Angkor Wat is famous for a very good reason: it is stunning in its beauty as well as its mystery. The largest religious temple (Hindu) ever built almost a millennium ago and hidden from all until just recently. While photo opportunities lie everywhere, the ambiance of this vast piece of art is felt only by wandering through its amazing halls and structures.
While there is a peacefulness that surrounds the area, I cannot help but wonder about all the strife and tragedy that has occurred over the past thousand years…taking what was once a mecca of Khmer life and while never fully abandoned, fell silent as the forces of nature took over as regional politics and war ebbed and flowed.
In the jungle north of Angkor is one of my favorite spots, the Preah Khan temple, and unlike Angkor Wat, it has remained in ruins as there has been very little (if any) restoration. However, the lack of restoration actually creates more electricity for me. The temple is full of sacred images of Khmer women protecting the temple with their auspicious presence and as I sat down with my lunch (the fried cakes shown a couple posts earlier), I contemplate how vivid life must have been almost 1,000 years ago.
I admit to a certain naiveté, wishing that I could have been an explorer back in those days, understanding that it was a very hard life, for sure, but I imagine the unexpected delight that around every corner was possibly a new & vibrant culture to be experienced would have been worth the struggle.
Back in ’05, I was in a bit of a dilemma as I could not head back home for Christmas due to certain permanent resident issues (with the US government), so I was in need of a destination to spend the final two weeks of ’05. Having just watched the Killing Fields and read a book about SE Asian history, Cambodia quickly came to mind and I booked the trip.
While my main itinerary included basic accommodations, I did make one tweak to my plan and arrange to stay at two historic, colonial hotels: the Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh and Grand Hotel D’Angkor in Siem Reap. The history that filled these hotels is incredible: great adventurers, statesmen and royalty made these places their home.
The Le Royal in Phnom Penh triggered the most interest for me as it was the headquarters for foreign photojournalists during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975-79. In the movie the Killing Fields (highly recommended before any travel to Cambodia), several of the scenes were shot in the hotel.
Staying there was a very strange feeling, as it is truly living in the lap of luxury: nicest place I have ever, and probably will ever stay. Yet the hotel also holds such a strong link to colonization and perhaps most important to Cambodians, the time of the Khmer Rouge rule where some of the worst atrocities of genocide and persecution have ever taken place.
Over the next few days, I will post some basic photos I took during this time, and how I walked away from Cambodia with an uplifted spirit. The people of this country have persevered and live life with a passion and love that I have rarely seen. Include this with a beautiful country full of mystery, historical building and ruins, and I will return.
The below photo is of the LeRoyal Hotel in Phnom Penh, and I did take as much joy as possible at this hotel.
FYI: while I did splurge and stay a night at each of these hotels, I would not recommend it unless you have the cash…quite expensive, and with all the beautiful sights to see I spent minimal time back at any hotel. When I do a photography trek, I prefer to stay at very modest hotels – as long as they have electricity (to power my computer & recharge batteries) and a bed, I am happy as I generally only spend time at the hotel to sleep & recharge. 1 and 2-Star guesthouses are generally perfect for serving this purpose. When traveling with friends or loved-ones, go to at least a 3-Star unless they too want to share the adventure 🙂