Ascend to the realm of the gods, Angkor Wat. Descend into hell at the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. With a history both inspiring and depressing, Cambodia suggests an incredible present.
First things first – Cambodia has surprised us for their incredible hospitality and friendliness of their people, in spite of their traumatic recent history, summarized in the atrocities committed by ‘Brother number 1’ – Pol Pot or with the recent war with Vietnam.
Long forgotten are the mighty days of the Khmer empire, that basically expanded across Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and South of China and for which Angkor Wat boasted in excess of 1million inhabitants when London only had 50,000. The remains of this empire can be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unrivalled in scale and grandeur in southeast Asia. The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is sublime and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra.
Just outside the city of Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia, lies a vast complex of ancient temples so breathtaking they’ve become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national symbol. In the 1960s, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy ventured here despite the Vietnam War raging across the border just to see the site; more recently, portions of Angelina Jolie’s first Tomb Raider movie was filmed in one of its tangled, tree-filled ruins. The main “city temple” is a 12th-century structure that began as a homage to the Hindu god Vishnu, then switched to a Buddhist sanctuary in the 16th century. An example of Cambodian Khmer architecture—with three rectangular galleries, central towers, a moat, and elaborate bas-relief carvings illustrating scenes from Indian mythology—Angkor Wat is the best-preserved of the region’s temple complexes and has been in fairly regular use since its creation
We got our first impression via Salva, a friend of a friend who left his native Malaga (Spain) and went to live in Cambodia with his wife some 7years ago, after having helped raise funds for children in Cambodia for a number of years. Now, Salva successfully runs his own boutique travel agency and differentiates himself apart in tailored and ‘authentic’ experiences with Cambodian people.
Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. Thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.
We had an amazing time in Cambodia and again, Valen and Carlos were true treasures, initiating smiles all around and exploring the incredible temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm (aka Tomb Raider temple) mingling with villagers or feeling they were true explorers of the dense and prolific rainforest,… all this during the monsoon season which I have to say, have affected us very little so far – fingers crossed!
― Kim Fay, The Map of Lost Memories