By Vishakha Darbha
Life as an exchange student is often defined by the number of trips you make around the neighboring regions and the countless postcards you collect as you explore the many countries marked on your travel list. My journey to Cambodia was one such adventure as I chose, albeit hesitantly, to ignore the looming deadlines and catch a flight to Phnom Penh on the very first day of the recess week. I spent eight remarkable days in this beautiful country, travelling through three different regions and making unforgettable memories along the way.
We were an excited bunch of eight exchange students who began our vacation from the capital, Phnom Penh. The first Cambodian experience began once we got into Tuk-Tuks, noisy motor vehicles used extensively around the country, driven by equally loud and enthusiastic drivers. Being from India, I can’t say I was too shocked by the lack of traffic rules, but I must admit my heart stopped a couple of times as the adventurous Tuk-tuk drivers swerved around the streets of Phnom Penh, often competing with their fellow Tuk-tuk rivals to reach the destination first. We stayed at a hostel named Mad Monkey, a vibrant place with artistic sketches made all over the walls by residents. The dorms were neat and comfortable, not to mention the fact that they were also priced quite reasonably at US$6 a night.
Our daily scavenges for food were never in vain, as Phnom Penh had a variety of tasty treats to offer. Many people flocked to the popular sugarcane juice stands found around the city. The night market located right next to the Mekong River offered great local Khmer cuisine and delightful sights and smells of hawkers preparing fresh food for extremely cheap prices. One can eat a filling meal of fried yellow noodles with peanuts, vegetables, and chicken for just about a dollar! Just outside the night market was a boardwalk lined with lively restaurants, pubs and hotels, that stretched right up to the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. We joined a couple of elderly people exercising to music on the walkway, which created an interesting mix of sounds when coupled with the screaming fruit and vegetable vendors as well as the Tuk-Tuks blasting K-pop as they drove by.
The next two days at Phnom Penh were a lot more sombre: we visited the Killing Fields. This area was where the ruthless leaders had slaughtered thousands of innocents during the Khmer Rouge regime. Walking through the mass graves that are now covered with trees and grass, the area appeared serene; yet listening to the audio guide provided at the entrance sent chills down our spines as the locals recalled the tales of death and horror. The genocide museum located in the city is equally disturbing as we got to see pictures of the cruel conditions in which the prisoners were kept.
After spending three days in Phnom Penh, we took a bus to an area called Battambang that lay in the west. Battambang was a sleepy town, which didn’t have much to offer apart from a thrilling trip on a bamboo train. We were made to sit on planks made of bamboo that had a motor attached at one end. These planks ran on a narrow railway track that wound its way through a densely forested area with picturesque fields on both sides. The bamboo train cost about US$6 per person, but with a little bit of haggling it was easy to bring down the price. Whizzing past the Cambodian countryside and watching the sunset on the beautiful green rice fields that surrounded us was definitely a worthwhile experience.
From Battambang we moved on to the most important destination of our trip – Siem Reap. As a history major, the opportunity of seeing Angkor complex in person had me jumping around excitedly like a child. The journey from Battambang to Siem Reap is also worth mentioning, as we opted to take a boat down the Mekong river instead of driving to the city by bus. Despite having to spend six hours on a boat, we got to see floating villages that are inhabited by Vietnamese refugees who migrated to Cambodia after the Vietnam war, as well as the beautiful lake, Tonle Sap, that led us into Siem Reap. The city has a charming feel, with its narrow lanes and wooden bridges. It also has a thriving nightlife with a special lane called ‘Pub Street’ dedicated to the enthusiastic, inebriated tourists that often congest the area. If you ever visit Siem Reap, don’t forget to buy a banana-chocolate pancake from the hawkers who drive around selling this delicious (and exceptionally unhealthy) dessert in their electric vans.
The temples of Angkor Wat deserve to be spoken about in a completely new article. Stretching across forty kilometers, the ancient majestic temples depict an exceptionally cultured and powerful empire. The mix of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies was clearly visible as we visited the various temples in the region, from the famous Ta Phrom, Bayon and Angkor Wat to the smaller, more mysterious structures like Ta Som and Angkor Thom. The ancient Khmer script on the walls, along with the sculptures of celestial women called Apsaras and the Hindu epic Ramayana, were retold Cambodian style and placed the temples in a similar, yet unique light when compared to the ancient temple styles found in present day South India. At the entrance of this complex, we were offered one day, three day or seven day passes. My advice would be to take the three-day pass that costs around US$40, as this enchanting temple complex deserves three full days of exploration. If you have the time, waking up at 4.30 am at least once to catch the sun rising above Angkor Wat is definitely a worthy experience. Unluckily for us, we decided to travel during the monsoon season, but any traveller willing to wake up early on a clear day shouldn’t give this sight a miss.
The country of Cambodia has a lot more to offer, such as the beautiful beaches in Sihanoukville and the river dolphins in Kratie. I wouldn’t hesitate to spend another week exploring more of Cambodia, but classes and workload continue to be the bane of every students’ existence. However, if you ever get some time off and would like to explore a bit of Southeast Asia, just hop on to the next flight leaving for Cambodia, and prepare yourself for a historical adventure as you wind your way down the calm waters of the Mekong River.