Itinerary: Luang Prabang – Nong Khiaw – Muang Ngoi – Vientiane – Siem Reap – the Temples of Angkor – Tongle Sap Lake – Phnom Penh – Choeung Ek
It is 5 p.m. local time when I check in at my guesthouse in the center of Luang Prabang, on the banks of the Mekong River. I’ve been on the road for almost 24 hours, half of which was in the air. The other half was spent on passport controls, baggage checks, a transfer in Bangkok, getting a visa and waiting. But I’m here! In the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos, Laos for short.
To start with, a few facts: Laos is sandwiched between Thailand in the west and Vietnam in the east and has seven million inhabitants. Until 1976 the country was a monarchy, since then it is a communist one-party state. Until the early 1990s, Laos was a closed country. The country relied heavily on support from the Soviet Union, but after the fall of the communist regime there (in 1991), Laos opened its borders to foreign investment and visitors.
In terms of culture, it is a very Buddhist country (by far most of the inhabitants are Buddhist), but there are also customs borrowed from Hinduism and animism. Ethnically, Laos is a country of minorities. Besides Lao you will also find ethnic Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese and numerous ethnic minorities, who have their own cultures and traditions. Another shocking fact: Between 1964 and 1973, during what we call the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs on the country. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world.
The next morning at eight I walk out the door of the guesthouse. It gets light early here and life on the street starts from about seven a.m.. Many people go to the daily morning markets to do their shopping then. There is also one in the street behind my guesthouse and it is pleasantly busy there. Vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, herbs, snacks, but also household items, you can buy everything there. Some saleswomen (90% are women) sit on a tarp or rug on the floor, others have made a makeshift stall with crates. I see whole fish (including quite large ones), freshly caught in the Mekong, pig’s feet, frogs in a net, very small birds in equally small bamboo cages, coffee, something with the text ‘buffalo skin’ on it, seaweed sheets and rice of course, lots of rice. From the market I walk a bit along the Mekong and sit on a terrace to have breakfast. Thanks to the fact that the French have been in Laos for many years, you can get baguettes here and excellent coffee is produced on the Bolaven plateau in southern Laos. The day has started well!
Luang Prabang has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1995. The first Lao settled in what was then called Xieng Dong Xieng Thong in the tenth century. In the fourteenth century the city was overrun by the Cambodian Khmer and a century later by the Vietnamese. The name was changed to Luang Prabang and under the Vietnamese influence the city flourished. From the early eighteenth century, Luang Prabang was for a long time an independent kingdom within the larger empire of Siam (now Thailand), before coming under the influence of France at the end of the nineteenth century as part of French Indochina. Although Luang Prabang is known as a ‘city’, it does not resemble a real city in any way. It’s more like a village and doesn’t even compare to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. There is an extremely relaxed atmosphere.
The town is dotted with Buddhist temples and monasteries and the Wat Xieng Tong is without a doubt the most beautiful. The ‘golden city-temple’ was built in 1560 and has survived all invasions by the Chinese and Vietnamese and the bombings by the Americans. It is a beautiful building, with a low overhanging roof and both inside and out the walls are decorated with gold leaf and mosaics. Around the temple building (the ‘sim’) are several stupas and shrines with Buddha images, all beautifully decorated. Built in the same style, but dating from 1962, the building houses a huge gold stretcher on which the body of King Sisavang Vong was carried during his funeral.
The sun is high in the sky and the temperature has risen to over thirty degrees. From Wat Xieng Tong, I walk to the tip of the peninsula on which Luang Prabang’s old town is located, to the bamboo bridge spanning the Nam Khan River, and back via Sisavang Vong Street. Several temple complexes are located on this street. I don’t have to see them all and limit myself to the most beautiful. Like the Wat Sene. Here you will also find a beautiful, richly gold-plated temple building. And two long, narrow sloops, which are used in the annual competitions. A little further is the Wat Mai. The temple is said to have been built at the end of the 18th century, but the beautiful decoration on the facade was applied in the 1960s.
