The temples are beautiful, well beyond compare to anything that I have seen in the area, and the people are very friendly and kind, but when you start to peel back the layers on the surface, you begin to see the people who were most impacted by the war and the refuse of war that was left after the Khmer Rouge, Americans, and other rampaging despots finally left or were removed or otherwise deposed.
It is very common to see men, women, and even children shuffling around with less than four limbs, to see them resorting to begging with rubber slippers attached to the stumps of what used to be fully functional legs - until a landmine changed their life.
I thought I would start out the post with this and end it on a happier note. Not sure how it gets happier, but I will certainly try.
For those of us in the first-world, landmines are a thing that Hollywood makes up, and just shows cleanly killing someone.
They are designed to maim. They are not designed to kill a person, just render them wounded, and usually with a clear focus to take the legs off at the knee.
For most of the landmines in the war-torn regions of the world, where safety regulations are more of a suggestion, there are no records of where the mines are located.
I wish I could say that the US is leading the charge at making regions like this much safer, but we are not. We do give funding to organizations that remove landmines from places like Cambodia, but we also continue to manufacture landmines at an alarming rate.
While many lives and families have been destroyed by these weapons, there is a silver lining. Each year, less and less children are hurt from the mines still buried in the fields in and around villages. Marking said fields is getting easier, and with the stable political situation in Cambodia, more funding is able to help those who are hurt by leftover ordinance.
That being said, it is still estimated that there are between four and six million landmines in Cambodia. That is about one landmine for every 3-4 people in the country.
I realize that it is very dark to explain all of this before getting to the fluffy and beautiful photos that are Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Siem Reap, but I really wanted to attempt to show the side of the country that a person might not see on Trip Advisor.
Cambodia is a very complex country, and one that should be enjoyed for the sheer beauty that dominates all of the landscape, but not one that should be romanticized. The war is still too fresh and real for almost every single Cambodian over the age of 30.
Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are beautiful, and besides the MANY scam artists there, they are beyond comparison. They truly are a wonder of the world. Depending on the time of day, the complex is either devoid of tourists or crawling with people, with most of the tourists coming for sunrise and then bailing until the afternoon. My friend and I had almost the whole complex to ourselves at times when we would just try and miss these peak hours.
Pieces of advice for Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom:
1. Tuk Tuks should be no more than a few dollars.2. EVERYONE will try and scam you. Period. This could be little kids selling things, or "university students" giving tours.
3. It is very hot. I have lived in Thailand for a year and I still almost melted. If you have not been to the tropics, you cannot imagine this level of heat. Sure, you might have gone to the desert or something during summer, but yeah, trust me, that is nothing.
4. Take a lot of newer $1 bills. Cambodians prefer US dollars to their own currency.
5. Sit down in the cool (temperature) temples that ring the Angkor Wat complex. There are never tourists there, and most of the Cambodians we met were more than happy to let us share the shade and just hang around their temples.
6. Show respect. Yes, there is a dress code, women must cover their shoulders and most of their legs. Deal with it. It is not your country and you should show some level of respect for their culture. I wanted to smack a lady who was arguing with a guard about the fact that she did not want to cover her shoulders when going to the top of Angkor Wat. Assholes like her are what gives everyone a bad name. Cambodians are people, with a very long history and very complex social order. Don't try and impose your way of life on them. They have had enough problems in the recent past, they don't need you to bring your own bullshit as well.
7. Realize that these are still active and working religious sites. Enjoy them for that reason. There are monks, show them respect. Don't touch them, but sit back and watch. Some of my favorite moments at the complex were not actually in the tourist areas, but sitting with a group of Cambodians in a shrine way off in the forest watching them have a religious ceremony. Just take your shoes off, smile and go sit way in the back - it will be obvious if you are not wanted, but I would almost guarantee that you will be welcomed with a smile and a gesture to sit.
Cambodia is making amazing strides towards whatever healing can be done from such a horrible recent history. We loved it there. It was amazing to say the least. I can honestly say that I feel both touched and in awe of the complex and vibrant culture that is Cambodia.