A trip to Cambodia – a travel story

We had Cambodia on our list of travel for a long long time. So when I got a chance to make the best use of time between two jobs, this location unanimously came to our mind.

The tailor made trip was organised by Veena world, mumbai. Serious appreciation for Mehul Deshpande from Veena world , who put up with hundreds of our questions from beginning to end & gave a seamless single window solution & Neil Patil, an avid traveller himself, who oversaw the itinerary & also suggested the best local food places & names of dishes too, from his personal experience. This input was truely priceless.

We got two excellent guides with us – Mr. Oun in phnom phen. He patiently answered millions of questions we asked & proactively kept telling us stories of the country, the paces, society, people , food & of course the monuments we were going to.

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Sayung, our guide at siem reap was probably the best guide we have come across , in the decade. He was very warm, friendly & knowledgable & could hold good conversations for long. If he did not know answers to a question, he would get back the next day. He almost became like a friend. We will probably ask him to take him to his village home if we visit Cambodia in future.

I am dividing this post into 4 parts – Cambodia today, the people, Cambodia in the past (till 800 yrs bk), the darkest history of this country 1975-79 & our interesting experiences during this visit.

All bridges in Cambodia had this naga (snake) symbol like in Hindu mythology & also simha (lion).

Cambodia today –

The country has a king & an elected parliament. The king does not run the government directly. Thruout the cities of Cambodia we saw large posters of the king’s parents but only in very few places we saw the king’s picture.

The elected parliament headed by prime minister runs the country. The same party has been ruling since 1979. We heard a huge amount of resentment among multiple people we interacted with. They unanimously & independently spoke about nepotism, corruption, rigged elections, suppression of opposition parties using government machinery, lack of actions in uplifting the general condition of people etc as concerns of today.

The National flag has 3 colors – blue stands for monarchy, red stands for nation & white stands for spirituality.

The local currency is riel – US$ 1 is approx 3800 riel. So all tourists use US$ instead of riel. All markets (including local non tourist vegetable markets & roadside snacks accept US$ & sometimes give the change back in riel.

There r two major cities – phnom phen & siem reap. The former is the capital city & also has the King’s palace. The latter has the largest temple in the world (bigger than any temple in india) – angkor wat & many more Hindu & Buddhist temples built 800-1300 years back!!!

Leasing rules – We were told that foreigners can’t buy property but they can lease. After 45 hrs of leasing, foreigners can buy property. Ground floor is always more expensive. Higher floors get less expensive by every floor.

France & Russia helped this country at different points. So there are places like Russian market,Russian Road etc. Coz these were funded by Russians after the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) regime.

60% of the population are farmers.

Economic disparity seemed to be high. In the cities There are either expensive imported cars or cheap two wheelers – mopeds / Scooty & 125 CC motor bikes. Traditional Tuk Tuks thAt ply in the city are essentially a horse carriage with a scooter replacing the horse. There are Bajaj & TVS autorickshaws from india too.

We also heard that in the countryside, Marriages happen by boy / girl finding their partner, like in the rest of the western world. We were also told that The boy had to however pay dowry to the girl, specially in rural areas. Before marriage permission has to be taken from local authorities, who will check for records, to ensure no polygamy. After marriage registration is done in local police station. There are multiple ceremonies for marriage. The last & final one is followed by a grand party. In rural areas this happens in the day due to electricity challenges post sunset. In urban areas the party happens in night.

We were told that in the countryside many people generally give cash gifts during marriage & the recipients keep a note, to match the amount received, if invited in reciprocation in future!!!

October November months get the maximum rain in the year. Floods often happen during this time.

90%+ of current population are Buddhist. Rest are Christian, islam, Hinduism & some other faiths.

People are extremely courteous, warm, always smiling. They also have a custom to greet like namaste with folded hands.

Cambodia in the past

This place has had several names – 1st – 6th century phunon, 6th-8th Cheng la, 9th – 15th Khmer 1431, after that Cambodia (kamboj in French), campuchea local language during 1975-79.

Documents on Early history of Cambodia is not available. A large part of history of this country is thru written accounts of Chinese travellers to Cambodia. Some inscriptions on stone also speak of life & times of king’s & their subjects.

In some temples built 1000 yrs back, Bas reliefs on stone vividly depict the daily life of the common man.

