History Lesson in Cambodia

Family at Angkor Wat

Cambodia is a heart wrenching country with a rich history and unfortunately an extremely painful past.

Outside bridge of temple

There are the Angkor Temples in Siem Reap impressive in architecture and scope. The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison Camp of Phnom Phen that will tear your heart out and make you question humanity.

Boys at S-21 Prison

Then there are the people who are happy and resilient despite the setbacks their people have endured. They are a gracious, helpful, and a giving people. We had a fascinating time traveling in Cambodia and our experiences there will be seared into our memories for many years to come.

Our journey started at the border between Laos and Cambodia. We had caught a bus after leaving the island of Dhon Det. The key to being a good traveler is to be informed. Knowledge is definitely power. We did not have knowledge or power when we crossed the border of Cambodia. We gave up our passports to the bus organizer, along with the rest of the bus passengers, to go through the border crossing and get our visas. Again like I said, knowledge is power and if we would have checked to find out about visas we would have found out that the kids don’t have to pay for visas for Cambodia. 90 bucks down the drain. Lesson learned.

Crossing the border

Crossing the border was a snap. It was just one guard standing at the hand-operated gate. He asked us for our passports and we told him the bus guy had them and he let us pass. There was no search or anything. It was just our backpacks and us. We had to sit in the heat for the next hour waiting for our passports. We were hungry so we ate at one of the many food stands along the road. Not the most hygienic, with cows wandering through the cooking area and stalls. We finally got back on our bus with our passports and overpriced visas and were on our way. The bus was a couple degrees above that of Death Valley. We had bought tickets to go to Kratie on our way to Siem Reap. The bus to Siem Reap was supposed to be about 14 hours and we thought it better to stop about a third of the way in Kratie. Plus, a friend of mine had been there years ago and told me crazy stories about a pilot guy with a newspaper hat, but that is a whole other tangent.

Sunset in Kratie

We spent the night in Kratie and ate on the river and watched the sunset. It was a beautiful and relaxing evening.

The next morning we grabbed the bus to Siem Reap. It was an uneventful 10-hour journey.  When we finally got there we needed to grab a tuk-tuk to get to our hotel. The driver was sure that he could get all of our bags and us into his one little tuk-tuk. “NO problem”, he said. I was very doubtful and knew it wasn’t such a good idea. As we were leaving the bus area, seconds after I pulled my leg into the cab, we rolled over down an embankment. Lucky no one was injured. However, the poor guy’s tuk-tuk was damaged.

Andy our tuk-tuk driver

The bright side of this is that we got a new driver who turned out to be a great guy named Andy that drove us around the whole time in Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a very touristy town due to the Angkor Temples. There are many restaurants and stores to shop at. I was even able to pick up an external hard drive for my Mac.

The first night we walked to a restaurant and had a great spread of Cambodian fare and thirst quenching fruit shakes that hit the spot after a long day of travel.

View from top of Temple

It was a recommendation from Lonely Planet and did not disappoint. The next morning Andy picked us up from the hotel and drove us on a tour of the Angkor Temple complex. On the way we picked up a wide array of pastries from a place called Blue Pumpkin. It was delish.

Something out of Tomb Raider

The Angkor Temples are a large complex made up of different temples and historical sites. Prior to this I had thought it was similar to other ruins we had visited around the world and the central figure was the Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the central point of the ruins but the square kilometers involved are about 40KM. The complex is vast and takes days to fully explore. On our first day, we explored the North and East portion.

Sacred shrine

We were able to climb, and discover many different and unique temples and religious sites. For lunch we stopped at a small food stand outside one of the temples and sat with the locals. They were fascinated with the children and especially Nick with his golden hair. I heard all about the women’s life before I got her sales pitch to buy from her stall. I relented and purchased a couple t-shirts from her. I am such a sucker!

Lady gave all of us blessings

That night we were craving American like food and went to a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier. Who would have thought you would find great pizza and hamburgers at place with a name like that. We wanted to call it an early night because we were getting up the next morning to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise, but it was Valentine’s Day and the kids wanted to go out for dessert. Our new favorite ice cream joint called Swensen’s was where we stuffed our faces with the best ice cream in SE Asia.

Blurry-eyed and groggy we got up before sunrise and made it to Andy who was waiting downstairs for us. The poor guy must have had a hot date the night before because he got no sleep. Oh, to be young again! When we got to the temple it was still dark and people were already starting to congregate inside.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

What we thought was going to be a awe-inspiring experience was a big disappointment that took place with a thousand of our closest friends. The bright side was that we were there before the hoards of tourists arrived and got a chance to explore the fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site. On our way out the temple grounds we came across a couple from Belgium that we had met on the bus from Laos. Amy and I had briefly flirted with the idea of continuing on the bus to Siem Reap without getting off in Kratie for the night.

