Cruising Cambodia from rural villages to the gruesome Killing Fields

Fourth in a series from the ruins and rivers of Southeast Asia

Wat Hanchey, 8th century temple with bricks held together by sticky rice
Wat Hanchey, 8th century temple with bricks held together by sticky rice

Floating on the Tonle Sap toward Phnom Penh, stopping at ancient sites and visiting riverside villages, passengers on Avalon Angkor begin to get a real picture of life in rural Cambodia.

“We only got real peace in 1998,” said Wanty, our primary Cambodian guide. “We started from scratch, so it will take us a long time to build a country.”

Our riverboat tied up to a tree so we could walk up the bank to Wat Hanchey, a temple dating back to the 8th century. The temple was built of bricks that were made without fire. Bricks were formed from limestone, termite mound clay, water, palm sugar, and sticky rice (with coconut milk) to hold it all together.

The tower of these amazing bricks still stands, near a modern Buddhist temple, where we were invited inside to watch monks give a traditional water blessing.

You are really old, said the girl

Traditional water blessing by Buddhist monks, with guide Wanty in the middle
Traditional water blessing by Buddhist monks, with guide Wanty in the middle

Outside the temple that morning, we met a group of children who were playing, as their turn for school is only in the afternoons. My partner Fran Golden bought the whole group of children, more than a dozen, a plastic cup of shaved ice made with condensed milk, at about 12 cents each. Soon, we were surrounded by smiles.

Because age is so respected in Cambodia, said Wanty, children may ask how old you are.

“Don’t be surprised when they say, ‘that’s really old’,” he said. “Here, your age of 68 is remarkable, and the children mean respect.”

When I told a young girl that my mother in America is 91 years old, her eyes grew wide with surprise. “No one around here is 91,” said Wanty.

A bamboo bridge that carries cars across

Bamboo bridge to Koh Pen
Bamboo bridge to Koh Pen

Our riverboat stopped to marvel at a long bamboo bridge, across part of the Tonle Sap River to the island Koh Pen. The bridge, made entirely of bamboo, carries wagons, cars, horse carriages and lots of people. Each year for the past decade, locals have rebuilt the bridge in December, after the end of the rainy season.

The bridge is dismantled in June, while torrents of water raise the level and swirling currents of the Tonle Sap, which flows toward the Mekong until the Mekong floods, then backs up to refill Lake Tonle Sap.

Cyclos around Phnom Penh

At Phnom Penh, we boarded a cyclo, which is a bicycle with a front seat for a rider, to tour Cambodia’s capital city that shows off its French architecture from colonial days, the gold of the Royal Palace, and Khmer artifacts in the National Museum.

Then, we bused out of town to a memorial dedicated to victims of the Killing Fields, where as many as two million Cambodians died as “undesirable” during the murderous reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

Cyclo taxis in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cyclo taxis in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The evening before the Avalon Angkor arrived in Phnom Penh, passengers watched the “The Killing Fields” movie (1984) that starred Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, and John Malkovich.

Less than 10 miles from Phnom Penh is a mass grave of perhaps 20,000 people, who lie barely underground in 4 acres, fenced off with walking paths and a few displays, including a tower with a glassed collection of skulls.

Wanty said that Cambodia now lists 389 such Killing Fields.

I took a deep breath before walking the grounds, but it was not deep enough. I was unprepared for the emotional reality of walking over mass graves and seeing bone fragments and pieces of clothing that had been unearthed during a heavy rain. The experience turned my stomach. I sat for some time on a bench, my head down and my eyes wet.

Wanty’s story, family deaths, learning English

After walking through the Killing Field, our guide, Wanty, told us his life story:

Wanty was born in 1970, in a village about 40 miles south of Phnom Penh. His mother was a silk weaver, his father a blacksmith. He had four brothers, one older, three younger.6a00d83476d41669e201a3fb48b3be970b

As the Khmer Rouge gained power in the early 1970s, leaders systematically dismantled the economy in the name of a Communist agrarian ideal. Soon, Wanty saw little of his parents as the Khmer Rouge turned all adults, starting at age 13, into rice field workers. All children younger than 13 were isolated by the Khmer Rouge and held as hostages so their parents, working in the rice fields, did not try to escape. Food for the children was mostly water, with a little rice.


In 1975, after the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and evacuated the entire population of the city — more than 2.5 million people — to camps in the countryside, exterminating anyone who didn’t fit this new ideal, Wanty’s mother told him that his father had died.

She knew that his father had escaped. He was afraid because his sister had been a teacher, and he was certain to be killed, too. In the mid-1970s, Wanty’s three younger brothers died of diseases and malnutrition, without their mother, or anyone else to help them, as all medical doctors had been killed.

Wanty’s dad returned in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge lost power. He worked as a hotel porter, and from his experiences observing travelers he told Wanty that the boy must learn English as a way to move up in the world.

English, however, was prohibited by the government, which had strong ties to the Soviet Union. Wanty began his English lessons anyway, in 1987, knowing that he would go to prison if he were caught. The classroom moved every day to avoid detection until English suddenly was allowed, after the Iron Curtain fell in Europe in November 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed. Wanty’s schooling continued, and now he is one of Cambodia’s educated workers, which he estimates at about 10 percent of adults.

As Wanty spoke, I was imaging a 17-year-old boy wanting to learn a foreign language so much that he would risk everything to go to class.

Next: Good Morning, Vietnam

David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at

Photos by David G. Molyneaux,

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