My Angkor Story
My first visit to Angkor was in 1995. It was the year before the coupe of the two prime ministers but after a long period the Khmer Rouge had controlled the land and had brought the country into a state of chaos, turmoil and fear. I had arrived in Phnom Penh by flight from Bangkok. At the time I was told it was the only safe way to come to Cambodia, although I learned that the overland route from Vietnam was supposedly open too.
Phnom Penh was a surprisingly interesting and relaxed city at the time, especially considering the hectic previous years. I had come at the right moment; it was festival days with dragon boat races at the Mekong.
But I had not come for the dragon boats, this was just the cream on the pie, so to say. I had come to learn more about the recent and not so recent history of Cambodia.
Cambodia has such a history that no one in the world can ignore. The pictures of Angkor Wat had always made a huge impression on me and now it was possible to visit them.
However, to understand the past of Cambodia, I felt I had to see the Killing Fields too. And I was happy I did that, considering what happened later in Siem Reap. Cambodia has many Killing Fields, I went to visit and pay respect to the victims to a Killing Field near Phnom Penh and after I visited the Tuol Sleng prison. It was a horrifying experience only to be compared with the German concentration camps of World War II in Europe.
Photos showing people in such fear I could not imagine. It's hard to understand to what cruelty humanity is able to create.
Siem Reap and Angkor
I had a boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. In 1995 even the Ton Le Sap lake was at points not safe and the boats carried a soldier with a gun. At several docking points the military had machine guns ready to fire. But during the journey we experienced no problems.
Siem Reap turned out to be a small mellow town consisting in principle of one street. There were some hotels and restaurants. It was clear the Cambodians were picking up the increasing amounts of tourists but it was all still mellow.
The first night (after visiting Phnom Bakheng on the western hill top) I had my dinner in a local restaurant. At a certain moment we heard a lot of noise outside. The staff screamed..."attack, attack... hide".. We heard a lot of what the staff called machine gun fire. Everyone was under the table. It
turned out to be fireworks for opening a new shop. The situation showed how deep the fear at the time was embedded in the minds of the people.
The next day I rented a bicycle and went to see Angkor. I bought a 3 days pass and went in. In the next days I visited many of the important temples including Angkor Wat (just outside the Angkor Thom city walls), the magnificent Bayon temple, the terraces and many other smaller temples.
Of course the Bayon temple was the highlight, but Ta Phrom was probably as impressive. At the time you couldn't visit the outer temples of the complex as the Khmer Rouge was still controlling large parts of the country.
Back on bicycle
Some years later I came back. By then Cambodia was at peace. I cycled from the Thai border to Siem Reap, a mostly dust road. The area had been closed when I first visited but now it was safe.
I saw just smiling faces along the road. People were working now on the land, no longer afraid the crops would be destroyed or stolen by Khmer Rouge soldiers. If you really want to see something of rural Cambodia, this is a good an easy accessible area.
At arrival in Siem Reap I was totally covered in red sand. But when I went into the Angkor area the next day I saw it was as impressive as I have seen it a few years earlier. This time I was able to visit some other further away temples including the Beng Melea.
Beng Melea is maybe one of the most interesting temples because it is not restored. Here you can get an idea what the explorers in the mid 19th century saw when they came (I purposely do not say "discover" because it was never really lost, not even for the western world).
Angkor is such a widespread area, there are so many sites to visit. A three day pass gives you only the possibility to visit the most spectacular temples. For most people that is enough but as I am interested in a little more than average, I went back. I visited Angkor three times, and I can assure you, every time I came back, I was as knock out as the previous time. Angkor is one of the architectural wonders of Asia, if not one of the world and only a few sights in Asia can compete with Angkor.
Peter is the author of 3 websites:
On the last site he wrote about his bicycle adventures in Cambodia and Angkor more extensive then this page can offer.