This semester I spent in South Korea and it was my very first visit to Asia. This continent has always been something different and somewhat far, but once I was in one of the Asian countries I tried to do my best to see as much as possible of it. Even though I decided to spend quite some time traveling in South Korea and discovering the beauties of this amazing country, I also knew I wanted a big trip to some other Asian country. Luckily two of my friends were of the same opinion so we planned a week long trip to Cambodia, a country I actually never even thought of visiting up until we started discussing the possibility of it.
Denis, Michael, and I were all very excited to board our Korean Air flight (definitely the best airline I flew with so far) to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. We left Seoul on Friday afternoon and embarked on the adventure of lifetime. We landed around 10pm Phnom Penh time and were instantly greeted by the heat and humidity. It was quite a shock, I have to admit! A temperature of almost 100 degrees and humid air made it hard to breathe, but one can get used to it after a while. After going through immigration, getting our arrival visas, and making it through Customs, the biggest culture shock of my life took place (and we haven’t even left the airport, mind you). It was really interesting seeing all the tuk-tuks (the most common means of transportation in Cambodia) waiting for their customers, people trying to sell you all kinds of products for a super low price just to make enough for living, and the general atmosphere. We took a short cab ride to the place where we would stay that night before we headed to Siem Reap the morning after. On our arrival we also tried some Khmer (local Cambodian cuisine) so we had some soup, which pretty much discouraged us from trying anything else local.
On Saturday we traveled from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus. This was not a really good idea. Very cheap, but not a good idea (that is why on the way back we got a private car: A bit more expensive, but much faster and comfortable). We spent over 8 hours in the bus with almost completely broken air conditioner. I tried to sleep through most of the trip in order to avoid the heat. Once we arrived to Siem Reap we were overwhelmed by all the tuk-tuk drivers who wanted to take us to our hotel and be our tour guides for the time we stayed in Siem Reap (there are not that many tourists in Cambodia at this time since it gets too hot and humid and the wet season is starting).
During our 4 day stay in Siem Reap we visited all the major temples including Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Angkor Thom. It is amazing to see how an ancient civilization managed to build such impressive temples a 1000 years ago but this beautiful country is facing such poverty nowadays. The temples we visited were by all means fascinating and something that is worth seeing just to understand how small a human being is compared to what he can make.
We also went to see the sun rise at Angkor Wat but unfortunately due to bad weather we weren’t able to see it. Another day we tried to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng, a temple located on the top of the hill. We actually rode an elephant to the top of the hill and it was quite an interesting and fun experience. Unfortunately, there was no spectacular sunset that we were expecting due to the fact it was cloudy. Nevertheless, we had fun since the view of the jungle and Angkor Thom was very nice. Siem Reap is a really great place to visit as you can see the temples, but also get a more up-to-date Cambodia experience since the city is quite modern. Most of the city, however, caters to the tourists so there are lot of shops where you can buy souvenirs and there are plenty of western restaurants. We also went to see the floating village located on the lake just outside the city.
Our last day we spent in Phnom Penh visiting the Royal Palace and the Killing Fields. It is quite a contrast to see the streets of the Phnom Penh and then the riches of the Royal Palace. It is very beautiful and worth a visit! Visiting the Killing Fields was a very emotional experience since I learned more about the genocide that happened during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Seeing the mass graves, the killing tree where babies were killed, and hearing personal stories of the people who survived the atrocities of Pol Pot’s regime was very moving and I learned a lot. Even though it was very hard being there, I am happy we got to visit the Killing Fields and learn more about the history of this beautiful Asian country.
Once you get past the humidity and heat, and get used to the tuk-tuk rides, it is very easy to enjoy Cambodia. No matter whether you visit the temples, the Killing Fields, or just engage in a conversation with the friendly locals (they all speak at least some English!) the beauty and the rich (no matter whether gloomy or fascinating) history of Cambodia shows through. The most impressive part was meeting Cambodians who are so helpful and have this great will to live and to be happy. Cambodia won my heart and it is definitely a country that I would visit again and recommend others to visit. This trip is surely one of the biggest highlights of my semester.