Phnomenal, At Times

We flew from Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Phnom Penh is the hardest capital to spell of all the world’s countries, so coming here should be helpful down the road in spelling bees. Our stay in Cambodia was short (five days), with a day in Phnom Penh and then four days in Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat. Maybe it was our hotel situation, maybe it was our guides, maybe it was the Red Sox losing three straight to Cleveland, but we somehow never got super-charged about our time here, despite some really interesting things to see.

Phnom Penh 363 We spent a couple of hours at the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh, which was spectacular. For most of its recent history, Cambodia has been ruled by a king, and the palace is the king’s residence. The country is so poor, and the palace so opulent, that you wonder about priorities. But it has many buildings that were just beautiful in architecture and workmanship.

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While in Phnom Penh, we also took in the National Museum (moderately interesting) and drove around the city. At any point, you could see a new building, a run down building, and an ancient Buddhist Temple all next to each other. We also learned a fair amount about the hardship Cambodia went through in the 1970′s (rent the movie “The Killing Fields” if you’re interested).

Phnom Penh 469 The next morning we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the location of the amazing Angkor Wat. Built in the 11th Century, this is best described by going to our slide gallery and taking in the vastness and beauty of it. At its peak, the enclosed city had a population of 1 million, larger at the time than any city in Europe. The city was protected by an eight-meter high wall and a moat well stocked with crocodiles.

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As we walked around these areas, we could only imagine what it was like it its glory days. The entire compound, once one of the largest and most impressive cities in the world, fell into complete disrepair. It was overrun with fichus trees and other plants, which not only hid it, but destroyed much of the stonework. We got the sense that considerable progress has been Siem Reap 023 made in stopping the rate of deterioration, but there is still so much to be done to try to recover what this temple used to be like. And if the photo setting on the left looks familiar, it played a prominent role in the Angelina Jolie movie “Tomb Raider.” The cast at left is unlikely to be hitting Hollywood anytime soon.

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As we walked through the ruins, the walls literally told a story. Many of them were covered with extensive story-boards, relating some interesting aspect of the history of Angkor Wat and the civilization that built and occupied it. And as religious wars took place over the past millenium, various “edits” have taken place, from eliminating all buddhas to covering parts with red paint (courtesy of the Khmer Rouge).

Phnom Penh 421 While touring the Angkor Wat complex, we had lots of encounters with wildlife. The area is full of long-tailed macaques (monkeys), and they bordered on being pests (although our kids never felt that way about them!). And we took a great ride around the temple on an unusual All-Terrain Vehicle — an elephant. It was hard to believe our kids are now old enough to drive (an elephant, anyway). The whole time we were all just laughing at how we’re actually on an elephant in Cambodia!

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Siem Reap 211 On our last day of touring Siem Reap, we went out and explored a local fishing village, which ended up being quite different from what we expected. We saw so many tiny shacks along the water’s edge, or houseboats, all inhabited by large families with almost no resources. These families all depend on the Tonle Sab lake for their livelihood, which is fed by the Mekong River. And the Mekong, the world’s eleventh longest river, has its source inSiem Reap 187 China, where it is being dammed for hydro power. The downstream impact on the fish in the lake and river, and indirectly on these families, has been huge. As the couple on the right are doing, we saw many fishing nets come out of the water empty while we were boating on these waters.


Siem Reap 160 Unlike China and Vietnam, where the economies are booming and lots of development is underway, Cambodia is still struggling to determine how to move forward. The people seemed very nice (except for the staff at our hotel, Raffles, not one we’d recommend), but it’s still very much a third world country, with no sign of hitting its stride.

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