Siem Reap is the tourist capital of Cambodia due to it’s proximity to the temples of Angkor. We had a whole week there so we decided to go for the 3-day ticket to explore the temples at a reasonable pace. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire which flourished during the 9th-15th century and its scale is mind-blowing. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, and is the biggest religious building in the world, but there are over 1000 other ruins in Angkor. Our Airbnb host recommend the wonderful Vutha (Cambodia Golden Angkor Tours) who became our tuk-tuk driver for our 3-day tour. On the first day we spent a reasonable 5 hours and visited some of the smaller, less well known temples, each in various stages of disrepair, which we all enjoyed exploring. However, a highlight of the day was when we passed a lady walking a group of water buffalo down the street. Disappointed we didn’t get the camera out in time, we were happy to spot them a little while later bathing in a small pool further down the road!
The following day Vutha picked us up at 5am to get to Angkor Wat in time for the sunrise. An early and chilly start, but worth it to be at the front of the crowds watching the sun come up. Angkor Wat is colossal and thankfully manages to swallow the crowds with ease. We spent a good couple of hours there. Aside from the awe-inspiring size of the building, a highlight for us all was the very well preserved bas relief carvings along the external perimeter walls. The next mega temple we visited was Bayon, one of our favourites with 216 mesmerising faces everywhere. We walked around the other temples and ruins enclosed within Angkor Thom before stopping for a much needed rest and lunch. After lunch we drove to Ta Prohm, made famous from its appearance in the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie, where nature appears to be swallowing the ancient ruins. By the end of the day we were templed-out and passed on the last two temples that Vutha suggested!
The 3 day pass could be used on non-consecutive days so we took the opportunity to have a day off to rest before another busy day. The following day, we took a 1.5hr tuk-tuk drive out into the countryside which was an experience in itself. Being in an open sided tuk-tuk you get to experience more of the sights and smells as you go. Life in Cambodia seems to take place by the roadside. Street food stalls where locals will ‘drive by’ on their scooter and pick up their lunch. Fires by the roadside, huge tarps spread out by the side of the dusty road covered in rice drying out in the sun, a barber with a chair and a mirror hung on a tree, chickens, dogs, cows and water buffalo roaming around. Wonderful!
Our first destination was the ACCB (Angkor Centre for Conservation and Biodiversity) a wildlife rehabilitation centre where orphaned or injured animals are very well cared for in a lovely clean facility. There were gibbons, leopard cats, civets (famous for the expensive coffee beans collected from their excrement!), huge cranes and pelicans to name a few. There is also a resident pangolin who was as elusive as ever and hiding in his nest when we visited. Next to the wildlife centre was the entrance to Kbal Spean, another part of the Angkor complex. A 1.5km uphill hike through jungle vegetation to a waterfall and carvings in the riverbed. We all enjoyed the trek which was probably more rewarding than the carvings themselves! From there we drove to Banteay Srey the last and not least (one of our favourite) of the Angkor temples we visited, built from a lovely pink-hued rock, adorned with intricate and beautiful carvings. They call it the ‘woman’s temple’ as it is so intricate it must have been carved by women. It was a nice way to end our Angkor exploration, much to the girls’ relief!
On the way back to town, on the outskirts of the Angkor complex, we stopped at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. There are still an estimated 5 million landmines and several unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. During the Vietnam-America War (1965-1973), the US dropped more bombs on the Vietnamese occupied areas of eastern Cambodia than the Allies dropped during the entire Second World War. The Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) defended their borders with landmines and during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia (1979-1989) more landmines were planted along the entire 750km border with Thailand. Huge areas of land are still unusable and innocent children or farm labourers are still victims of explosions with current injury rates as high as 10 per month – another harsh reality that these people have to live with. The museum raises awareness of the issues and has been set up by a man who has personally found and deactivated over 5000 landmines. Locating and clearing minefields is a mammoth task, time consuming and highly dangerous. The painstaking process is pretty much treading very carefully with a metal detector to find the mines. There are a few organisations in Cambodia who work together to make land safe again for the villagers who live and work alongside these ticking time bombs. Their target to be landmine free by 2025 seems almost impossible to achieve but these people are risking their lives every day to try.
A few days after this visit we discovered a glimmer of light in the battle against landmines. The APOPO Visitors Centre demonstrates how they have trained HEROrats to sniff out explosives. The rats are light enough not to detonate the bombs, and they find the explosives rather than metal (time is wasted when using a metal detector on scrap metal, and some mines are made of plastic). They can check an area in one month that would take a human team 8-9 months to clear and so far have a 100% success rate. Amazing! They have been using this technique in Africa for a while but it is a new venture in Cambodia and we felt really positive that this could be the way forward to reach their target. We sponsored a HEROrat to help keep this initiative going and will be receiving monthly updates on how many mines he has discovered!
When we weren’t exploring temples we enjoyed exploring Siem Reap. We ate in some really nice good-cause restaurants such as Sister Srey Cafe and New Leaf Book Cafe. We wandered around the markets, the backpacker haven of ‘pub street’ and the night markets where the girls got henna tattoos. We had quite the surprise when one evening we visited the rooftop terrace of our 6-storey apartment block to discover that our neighbour’s had a crocodile farm in their back yard! Ellie was somewhat upset by it but we were mostly intrigued – you don’t see this kind of thing every day! We also came across an organisation called Rehash Trash, where the girls were shown how to turn old plastic bags into useful items by crochet. The aim of the organisation is to provide employment for local women who once lived on the streets, teach them a skill and use low cost raw materials and turn it into a new product to sell. It has changed the lives of many families as well as keeping plastic bags out of landfill. It was a pleasure to spend time with these women, and a lovely way to spend our last afternoon in Cambodia.
Our stay in Cambodia was at times heart-wrenching and we felt compelled to want to help in some way. We don’t realise how lucky we are. The country has a long way to go but the resilience of these warm and friendly people is inspiring. Cambodia will always have a special place in our hearts.
Click here to see more of our Siem Reap photos.