Somehow, whenever people speak of Cambodia, all they seem to remember is the great citadel of Angkor Wat. While Angkor is certainly the showpiece of ‘The Magnificent Kingdom’, I wasn’t buying the argument that if you had seen Angkor, you had seen Cambodia. Most of the people you meet on the streets will still proudly flaunt the country’s recovery from war while others will echo a not-so-optimistic outlook – both are true and this makes the country so much more beautiful.
The citadel of Angkor is a significant landmark that has all of Cambodia’s Middle Age civilizations and intrusive neighboring kingdoms as players in a grand story that spans hundreds of years. Angkor Wat is impressive – impressive enough for almost every significant architectural monument thereafter to copy the acorn-shaped cupola of the temple. You could explore this citadel for a week and not be bored but Angkor is certainly not all there is to see in Cambodia.
Sure, a lot of people are going to tell you that the Preah Vihear Temple, the great Hindu temple (and other UNESCO Heritage Site) in the Dangrek Mountains on Cambodia’s northern border isn’t as impressive as Angkor Wat. This may seem true at first glance until you notice something strange and amazing – the temple and all its surroundings seem suspended in the clouds. A few meters’ walk will show you why: a precipitous overhang that looms over 500 meters above what I’m told is disputed land between Thailand and Cambodia. The journey there by car is about 10 hours from Pnomh Pen so you can also break your journey at the Kulen Prum Tep National Park. Or you can stay over at the Koh Ker Village before you reach the mountains.
Sihanoukville and Kep are two towns that have struggled to throw off the vestiges of a violent past that destroyed the land, its people and what were once bustling beach towns. If you’re French, you will still find some old folk who speak the language in Sihanoukville. The better of the two towns is Kep – there’s no better place for fried crab and pepper. Don’t bother about the crab from the restaurant – get your own at the crab market. You won’t find better anywhere else. You could get your catch cooked at one of the several shacks on the beach, after which, an antacid or two won’t hurt.
I recommend wearing flip-flops everywhere not just on account of the humidity but also because lace-ups or shoes are going to be cumbersome to deal with in a land of temples, where footwear isn’t allowed inside these buildings. So unless you want your expensive sneakers or pumps to ‘disappear’, consider an inexpensive pair of local footwear.
Everyone’s voices automatically seems to become softer and more subdued when they are at the Killing Fields memorial. There’s an unspeakable sadness here and decades have done little to dull the horror of Cambodia’s largest genocide. The Killing Fields monument at Choeung Ek is filled with relics of the killing, the Stupa containing human bones, a memorial to the 9000 souls who were killed at the location and the estimated 2 million who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. The mass graves in Choeung Ek although now covered with emerald grass, are a grim reminder of the atrocities human beings are capable of.
Cambodia isn’t on a lot of tourist itineraries – and that’s a good thing for those of us who are searching for ourselves in the world around us. It’s not difficult to find a few missing pieces in this land.