Five days in Cambodia. Was it nearly enough?
No way. We spent two days in Phnom Penh and three in Siem Riep, and it just was not enough to do justice to the Angkor complex. We did the main temples—Angkor Wat, Bayon with its strange, giant-sized faces, and Ta Prohm, the ruined temple made famous by Lara Croft Tomb Raider. The only distant temple we visited was Banteay Srei, which is about 30km from Angkor Wat. But there were little temples we couldn’t explore. Also, from a purely VFM perspective, a three-day pass to Angkor is a whopping $45 (about Rs1,800). So, we did want to get our money’s worth.
Were the temples the main attraction in Cambodia for you?
Well, we have always had a quiet fascination for the country, its history, and the Indian influences, fused together with the French. My wife, especially, had wanted to visit Cambodia ever since she watched Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields and, more recently, read First They Killed My Father, a first-person account of the Pol Pot regime from a young girl’s perspective. The country’s resilience in bouncing back from the Khmer Rouge period was fascinating. And the Angkor complex, of course, was tempting.
So, which place affected you the most?
It is difficult to say. We loved the four jewels of Siem Riep. The Angkor temple complex, with its sheer size, priceless sculptures, tapestries and statues, took our breath away. But the other side of the Cambodia experience, the Killing Fields and the genocide museum—once a school—shook us beyond belief. There is a martyrs’ memorial, a two- storeyed grey stone-and-glass structure, which has rows upon rows of skulls of genocide victims. It is a sombre sight.
What gave us gooseflesh was the sudden realization that the only people around were between the ages of 20 and 28. We saw some very elderly people in houses we passed, but there were no middle-aged people. It was a reminder that genocide had wiped out an entire generation. But the way Cambodia’s tourism industry has been capitalizing on its brutal past is discomforting. Every tourist shop sells souvenirs and jewellery made from unexploded mines. And the genocide museum and the Killing Fields come in for a lot of hard sell.
Overall, it seems to have been rather a grim experience.
It is impossible not to be affected by the past in Cambodia. But there were light moments, too. For instance, we stayed at Pavilion-Indochine, a French colonial bungalow-turned- boutique hotel in Siem Riep. There were signs everywhere requesting guests not to be scared of geckos—a sure sign that not many South Asians go there.
Then, there was this man whose job it is to sweep the Ta Prohm temple complex—he charges tourists $10 to pose for photographs with him. The reason: He is the man on the cover of Lonely Planet Cambodia. And then, of course, there was the food.
Yes, tell us about your food experiences.
We simply love food and ate a lot. The local favourite is a dish called Amok Fish, a sort of spicy yellow curry preparation, which changed in taste and colour every time we tried it. No place cooks it the same way, so it could be take-the-roof-off-your-palate fiery in one restaurant and creamy and coconutty in another, and downright bland in the more (Western) tourist-friendly places. We also loved Beef Lok Lak, a spicy beef dish, and the local fruits, which were available in huge quantities everywhere.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org