Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Our driver from the day before was supposed to pick us up and bring us to the S-21 Prison before leaving for our flight to Vientiane, Laos, but since he was busy, he just referred a friend of his to take us there. We had breakfast there on Velkommen, which actually doubles also as a restaurant bar, packed all our stuff and checked out early and waited for the driver to pick us up. Since we were on a time crunch that day (our flight to Vientiane was scheduled to leave at 5PM), we decided to check out early and bring all our stuff with us to save some time instead of going back there again.

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Velkommen Guesthouse is conveniently located in the Phnom Penh city center and is pretty much accessible to many touristy areas there. Our first stop was Wat Phnom, which was actually just a few minutes’ walk from the guesthouse. We could’ve just easily explored it earlier ourselves, but with the pressure of having such a limited time to roam around (add the fact that there’s just too many people crowding in Phnom Penh), stopping by along the way to S-21 was a good idea.

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Wat Phnom is a hilltop sanctuary from which the capital city got its name, is one of the principal pleasure spots for the inhabitants of Phnom Penh. There weren’t that many tourists there at all when we got there, and the place was not that big so we were able to circle the place for around 30 minutes. Nothing’s much to say about this place, really. Maybe it’s because of the fact that I am just too tired of seeing all these temples ever since I left Siem Reap. The only difference was that this temple and its designs were colored salmon pink.

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We returned back to our driver and since we still have some time, we decided to go to the Central Market to do some shopping (one of my favorite moments in Cambodia). Psar Thmei, or The Central Market, is a large market constructed in 1937 in the shape of a dome with four arms branching out into vast hallways with countless stalls of goods. The four wings of this gigantic yellow dome are teeming with stalls that sell goods ranging from gold and silver, antique coins, money exchange, men’s and women’s apparel, clocks, books, flowers, food, fabrics, shoes, souvenirs, luggage, and countless other products. I was able to buy myself a bunch of T-shirts (they were really cheap and the quality’s really good) and some ref magnets.

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After that we then went ahead to our last stop, the highlight for that day, which was the S-21 Prison (also known as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum). Originally the Tuol Svay High School, from 1975 to 1979, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Musem was the notorious Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21, through whose gates 17,000 to 20,000 people passed to their death. S-21 was an interrogation center particularly for the educated and elite : doctors, teachers, military personnel and government officials all passed through the Khmer Rouge hands. The regime was indescriminate in its choice of victims, even children, some of whom were just babies, were among those detained here and subsequently slaughtered. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. Prisoners’ families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later executed at the Choeung Ek extermination center, also known as the Killing Fields, which we visited the day before.

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Although the compound is surrounded by high walls and ringed by barbed wire, it’s still difficult to understand that this was once a torture center. Up to 1500 prisoners were housed here at any one time, either confined in tiny cells or chained to the floor in the former classrooms. Some of the balconies, specifically on the upper floors, are still enclosed with wire mesh to prevent the prisoners jumping to a premature death. Some cells still contain iron bedsteads to which inmates were shackled. When the Vietnamese army entered the prison in 1979, they found just seven prisoners alive; the corpses of some prisoners who had died shortly before they were discovered in the cells were buried in graves in the courtyard. It was definitely such an eerie feeling walking around that place. The fact that thousands of people were tortured and slaughtered here (there were still some blood stains on the walls and on the floors), was seriously freaky. I had to bring my rosary with me because thoughts of ghosts were going through my head. The Cambodian government really did a good job preserving this historical site and to educate everyone, locals and tourists alike, of what the country and its people had to go through a few decades ago from the hands of these soulless monsters.

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There was also a display of thousands of black and white photographs of the victims, their eyes expressing a variety of emptions, from fear through defiance to emptiness, each of them holding a number. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in documenting its prisoners. Although the majority murdered here were Cambodians, foreigners, both Western and Asian, were also interrogated and tortured.

