City Report — Siem Reap

Before leaving on our 4 month trip through SE Asia we had no idea how much time we might spend in Cambodia on this first trip. We made a list of the villages we were most interested in and imagined a few options for our trip if we stayed a full month. But as our travels through SE Asia unfolded we ended up dropping our total time in Cambodia to only 6 nights spent in Siem Reap so we could see the big tourist sites in the area.

City Costs

Siem Reap is the village closest to Angkor Archaeological Park, which is the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. As it should be! Out of curiosity I decided to compare prices in Siem Reap to a couple of the other destinations we visited in SE Asia that also have extremely high tourism numbers. I picked Phuket and Koh Samui in Thailand to compare to since the economies in those locations also depend on tourism. The results from numbeo.com are included below.

What we spent

The graphic below shows what we spent during our stay in Siem Reap in US Dollars. This is our trip spending, and does not include costs for our fixed expenses such as annual medical insurance. The trip spending figure is also calculated separately from our regional travel costs, and to be clear we did overspend on our regional travel costs this time. To reach Siem Reap we decided to fly from Koh Samui using Bangkok Air for $252.10 per person. That is quite high for a regional flight within SE Asia, and that’s because it departed from the little luxury resort island airport on Koh Samui. We should have taken a ferry/bus combo off the island instead of an overpriced flight!

At the end of our trip to Siem Reap Alison played her Money Crush game and found that we had stayed there for 6 nights for $59.28 per person per day, which is high for SE Asia. At first glance we could see that we spent more than average on food, and housing, and admission prices as well. That’s because we weren’t really trying to live like locals at all. This trip was all about site seeing and being good tourists!

Housing

Our housing options as full-time travelers range from a hotel booked with points or dollars, a rental home such as an Airbnb, or a house sit. In Siem Reap I booked a hotel and paid for it in real dollars. We stayed at the Mekong Angkor Deluxe Hotel for a grand total of $254.82 for 6 nights. It was relatively expensive for SE Asia so this stay counts as overspending for us in this region. We really liked the hotel, the staff, our room, and the location we were in. And we loved hanging out in the patio area by the pool every night for happy hour, sometimes working on our computers and other times just playing cards and chatting.

Transportation and Conversation

We met a pair of brothers when we arrived and decided to stick with them for the week. One of them, Sophal, drove a sedan taxi which was perfect for our trips to and from the airport, our one really early morning drive out to Angkor Wat, and our tour between the 3 main temples. The other, Saven, drove a tuk-tuk which was perfect for our rides around Siem Reap and our return visits out to individual temples. We thought it was fun to stick with these guys for our rides and appreciated hearing about their experiences during the war, as well as current conditions in Cambodia and where they see their country heading in the future.

Day after day while these guys drove us all over the area they gave us detailed information about the places we visited, the civil war, the genocide, the monarchy, the current government, and every other topic we could think of to talk about. And yet, these guys are not allowed to act as tour guides at any official Angkor Archaeological Park sites. Because Sophal and Saven grew up during the period of time when education was illegal in Cambodia, they are qualified to drive us to the big Angkor sites but not allowed to work as tour guides. We met Sophal at the airport and rarely chatted with him outside of the car since he only drove us to Angkor sites, but since Saven drove us around Siem Reap we were able to walk around with him more freely.

The Food!

We had excellent free hotel breakfasts everyday with great coffee and lots of those funny little thumb-sized bananas. Most of the dishes were intended to be very recognizable for westerners, which we did not mind. But there were some more traditional Cambodia dishes included most of the time. The number and variety of dishes for such a small hotel was pretty impressive. But the tiny thumb-sized bananas were the most impressive of course. We also had really cheap happy hour dinners at the hotel almost every night. Free and cheap are always awesome!

