Let Cambodia Surprise You

Tripoto
26th Sep 2014

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Angkor Wat

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

The Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Outside Karavansara Hotel, Siem Reap

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Bayon, Angkor Thom at Angkor Wat

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Ta Phrom 'Lara Croft' Temple, Siem Reap

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Bayon, Angkor Thom

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Carving of an Apsara Dancer, Bayon, Angkor Thom

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Of pillars and intricate stone carvings

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Mornings at Pub Street, Siem Reap

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Angkor Wat

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

La Maison D'Ambre, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

The Rose De Bokor Suite at La Maison D'Ambre

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

The Rose De Bokor Suite at La Maison D'Ambre

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Victory Gate to the Royal Palace

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Wat Phnom Temple, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

The Independence Monument Park, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Met these two somewhere in Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

The Independence Monument, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Siem Reap and the rains

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Karavansara, Siem Reap

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Tuol Svay Pray High School

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Karavansara Residences, Siem Reap

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Karavansara Residences, Siem Reap

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Peace Palace, Phnom Penh

Photo of Let Cambodia Surprise You by Sumedha Bharpilania

Professor Dumbledore: "I think if you so desired, you could board a train"
Harry: "And where would it take me?"
Dumbledore: "On"

These words rang in my head as I boarded a flight to the mystical land of the Khmers, having no clue as to what was in store for me. My knowledge of Cambodia was limited to my exoticized ideas and visions of South East Asia and the fact that it is home to one of the largest Hindu temples in the world. However, from the ancient ruins of the Angkor Wat complex, the harrowing, heart-wrenching accounts of a genocide that wiped out an entire nation to a night of beautiful country music coupled with the best fish and chips I have ever had, Cambodia was one fascinating amalgamation. For us, it was a pilgrimage, an expedition and a relaxing holiday rolled into one.

Siem Reap, our first stop, despite being perpetually rain-soaked was warm in its own unique ways.  The locals were all hospitable and friendly, my accommodation was unexpectedly luxurious and so was the food, the tuk tuks made me want to ditch every other form of transport in the world and the quaint atmosphere of the city reminded me of the place I come from, so it really was a home away from home. The colonial character of Siem Reap and the fact that it is so deeply entrenched in history while trying and successfully so, to emerge as a touristy hub replete with coffeehouse chains, elaborate supermarkets, boutique hotels and five stars is what sets it apart.

Phnom Penh on the other hand was about dealing with noisy traffic and getting lost in crowded lanes, bylanes and alleyways.  It’s almost like the city is conflicted between the meat sellers and vegetable vendors on one side of the street and the upmarket shopping malls on the other side. Then there is the grand and imposing Royal Palace that epitomizes wealth, prosperity and traditional values and a short walk away, the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers are lined with the fanciest of restaurants and bars that impart a bustling nightlife to the city. All of these collectively illustrate how Cambodia is a nation of survivors and fighters who are perfectly capable of resurrecting a fallen empire and making it all the more glorious.

My tryst with Cambodia was short but was definitely more than sweet. The tiny kingdom with its simple people is wonderfully safe, although the concerned locals are obsessed with asking you to watch out for land mines.  It additionally is one of those places that provide you everything you want and not burn a hole in your pocket. The practice may have been borrowed from their Vietnamese friends, but the Cambodians give you small jars of condensed milk along with your coffee. What could possibly be more generous? And then, this place gave Angelina Jolie a family member which might not be the most important but could certainly be one of the plethora of reasons for you to visit this country and let it truly surprise you.

