We only allowed time for 2 weeks in Cambodia but after a couple of days, we knew we’d made a bad decision. The small country has so much to offer from the kind people to the interesting culture but what stuck with us the most was learning about its rich history including the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodia killing fields.
What We Enjoyed Most About Cambodia
The Angkor Temples
Well, you can’t visit Cambodia and skip the Angkor Temples and rightfully so. It is a historical monument! The Angkor complex was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, built between 800AD to 1300AD.
The temples are truly incredible (you can read how we fit in all the best temples in 1 day here). We loved all the details and seeing how nature has intertwined with the ruins.
The complex is absolutely huge but there’s still no escaping the hordes of tourists unless you start exploring the temples straight after watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We did this and managed to have a few temples to ourselves so we could let out our inner Indiana Jones/Lara Croft.
Learning About The History
Learning about Cambodia’s history was a true highlight for us. It’s a very dark history but we feel better now knowing what awful things occurred. We were quite ashamed of our ignorance to be honest but it just highlights how much one can learn through travelling.
The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia for 4 years from 1975-1979. They claimed the lives of up to 2 million people; those that weren’t executed died from disease, starvation and overwork.
The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, forced people out of the cities to work on farms in the countryside. He wanted to abolish money, school, religious practices and traditional Khmer culture.
People who were educated or knew a foreign language or even wore glasses were killed. Schools, universities, places of worship, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons and reeducation camps.
While we were in Phnom Penh, we visited Toul Sleng Museum and Choeung Ek. Toul Sleng was once a school until the Khmer Rouge converted it into a place of torture, Security Prison 21 (S-21), where 17,000 men, women and children were once held. They were tortured into signing a confession before being sent for execution.
At the museum, you see interrogation rooms, torture devices, small prison cells where prisoners were shackled to the ground and the barbed wire that once surrounded all the buildings.
A particularly heartbreaking moment is seeing the thousands of photographs of the prisoners. They would have their photo taken when they arrived. To see the faces and expressions of innocent people who were treated so inhumanely and then killed is something that we won’t forget.
After a confession, the S-21 prisoners would be taken to one of the Cambodia killing fields called Choeung Ek.
When visiting Choeung Ek, you are given an excellent audio tour that guides you around the mass graves with information of what occurred and the stories of survivors during the Khmer Rouge reign.
You learn about the procedure they followed at the Cambodia killing fields: prisoners eyes would be covered and some even believed they were being taken to another prison rather than to their execution. They would be lined up and killed, with the use of various tools (axes, clubs, sharpened bamboo sticks) to save money on bullets and pushed into the mass graves.
The graves now have colourful bracelets scattered around that have been left by visitors.
Everything that took place in Choeung Ek was absolutely horrific but for us, the most stomach-churning act of all is the bashing babies and children’s heads against a giant tree. They believed in the premise that ‘To dig up the grass, one must also dig up the root’.
It’s quite an experience in itself as every visitor wanders around in respectful silence, engrossed in the audio guide. We’ll never be able to comprehend the brutality of the Khmer Rouge but we’re glad that like many others, we were able to visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek to learn about one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century that otherwise we’d never have looked into.
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ – George Santayana
Our time in Cambodia was short but everyone that we met whether it was the families we stayed with, restaurant staff or tuk-tuk drivers, were incredibly friendly, helpful and genuine.
And their smiles…Khmer people have the most infectious smile! The children, in particular, were confident and always wanting to ask questions and practice their English.
Learning about their history made us further appreciate their kindness and great energy. Our time there was a truly humbling experience.
We Missed Out On:
We have seen countless photos of Cambodia’s beautiful beaches on Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloen. White sand. Turquoise water. Palm trees. Yes please!
The Houses on Stilts
Close to Siem Reap there’s Kompong Khleang, a large village with bamboo houses built on stilts by Tonlé Sap Lake. The village set in the countryside looks beautiful and a good place for a little bit of exploring.