Cambodia was like a summer fling. A fast, hot, flash of love that ended as soon as it started. Wandering through the ancient intricately carved abandoned temples, sleeping in hanging tents on the beach, and learning of Cambodia’s dark history is still burning in our minds as we leave the Khmer country and turn our eyes to Vietnam.
We are in travel sprint mode as we are attempting to see southeast asia in two months, and we were graced by Cambodia for only a week. It was a combination of heavily intense and chilled out relaxing experiences, and we felt that we had a proper taste of Cambodia in our 7 day whirlwind. Check out our 7 day itinerary of what we did and where we stayed below so you can enjoy Cambodia as much as we did!
Day 1 & 2 Siem Reap and Angkor Wat:
We arrived late and hopped off the bus into Siem Reap, on of the most populated cities in Cambodia, expecting the stereotypical Southeast Asia busy streets and zipping mopeds. What we were greeted with was the exact opposite, dirt roads, single story buildings, and cows chilling in front of houses. We stayed at the Cheng Lay, and would highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Siem Reap. It was clean, cheap, has a delicious restaurant out front, and not far from the night market. One of the main reasons to visit Siem Reap is to see the amazingly huge temple complex of Angkor Wat. We booked our tour for sunrise that night at Cheng Lay and went to bed excited for the next morning.
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest temple complex, measuring at 402 acres, and built in the 12th Century.
It was mysteriously abandoned for unknown reasons, and is characterized by many towering temples. Some are well preserved, others lay in moss covered blocks scattered around with trees finding their roots in the remaining temples.
This mysteriously sacred and once grand and now overgrown place is what made it such a perfect site for the movie Tomb Raider.
This is the iconic tomb raider tree, but obviously not us in front of it. There was a long line for pictures and we just don’t have time for that!
We made it in time to see the sun opening its eyes right behind Angkor temple, the largest in the complex.
It really wasn’t t00 heavy, Emily was holding most of the weight.
In total we saw 7 temples, and sometimes the temples stared back.
Who will win this staring contest?
This is the Banyan temple, which has 4 faces of Buddha on each of the 49 towers.
The long open hallways made the temples feel like they go on forever, but surrounding and encompassing at the same time.
At one of the temples, there was a monk giving good luck blessings and bracelets for a small donation. Since we are traveling with type 1 diabetes we figured we could use all the luck we could get.
We kneeled down in front him and he began chanting as he tied the bracelets around our wrists. We have n0 idea what he was saying and could have been talking about his dog, but it is still nice to know that no matter the language or religion that someone is sending us positive vibes. And it’s cool that we now have a bracelet to remember his blessing and Cambodia!
Our guide, Sudi, was a super excitedable 21 year old who greeted us at Cheng Lay with enough energy that no coffee was needed to jolt us awake at 5:30 am. He taught himself 5 different languages in order to give tours to as many nationalities as possible, a super driven guy!
He was very knowledgable about the temples and shared many stories and small nuances about the carvings and structures.
He even shared his perception and opinions about the Khmer government, something we might not have otherwise learned. Wihout Sudi, we would have missed a lot of information had we been wandering around by ourselves and highly recommend a guide when going to Angkor Wat. A tuk tuk driver was also included to whip us around from temple to temple within the huge complex.
One of the most amazing things about Angkor Wat was the incredible trees!
There’s a secret in this tree, see if you can find it!
The trees had become part of the temples, or the temples had become part of nature, or maybe both. Either way, many of the old structures and the trees were one in the same, adding to the dramatic effect of forgotten history.
We said goodbye to the faces and trees and headed back to our guest house where we wandered through the nearby night market and packed to leave in the morning.
Day 3,4, & 5: Koh Rong Samloem
Cambodia is claimed to have some of the most beautiful islands in the world, and after visiting Thailand’s tear jerkingly, mind blowingly, earth shatteringly beautiful islands, we were super skeptical that these would even come close. But of course we had to find out for ourselves.
