The following day we found ourselves in the city of Sihanoukville, whose beaches might pale in comparison to Turks and Caicos but were a welcome nature break from the city. The nightlife reminded me of Cabarete in Dominican Republic; restaurants lining the beachfront, coconut trees towering over rustic tables and chairs filled with tourists. Dinner and drinks were entertained with live fire dancing and this night should have been great fun, feet in the sand and stars overhead. Unfortunately we were surrounded by obnoxious American men; a group of young, loud, every-other-word-a-curse-word crew on one side, and an older group of hefty, cigar smoking opposite. Both groups had beautiful young Cambodian women flanking either side of every man, who were dishing out drinks and drunken smiles like they were superstars. We excused ourselves early and I walked back to our hotel feeling ashamed to call myself American. I sincerely hope that there are more visitors coming to Cambodia with intentions to respect the country, the culture, and the people that have been through so much, versus capitalising on the dark underworld of cheap access to young bodies.
Our first day in Cambodia’s capital, we took a thirty minute tuk-tuk ride outside the city to the Artisans d’Angkor silk farm. Along the way we saw several mopeds carrying four passengers or more, some with children sandwiched into the pile (notice the driver above texting who thought it best to not only leave helmets off his kids but place his smallest child on the back end), others carrying loads so large you could not even make out the driver at all. Once at the farm we were given a tour and explained the entire process from silkworm to textile. I had no idea it was such a lengthy and delicate process to make a scarf! It is a highly impressive process, please click here for another author’s great overview.
The colorful murals in this temple were so elaborate it became one of my favorites from the trip
Our first day in Cambodia was spent in Siem Reap, a city of 750,000 with a very distinctive visual line drawn between the haves; large modern hotels with well manicured front entrances dotted with tourists, and the have-nots, dusty dirt roads lined with shanties frequented by shoeless children. We arrived late in the afternoon and went directly to a grass roots NGO, New Hope Cambodia, where we stepped into the schools classrooms and joined the kids in their English lessons. They were a smiling, talkative bunch and we took turns asking all kinds of questions. Their English was amazing, their stories were sad. The majority of students were orphans, having lost their parents to war or disease. Thanks to this organisation 150 children are receiving an education, 180 impoverished families are receiving food, and up to 100 sick per day are being treated with medical care. After class we headed over to a freshly built one room restaurant and listened to the volunteers talk more about what New Hope does and what we can do to help. This is a truly remarkable organisation with far reaching goals, please consider making a donation here.
At 4am in the pitch dark the following morning, armed with a headlamp and a flashlight, we were crossing the threshold of the largest religious monument ever constructed, the capital of the Khmer kingdom from 802 to 1295. I had grand notions of what to expect at Angkor Wat, literally “city temple,” quite fitting considering the entire complex is a spansive 37 square mile city in itself, tough to navigate purely in a day. Once the sun started to spread light on a temple fronted by massive ponds, (water storage vital to the inhabitants in it’s days of glory) every minute added excitement. We traversed through the highlights, each more impressive than the last. Every wall of every temple was something to marvel; stone reliefs told mysterious stories of the past, the detail mind boggling when considering the vast quantity contained in the entire complex. And speaking of pictures, they can’t begin to give the experience justice but please see below. From wikipedia:
One of the first Western visitors to the temple was Antonio da Magdalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and said that it “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of”.
However, the temple was popularised in the West only in the mid-19th century on the publication of Henri Mouhot’s travel notes. The French explorer wrote of it:
“One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”