View from top of Angkor Wat

Lucky for us we got off. The couple told us of the ordeal that entailed after we got off. After being kicked off the bus and stranded for hours and hitting “something” in the road they finally got to Siem Reap at 4AM. What a nightmare! After talking with the couple we said our goodbyes and walked back to the tuk-tuk to find Andy fast asleep in the back. We roused him and were on our way to get something to eat.

Interesting view

He took us to one of his friend’s food stalls where we got some good tasting and cheap local eats. Afterward we walked around one of the coolest temples I have ever seen. It was actually one of the pit stops for the show Amazing Race. Which by the way is the one of our favorite shows. Thom Prom is full of rooms to explore and secret passages to find. Around every corner was another Buddha head or face. The detail was impressive.

Buddhas everywhere!

At one point during our visit one of the kids had to go to the bathroom so Amy had to walk all the way back to where we ate. I stayed with Nick so he could run around the temple. Nick and I made our way from the temple to find that Amy and the boys had befriended another traveling family from Idaho named the Long’s. It was really nice to meet and see another American family out in the world traveling. We hadn’t come across a lot of Americans let alone American families in our travels so far. We agreed to meet later for dinner and we went on our way. Our last place to visit for the day was the temple complex used in the movie Tomb Raider.

Pics with locals

It was beautiful and least restored complex that we visited. There were enormous trees growing over parts of the temple, which gave it a cool vibe. At times I felt like Indian Jones. I kept waiting for a wall to collapse and a huge boulder to roll after me.

That night we met up with the Idaho family and went to the same restaurant to eat that we had eaten at the night before. It was a nice evening of conversion and comparing of stories. I know the boys really enjoyed being able to talk to other American kids their age. We knew to finally call it a night when Nick fell asleep at the table. It had been a long day for us all.

We caught the bus the next morning to take us to Phom Penh. Arriving in Phnom Pehn we were surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers. After choosing one we were shuttled off to a hotel we had chosen through Tripadvisor. The driver tried to take us to another hotel but it was really sketchy and we insisted on him taking us to the hotel of our choosing.

Walking through the 'Killing Fields'

Our feelings in Phnom Pehn from the get go were that it made us feel a little uneasy. We had read many things about a lot of undesirable things that occur in the city. We wanted to have nothing to do with this so we made sure the children we in sight and by our side at all times.

There are two main things to see and experience in Phnom Pehn and they are the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison.  If you are unfamiliar with what happened here or want to learn more you can watch the movie “The Killing Fields” starring a young Sam Waterston or pick up one of the many books on the subject. I recommend the book, “They killed my Father” for an interesting perspective.

Monument full of bones found at the site

In a nutshell, what happened was the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, overthrew the government and began to slaughter any and all people that opposed or could be a threat to the new government. Pol Pot wanted to establish a agrarian utopia, but ended up committing one of the worst genocides the world has ever known, killing one third of the population of Cambodia. Just to think this only happened a little over thirty years ago.

The place we visited was one of the many mass graves that make up the area of the ‘killing fields’. This is one extremely depressing place. The main building of this area is a tower that is filled up with skulls and bones from the hundreds of bodies that were pulled from this grave area. Walking around the grounds you can still see bone fragments and pieces of clothing still coming up through the soil. This is a very graphic and shocking place but we felt it was a place and a story that our children should know.

'Killing Tree'

By far, the most shocking and appalling things at this site, one that will be forever burned into my consciousness, is the ‘killing tree’. The ‘killing tree’ was a tree used by the Khmer Rouge to kill babies and young children. To save bullets they would grab the kids by the ankles and smash them against the trunk of this tree. It is beyond me what humans are capable of doing. After a brief visit to the museum at the site we got back into our tuk-tuk and made our way to the one of the prisons that were used by the Khmer Rouge to torture and imprison men, women, and children deemed a threat to the new government.

Tour at S-21 Prison

At this site named S-21, we hired a tour guide to show us around the grounds. Things have not been changed much since the days the prison was a functioning death camp. You can still see blood on the floors and ceilings of many of the cells. The guide had many stories about the prison, prisoners, and guards. The Khmer Rouge kept very detailed records of all prisoners and what happened to them. It was very sad to see children around the ages of Alex and Tyler in pictures on the walls. It was tough to think about what must have happened to them.

Pictures of some of the many prisoners and victims of S-21 Prison

There were only a few survivors of this prison. At the end of the tour it began to dawn on me the age of the guide and I asked her what her experience was like during the Khmer Rouge regime. She teared up and began to tell us of the how her family was killed and she was made to work hard labor in the rice fields. She was only 12 years old at the time.

This country and its people have given us a real experience and I hope an enduring impression of what human beings can do to each other and opened our eyes to the how lucky we are to live where and how we do. Not only have we learned of the horrors of genocide, but have witnessed the strength of the human spirit in the Cambodian people who continue to endure and strive for better lives.

One of the seven survivors of the prison camp

Only Survivors of S-21 Prison



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