After looking for a terrace for lunch, I go to the former Royal Palace, which now houses the national museum. The palace is – compared to the temples – a modestly designed building at the end of a driveway lined with palm trees. It’s the former palace of King Sisavang Vong, whose bedroom you can see – and his wife’s, apparently the royal couple didn’t sleep together. There are also reception halls, thrones and all kinds of royal stuff to see. Not very impressive, if you ask me.
What is impressive though is the Haw Pha Bang, the very beautiful building that also stands on the grounds of the royal palace and which is the place where the Pha Bang, the holiest Buddha statue in Laos, is kept. The statue has been in Luang Prabang since 1867 and the name of the city is derived from the name of the statue. The building is quite new (built in the 1990s), but in classic Lao style. A large building, especially for a small statue: the Pha Bang is only eighty centimeters high. The Lao believe that this statue protects them and it seems to work the other way around too: In the past, Laos has been conquered by the Siamese twice, twice they took the Pha Bang, and both times they gave it back after some time because they faced adversity.
Opposite the royal palace is the entrance to Phousi Hill, a hill considered sacred by the Lao in the middle of the old city. At the top (the climb to the top isn’t too strenuous), is the golden That Chomsi stupa. But the walk up is especially worth it because of the beautiful view over the city. From here you can see how Luang Prabang was built where the Mekong and Nam Khan meet and is surrounded by green mountains. I take a moment here to enjoy the view.
Back downstairs I book a boat trip for the next day at one of the many tour operators in Sisavang Vong Street and buy a bus ticket for the day after that. Then I walk to the last temple of today, the Wat Pa Phai. This temple also has a beautiful golden ‘sim’ and inside you will find a whole horde of Buddha statues. It is 4 p.m. and apparently that is the time when a group of young monks perform a drumming ceremony. After the Wat Pa Phai I have seen enough temples for today. I walk back to the Mekong, where there are several restaurants with terraces overlooking the river. What better way to end the day than with a Beerlao (the local beer), delicious food, a beautiful sunset and the soothing rippling of the Mekong?
The local currency in Laos is the kip, which sounds funny to Dutchies because kip means chicken in Dutch. Because you have to pay in cash almost everywhere in Laos, I look for an ATM the next morning. That’s not a problem, because there are countless of them; the real problem is finding one that works. Most are out of order, empty or do not accept western bank cards. Finally I find one that works. When I’m done, this one also changes to ‘out of order’…
On the way I meet a row of monks who are busy with Tak Bat, or collecting alms. Every morning after sunrise, monks take to the streets to collect rice offered to them by residents kneeling by the side of the road. The rice is intended for the poor. Giving alms is part of what they call Het Bun here, which basically means collecting Buddhist bonus points by doing good things. Most men in Laos spend some time as monks in a Buddhist monastery. Often only a few months, but this is seen as an essential part of growing up (a bit like in the past military service in the Netherlands was considerd an essential part of becoming a man).
Everywhere along the banks of the Mekong are so-called ‘slow boats’ with which you can make day trips. Yesterday I booked a half-day trip to the Pak Ou Caves, about thirty kilometers north of Luang Prabang. As the water of the Mekong slides past the boat, I enjoy the view. Almost the entire area is wooded, here and there are some houses. On the water only a few ‘slow boats’ and the occasional fishing boat. Fishing is also done along the banks here and there. What a different world! Only the roaring sound of the boat’s diesel engine disturbs the peace.
On the way to the caves we moor at a small village, which is a real tourist trap. Residents try to sell visitors silk and locally brewed Láo láo. The Pak Ou Caves have been used for more than a century to house old and broken Buddha statues that are no longer in use. Locals make a pilgrimage to the two caves once a year to pay their respects to the discarded Buddhas. In the two caves you will find countless statues, from large to (very) small. The cave visit is nice, but won’t be the highlight of my trip. Especially the boat trip is wonderfully relaxed.
Back in Luang Prabang I sit down at a riverside restaurant for lunch and then I walk to the Wat Pha Phoutthabat (with strange, inward sloping walls and a door with an image of people who are supposed to represent Dutch traders), along the Nam Khan River around Phousi Hill. It is now 34 degrees, so it is a hot walk. The rest of the afternoon and evening it is time to relax with a book, a Beerlao and nice food.