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Things get no easier emotionally after the photographic display, as you progress to a display detailing the methods of torture practised here, some of which are graphically depicted in paintings by one of the survivors. I was also able to read through some extracts in the exhibition area from forced confessions from some of the prisoners and the exchange of letters between the cadres, who sadistically continued to victimize prisoners until their declarations conformed to the guards’ own version of the truth. Reading through the torture process these prisoners had to go through makes me wonder how these monsters could even sleep at night. It was so disturbing and it was making me sick. Painting of babies being killed and tortured with the tagline “smashing babies” made it even worse for me to absorb everything that happened there.

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We spent about three hours circling around the place, covering every classroom in all the four buildings. One of the three remaining survivors was also there, signing his book that details his experience in this hellhole, and having his picture taken with the tourists who visited the place. It was such an experience for me to finally arrive and walk around this place. I have always been intrigued with the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison to finally visit this place was all worth it. I still get shivers every time I go through all the pictures I took from the place and every time I think about what those prisoners had to go through and trying to understand why the Khmer Rouge had to do this to their fellow countrymen.

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Our driver was waiting for us outside and though we had a few more hours to spend, we decided to be brought to the airport instead. I originally thought of visiting the Royal Palace but since the body of the king that arrived a couple of days before was there, the palace was closed to the public. We arrived around 1PM in the airport and we stayed there for a couple of hours before checking in for our late afternoon flight to Vientiane, Laos.

Woke up early around 7AM to have some breakfast and to settle our bill at the guesthouse before leaving for the airport to catch our flight to Phnom Penh. I was very happy when I found out that the Buo Savvy gave us a discount of 10% since we stayed there for three days. The fact that its already very cheap and reasonable plus additional discounts made me one very satisfied customer. We had Sookie drive us to the Siem Reap International Airport and wait for our flight there. The two terminals, international and domestic was just beside each other. There weren’t that much passengers on the domestic terminal since most people who go to Cambodia usually travel via bus and the plane tickets are not that cheap. But I’m all about comfort so instead of enduring a 6-hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, which I was scared of, by the way, I decided to go fly instead.

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We flew via Cambodia Angkor Air and it took us about 50 minutes to get to Phnom Penh. I had book us an overnight stay on Velkommen Guesthouse and had requested to be picked up at the airport. This time, it was not a tuktuk waiting for us, but a taxi. Though there were tuktuks everywhere as well. There was some traffic but it was okay. At least it was not the day before when the king’s body arrived, otherwise, we’re screwed. I had planned for us to visit the Killing Fields, which was just a few minutes from the hotel and to visit the S-21 Prison the next day before leaving for Laos in the afternoon. Talk about a major timecrunch. How I was able to squeeze all of it in is such an achievement for me! Haha!

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Once we arrived at the Velkommen Guesthouse, which was around 11AM, we just left our luggage and our stuff in their storage room and had our taxi driver bring us to the Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, or popularly knows as the Killing Fields of Cambodia, is the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard about 17 km south of Phnom Penh. It is the best-known of the sites known as The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed over one million people between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept by the Khmer Rouge in their Tuol Sleng detention center.

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Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly. Apart from the stupa, there are pits from which the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site. Though a little disturbing at first, I appreciate the fact that the Cambodian government decided to preserve and to not disturb the remains still present in the fields. Clothes of the actual victims, some of them children, are being preserved and displayed and it felt a little eerie walking around the place. There was an audioguide available together with the ticket and it was such a learning experience for me as I walk along the entire area and just to listen to the narrations of what these innocent people had to go to at the hands of these monsters is just sickening. We were there for about two and half hours and had our driver bring us back to our guesthouse to settle in. I was pretty tired from too much travelling and lack of sleep that after having dinner and a quick walk in Sisowath Quay, I decided to retreat back to the guesthouse and get some sleep.

Our third day was our last day in Siem Reap and it seemed like we were able to cover most of the Angkor temples. We decided to visit one of the farther temples, Banteay Srei, which lies near the hill of Phnom Dei and about 16 miles from the main Angkor temple area. Built at a time when the Khmer empire was gaining significant power and territory, the temple was constructed under the rule of Rajendravarman. The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction and ornate design give it a fairyland ambiance.