Siem Reap is one of those cities that is stuck in a time warp, trapped between a rapidly growing hospitality sector and a legacy left by its former colonial masters. The province majorly serves as a bridge that travellers take in order to explore the magnificent ruins and temples of Angkor, possibly the most popular UNESCO world heritage site and tuk tuks are available in almost every part of the city in order to transport you there. The rest of the place is best explored on foot, especially Pub Street at night which is very much akin to the Walking Street in Pattaya, Thailand, except that this place is slightly more family friendly. There are a multitude of restaurants, bars and pubs and the music emanating collectively from these turns the street into an open-air discotheque of sorts. The mornings however are relatively quieter when Pub Street turns into a massive farmers market with the freshest of produce available. Siem Reap is not exactly a shopping destination but the Angkor Night Market is great for handicrafts. Lucky Mall and the Angkor Trade Centre are the two malls with supermarkets and dining options like The Pizza Company and Swensen's Ice Cream. All in all, the place has a little bit of everything for everyone.
Photo of Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Tucked in a quiet lane just a few minutes from Pub Street in Siem Reap is the elegant Karavansara Retreat. With tastefully decorated apartments, cosy yet spacious rooms and the most amiable and helpful staff, this boutique hotel has something for every traveller. The Taberu Restaurant (located on the property itself) which offers Khmer fusion cuisine and a wonderful breakfast spread is a plus. Additionally, if in case you miss big names, a Hard Rock Cafe is located just down the street.
Photo of Karavansara Retreat and Residences, Street 25, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Karavansara Retreat and Residences, Street 25, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Karavansara Retreat and Residences, Street 25, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Karavansara Retreat and Residences, Street 25, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
The largest Hindu and now Buddhist temple in the world, Angkor Wat is one of the most easily recognizable places and probably one of the major reasons why people even know about the existence of Cambodia. With its never-ending, complex structure and intricate carvings, it is an illustration of how our roots, our cultures are essentially the same. Watching the sun rise over the temple and the water below reflecting the spectacular religious center is a fascinating experience. If getting lost was ever pleasurable, Angkor Wat is the place for you to go astray and then find yourself.
Photo of Angkor Wat, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Angkor Wat, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Angkor Wat, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Angkor Wat, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
If there is one example of stone faces looking as though they were animated, the Bayon is a perfect one. Built by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon is another imposing structure at Angkor. The spellbinding carvings of the dancing apsaras (fairies) of Hindu mythology need to be seen in order to understand the capabilities of creative intelligence. A lot of walking is involved along with a tad bit of climbing while the sun can be harsh, therefore, water and sunglasses/hats are essential.
Photo of The Bayon, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of The Bayon, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of The Bayon, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
One of the most visited temple complexes in the Angkor region, Ta Prohm is better known as the 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Temple' because the Angelina Jolie starrer was shot here. With gigantic trees growing out of the ruins, the temple has this air of eeriness largely owing to the fact that it was abandoned for a long period of time. However, a great amount of restoration work has been going on courtesy the Archaelogical Survey of India. It must be noted that a three day Angkor Pass, which covers all temples is available for around 40 USD and can be collected at the main ticket sales booths on the road from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat.
Photo of Ta Prohm, Krong Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
As I stepped into the city of Phnom Penh after a six hour long luxury bus journey that promised me free WiFi, that didn't as a matter of fact work, I was honestly confused. On one side, I could see a river silently flowing in all its glory, the rays of the evening sun making the water sparkle as it was lined with tiny restaurants, shops and boutiques. On the other side, there were buses, cars, autos and bicycles and people in numbers so large, I thought I would get lost if I walked into the crowd. I negotiated with a tuk tuk driver who agreed to take me to my hotel for a single Dollar if I booked him for the rest of my trips around the city. Having struck a good bargain, I was driven around tiny lanes that reminded me of old Calcutta until I reached my destination. I knew that very second that the city had a lot for me to explore and I sure did. I was mesmerized by the grandeur of the palaces and pagodas, I was devastated by the narrations and evidences of one of the most brutal genocides in human history, I was soothed by the cool winds that blew as I sat by the river, sipping on a glass of my favorite wine while a charming Chicago musician played Dylan and I frankly was tired owing to all the walking and climbing that the many avenues, boulevards and temples demanded. But I took back memories and only the best of them that will probably stay with me forever.
Photo of Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Possibly the prettiest and the most comfortable boutique hotel one can stay in, La Maison d'Ambre is a class apart because it offers only ten luxury suites, each with a unique theme. It is the most conspicuous, pristine white establishment on an otherwise crammed street. The interiors are absolutely posh and are very evidently done by someone who has a taste for fashion. If you are a bookworm, the humongous book-case lined with titles on art, architecture and popular designers in the reception will be the first thing that catches your eye. The manager is one of the most cordial people you will ever meet. A little pricey, but this place deserves every bit of the money.
Photo of La Maison d Ambre, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of La Maison d Ambre, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of La Maison d Ambre, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Home to the King of Cambodia, the Royal Palace is probably the most magnificent thing about the city of Phnom Penh. The sun makes all the gold on the structure look even brighter and for a second you start to wonder if you actually are in Bangkok. The Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda and certain other areas are open to the public while the rest are accessible only to the ones with blue blood. Pictures around the palace (except for the Silver Pagoda where photography is prohibited) almost always come out beautiful and Instagram-worthy and the intricate turquoise and golden victory gate is breath-taking. The entrance fee is around 5 USD with your camera and a guide is not really essential.
Photo of The Royal Palace, Samdach Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of The Royal Palace, Samdach Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of The Royal Palace, Samdach Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of The Royal Palace, Samdach Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
The central spot of Phnom Penh, the Wat Phnom Temple is a Buddhist temple situated on top of an artificial hill and the tallest in the city, which means that there are a lot of stairs for one to climb. The temple was apparently built by a widow by the name of Penh, affectionately known as Grandmother Penh. Having spent a good amount of time on the hill and observing everything around me, I supposed that the adorable ginger cat continuously circling the shrine had some part of the deceased lady's soul latched onto her. The paintings inside are worth a sight and the entrance fee is 1 USD.
Photo of Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
History is proof of the fact that humans have often been severely unkind to each other, inflicting on each other the worst pain imaginable for reasons that have not always added up. The Cambodian Genocide, replete with all its barbarism and ruthlessness however, is unfortunately one blank page in history and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum chronicles just that. The former high school was used by the Khmer Rouge regime in order to torture innocent Cambodians and eventually exterminate them in the several 'Killing Fields' spread across the country. This was some sort of an ethnic cleansing, initiated by Pol Pot, reminiscent of the Holocaust during the Second World War. The fact that there were only twelve survivors of the largely underreported genocide (with two still alive and around the museum to meet visitors) is greatly disturbing. The experience will leave a lump in your throat and it is best to have a guide for detailed explanations.
Photo of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
The Independence Monument in the heart of Phnom Penh marks Cambodia's independence from France. The park near the monument is a great place for picnics and it is recommended that you go there around evening to watch locals playing peppy music out of boomboxes and dancing. Everybody is free to join. There are food trucks that surround the park which sell delicious Cambodian coffee and popcorn. It truly is a happy place and allows you to taste the joys of freedom.
Photo of Independence Monument, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
Photo of Independence Monument, Phnom Penh, Cambodia by Sumedha Bharpilania
I also had the opportunity to visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and witness mass graves and real human skulls, bones and shreds of cloth which were the result of the extermination. While there are audio tours available and photography was allowed, I was personally heavily distressed to click any pictures. The fields are a little outside of Phnom Penh and Tuk Tuks can get you there for a decent price. Admission charges are around 6 USD which include the audio guides.
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