It is Tuesday morning when a tuk-tuk takes me from my guesthouse to the bus station. Minibuses depart from here to the remote north of Laos. My destination is Nong Khiaw. My luggage, along with that of the other ten travelers who are crammed into the van, are tied to the roof and what follows is a four-hour drive, during which you can do little more than listen to music and look out though the window. At a quarter to two we arrive at the tiny bus station of Nong Khiaw. From here it is about a kilometer walk to my guesthouse. There I am warmly welcomed. I have a room on the first floor with expansive views over the Nam Ou River and the mountains on the other side. Perfect!
Nong Khiaw is nestled amid the limestone mountains of northern Laos, on the Nam Ou River, which begins near the border with China and rises just above Luang Prabang in the Mekong. This part of Laos is still largely undeveloped and therefore a perfect place to seek peace. This may change, however, as China is working on a major plan to build a series of dams in the Nam Ou. The first is already there and has ensured that you can no longer sail directly by boat from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. I didn’t do much today other than sit in a minivan, but I’m still knackered nonetheless. After I’ve taken a look at the village (Nong Khiaw is very small) and booked a day trip for the next day, I just relax, eat and go to sleep on time.
At night it rains hard and when I get up the next morning it is cloudy and cool outside. I have breakfast with coffee and a sandwich and then I am ready for the day trip to Muang Ngoi. We are four travelers plus a guide. We start with a boat trip on the Nam Ou River to the north. After about an hour of sailing we arrive at Muang Ngoi. This village is even smaller than Nong Khiaw and is located in the middle of the mountains, completely deserted and only accessible via the river. The village consists of an unpaved street with wooden houses, and nowadays also some restaurants and guesthouses for visitors. The people here live mainly from agriculture (mainly rice) and livestock (some cows, pigs and chickens).
After sheltering from a brief shower, we climb a nearby hill. Half way up is Tham Kang Cave, where people sheltered from bombing during the war. Numerous small Buddha statues in the cave are still a reminder of this. Besides the cave, the climb to the top is especially memorable. Because it is very steep! You walk, or rather: clamber, via a muddy path up, partly (but not everywhere) with boulders that form a kind of steps and partly (but not everywhere) with bamboo sticks attached to the trees that serve as railings. In some places you can hardly put your feet anywhere and you can easily slip into the mud (the bamboo railings are there for a reason). A Dutch girl in the group slips halfway through and only a tree stops her from falling. I myself fall when I hold on to a bamboo railing and it breaks off spontaneously. Fortunately it is not hot, because the climb will automatically warm you up. At the top of the hill, after half an hour of climbing, you will be rewarded with a beautiful view over Muang Ngoi, the river and the mountains.
The descent is just as treacherous in terms of slipping. Down again we sail a bit down the river and then we walk in about half an hour to the Ban Sopkong waterfall. The walk goes past empty fields (rice is grown here in the rainy season) and then through the forest to the waterfall. Here too only a mud path and smooth boulders (fortunately not so steep) and after crossing a stream a few times, we arrive at the waterfall. It is a beautiful spot, in the middle of the jungle. After this we take the boat back to Nong Khiaw, where we arrive at the end of the afternoon. Time to shower and rinse the mud from my shoes.
The next morning I have a lot of muscle soreness from yesterday’s climb. But I don’t really have to exert myself this day. After I have had breakfast at the guesthouse, I am picked up and taken to the bus station, where a minibus is already waiting for departure. Around noon I am back in Luang Prabang. I make it a relaxed afternoon: lunch by the river, a little walk around the town, at the end of the afternoon a visit to the night market (where it smells wonderful of curries and barbecued meat), read a bit and have dinner one more time overlooking the Mekong.
It’s Friday and I’m on the road for a week. Today is a travel day: I leave Luang Prabang and fly to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. With some delay, however, because the 1 p.m. flight does not leave until 2:30. Fortunately it is only a half hour flight and before I know it I am in a taxi to the center. At 4 p.m. I report to my guesthouse, in the heart of Vientiane.
