My Cambodia Experience: Temples, Learning About Genocide and Getting Caught in a Flood

It’s going to be difficult for me to write how much I love Cambodia in one post.

It was by far my favourite country I went to on this OE because of the fascinating history, the amazing food and the incredibly kind people who opened up their arms to me and made that foreign land feel like a home away from home.

Tuk-tuk Cambodia Jenny Chang The Lilac Road
Taking a tuk-tuk from the airport to the center of Siem Reap

Exploring The Angkor Temples In Siem Reap

When I arrived at Siem Reap airport, I went through customs where you must pay USD30 on arrival for a tourist visa. If you go to Cambodia, be sure to have US dollars and a passport picture of yourself on hand to make the process much easier for yourself. Also, be aware that the US currency is widely used there (even more so than their own!)

Monks Angkor Temple Siem Reap Cambodia
Monks in one of the Angkor temples

My friendly tuk-tuk driver was waiting for me upon arrival and we drove through the hot, dusty roads to my Airbnb. I passed wagons with children piled on the back and cows lazily walking along the side of the road until I reached my hotel in the center of Siem Reap. I loved it immediately. It is a small town, easily walkable, but filled with the hustle and bustle that I liked. The first night I was there, I was hunting for food and ended up on Pub Street which is similar to Bangla Road (without the ladyboys and ping pong shows), a lane pumping with pubs and clubs and restaurants. Markets and markets filled with cheap goods were close by. During the day this area is quite dead, but in Siem Reap, it seems everything comes alive at night.

Bayon Temple Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia
Bayon Temple

I had booked a full day of temple hopping with my tuk-tuk driver, and I came outside to meet him in a singlit and khaki pants. He looked at me and said, “Do you have a long sleeve that you can wear?” I said no and that I have been in humid weather the whole time so there was no need to bring one. He told me that if I wanted to do the sunset temple hike I had to wear a long sleeve, but for the rest of the temples I had to cover my arms. I began getting frustrated. It was the same in every other temple I had been to. I was told to cover my shoulders and arms because it would ‘arouse monks’ and it was disrespectful. I have always been courteous of other cultures, but to me, it seemed like this was a part of a sexist, rape culture more than anything. I can understand, maybe, if I was showing a lot of cleavage or legs… but my shoulders and arms? I didn’t want to make a scene so I agreed to compromise and went to my room to get a scarf. The entire time I was walking around the Angkor temples, I had a large scarfed wrapped around me in 40 degree heat. I was sweating profusely and envied the men walking around in singlits. And even though I was fully covered, I still got harassed by men. That was the thing about my South East Asia trip that frustrated me the most. Some rules need to be kicked back to the middle ages where they belong!

Buddha Angkor Temples Cambodia
One of the many serene temples in Angkor

However, I had a great time exploring the five temples I went to in Angkor. Walking among the ancient ruins felt like I was stepping back in time. It was an incredibly peaceful, serene experience, despite the tourists and the heat, and each temple was unique in its own way. Even though Angkor Wat is the most famous and well-known temple, I thought it was overrated. My favourite by far was Ta Prohm for its beautiful, ancient, twisting trees which I found mesmerizing.

Angkor Wat Cambodia
The famous Angkor Wat
Trees roots Ta Prohm Temple Cambodia
One of the amazing trees in Ta Prohm Temple. Look at those roots!

While in Siem Reap, my tuk-tuk driver also recommended I visit the war museum, a garden filled with war remnants from the reign of the Khmer Rouge. We had a young Cambodian guide who was alive during this war and recounted sad tales from the reign of this evil group as he walked us around the garden. For those who are unfamiliar, the Khmer Rouge was a communist group led by Pol Pot who massacred up to two million Cambodian people during their power. They didn’t like intellectuals, especially, and if anyone had glasses or a degree, they were killed. Instruments used to kill people were displayed along the walls. It felt strange, being in this beautiful, quiet garden and feeling absolutely heartbroken at the same time. A moving and touching museum to go to if you are ever in Siem Reap.

Visiting Mass Graves And Getting Caught In A Flood In Phnom Penh

The moment I arrived in Phnom Penh, I immediately noticed a strong police presence. On my taxi ride to my hotel, I saw men with huge rifles standing everywhere on the streets. I asked the receptionist why this was. She replied that the prime minister was in town with his family.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and is much bigger and more chaotic than Siem Reap. However, it is still walkable. I walked by the river during sunset by the rows of bars and restaurants and explored the night markets, where clothes and food were ridiculously cheap. There were a few local restaurants I was a regular at, and every time I went in I was treated as if I were family. Cambodian people are really the most welcoming, kindest people I have ever met.