When we were out visiting the Angkor temples we had lunches and snacks out at street huts and restaurants. Sophal helped us find a really good breakfast out at Angkor the day we were there for sunrise, which was amazing. I was 100% prepared for street food that day but he took us somewhere we could sit down and enjoy coffee with a traditional Khmer breakfast, nom banh chok. I noticed a ton of tour group members around us that morning as they ate their soggy sandwiches from brown paper bags and I felt pretty spoiled to have a local guy making such an effort to help us have a fantastic experience. We also had one splurgy dinner that Saven recommended and drove us to after he took us on a tour around the city of Siem Reap. That was our favorite meal in Cambodia, full of local sauces and spices!

Beef loc lac: A signature dish of Cambodia! I’m a huge fan of pepper so I was thrilled to try this and it did not disappoint. The beef was very tender and the lime and Kampot pepper sauce was fantastic. You really don’t need to dress these flavors up or do anything to distract from the pepper sauce. I could eat that sauce every day on every dish!

Fish amok: Another signature dish of Cambodia! This steamed fish in Khmer curry was seriously outstanding. We were shocked and very pleased at how flavorful and much less spicy the Khmer curry was compared to the curries we’ve tried in other countries. It was rich with coconut cream, fish sauce, turmeric, lime, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots. And the sauce was captured by an adorable heart-shaped wall of cucumbers that were fun to eat at the end after they sat in the sauce for a while. Yummy!

So Much Fun!

We had been traveling through SE Asia for 2 months by the time we reached Siem Reap so we had our slow travel routine pretty well figured out at that point. We try to keep travel days simple so we don’t add anything extra to accomplish beyond reaching our destination as stress-free as possible. And then we always give ourselves the following day to relax and get grounded in our new place. With that routine on our 6 night trip to Siem Reap we had 4 days to explore.

1. Angkor Archaeological Park

Angkor Archaeological Park is the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia, and probably the most important archaeological area in SE Asia. The Angkor Park spans over 400 sq km/150 sq miles and includes multiple cities as well as numerous temples. We got 3-day Angkor Passes for $78 per person, and we saw the most amazing sites we have seen anywhere so far while we were there. These admission prices were relatively high, but not when you consider they were for 3 full days in an enormous UNESCO park. The cost was absolutely worth it. The recommendation we got was to visit the 3 main temples on the first day and move on to other temples after that. But we chose to spend our 3 days visiting only the 3 main temples without adding anything else to the agenda, and we are so glad we spent our time really absorbing everything we saw.

Angkor Wat — The City of Temples

Angkor Wat is just 3.5 miles north of Siem Reap. The complex is around 500 acres in size, surrounded by 2.2 miles of walls and 3 miles of moat. And it’s one of the largest religious monuments ever built. King Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat as a Hindu temple complex dedicated to the god Vishnu between around 1113 and 1150 CE, though it was later transformed to honor Buddhism. Archaeologists and historians debate what the population might have been within the walls of Angkor Wat, but since no foundation stela or contemporary inscriptions about the temple have been found the population numbers remain unknown. Luckily, the original Hindu carvings and Khmer architecture are largely intact because they are quite impressive.

The main Hindu element of the temple complex is the overall design with 5 stone towers depicting the 5 mountain peaks of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain of Hindu cosmology. The temples are covered with carvings in the sandstone, and the most famous one is the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” illustrating the creation of the universe and the victory of good over evil. Seeing all of this impressive artwork in a jungle setting, was more fun than visiting any museum!

During our 3 temple days we visited Angkor Wat twice and still felt like we didn’t see enough of it. The first time we went early to watch the sunrise over the main entrance on the west. I wasn’t sure if that would be worth the extra hassle to get out there so early, but Sophal insisted we should do it and was there to pick us up and make sure we got to a good spot in time for the experience. Angkor Wat is one of those places that can’t really be described adequately but it’s certainly breathtaking to visit!

