Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat…Saving the Best for Last

          The fabulous temple complex known as Angkor Wat has to be near the top of the list of must see destinations for most world travelers.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site in Cambodia was without doubt the highlight of my trip to Southeast Asia.  Built between 1113 and 1150 as a Hindu temple, by the following century it had become primarily a Buddhist shrine and it remains so today.  As the largest religious monument in the world it has become a major tourist attraction, drawing close to one million international visitors each year.  In the Khmer language, Angkor Wat means ‘City of Temples’ which aptly describes this vast collection of shrines.  Angkor Wat actually refers to the main temple located on 500 acres and surrounded by a moat.  The other most-visited sites in this area include Angkor Thom with the Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm with its famous tree roots engulfing part of the structure, a now familiar sight that was featured in the movie, Tomb Raider.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Getting the Most Out of Your Visit to Angkor Wat

          One could spend weeks exploring the temples, admiring the architecture and studying the history contained within the 154 square mile Angkor Archeological Park.  Whether you purchase a one day, three day or seven day pass, I recommend hiring an experienced tuk-tuk driver to guide you around the main sites.  Your driver will also be able to transport you between Siem Reap, where you will most likely be staying, and Angkor Wat, which is about three and a half miles away.  Your driver will also know the way around the park and can take you to the main temples, according to the amount of time you have.  For $40 I hired ‘Baby’ to be my tuk-tuk driver for two days.  He drove me out to the main entrance around 4:30 PM the day before my main visit where I purchased a one day ticket for $20.  The ticket was good for a quick preview that evening and all the next day.  Baby gave me a tour of the city of Siem Reap that evening and then picked me up at my hotel at 8 AM the next morning for a full day tour of the temple complex.

Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia

Ta Prohm Temple, Cambodia

The Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

The Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

Siem Reap

          How could you not love a town that has a ‘Pub Street’!  Siem Reap literally means ‘Defeat of Siam’, which refers to the ancient rivalry between Cambodia and Thailand.  It has now become a sprawling little city with its growth largely due to its proximity to Angkor Wat.  For most visitors to the region, Siem Reap will be your jumping off spot for your visit to the temples.  With this perfect combination of town and temples, you can enjoy a vigorous exploration of Angkor Wat during the heat of the day and then cool off with the thriving night life of Siem Reap during the evening.  The colonial architecture of Siem Reap reflects the French influence that began around the turn of the 20th century.  The town is now a tourist magnet replete with modern hotels, quaint restaurants, markets, shops and, yes, pubs!

Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia at Dusk

Siem Reap, Cambodia at Dusk

Getting There and Beyond

          I was able to arrange a minivan ride at the City Center Hotel in Phnom Penh going to Siem Reap.  The five hour ride was marred only by an incident where the young lady sitting across the aisle from me held out a bag and invited me to help myself to what she was eating.  When it turned out to be fried crickets, all the passengers on the bus had a good laugh when they saw the expression on my face.  This funny episode turned out to be an ‘icebreaker’ and gave me an opportunity to meet more of the friendly people of Cambodia, some of whom are now Facebook friends.  My Phnom Penh tuk-tuk driver, Curly, had arranged for his friend, Baby, to meet me at the bus stop in Siem Reap.  Baby drove me in his tuk-tuk to the fabulous Siem Reap Evergreen Hotel, which would be my home for the next three days as I explored Angkor Wat and Siem Reap.  Be sure to check out our full report on this wonderful hotel in the next posting.  At the conclusion of my visit to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, the hotel was able to book me on a bus to Bangkok, Thailand for $12.  Imaging traveling on a nice bus from one country to another for $12!  Alas, my three week trek through Southeast Asia would come to a close with the long flight home from Bangkok to San Francisco.

French Fried Crickets on a Bus!

French Fried Crickets on a Bus!

My Tuk-Tuk Driver at Angkor Wat

My Tuk-Tuk Driver at Angkor Wat

     

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh

          The capital city of Cambodia is located at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.  Founded in 1434, Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia and home to many French colonial buildings and other architecturally significant structures.  Almost as soon as I arrived on the bus from Saigon, I was able to arrange a tuk-tuk driver for a whirlwind tour of the city and surrounding areas.  The first place we visited was the Tuol Sleng Prison (admission $2), which was formerly a high school and is now the Genocide Museum chronically the horrors of the Pol Pot regime of the late 1970s.  After a tour of the prison I climbed back in the tuk-tuk, sat back and relaxed while Curly, my driver, pedaled us out of town in the rain to visit the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek.

Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum

          Although it was dark by the time we returned to the city after visiting the Killing Fields, Curly drove me past some of the more important sights.  We saw the Independence Monument, built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, the Royal Palace, which consists of a series of buildings established in 1866 and Wat Phnom, the mountain pagoda built in 1373.  After returning to my hotel I decided to take a walk down by the promenade along the river and mingle with the locals who were out enjoying the pleasant evening.  This is one of my favorite things to do wherever I go and it’s always a great way to experience the vibes of a new city.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia at Night

Phnom Penh, Cambodia at Night

The Killing Fields

          Between 1975 and 1979 the communist Khmer Rouge executed more than one million individuals (some estimates are as high as 2.5 million plus) and buried them in various ‘killing fields’ throughout Cambodia.  The most famous site is known as Choeung Ek outside of Phnom Penh, now a memorial to all those who were murdered during this dark period of Cambodia’s history.  Most of the victims at Choeung Ek were political prisoners held at Tuol Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh.  Almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek and a Buddhist Stupa at the site holds more than 5,000 human skulls.  Further adding to the horror of this place, the young children and infants of adult victims were also killed by bashing their heads against trees, some of which are still present on the site.

Skulls in Stupa at Choeung Ek

Skulls in Stupa at Choeung Ek

           The feeling one gets visiting this infamous place is reminiscent of that which you experience when visiting the Nazi Concentration Camp of Auschwitz in Poland.  My experience at Choeung Ek was all the more chilling because my visit took place at dusk, just before closing time on a dreary, rainy day.  My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the entrance and waited outside while I walked around the memorial site.  There was almost no one else there at the time and I was alone with the 5,000 skulls looking back at me.  There was an eerie peacefulness about the place and had it not been for its horrible history, this former orchard might have been a beautiful setting.  I sat quietly with my thoughts in the tuk-tuk on the ride back to my hotel and after getting into my room it gave me the creeps to see mud from the killing fields still on my shoes.

Grave Sites at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Grave Sites at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Getting There and Getting Around

          The bus trip from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia was easily arranged through my hotel in Saigon and cost only $20.  I was picked up at the Thanh Lien Hotel at 8:30 AM by a modern, comfortable bus and arrived in the capital city of Cambodia by 3 PM.  At the border crossing Americans can purchase a visa on arrival for $25 and although it was a somewhat drawn out procedure, the bus driver helped us navigate the steps involved in getting the visa.

Bus Stopping for Customs at Vietnam-Cambodia Border

Bus Stopping for Customs at Vietnam-Cambodia Border

           On the bus I met a nice fellow from North Carolina by the name of Will Boggs who was starting a summer job as an English teacher in Cambodia and have enjoyed following his round the world trip this past year on Facebook.  After arriving in Phnom Penh, there was a passel of tuk-tuk drivers waiting to take us anywhere we wanted to go.  I lucked out when I selected ‘Curly’ as my driver and he delivered me to the City Center Hotel, which turned out to be a great place to stay.

Curly, My Tuk-Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh

Curly, My Tuk-Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh

City Center Hotel         

          The appropriately named City Center Hotel was located in the heart of Phnom Penh, within walking distance of many of the major sights as well as the riverfront.  I was able to get a nice room with private bathroom for $35, which included breakfast the next morning.  The front desk staff were friendly and helpful and assisted me in booking a minivan to Siem Reap for the next day.  The hotel was clean and safe and along with its great location and excellent value, the City Center Hotel satisfied all my requirements for an awesome accommodation.

The City Centre Hotel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The City Centre Hotel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Mud from the Killing Fields on my Shoes!

Mud from the Killing Fields on my Shoes!

Editorial Comment

          The kindness and friendliness of the Cambodian people you meet everywhere throughout the country belies the dark recent past which will haunt them for many years to come.  Their willingness to face straight on the horrific events of the past is a tribute to their resilience and determination to build a prosperous and peaceful county.  By transforming the former Tuol Sleng Prison into a Genocide Museum and encouraging tourists to visit the Killing Fields, the Cambodian government has gained credibility and respect on the world stage.