Angkor Wat Cambodia
Inside Angkor Wat

One day, I was having lunch at The Daughters of Cambodia cafe, an amazing restaurant run by the non-profit which takes young women off the sex trade market and gives them alternative job opportunities (seriously, the food is so good!) Anyway, it started thundering and pouring down with rain and the cafe started flooding. The poor women working there had to constantly mop and scoop the rain out with buckets. After the rain subsided, I decided to walk back to my hotel, only to realize that the all the streets surrounding it was completely flooded and inaccessible. A tuk-tuk driver tried driving me through the flood, but to no avail. I considered rolling up my jeans and walking through the flood… but then I saw all the rubbish floating around.  My driver drove me to a mall to peruse in until the flood went down, and within a few hours I was back at my hotel again. It was such a fun experience!

Flood Phnom Penh Cambodia
Flooding in Phnom Penh

Something I badly wanted to do while I was in Phnom Penh was visit the genocide prison and the killing fields. Pol Pot conducted his reign from the capital city, and one of the must-sees there is a high-school-turned-prison called S21 where thousands of people were detained, tortured and killed. Entering the prison with my audio guide, I was immediately thrown into a world of pain and sadness. I felt it especially in one of the first rooms I entered. In the middle of the bare-boned room was a rusting bed frame. A single photograph hung above it of the last person to die there. The floors were heavily stained with blood, even though you could tell they had tried to scrub it away. As I moved from building to building and room to room, I was haunted and felt a heavy weight on my heart from the horrors that went on there. People were chained to floors, brutally murdered and tortured. The Khmer Rouge soldiers took photographs of each victim there, so the hundreds of black and white photos of men, women and children, young and old, made it all too real.

S21 prison Phnom Penh Cambodia
The S21 prison, formally a high school. You can see the prison where people were murdered behind the monument.

Afterwards, my tuk-tuk driver took me to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, about 20km outside of Phnom Penh. There lies mass graves where thousands of Cambodians were murdered and then buried in the hundreds. I walked through the fields with my audio guide which took me through large holes in the ground where skulls, bones and clothes were found. A particularly haunting stop was a mass grave in which a hundred women and children were found dead without their heads and mostly naked. Next to this grave was a tree on which Khmer Rouge cadres killed babies against. The last stop at the end of the guide is a tall, white building housing the skulls, bones and teeth of the people who were found there. It was the most heartbreaking experience I have ever had to go through. It shattered me knowing that the Cambodian people had to go through these atrocities at the hands of their own people, and yet their sad past made them all the more open and resilient. It made me respect the people even more.

The Killing Tree Cambodia
The Killing Tree. Next to it is a mass grave where a hundred women and children were found dead.

I was talking to a family friend about my experience, and he said that his wife experienced it first-hand when she was younger. She and her family were forced to work in the fields when the Khmer Rouge killed her husband and son. She fled Phnom Penh and has never returned since. Even her husband knows little about the experience as she doesn’t like to talk about it. This genocide is something I will never understand and something that will always pull a deep place in my heart.

On the way back to my hotel, a couple of begging children ran up to me at traffic stops and asked for money. I know that you shouldn’t give begging children money as it will encourage them, but every time I said no my eyes welled up looking at their pleading faces. It is safe to say that it was a mentally exhausting day for me that day. But perhaps it is because of my emotional attachment to Cambodia that that’s why I love that place so much.

However, I ended up meeting the nicest American English teacher while I was there, and we went out with his British friends to play pool, drink beer and have a good time at a hostel party. It was the first time I saw beer pong in action and two pints of beer being chugged down in, I’m not kidding you, 5 seconds flat. It was a record that was written up on the scoreboard. That guy ended up getting really drunk, by the way. The American and I went out for a late dinner and he walked me home. It was the perfect way to end my time in Cambodia, and though I was sad to leave, I was so very excited for my next adventure: Italy.

Jenny Chang The Lilac Road Angkor Cambodia
Happy in Angkor

In conclusion…

It was the people that made me fall madly in love with Cambodia. I have never felt so welcomed and loved in another country before, and it just so happened that the temples, history and culture were fascinating and the food was absolutely amazing, too. I was endlessly surprised by the kindness and resilience of the people in spite of their sad, horrific past and will never forget my wonderful experiences there. It has to be one of the highlights of my life.

Go to Cambodia with an open mind and be prepared to be heartbroken and moved, fascinated and awed and welcomed with open arms by its people. I’m sure you will be mesmerized.

Sunset boardwalk Phnom Penh Cambodia
Sunset at the boardwalk in Phnom Penh

Any thoughts or questions on my trip to Cambodia? What did you think of my experiences in the killing prison and fields? Does this make you want to go to Cambodia one day? Let me know!

All images my own