Angkor Thom — The Great City

Angkor Thom is located about 6 miles north of Siem Reap and was built between 1181 and 1218 CE by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. Angkor Thom isn’t a temple or even a complex of temples, it’s a complete city. Angkor Thom covers almost 4 square miles (over 2,200 acres), and was the last great capital city of the Khmer empire. Archaeologists believe the city sustained a population between 80,000 and 150,000 people.

Angkor Thom doesn’t follow classical Khmer architectural styles, it was designed in a new Khmer style which is characterized by the Bayon temple that sits at the center of the city. Bayon was built as a Mahayana Buddhist temple and is uniquely recognizable because the towers are covered with 216 smiling faces. Experts love to debate whether the smiling faces represent King Jayavarman VII himself, or a likeness of the Buddha, or both. And of course this architectural style is recognizable for fans like me of the 2001 movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” since some scenes with those fabulous smiling stone faces were filmed there.

We found impressive carvings on structures all around the city. The Terrace of the Elephants was one of our favorites, because of the elephants as well as the garudas (human-like birds from Hindu mythology). This terrace is 300-meters long and 2.5-meters tall, and it’s the spot where King Jayavarman VII sat to observe public ceremonies in his city.

One of our other favorite parts of Angkor Thom was the Hindu temple Baphuon. It predates the city and was built in 1060 CE by king Udayadityavarman II, dedicated to the god Siva. This temple has a 225-meter long elevated sandstone walkway to reach the temple, and then a frighteningly steep set of stairs leading up to a terrace with amazing views around the city. The temple was meticulously rebuilt after it became unstable from standing on uneven ground for almost a thousand years. Getting up there was a challenge but very worth it!

Angkor Thom is such a big city that we visited twice and didn’t see half of it. This is a great place to spend hours taking walks, and it’s not hard to find someone cutting fresh coconuts!

Ta Phrom — The Tomb Raider Temple

Ta Phrom is just over a half mile east of the Great City, Angkor Thom, and about 7.5 miles northeast of Siem Reap. This was another public works project from King Jayavarman VII, built in the Bayon style in 1186 CE during the same period as the Great City. Ta Phrom was originally called Rajavihara, “Monastery of the King,” and includes 5 sets of enclosing walls surrounding a tiny central sanctuary. The outer wall is only 160 acres in size and it’s huge compared to the 2nd enclosure, so by the time you reach the temple’s inner spaces it starts to feel really tight even if there are only a handful of other people there. The temple’s stele records list the population at more than 12,500 people.

Rajavihara was built as a Mahayana Buddhist temple as part of a temple system designed to honor King Jayavarman VII’s family. The center of Ta Phrom has a huge stone face representing Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom, modeled after the king’s mother. The southern satellite temple in the third enclosure was dedicated to the king’s elder brother. And the main image at the temple monastery of Preah Khan represents the Bodhisattva of compassion, Lokesvara, and was modeled after the king’s father. 

The main claim to fame for Ta Prohm is that it was abandoned for centuries, taken back by the jungle, and then when rediscovered it was not restored other than to stabilize the ruins. There are massive trees and roots growing through the structures, and the temple-jungle blend is actually more impressive than if the temple had been restored to its original man-made glory.

Most of the original bas-relief carvings of Ta Prohm have been destroyed over time but some really interesting carvings have survived. One image from Buddhist mythology shows the “Great Departure” of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, leaving his life of privilege in the palace behind. You can also admire some fearsome devatas (temple guardians), and tranquil meditating monks.

On top of that, Ta Phrom has become even more famous since it was used as a location in the 2001 movie, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” In one scene Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) is standing on the root of a massive tree, picks a jasmine flower, and then falls below into the temple. The “Tomb Raider Tree” gets mobbed by tourists like us. Because the area within the innermost areas of Ta Phrom are tiny and overgrown with threes it can get pretty congested with tourists in the narrow passageways. So even though I’m a huge Tomb Raider fan and this temple is amazing, we only visited once.

