My sister, Julie, has been working for Sak Saum (an NGO—non-governmental organization) in Phnom Penh for the past two years. When we discovered that her commitment with the organization was scheduled to end this year, Christine and I decided to seize the opportunity and visit Cambodia.
Cambodia’s turbulent past has left scars on the country which persist today. Foreign occupation, genocide, and massive corruption have left the South East Asian nation far behind its neighbors. Cambodia today stands as one of the poorest countries, per capita, in the world. An unfortunate side-effect of the struggling economy has been the rise of human trafficking and sex tourism. Children find themselves, often with the consent of their parents, as commodities in the sex trade. While the government has made some effort to crack down on the illicit industry, a major force for change has been initiated by foreign NGOs (both faith-based and secular). Even though some individuals have found their way out of the industry, the stark reality is that they find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a livable wage working in legitimate jobs (often sweatshops). In many cases, they return to the sex trade. NGOs, like Sak Saum, not only attempt to rescue young women and men from these conditions, they strive to provide the victims with a marketable skill and a decent wage.
Upon arriving in Phnom Penh International Airport, Julie welcomed us to the “wild west” of South East Asia. As we drove to her apartment in the back of a tuk-tuk operated by her friend Phall, we began to understand why. Although most of the roads within the city are paved, there are plenty that are not. The red dust, with which we would become familiar, whirled about the tuk-tuk, and I quickly understood the appeal of the krama, the traditional Khmer (Cambodian) scarf I saw wrapped around the mouth and nose of fellow motorists. The tuk-tuk was invariably weaving in and out of traffic that could best be described as pandemonium. As we had just come from Vietnam, we weren’t strangers to the seeming disarray on the streets. Whereas Vietnamese traffic seemed to ebb and flow with an almost rhythmic choreography, Cambodian traffic seemed far more chaotic. Fortunately for us, we were in the capable hands of Phall, who we learned to trust implicitly over the next few days.
After dropping off our bags, we proceeded to the Central Market where the wild west comparison was even more evident. An armed man with an AK-47 (who may or may not have been a guard—uniforms, we would learn, didn’t necessarily denote an officially-sanctioned post) lounged in a chair at the entrance. Like many markets we would explore in Phnom Penh, the Central Market was a mix of traditional stalls featuring meat and vegetable vendors as well as a wide selection of souvenirs, including knock-off watches, clothing, electronics, and DVDs.
Afterward we visited the namesake of the city, Wat Phnom. Legend holds this as the place where the city was founded by Penh, a wealthy widow who built a temple atop the phnom (hill). A Buddhist wat (temple) still resides at the location, complete with temple monkeys.
The Royal Palace is the home to the ceremonial King of Cambodia and represents the cultural center of Phnom Penh. The palace features traditional Khmer architecture and art, including a mural lining the walls of the courtyard depicting scenes from the epic Reamker, a Buddhist variant of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The Reamker is intrinsic to the Cambodian national consciousness, influencing all aspects of Khmer culture including music, dance, and art. For a few dollars, visitors can hire a tour guide to lead them through the palace grounds or venture through on their own.
The most poignant moments of our time in Cambodia included visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Tuol Sleng is a former schoolhouse in Phnom Penh that was converted into a detention and torture center under the Khmer Rouge regime. After false confessions were extracted, prisoners were sent to any number of “killing fields,” such as Choeung Ek, where mass executions were performed on a horrific scale (official estimates are 1.7 million; in their short, 3-year reign, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of almost a quarter of the Cambodian population). Although many of the human remains have been exhumed and placed in memorials and receptacles throughout the site, the sheer number of those killed is such that bones, clothing, and teeth continue to surface throughout the grounds. The sites aren’t easy to take in, but I think they’re something everyone who visits Cambodia needs to see.
In an attempt to counterbalance the intensity of the Khmer Rouge sites, we spent the next couple of days in Phnom Penh focused on food. We took a cooking class at La Table Khmere, where we learned how to make amok, which is often referred to as Cambodia’s national dish. Infusing a number of aromatics (galangal, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, lemongrass, chili, shallots, garlic) into coconut milk, we created a curry into which we immersed a protein (chicken in one, fish in another), and steamed the dish in a banana leaf. The amok was fragrant and creamy with just a little heat. We also made a green mango salad, which was a fresh compliment to the rich amok.
Another dish found throughout Cambodia is the hot pot, or suki soup. On our last night in Phnom Penh, Phall recommended the epic suki soup restaurant Sou Sou Buffet Suki Soup (and I don’t use the term epic lightly). Unlike other open air eateries we had visited, this restaurant sat in an immense, air conditioned structure with a capacity of well over 500. Tables contained both a hot pot and griddle and were arranged around eight large conveyor belts, on which small plates of raw meat, seafood, and vegetables made their rounds for diners to pluck off at will. While the conveyor belts provided an unending stream of food, there was also a centrally-located buffet table spanning the width of the restaurant with an even larger selection. The all-you-can eat concept cost a mere $16 USD each.
Leaving Julie behind, we concluded our Cambodia trip in Siem Reap. Bearing the brunt of Cambodian tourism, Siem Reap is replete with hotels, bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Rather than stay downtown near the famous Pub Street (which is pretty much what one might expect from the name), we chose to stay on the outskirts of town at the Pavillon d’Orient, a quiet boutique hotel modeled in the French colonial style. The accommodations included breakfast in their open-air restaurant, a balcony overlooking their salt-water pool, complimentary massages, and (most importantly) a tuk-tuk and driver. Located closer to the temples than downtown Siem Reap, the daily tuk-tuk ride to the Angkor Archaeological Park took less than ten minutes.
The area known as Angkor is home to over 1,000 temples, some dating back to 800 AD. The temples range in condition from stones laying on the jungle floor to completely restored structures. While the earlier temples were Hindu, the newer structures reflect the kingdom’s shift toward Theravada Buddhism and feature a more ornate style. Angkor Wat, perhaps the most well-known, was completed around 1050 AD. Intricate carvings of Hindu imagery, including Apsaras (on which Apsara Dancing was modeled) and scenes from the epic Ramayana adorn the walls. It was eventually transformed into a Buddhist temple which is still in use today.
Despite our attempt to see as many of the temples as we could, we spent three full days exploring the area and managed to see only a handful. Though having a tuk tuk at our disposal proved invaluable. The driver’s knowledge of the park allowed us to personalize our visit and manage our limited time efficiently. We were able to proceed on our own pace and see as much (or as little) as we wished on any given day.
We went to Cambodia not fully knowing what to expect, but we left completely in love with the place. Although it was sad to see a country haunted by its tumultuous past struggle to find its place in the modern world, change is slowly happening. Visiting my sister allowed us to experience Phnom Penh on a much more intimate level than had we gone alone. We were able to meet some of the girls her organization had assisted and see the change it had made in their lives. The people we encountered gave Cambodia a special place in our hearts and we are grateful for the opportunity to visit.