Cambodia, part 1: Angkor what?!

The mysterious and famous Angkor Wat temples were the main reason to choose Cambodia as our next travel destination. Being the largest religious monument in the world and a World Heritage Site, you hear so much about people flying to Cambodia just to “discover” the temples, so we were really psyched up.

Believe it or not, Angkor Wat is just one of over 1000 temples in the area, so guidebooks and friends who’ve been there were urging us to spend at least 3 or 4 days for the temple complex, and some even suggested a whole week. We bought 3-day tickets ($40 per person), however after one and a half days we knew that those temples, as special as they are, don’t knock our socks off, and moved on.

Having seen a fair part of the country, we can tell you that Cambodia has much more to offer than some 900 year old ruins!

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We arrived in Seam Reap late at night, slept 4 hours, got up at 5 a.m. and jumped on “our” tuk-tuk.” I say “our” because it was the same friendly driver who picked us up from the airport the night before and who drove us around during the entire time we spent in Seam Reap. This is awesome because he quickly learned what we were interested in seeing and suggested some sites off the beaten track all by himself. This was the case with all tuk-tuk drivers, even the ones far away from the tourist centers.

But back to Angkor Wat. Getting up at 5 a.m. we’d hoped to catch the great morning light and at the same time avoid the crowds, but we were wrong on both accounts. The light was crummy, the sky was dizzy and there were already about 500 people occupying the small pond in front of the temple. Many had tripods and were yelling at anyone trying to sneak in front of them and take a better picture.

So forget about it if you are looking for a tranquil mood or doing something creative photographically. At the very least, do what only a few people do and let your tuk-tuk driver drop you off at the east gate of Angkor Wat and have him meet you 3-4 hours later at the main entrance. This way the sunrise will take place behind you, but the temple will be lit up by the warm morning light and you won’t be surrounded by massive groups of loud tourists.

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Definitely take enough time for the other temples, especially for the neighboring Angkor Thom. Bayon is our favorite temple, in a romantic setting and adorned by a multitude of mysterious stone faces. At Ta Prohm huge trees engulf the temple and dwarf visitors and various stone structures. In the Rolous Group further south we liked Preah Ko a lot. It’s much smaller than the other temples, but very pretty and much easier to experience fully. All temples are adorned with countless Buddhas, Apsara dancers, animals, inscriptions and symbols – like a fascinating decorative net.

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After one and a half days we didn’t feel like visiting any more old temples, instead we were more interested in the country itself and its inhabitants. We were eager to discover what else Cambodia has to “offer.” So we left the past behind us and headed off to the Tonlé Sap lake and its surrounding villages. Already the very first one, Kampong Pluk, was so fascinating that after an hour we decided we should come back there overnight.

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The people here live in wooden houses and lead a very simple life. Since the lake swells up tremendously during the rainy season, the houses here are perched on 7-8 meter high stilts. Amazing, but during the rainy season the water is almost level with the wooden floors! The people are very friendly and invited us several times to climb up and look inside their houses. They were all extremely clean and tidy, with very little furniture and just one small area separated by curtains – the bedroom of the parents. Each house has a family altar – a mixture of a family pictures and a worshiping place.

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Cambodians like strong colors, especially pink and purple.

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In the shade underneath the houses the families work together, cook meals, sell products, children play or hang around. And this is where “schools” are set up and open-air lessons are conducted. We passed by while an English-lesson was being held and the teacher interrupted his “how to spell RABBIT” lesson immediately – after all just a few tourists get lost here.

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We bought pens and writing pads for the children and their curious faces changed to grateful smiles. “Visit us on Facebook!” said the teacher before we left.

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Strange feeling… Facebook? Here?! In the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization and the slightest hint of western influence? Well, yes. And this surprised me very much. Cambodia is a poor developing country, but in terms of modern communication, it’s catching up unbelievably fast. In many cases they live in huts, sleep and eat on the floor and possess only the absolute necessities, but you constantly see teenagers and many monks texting and surfing on the Internet via smartphones and laptops. I have no words for that. I live in Germany and I don’t possess a smartphone yet.

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