2. Exploring Siem Reap

We didn’t do much in the actual city of Siem Reap other than travel all over town to see the sites by tuk-tuk. We let Saven decide where to take us that day, and said we were open to anything he wanted to show us as long as we had a yummy lunch in the middle and a fun dinner at the end of the day. We enjoyed learning about the city and we especially enjoyed the stories he told us along the way. We got views of the Royal Residence, the Old Market, the and Pub Street. The main stop Saven chose for us was the War Museum. He mentioned that the city has a well known landmine museum but since he is personally involved in the upkeep of the War Museum that’s where we went.

War Museum

Saven personally walked us through the entire space telling stories along the way. This outdoor museum has a collection of war machines used and abandoned in the local fields by American, Chinese, Soviet, and Cambodian militaries. This museum created an alternative to scrapping that allows for education and ongoing jobs for people in maintaining the place and everything in it, while also removing dangerous military equipment and cleaning up the land. The old tanks and planes and things were all interesting to look at, but the stories we were told about the experiences this guy and his family members had during the war are what we really remember.

Where We Spent Our Time

Note that this map tool cannot recognize the Ta Phrom temple location for some reason. It’s just to the right of Ankor Thom on the map and should be outlined by double moats in the graphic!

Bottom Line — How’d We Do?

Money Crush Score: We went over our budget

Our Money Crush score does not factor in how much we liked our experience, it’s focused on whether we made good financial choices and stuck to our budget. Our average daily spending goal for 2019 is $115 per day. That’s total dollars spent for the two of us combined. And obviously our goal is to stay under our budget.

Our actual daily spending in Siem Reap averaged out to $59.28 per person per day, or $118.56 per day for the two of us. That means we spent 103% of our average daily budget. In SE Asia where everything is supposed to be so cheap! Since we did nothing luxurious or fancy in any way, that is shocking. But at the same time, our budget is based on normal living expenses, and we were basically on vacation with no attempt to live like locals at all so that’s actually not a huge surprise. Our hotel was too pricey and eating restaurant food every day, even cheap restaurant food, really adds up. And of course the park passes were expensive at $78 per person. So really our trip to Siem Reap was more like a vacation and not at all like our new normal way of living in the places we visit as nomads. Though it definitely felt worth it.

Travel Score: Bucket list experience!

Our overall travel score is essentially a rating for how happy we were in a location, which is 100% variable based on tons of factors since little things can easily tip the score dramatically. Our travel score does not factor in what we spent. It’s based mostly on whether we want to return in the future.

How do we score Siem Reap? We had a great time being tourists on this trip because we really enjoyed visiting the temples and taking long walks all over the historic sites we saw. We also loved the food. Our hotel had excellent free breakfasts, and really great and very cheap happy hour food and drink specials for dinner. Saven and Sophal, the guys we met who drove us around also did a great job of taking us to different local restaurants to enjoy while we were out and about, and most importantly they gave us a deeper glimpse at their homeland by sharing their stories and recommendations.

We would definitely enjoy returning to Siem Reap for more temple experiences in the future because there are so many more amazing temple ruins that we didn’t have a chance to see on this trip. We would be happy to return to Siem Reap to see more temples. But there are other places in Cambodia we are now anxious to visit on our next trip so I’m not sure when we will return to Siem Reap.

LGBTQ Score: Tourists are welcome, but discrimination against queer Cambodians very common

Tourism is critical enough in Cambodia for gay bars, drag shows, and pride festivals exist in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. But that’s not how we score a location. What’s more important is knowing that LGBTQ Cambodians deal with bullying in schools, workplace discrimination, rape, forced marriage, shunning, and violence across the country. Some say change is in the air, and lives are improving for LGBTQ Cambodians. We will watch and see how things evolve!