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Given that it’s a little farther from the city center, we decided to visit one more temple after Banteay Srei, which was the Banteay Samre. Located east of the East Baray, Banteay Samre is a Hindu temple in the Angkor Wat style, and uses the same materials as Banteay Srei. Constructed around the same time as the Angkor Wat, the style of the towers and balustrades bear strong resemblance to the towers of the Angkor Wat. The place was a bit bigger than Banteay Srei and we spent about an hour and a half around the place before leaving for our last stop, which was the Tonle Sap Lake. At that point, I’ve just had enough of the temples that I was about to puke.

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Known as the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is an ecological hot spot that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997, the Tonlé Sap is a combined lake and river system of major importance to Cambodia. Nothing’s really that great about the lake, in my opinion. It was nice to see some of the locals do their daily routines around the lake and water villages, but it was very much similar to those in Brunei, except maybe there were no mosques around. Plus it was so freaking hot but I guess we needed that time to get away from all those temples. We were there for about an hour and a half and had Sookie drive us back to our guesthouse.

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We arrived back around 6PM since we had to pack our stuff to leave for our flight to Phnom Penh the next day. During that day, news of the former king of Cambodia died in China and the TV screens everywhere featured just that. I guess he was really loved by his people. The body of former Cambodian King Norodum Sihanouk was scheduled to arrive in Phnom Penh from Beijing the next day and I got a little worried since we saw on TV that the streets of Phnom Penh covered with locals, monks, policemen and news reporters everywhere. We were there overnight only and I got a little worried that its gonna screw up our Phnom Penh itinerary the next day.

For our second day in Siem Rep, I have outlined the temples we were to visit using the map from the guidebook that our driver, Sookie, gave us. We decided to check out those that are nearby and decided to visit one of the farther temples the day after instead.

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We started by visiting Banteay Kdei first. Since Srah Srang, a picturesque baray opposite the entrance of Banteay Kdei was nearby, we took some photo-ops there before entering into Banteay Kdei. There were a number of very pushy children there selling souvenirs and they were pretty cute and could speak really fluent English. I was really surprised since the English words that they were using, though having an accent, are a bit more mature than what normal children their age would be using. I was able to buy a bunch of bracelets, magnets, t-shirts and I finally got myself a krama, a sturdy traditional Cambodian garment that is popular for being used as a scarf or a bandanna.

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After that, we then went to Banteay Kdei. Known as a “Citadel of Monks’ cells”, Banteay Kdei is a Buddhist temple in Angkor, Cambodia. Built in the mid 12th to early 13th centuries AD during the reign of Jayavarman VII, it is in the Bayon architectural style, similar in plan to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, but less complex and smaller. Its structures are contained within two successive enclosure walls, and consist of two concentric galleries from which emerge towers, preceded to the east by a cloister. We were there for about an hour since the place was not that big.

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Our next temple stop was Pre Rup, whose name is a comparatively modern one meaning “turn the body”. This reflects the common belief among Cambodians that funerals were conducted at the temple, with the ashes of the body being ritually rotated in different directions as the service progressed. Historically important in that it was the second temple built after the Khmer capital was returned to Angkor after a period of political upheaval. Less than a decade earlier, the artistically similar East Mebon, which we also passed by, was the first to be constructed after the return to Angkor. Okay, with just way too many pictures taken and too many temples visited, forgive if I am getting all these pics mixed up hehe.

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After circling the entire place, it started to rain a little. We headed to our next stops, which were Neak Pean and Preah Khan. A small island temple located in the middle of the Preah Khan baray, Neak Pean’s central temple sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools. It took its name from the encoiled nagas that encircle the temple. Since it rained so hard already when we arrived, we didn’t get to take much pictures there. Funny coz it actually did stop raining when we left the place and when we arrived in Preah Khan. Were the gods trying to tell us something? I feel it’s definitely good luck. Normally, the pool that surrounds the small island and the temple is empty but when we were there, the pool was very full because of all the rainfall that’s happening. I had to make sure all my stuff were dry (good thing I had them zip-locked) coz I only had a small umbrella with me and I had to share it with my brother.