The Friendly People of Cambodia

The Friendly People of Cambodia

 

Intro to Indochina

Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia

          Having made my way up the Malay Peninsula from Singapore to Bangkok, it was now time to continue my journey into uncharted territory.  Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia had long been on my bucket list of must-see destinations, but it was with some trepidation that I contemplated the logistics of traveling through the rugged countryside, crossing multiple borders into communist countries, and arranging suitable transportation and lodging, all the while grappling with several different languages.  As I was soon to discover, my concerns were all for naught.  I was able to easily navigate my way through some of the most beautiful country on earth, inhabited by some of the friendliest folks I have ever encountered in my travels throughout the world.  In upcoming articles we’ll visit the cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos; Hanoi, Hoi An and Saigon in Vietnam; and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia.  We’ll also explore two fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ha Long Bay and Angkor Wat.

The Charming Colonial City of Luang Prabang, Laos

The Charming Colonial City of Luang Prabang, Laos

History and Culture

          Historically, Indochina refers to the three countries of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on the Southeast Asian peninsula.  This region was known as French Indochina during the period when these countries were colonies of France from about 1884 to 1954.  The Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia were granted independence from France in 1949, but Vietnam would have a much longer journey to becoming the country it is today.  The Indochina War was largely a conflict between France and the Viet Minh in the north of Vietnam and began in 1946 shortly after the end of World War II.  It ended in 1954 with the partition of Vietnam into North and South.  Enter the Americans one year later and the rest, as they say, is history!  While the peoples of Indochina are quite separate from those of both India and China, the name Indochina can be attributed to the location of this region between these two larger countries.  While each of the three countries comprising today’s Indochina is ethnically diverse, the Khmers can be identified as the majority in Cambodia and the Kinh (Viet) in Vietnam.  Laos, on the other hand, is a much more diverse conglomeration of many tribes and languages.

Hoa Lo Prison Known as the Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison Known as the Hanoi Hilton, Vietnam

Indochina Itinerary

          The major sights of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia can easily be covered by taking a circular route beginning and ending in the gateway city of Bangkok, Thailand.  I traveled in a clockwise direction, starting with the overnight train ride from Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos.  What I thought would be a complicated border crossing over the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai into Laos turned out to be quite simple and went exactly according to how it was described in The Man in Seat 61.  You can purchase a visa on arrival for Laos there for $35.  After an overnight in Vientiane, I took the 11 hour bus ride through the beautiful northern hill country of Laos to the incredibly charming UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River.   To save time and avoid the long, arduous bus ride over the mountains to Hanoi, I took the one hour flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi the following day on Lao Airlines for $150.  Arriving in Vietnam by plane also enables travelers to purchase a visa on arrival rather than applying for a visa in advance which is required at land border crossings.  After two nights in Hanoi and a day trip to Ha Long Bay I took the overnight train to the ancient city of Hoi An via Da Nang for $45.  Again to save time, I took the one hour flight the following day from Da Nang to Saigon on Vietnam Airlines.  After a one day visit to Saigon I took a bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for $20 and was able to purchase a visa on arrival at the border for $25.  The following day I took the five hour bus ride to Siem Reap for $12.00.  After two days in Siem Reap with ample time to explore Ankor Wat, I completed the final leg of my circuitous journey by taking the nine and a half hour bus ride back to Bangkok for another $12.  Hopefully, these details will be helpful for those planning an independent sojourn through Indochina.

Tree Growing from Ta Prohm Temple Ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Tree Growing from Ta Prohm Temple Ruins at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

  Bargain Hunter’s Paradise

          Hurry!  These prices won’t last!  At the risk of sounding like the proverbial used car salesman, I can’t stress enough that the price for everything from hotels to restaurants to transportation and shopping are incredibly low throughout Indochina, making it a true bargain hunter’s paradise.  It’s no wonder that frugal students and backpackers flock to this region every year to take advantage of the great deals.  Imagine a wonderful hotel with a pool and a fabulous breakfast for $50 or a delightful meal in a French restaurant for $7.  Or how ‘bout a comfortable minibus ride from Cambodia to Thailand for $12 or a souvenir tee shirt for $1.  As word gets out, prices are sure to go up, so if you are thinking of a trip to Indochina, now might be the time.  In future articles we will explore this region in greater detail, so be sure to check back with us here at Blue Orb Travel for some great information on what to see and where to stay during your visit.

Market in Hoi An, Vietnam

Market in Hoi An, Vietnam