What We Learned On Our Trip

Ancient History — The Angkor Empire

The Khmer empire lasted from 802 CE to 1431 CE. At its peak, the empire covered most of Cambodia, Laos, northern Thailand, and southern Vietnam. The main military rivals for the Khmer were the Chams on their southern border and the Dai Viet on their easter border. Over the centuries the Khmer had a number of more outstanding kings, and 3 in particular have really interested me.

King Jayavarman II

King Jayavarman II was born in 770 CE and reigned from 802–835 CE. He went from being King of Cambodia to being the founder of the Khmer Empire. He led a series of military campaigns to subjugated the various small kingdoms of the area and uniting them into one state. He took the title of “universal ruler” in 802 CE which marked the start of the empire. 

King Suryavarman II

Born towards the end of the 9th century at a time when the empire was weakening. The king’s reign, from 1113 CE to around 1150 CE, was a time of reunification and great progress for the government and the empire. He was known for his diplomatic efforts to resume formal relations with China in 1116 AD, which improved trade between the two states. The accomplishment this king is most remembered for is the construction of Angkor Wat, where his likeness still exists in some of the bas reliefs which we saw there almost a thousand years after his death. And that’s pretty amazing.

King Jayavarman VII

The Chams invaded the Khmer empire in 1177 and again in 1178, and killed the existing Khmer king. But the Chams were defeated by Jayavarman, who came to power through that victory in battle at around 60 years of age. In 1181 he was crowned king Jayavarman VII, and in 1190 he took revenge against the Chams and conquered them. His reign lasted from 1181 to 1218 CE. Jayavarman VII is remembered both because of his military achievements and because of the unprecedented building program he initiated. The king’s building projects included the Bayon temple, the city of Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom temple, and 102 hospitals. Eventually the Khmer empire began an unstoppable decline, as their economy declined and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya grew. The Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya finally took Angkor in 1431 CE, causing the collapse of the Khmer empire.

Recent History — The Cambodian Civil War

The Cambodian Civil War was fought between the Communist Party known as the Khmer Rouge, and the government forces of the Kingdom of Cambodia. It lasted from 17 January 1968 to 17 April 1975.

The self-serving influence and actions of the allies of the two Cambodian sides of this conflict definitely worsened the situation. North Vietnam was the main ally for the Khmer Rouge, and between March and June 1970 the North Vietnamese ground forces captured most of the northeastern Cambodia and provided further assistance to the Khmer Rouge. That support is what allowed the Khmer Rouge to succeed in overthrowing the existing government.

When the Khmer Rouge took hold of the northeastern Cambodia the US saw their opportunity to step in. 

The US had been using Cambodia as a staging area in addition to bombing parts of Cambodia apparently to try to damage Viet Cong efforts. So naturally there was some rightful animosity against the US. Then in 1965, the Kingdom of Cambodia broke diplomatic relations with the US, and stopped the flow of US aid and influence into Cambodia in an attempt to remain neutral and separate from the conflict in Vietnam. When the Kingdom of Cambodia turned instead to China and the Soviet Union for economic and military assistance, the US saw their influence over Cambodia come to an end. So in 1970 when it was clear that the Khmer Rouge could overthrow the Kingdom of Cambodia, the US started massive aerial bombing campaigns, supplied military machinery and financial aid, and participated in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

The new pro-US Khmer Republic was a military-led republican government of Cambodia that took power on 18 March 1970. The new pro-US regime was right-wing and nationalist, and boosted by vast amounts of military and financial aid from the US. After 5 years of savage military campaigns, the new Republican government was defeated on 17 April 1975 by the victorious Khmer Rouge.

The war caused a horrific refugee crisis in Cambodia with more than 2 million people (more than 25% of the population) displaced. Children were widely used during and after the war, often being persuaded or forced to commit atrocities. The Cambodian government estimated that more than 20% of the infrastructure in the country had been destroyed during the war. And an estimated 300,000 people were killed as a result of the war. And the worst part was that the Cambodian civil war was the stepping stone that resulted in the Cambodian genocide.