In 1560, King Setthathilat moved the capital of Laos from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. The city is actually called Wiangjan, but everyone knows it in the French translation. Like Luang Prabang, Vientiane was also occupied by Khmer and Vietnamese and the city was abandoned for a long time, until the French arrived in the nineteenth century. The old part of present-day Vientiane was built during that period. The center of Vientiane is compact, but it still feels more like a city than the village of Luang Prabang. Just a bit more tall buildings and just a bit busier traffic. And a lot warmer than the past two days!
At the end of the afternoon I walk to Chao Anouvang Park, a kind of mix of park and square, between two main roads, on a piece of land that was reclaimed about ten years ago. Before that, the Mekong flowed here. Thailand is on the other side of the river. On the south side of the park is a large statue of a combative-looking king Anouvang, who fought against Siamese rule (he looks out over the river towards Thailand for a reason).
The next morning I wake up early. I walk to Nam Phou Square to have breakfast with coffee and a sandwich and then I get a tuk-tuk driver to take me to That Luang. Which is not difficult, because on every street corner you will find plenty of tuk-tuks. After some negotiation (never pay the first price they mention right away) I get in and we drive to perhaps the most famous landmark in Laos. The That Luang is a large gold leaf stupa and the national symbol of Laos. The original version was built in the sixteenth century, the current stupa is a reconstruction built in the early 1930s, based on old drawings of what the original version must have looked like. Reconstruction or not, it is an impressive structure. The middle spire is 45 meters high and around it are thirty smaller spires. The gold leaf sparkles in the sun and the stupa stands out nicely against the blue sky.
I let the tuk-tuk drop me off at Patouxai, at the beginning (or end) of Lane Xang Avenue. This wide boulevard was designed with the Champs Elysées in mind and Patouxai is a large triumphal arch reminiscent of its Parisian counterpart. But in this case decorated with images of Hindu gods. From Patouxai I walk down Lane Xang Avenue until I reach the Wat Sisaket. Built in 1818, this is Vientiane’s oldest temple and the only one to survive the destruction of the city by the Siamese in 1828. The central ‘sim’ has old (and worn) murals (now being restored) and numerous small niches in the walls containing small Buddha statues. You will also find these niches in the gallery with Buddha images that surrounds the temple building, there are countless of them. A very beautiful temple complex.
At the end of Setthathilat Street is a temple that is frequented by locals: Wat Simuang. This temple looks completely different: everything is painted in bright colors and you will find both Buddha statues and Hindu gods. After lunch on a terrace in the shade, I visit the Lao National Museum. It is a somewhat outdated museum, with an emphasis on the history of Laos in the twentieth century. Do not expect an objective picture of history here, it is all “French colonialists” and “American imperialists”, the great leaders Lenin and Mao are discussed and of course the heroic “comrades” of the Lao army. Nevertheless, the museum is worth a visit.
After the museum I walk along the Haw Pha Kaew. This museum was originally built as a personal temple to the king, but is now closed for renovation and can only be viewed from the outside. The building houses the Pha Kaew, the Buddha of Emerald. This statue is considered as sacred by the Lao as the Pha Bang in Luang Prabang, but the Pha Kaew was taken by the Siamese in the eighteenth century and is still in Bangkok.
It is very busy in the streets around my guesthouse. These are closed to traffic and there are all kinds of stalls. Small-scale music and dance performances also take place in five locations. A timetable has been made for that, but Lao never stick to timetables, so you have to be a bit lucky to be in the right place at the right time. In any case, I see a dance performance of dancers dressed in gold dresses and after I have had dinner I come across a kind of procession of dancing and whooping people who carry along two meters high ‘dancing’ dolls. It’s like carnival.
Sunday is my last day in Laos. For a change I do nothing for a day, except drink a little coffee, read a little, walk along the Mekong and relax in the sun in the Chao Anuvong Park and of course eat out. Speaking of food: The food in Laos is often very spicy. Tears regularly come to my eyes. Korean cuisine is still number one when it comes to spicy, but the Lao definitely know their way with with peppers as well.
Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor
Monday is another travel day. With a transfer in Pakse I fly in about two hours to Siem Reap in Cambodia. On arrival I get a visa, I quickly pass through passport control and luckily my luggage has come with me as well. I think it’s funny to see that the tuk-tuks are different here than in Laos (they are different in every Asian country). In Laos, the motorcycle and the seating area are one and you sit on two benches at the side. In Cambodia, the seating area hangs like a trailer behind the motorcycle and you sitting you look ahead. They are a bit like some kind of motorized carriages.
At my guesthouse in the center of Siem Reap I am warmly welcomed and I immediately arrange for the boy who came to pick me up from the airport to be my driver tomorrow when I go to visit the temples of Angkor. I also arrange a bus ticket for Thursday and I look for an ATM to withdraw dollars. Cambodia does have its own currency, the riel, but you can also pay in US dollars everywhere. This does mean that you sometimes pay with two currencies together or pay in dollars and you get change in riel.
Cambodia has fifteen million inhabitants (90% of whom are ethnic Khmer) and, like Laos, has a Buddhist culture. It is a largely agricultural country and the poorest country in Southeast Asia after Nepal and Bangladesh. From the late eighth century, the area around what is now Siem Reap was the Empire of Angkor. Until 1432, when the Khmer are defeated by the Siamese and the last king of Angkor flees to Phnom Penh. In the centuries that followed, Cambodia was constantly threatened and conquered, first by the Siamese, then by the Vietnamese. In 1863 Cambodia becomes a protectorate of France and, like Laos, becomes part of French Indochina. In 1949 Cambodia partly becomes independent, but King Sihanouk does not go far enough. He staged a coup d’état and because the French were losing in Vietnam, they granted Cambodia full independence in 1953.
During the Vietnam War, while the Americans are bombing Cambodia’s border areas (where members of the Viet Cong reside), the Communist Party of Kampuchea, better known as the “Khmer Rouge,” is established in the north of the country. Despite the American bombing raids they conquer large parts of Cambodia and in April 1975 they take Phnom Penh. Under the leadership of ‘Brother number 1’ Saloth Sar (better known as Pol Pot), the Khmer Rouge conducts a reign of terror. The Khmer Rouge wants to form a purely communist, agrarian society. To this end, private property is abolished and the population is forced to work. Families are broken up, highly educated people are arrested and executed and many people are dying of hunger and poverty. In more than three years, the Khmer Rouge regime has been responsible for the deaths of between two and three million people.
In December 1978, Vietnam invades Cambodia and ends the rule of the Khmer Rouge in just a few days. Pol Pot flees to Thailand, from where the Khmer Rouge will continue to carry out guerrilla actions in Cambodia for years to come. It is not until the 1990s that the situation slowly changed: the United Nations begin to play a role and elections are held. Only when disagreements arise within the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot is condemned by his own people (and dies under unclear circumstances), will the Khmer Rouge come to an end and the reconstruction of Cambodia can really begin. Today, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, but the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime are far from forgotten and some former Khmer Rouge cadres still hold important positions today.
Siem Reap is infested with tourists. In fact, the whole city is all about the tourist industry. Siem Reap is the base for Angkor, so that’s not very strange, but a city center with only guesthouses, restaurants and cafes (Western or not – there is even a ‘Pub Street’!) is anything but authentic Cambodian. If you look closely you can see the French colonial architecture and on the streets there are stalls everywhere where you can buy fruit shakes, there are tuk-tuks and a market and the smells of Khmer cuisine, but all that is overrun by hordes of tourists . No escape, but not really my thing. One advantage: plenty of places for a drink and good food.
The next morning I let myself be driven to the world famous temples of Angkor. The approximately 24 temples are spread over an area of 400 square kilometers and are one of the most famous sights in the world. This was the heart of the Khmer Empire for 600 years from the eighth century on, an empire that at its height also included parts of present-day Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos. Every temple complex – every Khmer king built his own new temple – was once the center of a village or small town, but these have long since disappeared.
