When I first visited Cambodia back in 2009, it was my first taste of traveling in a third world country. But a lot has happened in Cambodia–for the better–in the past nine years.
To understand the Cambodia of today, it’s important to know the Cambodia of the past. It’s a small country by Asian standards, with a population of 15 million. It’s bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east.
Due to its unfortunate location, during the Vietnam War the US military dropped tons of unused artillery on this poor country of farmers and laborers. In the same decade, Cambodia also became the only country in modern history to commit genocide against its own people.
In 1975, as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, a Communist revolutionary named Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia and instituted what would become known as the Khmer Rouge. Over the next four years, the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge captured, tortured, and executed an estimated 2-3 million of its own people, targeting educated men and women or anyone else who could potentially be a spy. Mass graves known as “killing fields” are littered around the country in a gruesome reminder of the not so distant past.
As if that wasn’t tragic enough, during the decades of upheaval from the 1970s to the 1990s, different factions planted millions of landmines throughout the country. Cambodia now has the largest population of amputees anywhere in the world, and every day, landmines continue to maim and kill innocent men, women, and children.
The good news in all of this is that, after a few decades of relative peace, Cambodia’s war wounds are finally beginning to heal. Although it’s still classified as a third world nation, there have been some radical changes in recent years. China, Korea, and other wealthy nations have begun investing in Cambodia, bringing new business and jobs into the cities. The capital of Phnom Penh, which seven years ago was little more than dirt roads and rusty tuk-tuks, is now full of high-rise offices, luxury hotels, and shiny new BMWs.
I was amazed at the difference in so short a period of time.
Ready to explore the country beyond its bustling capital, we took a comfortable overnight bus ride from Phnom Penh six hours north to the smaller city of Siem Reap. You may not be familiar with the name of the city, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of what everyone comes here to see: the temples of Angkor. They are to this day the most beautiful, fascinating, and impressive historical sites I have ever seen.
What’s even more amazing is that this ancient temple complex was buried in the jungle for the better part of a millennium, virtually unknown to the outside world until French explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” it back in 1860. His impression?
“One of these temples–a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo–might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Even though excavation and restoration work went on for most of the 20th century, the decades of war and civil strife made the site inaccessible to foreign tourists. Today, though, all are welcome to Cambodia to visit the incomparable temples of Angkor.
Angkor Wat is the one you hear about the most, and rightly so. It is the single largest religious structure in the world, a 12th-century Hindu masterpiece crowned with five lotus-shaped spires rising 200 feet off the ground. Located in an isolated region, surrounded by impenetrable jungle and an enormous moat, it’s easy to see why it got “lost” for centuries.
Although all those years of neglect and war took their toll on the building, it stayed remarkably intact. Even now, extensive restoration efforts are taking place on Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.
Angkor, however, is much more than just one temple. It was, in fact, the thriving capital city of the ancient Khmer Kingdom, which flourished during the 11th-13th centuries and controlled much of what is now Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
Satellite imagery suggests Angkor may have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering an area of nearly 400 square miles. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the impressive ruins attract over 2 million starry-eyed visitors every year.
Our day of touring began at the unfortunate hour of 4am, when our friendly tuk-tuk driver Dewan picked us up at our hotel so we could be at Angkor Wat to see the sunrise.
Was it worth it? For sure.
After that (and a much-needed breakfast) came the temple of Bayon, covered with hundreds of giant stone faces of the 13th-century Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.
The highlight, though, was the temple of Ta Phrom, which remains virtually untouched from its “lost in the jungle” state. Enormous trees have overtaken the temple, breaking down walls, wrapping around doorways, and stretching for the sky. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, this is the place!
The town of Siem Reap hasn’t changed much since 2009. It’s still a cozy little backpacker’s paradise, with cheap guesthouses and even cheaper food and drinks. Pub Street is very much alive and well, with massage parlors on every corner, and there’s even a new Cineplex where you can see the latest 3D movies for an astounding $4.
English is widely spoken, too, and everyone will readily bend over backward to accommodate you. Just arrived at 5am on the overnight bus? No worries, ma’am, we’ll get a room ready for you. Don’t have your own 3D glasses for the movie? You can borrow a pair, free of charge. Want to use our luxury swimming pool? We’ll waive the entrance fee if you buy a ($1) beer or cocktail. Massage in our day spa? Here’s a 20% discount, just because we feel like it.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll leave Siem Reap feeling like nothing less than a rock star.
In fact, every time I visit, I’m amazed and humbled by the friendly, smiling people and the beautiful sights in this materially poor but culturally rich country. Despite its turbulent past, I can’t help but feel that the future of Cambodia is looking brighter and brighter.