Cambodians used to write books with pages made from leaf. It seems those were destroyed some time (not known), that led to severe restriction in knowing the history.

Like in most parts of the world, Initial religion was animism – praying the natural elements, concept of spirits etc.

In 1st century, an Indian Hindu king phun tien (Cambodian name) married a Cambodian queen. That’s when Hinduism started coming in as a religion. This information is not clearly found in any book but from multiple sources including folklore. Trade with india started too, around this period. Then 7th century onwards Hindu temples started being built as the rulers were followers of Hinduism. The common folk had both Buddhist followers & Hinduism.

In the Buddhism that is followed here today, there are many elements of Hinduism – Naga, Garuda, churning of ocean from Indian mythology & more.

The two kings who built temples that we see till today are suryavarman 2 & Jayavarman 7.

Suryavarman 2 , who built the world’s largest Hindu temple Angkor wat, ruled for 40 yrs. after him, his cousin ruled for 10 years till 1160 AD. The next 20 years were ruled by miscellaneous people & in 1181, the cousin’s son Jayavarman 7 became the king. He is known as the greatest kings of Cambodia & he ruled for 37 years. He built the Bayon temple (large Buddha faces) & many more temples.

In addition to temples Jayavarman 7 also built 121 rest houses about 15 km apart. He also built hospitals across the country.

Jayavarman 7 converted to Buddhism. It is said by many that his two queens were followers of Buddhism & inspired him to become Buddhist – his wife indradevi was principal teacher at a Buddhist monastery. So All temples built by Jayavarman 7 were Buddhist temples.

Jayavarman 8, who succeeded Jayavarman 7, still followed Hinduism. He converted some of the Buddhist temples to Hindu temples by replacing the Buddha statues with shiva linga or in some cases adding a third eye to make Buddha statue Look like Hindu god!!!

While both religions coexisted for few more centuries, in 1500s, the King converted to Buddhism & it was made the official religion. Eventually all people converted. So from a largely Hindu state 1000 years back, it has only 1% Hindus left. Buddhist population is more than 90%.

It’s interesting to see how the Two important religions from india – Hinduism & Buddhism shaped the history of this country.

Angkor Thom was last capital of Angkor period – 9 sq km in area, surrounded by a moat 100m wide & 13 km in circumference. Walls of the city were made by lava stone, supported by a rampart inside. Within city was residence of king, family, officials, priest, military officers. Rest people stayed outside.

20th century – the darkest period in the history of this country

Like many other countries, the French had colonised Cambodia in the mid 1800s. In mid 1900s Cambodia got freedom & the king became the supreme power once again.

During the fifties till mid sixties communist & separatist movements started in many parts of the country. The communists got powerful in late sixties till 1974.

In January 1975, a communist military leader named Pol Pot took over. For the next 4 years his forces ruled the country & massacred to a level that would put even Adolf hitler’s atrocities to shame.

Pol pot’s rule is referred to as Khmer Rouge (means red). During this time the country was called campuchea.

It is said that US used Cambodia as a base to fight Vietnam in 1970-75. It is also said that China supported pol pot to run Khmer Rouge. During this rule the king & his family stayed in China & were safe. Unlike what happened to the czar in Russia, the Cambodian king’s wealth also largely remained intact. Only the common people were massacred.

In January 1975 Cambodia had a population of 7 million. By the end of 4 years of pol pot, the country had only 4 million population left. 20000 people were officially executed by the government but the rest died of hunger & disease caused by malnutrition, excessive physical work & inhuman living conditions.

Pol pot interpreted the communist theory by the letter & not in spirit. He asked people to work in the farm, in communes. His people were sent to villages from cities. Families were separated. Men were sent to separate farms, women to separate & kids were raised in different places. Anyone who attempted to escape was brutally killed, after unbelievable torture, in front of others, so that others do not attempt to repeat the same.

People were also told ‘what’s the point of studying. If you are good, go to the farm, increase productivity & prove your brilliance.’

At the farm, low productivity was severely dealt with, even if the person was sick / old.

Food at the farm was 2 spoons of clear soup, no proteins, maybe a little bit of greens.