Following the trend of multiple non stop forms of travel, we caught a bus, to multiple Tuk Tuks, to a ferry which landed us on Koh Rong Samloem, one of Cambodia’s more chill, and we think most beautiful islands. (We didn’t even need to see any other islands, we are convinced this one is the most beautiful). And it lived up to its reputation. The sandy beaches are marble white, and so soft it felt like walking on cake flour. It was so soft in fact, that when you walked on the sand it actually squeaked! It is very hard to explain, but imagine a squeaky doggy toy that you muffle in a pillow, that’s when stepping on this beach sounded like everytime. It is very easy to get away from society and disconnect while here. There is very little to no wifi, no roads, mopeds, or cars, and if you want to know something, you actually have to ASK SOMEONE! This was such a foreign concept to us, but we embraced it full on in relaxation mode, or so we thought…
Without roads, the only way to get around is by Tuk Tuk. And by that I mean we named each one of our legs Tuk. This normally wouldn’t be a problem at all except we had our giant bags, the guest house was on the other end of the island, and the trek was steep and rocky. Emily decided shoes were too weak sauce for her and did it in Flip Flops!
She’s actually training to be the first to climb Everest in flip flops.
We finally made it to our place, Sleeping tress, and let me tell you, it was the most uniquely incredible place we have every stayed! It actually wasn’t a guest house, it was a tent. And when we already carry a tent with us, you might be asking, why pay to stay in someone else’s?
Because it is floating in the air!
This was our view every morning.
It was incredibly comfortable and as cliché as it sounds, was like sleeping on a cloud.
The beach that we were staying on is called sunset beach, we couldn’t really figure out why though.
The best parts about Sleeping Tents is that within eye shot we had a great tasting restaurant and bar, a volleyball court, bachi ball, plenty of hammocks for chill out hang time, and of course, a beach so beautiful that we thought we’d find Jack Sparrow sipping rum on its soft sand.
There were few enough people that we could pretend we were the only ones on the entire beach, but the few people that were had awesome, friendly, outgoing personalities, and we had a fun time hanging out, swimming, and playing volleyball.
We even have future plans to meet up and travel in the future! We didn’t leave this place for 3 days and had an amazing time, which is surprising because we can barely stay in one place for more than 5 hours. We had so much fun making new friends and playing cards, swimming in the ocean, playing volleyball, and straight up relaxing.
As if this wasn’t amazing enough already, we were able to experience true magic, swimming with the stars!(this could be a tv show about Michael phelps teaching celebrities how to swim) Certain parts of the world are home to plankton that not only float around feeding fish, but when they are moved or agitated light up the dark waters with an electric blue light. This natural phenomenon is called bioluminescence, and truly is nature’s way of making art. It was a lucky coincidence for us that one of these places just so happened to be 200 feet down the beach from our tent. We grabbed snorkel gear with our new friends and hit the beach, not sure what we would find. At first we stopped and gasped with excitement at every sparkle in the water, which was most likely from the moon bouncing off the waves, we had no idea what we were about to experience. When we found a dark enough spot, the water was completely dark, without a sparkle, and we were a little skeptical about the validity of these plankton thinking maybe they had stage fright. We stepped into this magical water and our disappointment melted away, and in its place took unabashed yelling and laughter. Our feet and hands actually lit up in the dark water when we moved them around as the plankton were sharing their magical abilities. We waded into the water until we couldn’t stand, and gazed, amazed at our own hands and feet, and even more amazed by watching someone else swimming. Electric blue dots were dancing around our entire bodies as we moved through the water. Even though it was very dark, we could clearly make out someone’s arms and legs by the many dots of plankton bouncing off of their skin. Because of the bright plankton and because of our giddy laughter there was no getting separated in the dark. To make things even better, when w took our eyes off the sparkles in the water and turned them to the sky, the stars were so bright and abundant. Sparkles if we looked down, sparkles if we looked up, it was amazing. Unfortunately it was too dark for the go pro to pick up underwater, otherwise we would have oodles of pictures to show you guys. Truly a magical experience that we will never forget.