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Preah Khan was just a few minutes’ drive from Neak Pean. A huge, highly explorable monastic complex full of cavings, passages and photo opportunities, Preah Khan originally served as a Buddhist monastery and school, engaging over 1000 monks. In harmony witht he architecturally similar Ta Phrom, which was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s mother, Preah Khan is dedicated to his father. The temple is flat in design, with a basic plan of successive rectangular galleries around a Buddhist sanctuary complicated by Hindu satellite temples and numerous later additions. Like the nearby Ta Prohm, Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, with numerous trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins. We were there for about an hour and a half, then we decided to return back to the guesthouse for some much needed rest.

Going to Cambodia has always been on my bucket list for some time now. I’ve always wanted to visit the Angkor temples and check out the Killing Fields. The fact that they’re located in separate cities did not help as well. So I told myself, what the hell, if I wanted to be there, might as well check them all out. Ever since Cebu Pacific started offering direct flights to Siem Reap from Manila, I was always on the look out for the seat sale to come in. I am usually lucky in booking really cheap flights but for this one, the only way I can get a cheap round trip ticket was to book for a flight scheduled within eleven days. So that’s when the idea to visit Laos came in. I’ve always been intrigued by the so-called charm Laos has to offer so I decided to book those tickets to fly to Siem Rep and squeeze in Laos as well.

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Trying to accomplish a fool-proof itinerary to visit two cities in two countries in eleven days was my goal and yeah, I guess I survived. Now, since I don’t travel solo and I needed someone to be my cameraman, I invited my brother to tag along. And plus, it was also my birthday gift to him. Though I really needed someone to take my pictures. LOL!

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I booked us to stay at the Bou Savvy Guesthouse, based on recommendations from other bloggers and the really good feedbacks I have read about them online. We arrived around 9PM in Siem Reap and had them pick us up in definitely one of my most favorite tuk-tuks in Asia. It was one of my favorite tuktuks, cushioned with pillows to match. Cambodia sure beats Thailand and the other Asian countries in terms of this. Our driver that time, named Sookie, also ended up as our driver/tour guide for the rest of our stay in Siem Reap. Once we arrived at the cozy guesthouse, about twenty minutes from the airport, we checked in and planned our itinerary for the next few days. Sookie handed us the Siem Reap Visitor’s Guide book complete with maps of temples and the must-see places in Siem Reap, which made it easy for me to plan out our itinerary then and there. Though I had planned our itinerary a week before, having that handy guidebook made it easy for me to squeeze in some more temples and make some adjustments. After finalizing our plans for the next three days, my brother and I went into our room to get some rest and get ready for the next day ahead.

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We had breakfast the next day in our guesthouse before leaving for the Angkor temples. Sookie was waiting for us at exactly 8AM and he brought us to buy some temple tickets, which was a requirement for every tourist who plans to visit the temples scattered all over Siem Reap. We took the three-day temple pass which was priced for $40. We even had our pictures taken for the ticket to ensure that it’s being used exclusively and will not be shared with anyone else.

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After buying our tickets, we made our way to the southern gate of Angkor Thom. Every entrance has a checkpoint, so presenting our tickets with our pictures on it was necessary before entering the Angkor gates. The last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, Angkor Thom covers an area of 9 km², within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by King Jayavarman VII and his successors. Angkor Thom is in the Bayon style. This manifests itself in the large scale of the construction, in the widespread use of laterite, in the face-towers at each of the entrances to the city and in the naga-carrying giant figures which accompany each of the towers. Some of the scenes from the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was shot here as well. From the south gate of Angkor Thom, Sookie drove us all the way through the forest to the majestic Bayon. He then dropped us off at the main approach, from the east, and instructed us that he will just around to the north and wait for us there in the Terrace of the Leper King area. Angkor is huuuuuuuuge. We spent around 3 hours alone in the Bayon area and I have never seen a place where every step would just lead into a photo opportunity. Though I’ve seen temples all my life, nothing beats the beauty of the Angkor temples.

