Updated: Nov 18, 2018
Angkor Wat to Cambodia is what Taj Mahal is to India. It is a national pride. You can't afford to miss it in spite of it being the most visited sites in all of Cambodia.
When making travel plans to Cambodia, Angkor Wat temples are all I knew of the destination. Little did I know of their dark history, their extended meat-eating habits or of their life-saving rats.
My stay in Siem Reap didn't exceed 96 hours, yet amounted to an incredible experience. Aside from the Jaw dropping ancient structures of Angkor Wat, what stood out for me was the boat tour to the floating village of Kampong Phluk and the local market where I came across some of the eeriest animals writhing around the ground, whacked to be shipped off to people across Siem Reap.
Cambodia is a Southeast Asian Country neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. The Official language and the people of Cambodia are referred to as Khmer, (pronounced Khmey), and yes they don't mind being called Cambodians. What fascinated me was India's influence on their Hindu style architecture, and the written script of Khmer does emulate Indian languages and probably so as its derivative of Sanskrit and Pali writing.
I traveled in June, and the weather was hot and dry but luckily witnessed random rains as well.
While watching a travel documentary, I stumbled upon the Khmer Rouge and killing fields. The scenes had disturbed me enough to study as much information as I could. I think its profound to be aware of this horrific incident before you travel to Cambodia as it can be forethoughtful.
Khmer Rouge period refers to the Cambodian communist movement that was active as a guerrilla force from 1975-1979 under the rule of Pol Pot. The regime committed mass killings of people leading to genocide in an attempt to purify the Cambodian society along the racial, social and political lines. They used many sites to kill and bury the murdered people which are referred to as killing fields. If you visit any of the mass graves, you’ll be faced with a powerful reminder of the brutality of this regime.
The rouge period led me in understanding another yielding theory of their somewhat questionable food culture. The famine and malnutrition meant making with whatever food that was available around you. Sure enough, consuming of insects in south-east Asia isn’t new. But this is somewhat complex. I mean, I’m talking about baby crocodiles, tarantula, water beetles, snakes to name a few and I haven’t even mentioned the fermented sauce servings yet.
Most friends were interested in knowing if I tried anything at all? Just the Crocodile folks and no, I wouldn’t do it again. Let's say if you’re a food experimenter then this is your paradise.
Alternatively, the Khmer menu boasts of strong and vibrant flavors which draw inspiration from India and China. Your trip is considered incomplete if you haven’t indulged in the signature dish of Fish Amok. Steamed fish coated in Khmer spices and cooked in a coconut curry paste with rice serving is divine.
Tourists are not allowed to rent motorbikes in Siem Reap, so the time-honored way of trekking through the temples is by tuk-tuk. Also, if you find a driver who speaks english, his insight on the temples and Cambodian ways are valuable. The ticket that you purchase will have a picture of you and make sure to have it handy at all times.
The pricing structure involved in visiting Angkor Wat may seem steep, but I can assure you what you experience in return is immeasurable. Especially if you have the chance to watch a sunrise or sunset, don’t miss it. I watched the sunrise and it was a very calming experience and also being there early meant covering a lot more temples before the scorching sun brought your spirits down. The ancient mystique, the detailed structures and the gigantic crooked trees hovering the shrines are all phenomenal.
Exploring all the wonders of Angkor left me feeling in desperate need of relaxation. Headed straight to some reflexology and Spa for a dose of unwind time.
There are three main floating villages to choose from in Siem Reap namely Chong Kneas, Kampong Phluk and Kampong Khleang. I chose Kampong Phluk as I was informed by the guide that the authenticity of the place was well maintained and it is relatively a shorter boat ride compared to the other two.
The guide & steersman for the boat ride were 9 & 13 year old brothers respectively who weren’t up for small talks. Or, any talks for that matter. The color of the water wasn’t what you’d typically expect, and few minutes into the water I understood why. The boys stopped at a floating restaurant for lunch, and this was where I got myself acquainted with the crocodile meat. The lady at the restaurant was welcoming and prompted on showing something alluring. I noticed a floating cage on display, and she goes “Look there are crocodiles in store.” My heart skipped a beat watching kids swimming whilst the possibility of more crocodiles underneath the water.
I really couldn’t help wonder how they managed to build such large-scale makeshift houses. It was just like any other township. The floating village had numerous homes, schools, restaurants, and playgrounds too. I learned that due to lack of electricity they use car batteries to power the houses. I was floored to learn about the living condition of the villagers.
Meanwhile, Siem Reap has a plethora of bars and restaurants catering to the most taste and budgets. You can start by quenching your thirst at the Pub Street which is a favorite night scene spot of hoards of tourists. Then you can head to the old market for a bit of hipster feel. The night markets are concentrated within the downtown area and offer a wide range of fair-trade handicrafts and fresh produce. It is great for purchasing authentic Cambodian craftsmanship such as stone carvings, ceramics, silver wear, and silks, with proceeds going to the Khmer people.
Aside from serving as a meat product, the Rats are put to a break-through use of landmine clearance. Wondering why is that? During wartime, landmines were laid all over the territory of Cambodia by different regimes. People who placed them did not remember it anymore. The landmines not only cause tragic accidents, but also hinder the development too. Since no maps are saved, finding the exact location of the mines are an excruciating task. Enter Hero Rats to the rescue. These trained rats detect only the explosives and ignore the scrap metal. One rat can systematically check an area of 200 m2 in twenty minutes. A metal detector would take between one to four days to test the same area. Isn’t that something?
This visit to Siem Reap has been very special to me as I may have in little ways found the trail to the travel experiences I'd like to embark.
True, Cambodia may be one of the lesser fortunate countries. Regardless of the state, you won’t be directed to walk away feeling remorseful of being privileged, if anything you will walk away with uplifting gratitude towards life and in a hope to be more resourceful to the world at large.
Travel Related Information:
Visa for Indians: On arrival and E-Visa
Cost: USD 30 (Approx : RS 2100)
Currency: Cambodian riel
Photography Credits :
Shilpa Srinivas @flohwithme