Very Recent History — The Cambodian Genocide

After the brutal Khmer Rouge regime took control of the government they titled themselves the Democratic Kampuchea, which lasted from 1975 to 1979. That is the period of the Cambodian Genocide.

During their reign of terror the Khmer Rouge regime murdered around 2 million people, which was around 25% of the population. Whole families died from execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor.

Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, was on a mission to return Cambodia to “Year Zero” by putting an end to all signs of civilization including the destruction of cities, an end to ownership private property, currency, education, and of course religion in general and Buddhism specifically. He wanted Cambodia to be an isolated, nationalist, agrarian country. Anyone with an education such as doctors and teachers, was killed. Anyone with the appearance of being an “intellectual” or having wealth was also killed, including people who wore glasses or spoke a 2nd language. Hundreds of thousands of people were tortured and executed in death camps. Hundreds of thousands of other people died of disease, starvation, and exhaustion from forced labor. And during those 4 years of torture and murder there was almost no outcry from the world’s leading nations.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by Vietnamese troops. Pol Pot was given a fake trial in 1997 and sentenced to house arrest where he died 1 year later. Only 3 members of the Khmer Rouge have actually been tried and convicted for their roles in the genocide.

This is VERY recent history. During our conversations with Saven and Sophal it occurred to me that I was 1 year old when the Khmer Rouge took power and the Cambodian genocide started. They told us some amazing stories about what they experienced as little kids, and what their parents and siblings, cousins and aunts and uncles experienced as well. And of course I still can’t imagine what that was like for them to live through that period of time just outside of Siem Reap. We really appreciated meeting them and hearing their stories, and we were really inspired by their optimism and love for Cambodia. They are intensely proud of their heritage and traditions, and very aware that their culture was nearly wiped out by the war and genocide. They are also extremely proud that Cambodia has survived and aware that the current government is not yet what is needed to really support the people of Cambodia and the recovery and growth of their country. Saven in particular was clear that real advancement is likely still be a couple of generations away and will come more quickly after the current generation of politicians who were also part of the Khmer Rouge have died off.

Today’s Government in Cambodia

The current constitution only dates back to 1993 when the constitutional monarchy was restored in Cambodia. The King is head of state, and prime minister is head of government. The Cambodian People’s Party has a long history in Cambodia, and in its current form has dominated the modern political landscape since 1997. The Cambodian People’s Party rules through corruption, persecution, repression, and violence. 

The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is the Chairman of the Cambodian People’s Party. He has been unrivaled in power since 1985. He served as Prime Minister without elections from 1985 to 1993. The first election for Prime Minister was in 1993 when Hun Sen was elected as second prime minister. He was elected as prime minister in 1998 and has held that position ever since. 

Many of Cambodia’s current political leaders have been in power since the Khmer Rouge regime controlled the government. The most powerful member of the Khmer Rouge in political office today is the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who was a Khmer Rouge battalion commander. He is the main reason that prosecutions of Khmer Rouge leaders have been largely unsuccessful.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party managed to make some headway as a significant opposition party between 2012 and 2017, when the government dissolved the opposition party detained the leader and banned more than 100 party members from politics just before the sham elections in 2018. At the same time the government further diminished human rights, freedom of speech, and more.

In 2019, the government increased the crackdown on the Cambodia National Rescue Party and is still holding an unknown number of party members in prison. The opposition party is considered illegal with 111 senior members still banned from political participation.

Other Stuff We Think is Interesting

How big is the city of Siem Reap?

The 2018 population of Siem Reap is listed as 139,458. Siem Reap is actually a string of little villages along the river that grew up around the old temple pagodas that first developed as Buddhism spread across the area. The Siem Reap we visited is a sort of outpost full of hotels, restaurants, and pubs to accommodate the tourism that exploded after the rediscovery of the temples and cities known as the Angkor Archaeological Park today.