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One of the must-see temples in Cambodia, aside from the very popular Angkor Wat, the Bayon is a richly decorated Khmer temple, with giant stone faces that has become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. This place alone is really huge. There are 37 standing towers, featuring the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.

The best of Bayon are the bas-reliefs on the exterior walls of the lower level and on the upper level where the stone faces reside. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contains real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham. Even more interesting are extensive carvings of unique and revealing scenes of everyday life that are interspersed among the battle scenes, including market scenes, chess games and childbirth. Some of the carvings on the walls were said to be unfinished, likely indicating the death of Jayavarman VII and the subsequent end of his building campaign.

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We continued our walk to the rest of the temples in the Angkor Archaeological area, passing and stopping by Baphuon for some additional photo-ops as well. Recently reopened after an extensie and troubled restoration, Baphuon is a large temple-mountain in Angkor Thom, located just a few steps northwest from the Bayon. Built in the mid-11th century, it is a three-tiered temple mountain built as the state temple of Udayadityavarman II dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. Along the way we passed also passed by the Terrace of the Elephants, a fabulous bas-relief frieze of near-life sized elephants stretching some 300m. The elephants are shown in profile, mostly hunting, though some are depicted fighting with tigers.

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Adjoining the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King is a double terrace wall with deeply carved nagas, demons and other mythological beings. The terrace was named for the statue of the Leper King that sits on top. Sookie was waiting for us there to bring us to our next stop, which was the Ta Phrom. We decided to have lunch first along the way, and one negative thing about it was that, it takes them soooooooo long to prepare a meal! We waited for almost an hour inside that restaurant before they served us our orders, and it was the same thing as well with the next few days we have in Siem Reap. We should’ve just brought our own food if we had known it would take them that long to prepare it.

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After lunch, we were on our way to Ta Phrom. One of my favorite temples, mainly because it has been very much featured in the Tomb Raider movie, the Ta Phrom, built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara, it is located approximately one kilometre east of Angkor Thom and on the southern edge of the East Baray, it was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Enormous kapok trees grow from the terraces and walls at Ta Phrom, their massive roots clinging to the walls, framing doorways and forcing open giant stones apart. Ta Phrom was one of the bigger temples in the area and we were there for about a couple of hours, I think. I wasn’t able to resist posing against those trees which crawl over the north side of the second enclosure. The background of those trees mixed with the temple walls is just amazing.

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Our last and final stop for that afternoon was the visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking Angkor Wat. Known to be the largest Hindu complex and the largest religious monument in the world, the Angkor Wat is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers. It is the centerpiece of any visit to the temples of Angkor. Constructed in the form of a massive temple-mountain dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, it served as Suryavarman II’s state temple. Other than the topmost level of the complex, the most important thing to see at Angkor Wat is the gallery of remarkably detailed bas- reliefs carved into the third enclosing wall, relating tales from Hindu mythology and a military procession led by Suryavarman II.

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As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation – first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia,appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.

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We were there in the Angkor Wat for a couple and a half hours and it was literally photo clicks every step of the way. There were so many photo-ops inside the temple that I didn’t want to leave. Sookie, our driver, was waiting for us so we had to go, but we were able to circle around much of the temple before we left. We arrived back at the guesthouse around 6PM and we contracted Sookie to pick us up later around 8PM to bring us to the popular Pub Street, Siem Reap’s popular hang out spot lined with restaurants and bars. We had dinner in one of those Happy Pizza restaurants, known for putting a special ingredient on their pizzas, which was the marijuana. Pub Street was not that big, so after shopping for some souvenirs, we met up with Sookie to bring us back to our guesthouse to get some sleep and prepare for the next day ahead.