Cambodia was arguably one of the most wealthiest, highly sophisticated kingdom in the world, which is reflected in the magnificent temples that still stand today.
Siem Reap province is found in northwest Cambodia and is a famous tourist destination with the renowned Angkor Wat Temple – one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Siem Reap city is located in the south of Siem Reap province, on the shore of the Tonle Sap Lake. The name of the city literally means Siam defeated, referring to the victory of the Khmer Empire over the army of the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) in the 17th century.
At the beginning of the 10th century, it is believed that the ancient town of Hariharalaya (now Roulos) was the capital of the Cambodian empire. It had a population of over 130,000 people and at its height, between the 10th-14th centuries ruled much of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
As the number of citizens quickly grew, the capital was then moved to Angkor Thom Archaeology Park and by the 14th century the area housed a staggering 1 million citizens.
The Khmer empire was sophisticated, progressive and rich – but the exact amount of wealth this country once held is unknown.
However it is believed Cambodia (Kampuchea) traded with such prosperous countries as China, India and Indonesia by what archaeologists have been able to glean from evidence left behind.
From inscriptions on temple walls that still remain today, some document the fortune the shrines possessed, which included tons of gold and riches.
Records show that golden statues adorned the inside of these impressive temples with many housing their own treasure trove of riches and jewels.
At the beginning of the 13th century, the countries national religion changed from Hinduism to Buddhist, which is reflected among the architecture, carvings and inscriptions left behind…and some believe that this caused the downfall of this mighty empire.
The temples as they stand today, show how advanced the Khmer empire was from both an engineering and architecture perspective, creating some magnificent structures that would be hard to rival today.
Many suspect in the 14th century, Cambodia was invaded by neighboring countries, but due to historical records being lost or destroyed through the ravages of time – we are not really sure what happened? However, much of the nation was left in tatters as the Khmer empire crumbled, while its riches were stolen and a culture decimated.
Many people left the thriving city, while law and order began to disintegrate as this once great metropolis, started to fall into decay.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese arrived in Cambodia and were the first Europeans to explore the Valley of Tonle-Tom. Some of these adventurers decided to settle in the region and to this day, descendants of these Portuguese travelers can still be found in Cambodia.
By this time, the once thriving capital had dwindling to little more than a village, while the French Government began to explore further away from its own shores.
It was during this period of French interest turning to Cambodia, it is said that a missionary came across the lost city of Angkor Wat in the early 1860’s while exploring through the jungle.
However, it was not until the 1920’s, that serious attempts were underway and the site was being excavated in earnest. As the wild and dense foliage was stripped back – it began to reveal hidden mysteries and secrets of this once great civilization as Angkor Wat began to see light from its long slumber once again.
Finding clues along the way, archaeologist began to come across more grand temples lost within the clutches of the jungle and only then did the shrouds of the Khmer past began to unfold.
The rediscovery of the ancient temples of Siem Reap became a draw card for many visitors from all over the world. News spread quickly of this ancient and wondrous city, which had only recently been uncovered and lost for centuries within with wild jungles of Cambodia.
People suddenly became fascinated with these ancient monuments and hearing stories of their magnificent splendor in the Far East – they came from all parts of the world to Siem Reap.
Famous celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin (the silent film star) and Jacqueline Kennedy (the wife of J. F. Kennedy) came to Siem Reap. As the extent of the complex was discovered, this only added fuel to the origins of the mysterious temple and became a curiosity for visitors from all over the planet…
….but this would soon be interrupted by a massive blow, which would cut through the fabric of Cambodian society and bleed from the heart of this already shattered community.
Pol Pot was a dictator and man that would change the face of Cambodia forever. He single-handed ordered the killing of an estimated 3 million Cambodian people (out of a population of 8 million), that equates to over 1/3 of the entire country.
He was born in the year 1925 to a farming family that lived in central Cambodia – his birth name was Saloth Sar.
Pol Pot as a young boy had a curious mind and soon began to display strong political views. He decided to enter politics and soon developed into a leader that knew how to gain power quickly.
He headed the now infamous Khmer Rouge and forced a military coup on the capital Phenom Penh.
On 17th April 1975, Pol Pots troops went in and seized the capital by force, telling the residents of Phnom Penh that “The American’s were going to bomb their country.”
The Khmer Rouge told the occupants that they would only have to leave their house for 3 days, so the frightened families packed up their most needed belongings and left the city in droves.
Once Phnom Penh was cleared of citizens, soon the killings began, while food and water quickly became in short supply. Neighbors were forced to lie about his neighbor – in order to perpetrate cruel justification as to why this civil war was so needed.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia with an iron fist from 1963 – 1997 and massacring an estimated 3 million people along their bloody trail.
Pol Pot wanted to rule supreme and ordered the execution of anyone he perceived that would get in his way or a threat. This included scholars, artists and progressive thinkers, or anyone he thought may have the tenacity to form a resistance against his murderous blanket of power.
Even people who wore glasses were targeted – thought of as being clever by the mainly ignorant and uneducated renegades, who was typical of the Khmer Rouge armed forces that had gained power.
It is estimated that almost 90% of intellectuals and artists were systematically eliminated; and it is said that only 9 Cambodian doctors survived this devastating war.
This decimated both the thriving arts and academic communities as many of the free-thinkers were exterminated at the hands of a cold and bitter regime.
If you want to know more about this period, we highly recommend you watch the 3rd film directed by Angelina Jolie. “First They Killed My Father”. A touching and accurate portrayal of one girl’s survival through these dark and scorching years.
During periods of war – or maybe at some other time, much information about Cambodia’s history has been lost. Only the inscriptions carved on the side of temple walls, which still remain today are a testament of what was once lay within as both treasures and secrets.
Lost in these mystery are questions we are unable to answer like: Where are the ashes from the burial jars at Srah Srang that could provide us with valuable DNA about the genetics of these people, the missing plans on how to put Baphuon Temple back together once it was disassembled before the war and where is the Giant Buddha of Tep Pranam Temple?
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Siem Reap entered a lost and terrifying slumber – from which she only began to wake from since the early part of this millennium.
The Cambodian people have had to rebuild their country back together from scratch and Siem Reap is now becoming the premium holiday destination to visit in Asia – because it is an amazing place to come for a holiday.
Together with its rich history and there are so many other things to do, many people are now discovering what Siem Reap has to offer as a holiday destination.
Central in Asia and bordering Loas, Vietnam and Thailand – Siem Reap it is also a fantastic place to stay if you are backpacking or wanting to visit several countries in Asia in a short space of time.
You will have an amazing holiday if you are an adventurer, family, couple, honeymooners, a group of friends or coming solo.
In Siem Reap you will find the holiday that will create a wonderful memory that you will treasure a lifetime.
If you would like to help in Siem Reap please look at our Volunteer Section.