Cambodia is a country rich with majestic and tumultuous history. The ancient ruins of Angkor Wat showcase the glory of the Khmer empire while the Killing Fields memorial notes the dark era of the Khmer Rouge. Reconciling the two is not always easy, but despite the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to eradicate Cambodia’s culture, certain customs and traditions defiantly remain the same. In Phnom Penh, around sunrise, Buddhist monks dressed in bright orange robes quietly walk across the public square to ask Cambodians for their daily alms while locals slurp on fragrant bowls of noodle soup outside hole-in-the-wall restaurants. In Siem Reap, fishermen await their catch of the day before they head back to their fishing village in Lake Tonle Sap. In Kampot, tug boats softly splash through the quiet waters while locals idly sit and relax by the riverside. It’s images such as these that stay with you while you’re traveling in Cambodia, making one realize that Cambodia is not ultimately shaped by ancient ruins or killing fields, but by the people going about the daily rhythm of their lives.
Siem Reap is where the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat are located at. The ancient temples are a sight to behold, but hot temperatures and the crowds of tourists can make it difficult to appreciate Angkor Wat. Show up around 5am to view the temple as the sun is rising. In doing so, you will get an illuminating view of the temple’s majesty as dawn approaches under cooler temperatures and before the throng of tourists arrive.
Nearby Angkor Thom has a ruinous, Old World feel, making visitors feel like archaeologists stumbling upon a mysterious temple. Not surprisingly, the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie was shot here. Ta Prohm http://www.gogobot.com/ta-prohm-angkor-attraction is a smaller ruin, but the main eye-catching sight is the gigantic tree and its massive roots enveloping the temple.
In the area is Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in all of Southeast Asia and is an important ecological and fishing source of Cambodia that provides a full 60% of Cambodians’ protein intake with its abundant fish population. Take a boat ride along the lake and visit the floating villages, many of whom belong to the Vietnamese and Cham communities.
If Siem Reap recalls the glory days of ancient Khmer history, then Phnom Penh takes you firmly to Cambodia’s modern present. However, to truly understand how far Phnom Penh has come, you’ll have to visit Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields memorial site. The memorial is marked by a glass tower in the center with a narrow path encircling the empty fields. It’s a haunting site, but is necessary to comprehend the brutality of the Khmer Rouge’s regime.
Want to try out refined Cambodian cuisine? Check out K’Nyay, a mostly vegetarian Khmer restaurant that also serves meat dishes, and both types of meals are treated equally with epicurean care. Fish amok, which is Cambodia’s exquisite take on steamed fish curry, is a culinary delight. Other recommended items include the banana curry, sweet potato and taro fries, and sweet corn fritters. Another recommended restaurant is Sovanna. The place is often crowded with families and friends getting together for Angkor beer and feasting on comfort Khmer food making the atmosphere casual and lively. The grilled corn is a savory delight along with the grilled pork and sautéed morning glory, which is a green vegetable popular in Southeast Asia. For a more local experience, head to Phsa Reatrey, the Night Market where you can sit down on the floor mats, eating quirky street treats such as angry birds on a stick and peruse through the stands for scarves, clothes, jewelry, and souvenirs.
Whereas Phnom Penh captures the frenzied excitement of Cambodia, Kampot encapsulates the idyllic life in the rural countryside. There’s not too much to see or do, but that’s part of its charm. If possible, rent a bike or scooter and drive through the green rice paddies. Every image looks like something out of a National Geographic photo. While in the countryside, check out the White Elephant Cave, which houses an ancient Buddhist temple. For the more adventurous, the tour guide can escort you out through an alternate route by climbing down the cave in the dark. After a thrilling trek to the caves, head back to the riverside and eat at Ta Eou Restaurant, which serves a wonderful assortment of Khmer dishes, especially when Kampot pepper is involved. Kampot pepper is a regional specialty and resembles little green berries, but each pepper packs a powerful kick to any dish. A tasty example is the fried crab with Kampot peppers. Also, be sure to take a sunset cruise along Kampot river. Many guesthouses situated along Kampot River, such as Naga House, will arrange the boat to arrive at the dock for pick-up. As the wooden boats gently wade along the calm waters, you’ll get a magnificent view of the green fields, mountains, and violet pink skies as the sun is setting. It’s moments like these that make you see that despite the violent upheaval in Cambodia’s recent past, life continues to go on and some things, such as the waves of friendly children as one moves through the pastoral fields, wonderfully remains the same.
Frances Nguyen is a law student at Lewis & Clark Law School. She is currently interning at the United Nations to Assist the Khmer Rouge Trials (UNKART) in Cambodia this fall.