By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Some travel guidebooks state a Frenchman discovered the ruins of Angkor, Cambodia, in 1860. That claim irks some Cambodians and foreigners.
It’s the same story when historians wrote that Christopher Columbus discovered America, while Native Americans had set their foot on the land for over 2,000 years.
It’s more accurate to say that a white man had found a forgotten city. No one could imagine that Angkor, now Cambodia’s national park, was once the capital city of the Khmer Empire during 1010-1220, with over 1,000 stone temples built by hand.
My husband and I began a five-day journey from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh last November, to Angkor, now recognized by World Heritage as a treasure.
Recent studies have found that Angkor had a capacity of supporting close to a population of a million. Modern scientists had concluded that it had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
And no one could explain how or why a once-prosperous civilization with rich rice fields and advanced irrigation system vanished over time.
From the Killing Fields to Angkor
We didn’t join any tour groups because their itineraries were inflexible and conventional. Experiencing local culture usually is not the intent of many tour operators. At the airport, I met a Chinese American who joined the tours from Hong Kong, who complained that every meal that was served included only Chinese food.
She lamented she never found out what Cambodian food was like.
After visiting the horrific museum, namely the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, we were eager to leave and get some fresh air at Angkor.
You can take the bus, boat, plane, taxi or mini-bus to travel from the capital to Angkor, Siem Reap, which is about 144 miles. We took none of the above. What a wise decision!
The bus is the cheapest way. It costs $6 to $15 U.S. per person for a bumpy bus ride for more than six hours as it stopped at several sites to pick up passengers. The roads are narrow, rough, and new ones are still being constructed (by China).
The boat ride costs $40 U.S., but you won’t see anything except water during part of the four-hour ride. Tourists criticize on the internet that it’s hot and crowded on the boat, and the restrooms are sometimes not clean. The airfare costs $100 U. S. for an hour fight. But boarding time added before and after the flight is wasted.
“What are the other options to get to Siem Reap?” my husband asked the hotel clerk.
“Rent a private car with driver,” he said.
“Sounds great,” I responded. Arranged by the hotel, the private car cost $85 U.S. for both, including picking us up from our hotel in Phnom Penh, and dropping us at our hotel in Siem Reap. The other transportation options just dropped you off at a crowded and chaotic station, and you need to hassle for other means to get to your hotel.
The ride to Siem Reap
It took us less than six hours to get to Siem Reap, including our one-hour lunch. I couldn’t ask for a more comfortable ride!
We treated the driver to lunch. He took us to a nice local restaurant with a private hut for each party, including a hammock for guests to rest. The food was delicious and the price low. I got to talk to the English-speaking driver on the front seat and learn more about Cambodia and his life. During the drive, I held my breath when we passed other cars in front, and cars on the opposite lane didn’t slow down.
No Americans would travel like the Cambodians. A van packed with passengers and goods inside passed by our car at a speed of 50 miles an hour, while one guy held his hands on the top rack outside the van and stood with his feet on the narrow bumper.
Sometimes, four people (two kids and babies without helmets) squeezed onto a motorcycle. Two passengers are the legal limit in Cambodia. No police officer stopped any of them.
We had three days to see Angkor, which was not enough to see the whole ancient city with over 1,000 architectural ruins. Plan what you want to see. Usually, tuk tuk drivers know all the popular spots. (A tuk tuk is a motorcycle extended with passengers’ seats at the back. The charges are around $25 U.S. for four hours of sightseeing.)
We picked some sites from photos we liked and recommendations from friends.
Marissa Vichayapai, of 21 Progress encouraged us to see a woman’s temple, Banteay Srei, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It was very different from other temples and much farther away from the other ruins. It was also our best 40-minute tuk ride in our trip, sightseeing an interesting part of town, and observing how residents live in the countryside.
Besides Angkor Wat, which took 37 years to build, I recommend Bayon, the laughing temple with different smiling faces of gods, its impressive entrance with gods of heaven and hell; Elephants Terrace; and Ta Prohm (where Angelina Jolie filmed her movie).
Sunrise or Sunset if you are lucky
Martha Choe, a former Seattle City Councilmember, urged me to see Angkor’s sunset. Sunrise is enchanting. But do I want to get up before 4 a.m. in the morning?
There were a few choices to see the sunset.
We picked Pre Rup, the one with less people, but much farther away.
The sun sets at 5:30 p.m. every day if it doesn’t rain or become cloudy. Arriving at 5 p.m., we were able to secure a good spot for our camera. In 15 minutes, you see the dramatic changing colors of landscape, flickering shadows of trees, land, temples, and statues of gods and animals. At 5:45 p.m. the sun completely faded, and darkness descended on the temples.
If you join a tour, you have to walk in the dark and heat, as tour buses were not allowed to park close to the site. Our tuk tuk driver was waiting for us at the entrance for the three days we were there.
My husband was smart to select Le Meridien, a hotel close to Angkor so we didn’t waste a lot of time traveling back and forth. We returned to the hotel if we needed a break.
A three-day pass costs $40 U.S. each, and I advise you to buy it.
The night market starts at 6 p.m. I loved the energy at PUB Street.
Illuminated with colorful neon lights and English signs, the market has a variety of pubs, restaurants, and shops. The majority of the visitors are foreigners, filling the restaurants and pubs. Several restaurants have trained at least one waitress speaking Mandarin (as there are many Chinese customers). Chinese tourists are everywhere.
The restaurants provide English menus with illustrative photos of the cuisine. No need to ask for a big bowl of rice, as Cambodian restaurants just fill our empty bowl as soon as we finish the rice without extra charge.
Also, you can see a cultural dance performance or circus performed by Cambodians and taught by Europeans. The Khmer Rouge’s genocide killed many professionals, especially artists. Today, young Cambodians need help to develop arts and support young artists. At the end of the program, they ask for your donations to support young artists so they can have good wages and decent living conditions. How could I not give to support such an important cause!
I follow poet Robert Frost’s advice: Take the road less traveled. Our experiences were so much more satisfying and rewarding. (end)
Part III: The Killing Fields and tips to travel in Cambodia will be continued on Jan. 7, 2016