capital of the Khmer Empire. Driving through the city gates, which were lined with large imposing statues, I couldn’t help but imagine how grand this space must have been in its glory days from the 12th-17th century. Having once acted as home to over 100,000 inhabitants, many different monuments can be found here, but most of our time was spent at its central temple, the Bayon. Well known for the 200+ faces carved on its 54 towers, this temple has Buddhist roots and is today one of Cambodia’s most beloved attractions.
The temple is composed of three levels: the first two being square galleries featuring bas relief carvings, and the last a circular sanctuary where visitors can get lost in the mass of serene stone faces, all sporting the famous “Angkor smile” with lips curved upwards. Walking through the temple, I was endlessly intrigued by these mysterious faces looming overhead. Some say they are meant to represent inner peace and nirvana, though their exact significance is still debated.
After a short walk exploring the Royal Palace ruins of Angkor Thom, we stopped for a beautiful dinner in central Siem Reap before heading to our last stop of the day….
Phare: the Cambodian Circus
Our evening concluded with a visit to Phare: the Cambodian Circus, a nightly spectacle that combines artistry with entertainment to tell stories pertinent to Cambodian history and culture. Despite its name, Phare is much more than a regular circus. In fact, it is a social enterprise that hopes to provide career opportunities for disadvantaged youth while raising money for their NGO school, Phare Ponleu Selpak, which promotes the rebirth of Cambodian modern art. This school provides free arts education for young Cambodians, and is where all the performers of the Circus complete their training prior to becoming live performers.
In one word, the show was incredible. In addition to skillful execution, the circus’ troupe of young performers radiated passion and contagious enthusiasm, performing every single piece with spectacular intensity. Tonight’s 1.5hr show told the story of Sokha, an old woman haunted by the destruction and terror of the Khmer Rouge, who turns to the healing power of art to make peace with the demons of her past. Told through a series of time-jumping scenes, we watch Sokha’s story come to life through acrobatic tricks, speed painting, and performances of traditional music and dance. Simultaneously funny, haunting and beautiful, this performance blew me away with its raw and powerful portrayal of the country’s dark history. Though emotionally draining at times, the evening ended on an optimistic note, emphasizing how art can be used as a tool for healing and solidarity, especially between generations. All in all, it was spectacularly done, as confirmed by the audience’s roaring applause.
Today was abundantly successful at cementing my love for this beautiful country. My time in Siem Reap will come to an end tomorrow, with a grand finale visit to Angkor Wat. I will then be boarding my final river cruise of the summer – the Toum Tiou I along the Mekong. I can’t wait!
Update you all soon.