August 22, 2012

Cambodia: Kingdom of Wonder

10 things I found extraordinary in my 8-day Cambodia experience.

1.      Angkor Wat

Angkor Archaeological Park is a 400 km² complex which holds the legacy of the Khmer Empire civilization in the 9th to 15th century. There are numerous temples in Angkor, which some are being restored while some are left in rubbles. The most important and the most famous is the Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat or “Temple City” is the largest temple complex in the world. It was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as a temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, the preserver.

Angkor Wat was hailed as a classic perfection because of the balance, unity and proportional design in a grand monumental scale.

Other notable temples in the Archaeological Park are The Bayon, Baphuon in Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Pre Rup Banteay Kdei, Banteay Srei and East Mebon.

Presently, Cambodia is almost synonymous with the famous Angkor Wat that it’s even depicted in the country’s national flag. It’s the top attraction of the country and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2.      US Dollar

1 USD = 4000 Riel

US Dollar is predominantly used throughout the country because Cambodians preferred foreign currency. However, Cambodia’s Riel is also used but only for the fractional currency (or amount less than a dollar) because they don’t have US coins.

3.      Silver Pagoda is not silver.

The Silver Pagoda or the Wat Preah Keo is located inside the Royal Palace Complex in Phnom Penh. It is the official temple of the King of Cambodia. The pagoda houses a lot of Buddha statues, which are made of valuable metals such as gold and silver but the primary Buddha is the Emerald Budda. In front of the Emerald Buddha is a standing Buddha Maitreya which is encrusted with 2,086 diamonds.

The Silver Pagoda is not at all silver but it is named after the 5,329 silver floor tiles inside the temple. Each tile is hand crafted and weighing about 1.125kg.

4.      Cambodia loves vegetables

While traveling around Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I can’t help but notice a lot of vegetarian restaurants. Since vegetarian restaurants are not common here in the Philippines, I decided to have vegetarian food every dinner on my stay in Cambodia. And you know what? I found it intriguing and irresistible.

I’ve had crispy cauliflower with sweet and sour sauce, stir fried tofu and cucumber, eggplant and feta sandwich, vegetable spring roll, vegetable in green curry and more. I’ve also had tons of fresh pressed carrot, orange and watermelon juice which they serve without sugar.

I do love vegetables. At home, we almost always have a serving of vegetables every meal. But in Cambodia, I never thought that I can still do so many other recipes from vegetables just by scanning through the restaurants’ extensive vegetarian menus.

5.      Kampot Pepper

Cambodia is famous for their pepper. Kampot Pepper was once known as the King of Peppers and was the top choice of gourmands and French restaurants in Europe. But in the 60s, the Vietnam War and then the subsequent Cambodian Civil War almost completely destroyed the pepper plantations in Kampot. Fortunately, plantations are restored in the early 21st century.

Kampot pepper is very aromatic, spicy and has a strong flavor. It makes dishes have that extra kick. It’s also wickedly expensive. 100 grams for $5 or P220.00 but it’s worth it.

6.      Transportation for foreigners are expensive

If you don’t speak the Khmer language, then transportation cost will be very expensive. For foreigners, it’s probably doubled or even tripled if you don’t haggle. From my experience, a trip 2 miles or less costs $2 while a trip more than 2 miles is $3 and up. The best way to save on transportation fee is to hire a driver for a few hours. I did this on my 2nd day. I hired a driver for 3 hours for only $12.

7.      Cambodians are good English speakers

Compared to Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodians speak good English. You don’t have to be afraid of language barrier. The Tuk-Tuk drivers are one of the best English speakers because they deal with foreigners every day. Maybe you’ll just have a slight misunderstanding with the fare but then, that’s pretty normal since we’re tourists. Another amazing thing is that even street kids know basic English.

8.      Very few Cambodians preferred walking to their destination.

Mok Vaeng Park in front of the Royal Palace
Maybe because almost everyone owns a motorcycle, a scooter or a tuk-tuk thus making transportation fast and easy.

But the whole day, the sidewalks are deserted like some kind of a ghost town except for the busy road. I don’t really know why but it was kind of creepy. The guards and motorists keep on staring at me making me feel even stranger.

9.      Wi-Fi everywhere!

Cambodia is Internet-friendly. 95% of all the commercial establishments I went to have Wi-Fi. All the coffee shops, restaurants, hostels, bookstores have wi-fi! Even the pub street in Siem Reap has internet! How cool is that?

10.  Khmer Architecture is grand and massive.

I planned my visit in Cambodia as an Architectural journey because I feel so burnt out at work. I was trying to reverse psychology myself, hoping that if I surround myself with stunning and impressive structures, I’d rekindle my love for my profession. Fortunately, it worked!

Aside from the temples in Angkor, there are numerous structures worth visiting in Phnom Penh. Most of it was designed in 1955-1970 by Arch. Vann Molyvann who is the foremost contributor of the New Khmer Architecture in Cambodia:

A.     National Sports Complex   

Also called The Olympic Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium completed in 1964. The massing was spectacularly made that I feel like an illiterate architect. I couldn’t have thought of doing something as amazing like this. Definitely the highlight of my Phnom Penh tour.

B.     Chaktomuk Conference Hall

C.     Teachers Training College
I didn’t get to visit this structure but it’s still incredible.  

from The Vann Molyvann Project

D.     National Theater, Demolished
Such a shame that they'd demolish such an outstanding structure.

from The Vann Molyvann Project

from The Vann Molyvann Project

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