“Siem Reap is basically a well established stopping base for Angkor Wat”.
Well at least this is what I was told by all the travelling nomads out there, but there is more to Siem Reap than at first glance. So yes, the integrity of its cultural heritage has been swayed to the cashed up tourist, but that doesn’t mean that it has been abandoned completely. Just hop a tuk tuk to the nearest Pogoda, wander past a local school, or eat at local street food vendor. There is still a beating heart at the core of this gem, you just have to remove the beer goggles to see.
With hundreds of pogodas in close proximity, it is clear how deep seeded Buddhism is in this city. Exploring some of the many pogodas was as easy as renting a tuk tuk and for just $6 for the morning, you have a sweet ride that will wait while you wander.
My first stop was Wat Thmei Pogoda. A pivotal landmark during the Pol Pot era, Wat Thmei is also know as Siem Reap’s Killing Fields. The little brother to Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh, it houses a very emotive and descriptive display that helps the novice historian understand the events that still haunt Cambodia today. It may seem morbid to visit such a sight, but I am a firm believer in remembering history and appreciating the impact that our actions have of the future of a people. The Pogoda was used as the Khmer Rouge prison to house thousands of innocents who were ‘tried’ on crimes they did not commit. Executions regularly took place, with bodies being buried in mass graves, often still bound or chained.
Central to the Pogoda is the glass sided memorial stupa, filled with the bones of deceased Cambodian recovered from those graves. Those bodies amounting to nearly 8,000 lives.
However confronting a visit to Wat Thmei is, I found it to be something that grounded me to Cambodia. These events need to be remembered, and we need to pay respect to those who pointlessly lost their lives.
Beyond the tragic history, Wat Thmei Monestary has been reborn as an Orphanage and school, open to locals and littered with the laughter of young children. The sound of laughter is almost cleansing the pain and allowing the colourful buildings to shine once more. The ever present monks, once threatened with extinction, stand guard and provide blessings to those who are inclined.
After the heaviness of history, the next stop was Wat Kesararam. Also known as the ‘Pogoda of the Cornflower Petal’, this pagoda is extremely beautiful and a sight to behold. Nestled in amongst the chaos of the traffic, the ornate and colourful Wat stands proud. The crowning glory of this pagoda is the murals and paintings. These incredibly preserved and stunning ceiling and wall murals are packed with colour and detail stories of the life of Buddha.
Adjacent to Wat Kesararam is a distinctive stupa. Standing nearly 10m tall the stupa displays detailed carving and sensational architectural design. Well worth a closer inspection.
Residing within the boundaries are also a number of monks adorning their orange robes, and some in training wearing white.
Beyond the world of Temples and Pogodas are the Cambodian people. I have said it many times before that the people make the country, and the same is said for here. Cambodia, despite all it's hardships, maintains a smile that warms your heart. Taking a ride out into the surrounding countryside of Siem Reap, we were given a breif glimpse into the wonderment of these people. The peaceful pulse and the slower pace. It takes your breath away but invigorates your soul.