First I visit the Angkor Thom, of which the Bayon is the largest and most impressive of all Angkor temples. You approach Angkor Thom via a long bridge, with statues on either side and a large gate at the end. There are several complexes within the Angkor Thom. Built at the behest of King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the Bayon has 37 towers with large stone faces facing all four cardinal directions. The Buddhist shrine is surrounded by three stone walls, all three of which feature reliefs depicting soldiers, ships, musicians, animals and daily life. The second and first fences merge into each other and together form a maze of narrow passages and towers. The large amount of visitors does take away a bit of the magic, but the sheer size of the complex, the endless reliefs and the towers are very impressive.
From the Bayon I walk to the Baphuon, which was built in the eleventh century by order of King Udayadityavarman II. You approach this complex over a long bridge as well. This sanctuary consists of a steeply rising central pyramid with five levels. Beautiful, but a little less impressive after the Bayon. Then I walk along the ‘Terrace of the Elephants’. A large hall once stood here, now only the foundation remains. The side of it is a 300 meter long wall with large reliefs of elephants.
The Ta Prohm was built at the end of the twelfth century and was originally a Buddhist monastery. Some of the original 39 towers are still standing, but otherwise the Ta Prohm is more of a ruin. That is precisely what makes it attractive, because the ruins have been overgrown by the jungle, which has reclaimed its place on the man-built temple. The trees and their roots literally grow over and around the walls and buildings. A very special sight.
After five hours of visiting temples (in the heat) I think it’s enough, time to have lunch and relax. After lunch I visit the most famous of the Angkor temples: the Angkor Wat (which literally means Angkor temple…). The construction of the temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu took thirty years and was completed in 1150. Of all the Angkor temples, Angkor Wat is the only one that faces west and whose reliefs on the walls are counterclockwise. Hence, this temple is associated with death (the other temples face east, where the sun rises, the symbol for life).
You also approach Angkor Wat over a long bridge, which spans the no less than 200 meters wide moat. After going through a gate, there is a second bridge (this time 350 meters long), with the outermost of three walls built around the sanctuary at the end. They are decorated with two-meter high reliefs all around, on which you can see armies fighting, Hindu legends depicted and images of heaven and hell. Between the second and third wall is a cross-shaped space with four (now dry) pools. The inner wall is again decorated with reliefs (this time with mythical dancers) and finally you come to the central shrine with the five distinctive towers (which also adorn the Cambodian flag). The Bayon was especially impressive for its size, but the Angkor Wat is also very beautiful, especially because of the endless reliefs, the symmetry of the complex and the five famous towers.
After the Angkor Wat I have seen enough temples. I really don’t need to see them all. It is also very hot and I am tired, so time to go back to Siem Reap. It has been a beautiful, impressive day.
For the next day I booked a half day trip to Tongle Sap Lake, where we visit the village of Kompong Pluk. In the rainy season this lake is located thirty kilometers southeast of Siem Reap, in the dry season it is five kilometers further, the lake shrinks that much in the dry season. In the wet season the lake is twelve meters deep, in the dry season only one meter.
The people who live around the lake have come up with two solutions to deal with that. First, houses on stilts. Ten meter high poles to be exact. In the dry season that is a very special sight: wooden houses ten meters above the ground, on pieces of dry land on the edge of Tongle Sap. In the rainy season it looks very different here: the water then reaches just below the floor of the houses. The second solution is floating houses. These houses made of wood or thatch can be found a little further down the lake. Of the fifteen million Cambodians, about one and a half million live around Tongle Sap. They mainly live from fishing. Fishing nets are attached to the bunches of branches that float in the lake. A special place to visit, especially those bizarre houses on stilts.
The rest of the afternoon I take it easy. I look around in Siem Reap, get a big, cold, fresh mango shake, sit by the river for a while and enjoy Khmer cuisine again in the evening.
Thursday is another travel day. In seven hours I travel by bus (a luxurious one, there is even WiFi on board) from Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. After the Siamese defeated the Empire of Angkor, King Ponhea Yat fled to Phnom Penh and made this city its new capital. A century later, the king had already left and for a long time Phnom Penh was little more than a trading town. The Vietnamese make Phnom Penh the capital again in 1812. The city flourishes and grows mainly under the French influence, until the Khmer Rouge take the city in 1975. They force the population to leave the city and for the next three and a half years Phnom Penh is a ghost town. After the Vietnamese conquered the city in 1979, Phnom Penh came back to life and today Phnom Penh is a vibrant city, full of construction and investment. You hardly notice it, but the mass deportation in which the population lost everything, was only forty years ago.
