After visiting Vientiane, I flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the world-famous (and rightly-so) Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the name of only one of the temples that are in the area around Siem Reap, and I spent the next three days exploring the area with Buna, the motorcycle driver I hired to drive me around while I was there (this is how almost everyone visits the temple complexes as they are so spread out).
All of the temples were interesting and had their own stories and history, but long story short, they are all really old and in various states of repair (or disrepair). My favorites were the temples that had not been as well maintained, and show how the temples looked when Western explorers discovered them (they became better-known in the mid 1800's), with the jungle encroaching and climbing over walls and through the buildings.
There's something oddly comforting seeing nature slowly reclaim what was once jungle a thousand years ago. Also, lucky for me, I happened to plan (unknowingly) visiting Siem Reap on the week that all of China was on vacation for Chinese New Year, so I was surrounded by Chinese tourists... If felt like I was back in China what with all of the Chinese tour guides noisily barking into their portable speakers and everyone wearing matching hats!
After touring the Siem Reap area for three days, I flew to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I had heard from many people during my trip that they didn't really enjoy Phnom Penh, and while it is true that it's not as interesting as Siem Reap or as captivating as Luang Prabang in Laos, it appealed to me because it seemed more like a "real" city than most of the other cities I'd visited.
It's a big, capital city that isn't as beholden to tourism as most of the other places, so it was interesting to see how "real" Cambodia does things. There are a few things for tourists to do, although most of them are pretty heavy. The Killing Fields, which is an area on the outskirts of town where Pol Pot, the horrible leader of the Khmer Rouge, slaughtered somewhere between 1.2 - 2.2 million people (this out of a total population in the country of 7.5 million at that time). It is estimated about half of those that died were tortured or were killed while the other half died of starvation and disease) people from 1975-1979. Not much is left at the fields, other than a newly-built memorial and big craters in the ground where the mass graves were found and subsequently dug up.
I also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school where the Khmer Rouge interrogated and tourured over 14,000 people before most of them were sent to the Killing Fields to be killed. Horrible stuff, but for me not as powerful as the concentration camp Auschwitz was, I think partly because there isn't much left from the Khmer Rouge (buildings, personal belongings of the victims, etc) to effectively demonstrate the number of people that really were affected.
It is amazing to know that some of the people who were involved in the killings and torture have been free until now. I just saw a Google news article a couple of weeks ago about how the trials of some of the people in the Khmer Rouge are just now beginning. I also found it interesting (and quite depressing) that I did not know anything about this part of world history until I started researching Cambodia prior to my trip. I thought maybe I just happened to miss this day in History class, but most of the people I met or talked to while traveling said the same thing. It seems though, that the Cambodian's view of this period in time is that it's now behind them and that Cambodians are looking forward rather than back.
After Phnom Penh, I needed to have some down time, so I took a ~3 hour bus ride to the beach town of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. The beach was not very wide, but it was nice to just chill for a day after a few days of touring. Sihanoukville, like many SE Asian beach places, have restaurant after restaurant after bar directly on the beach. They all have a number of chaise lounges and comfy chairs that are yours for the taking provided you buy something from them at some point during the day. So, I spent the day relaxing and reading with a girl from England that was also my bus from Phnom Penh. All of the restaurants have beach side BBQs at night and the seafood we had was delicious.
The next day, I headed back to Phnom Penh to go back into Vietnam the next day.
I thought Cambodia was great. Siem Reap is one of the most interesting places I've ever been, and I found Cambodians to be just as friendly as the Vietnamese and Laotians, and again, everyone seemed to speak very good English. More Angkor Wat and other pictures in the gallery...