His people also rounded up all educated people & intellectuals & killed them after extreme physical torture. Will elaborate about this in the next section (our experiences) when we describe a prison that we visited. The idea of killing intellectuals & educated people was to both create fear & also to remove traces of people who had potential to tell rest of the world about what was happening / organise revolt against the regime.

Our tour guide told us that his father was a teacher. He was only was 6 yrs old when his father was Killed by pol pot army for being an intellectual. His mother was separated to a separate camp. He & his siblings were sent to a camp near a jungle. He remembers how the watery soup would be so insufficient & he & others would always remain hungry. So he & other kids ate insects, earthworms, lizards, water cockroach, frog etc. All this would be eaten raw coz if fire wud be seen from distance, soldiers wud just kill them for flouting food rationing norms. The one good thing that I heard from this conversation was that he could find his mother many years later & they united. They could not however find all the other siblings.

In 1979 pol pot was overthrown & he fled with his associated to the jungles. He lived there as the leader of the exiled group, like a king, & died in old age. The man who directly & indirectly killed 3 million people did not even stand in court. No punishment!!! Sometimes it seems that all these international organisations like United Nations do actually nothing more than lip service. In North Korea something similar is happening as you read this but no one is able to do anything.

We also got to know that in those 4 years, young people were Married to people of choice of the army officials – they could not marry as per own choice. Revolt would mean death.

Mass marriages were organised & Producing children was expected as soon as biologically possible, to ensure there are future soldiers for the country!! delays in this would also attract penalty !!!!

So you would be wondering that who are these brutal soldiers? They were Children & teenagers soldiers. These kids were chosen based on physical fitness & then Brain washed – doing a service to the government is like doing a good deed. They were taught that there are Bad people & good people and the bad people needed to be brutally tortured & killed!

During pol pot’s times, many uninhabitable lands were fitted with Landmines & later when the regime took shelter in the jungles, they installed landmines in the whole approach area. Some of those landmines have had their effects till many years later. Many a common villager have lost their limbs or lives in these land mines.

In many historical monuments you can see Musicians who have been affected by land mines – lost their hands or legs. They play Traditional musical instruments. We were stunned to see a wonderful music by blowing into tree leaf!!!

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Our experiences

We covered two cities – the capital phnom phen & the city famous for angkor wat temple – siem reap. In both the cities we had a tour guide with us for full day & also a chauffeur driven car at our disposal. Incidentally the cars in both the cities was Lexus – not that I pad extra for it, but there are no locally made cars here. Only rich people own cars. They import. Most of local travel happens in tuktuks.

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We scream about swaccha Bharat but Cambodians prove it. We did not see garbage piles, general dirt lying around. Even washrooms in public places were neat & clean.

sokha – the hotel we stayed in phnom phen was huge, 5 star, professional, impersonal & at times cold. Everything was shiny clean.

Heritage suites hotel at siem reap – it was a small, boutique property. The attention to detail, a dedicated manager to help for any need, Mr. Sopheak, warmth of all the staff, proactiveness, making us feel at home constantly – unbelievable. 5 stars to the people here.

Phnom phen:

King’s palace was located in a large campus, with a equally beautiful outer wall. The palace has been beautifully maintained & so are the open areas in the campus.

The palace was built in 1883 m. In 1892, the silver pagoda was built, with 1904 Buddha statue. The pagoda has 90 kg gold & 2086 carat diamond, we were told. 5329 kg of silver was used to make the real silver tile floor. Distribution of wealth in this country was & surely is severely skewed.

Prison

During travel to phnom phen, tourists are taken to a prison which was earlier a school. Pol pot’s people had converted it to a prison overnight. In the prison, there are 3 buildings. Prisoners were kept in one building. Then they were Moved to bldg A for torture, then taken to bldg C. All walls of the prison now have black & white pictures of torture, victims & a gallery of the torturers as well.

Metal bed, chains to tie the prisoner, metal box – all of these lie as it is, so many years. Tortured used to be inhuman beyond imagination – nails being taken out, person being split into two live, by pulling two feet apart & others which I better not describe.

There is an exhibit of skulls & bones. Gory it is. Shocking as well. When you start thinking ‘why am I even seeing this’ , you realise a lesson that history has taught us multiple times – ‘this can happen anywhere if there is a ruler with absolute power – be it a democracy (on the face of it) or an autocracy. Hitler tortured & killed people of a different faith. Pol pot did the same to his own people.’