Day 6 & 7: Phnom Penh: Dark History and Good Food
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s largest city with 1.5 million people, and as many delicious restaurants to eat as there are mopeds flying around. We were not feeling the greatest our first day there, but we did manage to crawl out our hotel to grab a bite to eat. Almost every roadside stand had baguettes and croissants, which had us wondering if our bus had really taken us to Phnom Penh or Paris. Cambodia was colonized by the French for about 90 years in the mid 1800s and thankfully left some of their delicious traditions as they left.
Bahn Mi Bros. was a very original sandwich shop that gave us a preview to what will find in Vietnam. Mok Mony is another delectable spot with many traditional Vietnamese dishes, and is a cheap eat island amongst the middle of an upscale, pricey restaurant ocean.
*Disclaimer: This is a recap of Cambodian genocide between 1975-1979 and may be hard to read.*
One of the main things to do in Phnom Penh is to learn of Cambodia’s dark history between 1975-1978, as this capital city was the site of many atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge during this time. This second day, we were feeling much better and able to escape the room to visit Tuol Selm, a museum that was once the place of nightmares, and a site where over 20,000 Cambodians were killed in a short three years.
Quick recap of Cambodian history:
The Khmer Rouge was a communist party who overthrew a corrupt Cambodian government after the Vietnam War ended. They believed in ultra equalty, with no difference in education or prosperity, and that an agrarian society away from cities would create a utopia. The war stricken people were desperate to believe in a utopian idea after having survived the Vietnam War that they had no desire to be a part of, and having weathered the many bombings of the U.S.A. over a period of 9 years. The Khmer Rouge drove people out of the cities and into the countryside, forcing them to become farmers or factory workers. In order to protect its power and ideals, they killed any Cambodian with an education, money, or influence. As well as anyone they considered to be a “traitor”, which could have been anyone, even the high ranking officers. This genocide lasted for three years and killed 2 million Cambodians, a large percentage of their 7 million population.
Tuol Selm, or S-21, was once a high school turned into a prison in order to abolish education. It housed “traitors”, who were tortured and forced to write a confession to their wrongdoing against the Khmer Rouge’s ideals before being killed. Many times these confessions were completely fabricated because these people had no answers to their interrogators questions about CIA and KGB connections, but wanted respite from the torture. It is in the middle of busy Phnom Penh, surrounded by houses and factories where people lived and worked during the Khmer Rouge reign. Perhaps the most shocking and frightening part is that all of this happened in this busy city in total secrecy. Even surrounded by people, its secrecy wasn’t discovered until after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
With an audio guide, we walked through what was one of the most horrific sites of human history, and learned about this dark history in grim detail. The middle courtyard was full of beautiful trees with budding flowers, but these were surrounded by grey broken buildings that wreaked of despair.
Here is a memorial to the victims of S-21, and behind it one of the building that held them prisoner.
Out of respect, we did not take many photos, but every room we walked in was chilling. Standing in the tiny brick cells where innocent people were chained sent shivers through our bodies, and many times we had to step into the courtyard as it was too heavy and too much to handle.
This was extremely dark, and not how we would have preferred to leave Cambodia, but we feel very important. It is important that people know these stories and learn how evil such as the Khmer Rouge came to power in order to prevent it from happening in the future. We had never learned of the Khmer Rouge in school, but think that this is as important as the Holocaust to study, and more awareness should be made. We were very sad to hear of this happening to such a beautiful country and its beautiful people. Knowing everything that had happened in their past made us even more amazed by the friendliness and generosity of the Cambodians.
Our time in Cambodia may have been short, but our experiences were deep. We explored ancient ruins, made new friends, experienced magic, and learned of something we hope to never see again. Cambodia was an amazing country, and if you are interested in beautiful beaches and history, one that should definitely be visited!