After the travel day, on Friday it is time again for an active day. After breakfast I go to the Royal Palace. On a large walled area in the center of the city you will not only find the current palace of the king, but also various historic buildings that I think look very beautiful. The most impressive is the Throne Hall, inaugurated by King Bat Sisowath in 1919 and used for coronations and official ceremonies. The imposing building has a roof with seven layers in the colors orange, sapphire and green, which stand for prosperity, nature and freedom. In the center is a four-faced tower and all around is a colonnade, topped by garudas supporting the roof. Inside are painted walls and ceilings (but no photography is allowed there) and at the end of a long hall are two golden thrones.
To the right of the Throne Hall is the Moonlight Pavilion, which is used for music and dance performances and for royal banquets. Via a passage on the south side of the site you reach the Silver Pagoda. This was built in 1962 by order of King Sihanouk, to replace the old wooden pagoda that used to stand here. The Silver Pagoda is not made of silver. It is a temple building with an emerald Buddha inside on a high golden throne (photography prohibited) surrounded by many other Buddha images. It is called Silver Pagoda because of the more than 5,000 silver floor tiles. In the courtyard are several monuments.
After the Royal Palace I walk along the river (Phnom Penh is where the Mekong and Tongle Sap rivers meet) to the Wat Ounalom. This is one of the oldest pagodas in Phnom Penh. There has been a Buddhist monastery here since the fifteenth century, the current one, which houses a large bronze Buddha, was built in 1952. I walk further along the Sisowat Quay, the boulevard along the river, and notice that Phnom Pen is a much nicer city than Siem Reap. It is also very hot, well above thirty degrees. After a short walk I arrive at Wat Phnom. This Buddhist shrine is still frequented by residents of the city. On top of a hill is a striking white chedi with a small temple building behind it. Then I walk a bit back to the Psar Thmei, or the central market. This striking building was built in 1937 and has the shape of a cross with a large dome in the middle. There is everything for sale, from vegetables, meat and fish to jewelry and souvenirs.
I have lunch on a terrace on the Sisowat Quay and then take a tuk-tuk to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. This former high school was the infamous S-21 prison from 1975 to 1979, where a total of between 13,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned – with a few exceptions all prior to their execution. Especially highly educated people were imprisoned here, doctors, teachers, civil servants. The prison housed 1,500 inmates, who were held in cells measuring one by two meters, which had been provisionally built in the former classrooms. This must have been hell. The prison is now a museum, where you can visit the cell blocks and read victims’ stories about forced labour, torture and the death of loved ones. There are also long rows of pictures of the prisoners and rather gruesome drawings of the torture that took place there.
On the way back I walk past Wat Lanka, one of the five temples that were built in 1442 when the city was founded by order of King Ponhea Yat. A little further, in the middle of Sihanouk boulevard, is the Independence Monument, commemorating the independence from the French in 1953. The last temple I visit on this trip is Wat Botum (also one of the five original temples) . Near this temple is also the Wat Botum Park, where the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument is located, in memory of the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese.
On my last day in Cambodia I visit Choeung Ek, just over half an hour by tuk-tuk from the center of Phnom Penh. This is where the prisoners were taken from Toul Sleng prison to be executed. Hence the name Killing Fields. Mass graves containing the remains of nearly 9,000 people were found here in 1980. To this day remains are sometimes found during the rainy season. In the middle of the mass graves is a stupa, in which the skulls and bones of the exhumed victims are kept. It is a macabre reminder of the crimes of a terrible regime.
In the afternoon I also briefly visit the National Museum, where you can view a lot of images, conveniently sorted by pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor. I only pay it a short visit. It is sweltering hot, about 35 degrees, and I spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing in Wat Botum Park. The next day it is time to go home. Laos and Cambodia have both proved very rewarding. Beautiful sights, great food and friendly people. It was absolutely great!