There were 3 survivors of the prison – 1 person who was a typewriter mechanic (he was useful to the army), 1 person who was a painter (he was asked to document inmates), one child (that time) now old.

Other – we also heard that there are Not enough schools for poor people. At times children go in batches to the same school coz physical infrastructure is limited.

We also njoyed loads of tuk tuk rides in the city.

Our guide took us to monastery & showed us in detail. It’s amazing how there are elements of Hinduism like garuda, Naga (snake) etc were co existing in Buddhist temple.

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Angkor wat

Angkor wat temple is the World’s largest Hindu temple in size but it surely is not the best. Khajuraho (North Indian temple architecture) & brihadeshwara (South Indian temple architecture) are many times better in terms of detailing & intricacy of work. The only thing that left us stumped in angkor wat in addition to the size were the two massive hallways with stories from Ramayana & other mythology etched on stone on the wall.

Bayon temple was a stunning Buddha temple with huge Buddha faces. Our guide aptly said ‘note the benign smile on the face of Buddha’. That’s true coz we saw many replicas being sold but none of those artists cud get the same facial expression as the original artist who carved it on stone.

Distinct, different, right from the huge carved gates on the outside, the samudramanthana (churning of the ocean), the massive bas relief depicting the daily life of people 800 years back ….

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the Bayon temples were our most favourite in the trip. Way more impressed seeing this, than the angkor wat.

We just could not get enough of Banteay srei – it was the smallest of all temples but it was also the most intricate. It was a long drive away. Thoroughly enjoyed the detailing in the carving on stone.

Ta prohm was the temple which people refer to as the TOMB RAIDER temple – coz a movie of that name featuring Angelina homie was shot in this temple. Due to centuries of neglect the temple has been taken over by trees. Archaeologists from ASI are taking care of restoring the temple but if the trees are cut, the temple will fall off. So it’s kept as it is.

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Our guide also took us to Pre Rup temple – older than angkor wat. The staircase is massive & the walk up is a work out. It’s beautiful up there. Large part of the stone has decayed – 1200 years is no less time.

We met a guy who was carving leather into interesting shapes. Loved his work. Bought it & framed it back home.

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Apart from the temple hopping, we saw some serious handicraft schools. We were absolutely blown away by the level of skills that the weavers had. A tour to the silk farm was very educative. They showed all stages from different kinds of mulberry bush to the cocoon, to thread making to weaving. I was amazed how beautifully they had us walk out of a retail store at the end of this trip – no one even tried to hard sell anything.

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In the city there are quite a few museums. We went to see a cultural museum that had a live show on a traditional Cambodian marriage.

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The heritage museum was a very good one. We spent a good amount of time in this very well maintained & world class museum.

A walk around pub street (reminded me on lan kwai fong in Hong Kong). In addition to pubs, The area was full of massage parlours & eateries in every 3rd shop.

We also went for an unforgettable trip to Tonle sap lake, which is the largest lake in the country. It is so big that it is visible from the flight!!!

On the river there was a floating village. The village had homes, clinic, church, school, boat repair shop etc everything in houseboats. The boats were anchored on the banks of the lake. We went for a boat ride to this lake.

This was followed by a great lunch sitting on the floor, in a lotus farm

We were super lucky to get a brilliant guide sayong – a rare variety of people who define way luxury travel industry should operate. One stop ‘guide’ for all 24 hours of stay, thinking on the brief, coming up with solutions & remembering every conversation.

We had a ball of a time eating local food. Read about our memories of eating street food at random places, visiting local market where vegetables & meats are sold here – Cambodia food 1, Cambodia food 2 & Cambodia food 3.

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8 comments

  1. Brilliant narrative & superb pictures. I wish you had elaborated a bit more on the local food as well as the costs incurred for the trip.

    1. There are 3 detailed posts on local food. Pls go to the end of this post & see the links. Alternatively pls search ‘eating out in Cambodia’ in the blog.
      Or paste the following on URL.
      https://yummraj.com/?s=Eating+Cambodia+

      Costs incurred – travel , food , stay & everything put together in fairly luxurious way is approx a lac per person for a week. Normal would be 70k. Am sure there would be cheaper budget options. You can contact Veena world if u want to replicate the trip

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