Tourism is a very important aspect of the economy of Siem Reap and while the exact numbers are not known, it’s estimated that as many as 75% of jobs in town are related to the tourism industry today.

Siem Reap began to grow in 1907 after the Franco-Siamese treaty when the French began sending larger numbers of people to work on temple restoration and archaeology projects. Those efforts to restore historically critical temples and monuments brought large numbers of people in from other countries and created jobs for local Cambodian people as well. That was the initial boost in the local economy with development, which led to this region becoming one of the most popular tourism draws across Asia. But as the civil war swept across Cambodia tourism and all types of civil advancement had come to a halt by the late1960s.

How’d we like the weather?

While we were in Siem Reap from February 27 to March 5 in 2019, the temperature during the day was 93’F/34’C and dipped down to 75’F/24’C low overnight.

Since this is SE Asia, the temperatures are basically hot and humid all the time. We were there for a week around the first of March in 2019. At the end of the dry season but before the wet season would start. The dry season lasts from December to February, and the wet season is basically from April to November, with the wettest month being September. We missed the hottest time of the year, which is usually in April. We probably would have been a little more comfortable if we had been there in January which is the coolest month. Humidity is pretty steady between 75% and 85%, with average annual humidity at 79%. December is typically the most humid month and March is typically the least humid month.

We were so enthralled by what we were seeing and experiencing that the heat didn’t bother us as much as it should have. We didn’t want to miss anything during our temple visits so we walked all over even though it was hot. We just made sure we had hats and lots of water, and the occasional chilled coconut helped too. And by around 3 pm we made sure we were following the examples of the locals…

When the sun and heat are at their worst, head for shade and take a nap!

Book recommendation

Our trip to SE Asia has added a ton of books to my reading list since I’m looking for fiction and non-fiction books set in each location we visit. I love recommendations from others by the way, so feel free to let me know if you have a favorite book I need to add to my list. 

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, by Loung Ung

This is a memoir that starts with a 5 year old girl growing up in her story of growing up in the capital city of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge regime wins the civil war and begins the Cambodian genocide. The story is heartbreaking and disturbing, and does a perfect job of illustrating an experience that is impossible to imagine.

Movie recommendations

I saw the original 2001 movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” when it came out, a around a million times after that. It was exciting to see some of those locations in person at Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom.

First They Killed My Father (2017)

  • Directed by Angelina Jolie
  • Producers included Angelina Jolie, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, and Rithy Panh
  • Screenplay by Loung Ung and Angelina Jolie
  • Based on the book “First They Killed My Father,” by Loung Ung

After reading the book it’s worth seeing the movie as well. I’m a visual person so movies will always convey a deeper experience for me. Of course a movie depicting the Cambodian genocide is very hard to watch, but this movie is worth seeing. It isn’t a bedazzled Hollywood-style movie, it’s more like a documentary. The fact that this movie became a passion project for Angelina Jolie certainly adds to the appeal for me. The fact that she made sure Rithy Panh, the Cambodian genocide documentarian who created “The Missing Picture,” was on board as co-producer makes it a better project. And it was very personal for her. Jolie created this project partly as a personal journey for her son Maddox to learn about his birth country. As a 16-year-old Maddox was part of the production team.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

  • Directed by Simon West
  • Staring Angelina Jolie, her father Jon Voight, Iain Glen, and Daniel Craig

This movie has certainly had more than it’s share of bad reviews, but not from me! I must confess that I love this movie. And like millions of other people the first time I considered traveling to Cambodia was after seeing this movie. Angelina is definitely a badass in this movie, around the world and helped to create a tourism economy in a country that desperately needs it. It’s also pretty remarkable that Angelina Jolie’s experience making this movie changed her life so much. She fell in love with Cambodia and its people while filming, then began working with the UN on Cambodia’s behalf, and adopted her first child, Maddox, from Cambodia. It doesn’t get any better than that!

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