My first trip outside of Thailand was with a friend of mine, Juliette, to Siem Reap, the capital of Cambodia. We had decided to travel there for five days, because our visas required us to leave the country once every three months in order to remain valid. But really, that was just an excuse. We desperately wanted to get out of Thailand and see how the rest of Southeast Asia compared, and it had also been a dream of both of ours to see Angkor Wat. The flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap was very short, and before we knew it we had landed and were taking a tuk-tuk to our ($3-per-night) hostel. The difference between Siem Reap and Bangkok was very striking. While Bangkok was a bustling metropolis, it still seemed somewhat less modern compared to European and American cities, but Siem Reap made us realize exactly how modernized Bangkok was compared to its counterparts in the area. Many of the roads were unpaved, the sidewalks were few and far between, and there was a noticeable lack of streetlights. Despite this, our hostel had an incredibly fun and relaxed environment and we enjoyed swimming in the pool and getting to know the other guests before heading off to bed.
The next day we woke up around five a.m. to get ready for our sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. I will never forget driving around the corner and seeing Angkor Wat against the barely-lit horizon. Our entire tour group sat still and watched the sun slowly crawl up behind the temple before our tour guide ushered us on to go explore the inside. The structure was ancient, and absolutely amazing to look at. It reminded me of Thailand’s temples, but somehow also seemed reminiscent of ancient Aztec and Mayan temples I had seen pictures of before. Juliette and I were incredibly glad that we booked a sunrise tour, not only for the view, but because of the fact that after 10 a.m., it became almost unbearably hot, so the sunrise tour gave us a few hours of exploring the temples without melting.
The area of Angkor Wat is actually incredibly large, and covers about 500 acres with dozens of ancient structures on it. Our Cambodian guide told us about the history of the buildings, which was interesting to hear. The most striking part of it for me was physically seeing how the Khmer Rouge regime in the 80’s had destroyed some of the buildings during the Cambodian Genocide. We saw several temples with bullet holes in the walls, areas where land mines had been detonated, and even one temple that had been almost completely intact for hundreds of years until the Khmer Rouge destroyed it in the 1970’s.
Later in the trip Juliette and I went to a museum in Siem Reap dedicated to the history of the Cambodian genocide and military struggle surrounding it. It was a simple museum, mainly consisting of tanks, deactivated land mines, and other wartime memorabilia sitting in a mango grove, but it was amazing in the sense that every single one of the guides had personally been through the genocide. I had been to war museums before, but never one like that. One guide was missing an eye a limb and several fingers from fighting in the military during that time. He spoke about his experiences, which included killing a khmer rouge soldier. Another guide spoke about how he watched his father murdered with a shovel during the genocide, and how his grandfather had disappeared and was never heard from again.
I can’t stress how amazing, and horrifying, it was to hear firsthand accounts of a historical event such as this. It was even more amazing to see the effects from it that were still around today, from the physical damage of temples and buildings, to the extreme poverty and political corruption that is still very present in the country, to the column of real human skulls that sat near the center of the city, many of them bashed in or filled with bullet holes, all of them unidentified.
Seeing living history like that was not easy, but I had such a greater appreciation for the country and its people after seeing how they have begun to progress from that dark period.