Nestled between two touristic power-houses in Asia is the small country with the deeply troubled past of Cambodia. One of the poorest countries in the region, this nation suffers from many problematic issues ranging from political to economical and developmental. It’s a rough patch of land with minimal development, poor infrastructure and an almost non-existent transport system, which even when available, is ridiculously over-priced and completely inefficient. Nothing is what it seems here, so you should believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see, and that’s why I’ve dubbed it “Alice’s Asian Wonderland”. But what I’ve astonishingly noticed about it also is that it is, relatively speaking of course, not a cheap place at all, especially for travelers and foreigners, especially when taking into account the level of development, quality, cleanliness and service that you’re getting in return. Traveling here is certainly not without its hazards and hassles, and not recommended for the not so adventurous traveler.
That being said, a certain level of freedom can be experienced here, and this could be the perfect place for you should you be looking to push yourself out of your comfort zone, seeking that “Wild Wild East” experience, and the complete opposite of the lifestyle, standards and culture you’re used to back home.
Moreover to help put things in perspective here, It’s worth mentioning that The Khmers have suffered a lot throughout the years, from disadvantaged quarrels with neighboring countries, oppressive colonialism, civil wars, poverty and the extremely brutal and vicious regime of the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge which I’m sure has set them back hundreds of years, mainly due to the purging of the educated classes, such as teachers and students which were mostly all executed or sent to camps for hard labor. I believe this took its toll on the general psyche and dynamics of the local population and effected how things are done here.
On a personal note, and set aside the temples of Angkor, I must say I wasn’t really impressed by much here and my experience was generally below average to mediocre, in fact even when I did manage to catch that unique edge, it’s usually clouded by extreme chaos or by an influx of disorganized touristic masses. But like I always say, you’ll never know if it’s for you or not unless you explore it yourself!
The trail and what to explore
Siem Reap and the former glory of Angkor – The number one destination and reason most people visit Cambodia, and for good reason! Siem Reap itself is an easy little town with a twist, once you get passed all the haggling and hassle of all sorts of locals trying to sell you anything from Tuk-Tuk rides, to massages and souvenirs. But most importantly, the town is the main gateway to Angkor, the Cambodian equivalent of the relics of ancient Egypt or the pyramids of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Take a $20 two day pass to the impressive temples, which (unless you’re a tomb raiding fanatic) should be enough to explore more than 90% of them. Try to do some reading on the subject beforehand in order to get acquainted with the history of the region and temples and save yourself some cash by not hiring a guide. Spend your evenings lounging around town, sipping some cocktails and experiencing the local Khmer cuisine. If you decide to take the Angkor Wat sunrise tour, be aware that you’ll be expected to leave your hotel at 4:30am for a sunrise that won’t begin before 7 (that’s if it shows up at all since it’s usually cloudy there during peak season), and you’ll be literally competing for space with thousands of picture hungry tourists!
Siem Reap Highlights
-Temples, temples and more temples
Places to Stay:
Cozy Battambang – Around 5 hours away by bus from Siem Reap is the sleepy little colonial town of Battambang. Initially established in the 1700s as a trading city, it was later on re-designed and modernized by the French during colonial times. Nothing much happens here after 8pm as most shops, bars and restaurants close, so it’s kinda the perfect stop to relax for a couple of nights after a hectic journey. It’s also a good place to observe the natural flow of local Cambodian life.
– The Central Market
– Art Street/Quarter
– Governor’s Residence
– The Old French Train Station
Place to Eat
Phnom Penh – Dusty and utterly chaotic, the capital of Cambodia may look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie but given enough time and if you’re lucky enough, you might just discover its softer underbelly. The main reason visitors come here is to take a trip to “The Killing Fields” (which is in fact only 1 of hundreds of killing sites distributed around the country) and to visit the S-21 facility (a school turned into an interrogation and incarceration camp during the rain of the Khmer Rouge). Other sights worth visiting are the Royal Palace with its extensive collection of Buddha statues and offerings, and the river side area.
Phnom Penh Highlights
– The Royal Palace
– The Nightlife
– The Killing Fields
Places to Stay
Sihanoukville – The country’s main seaside resort and gateway to the islands, it’s also where backpackers gather to party, with heavily discounted booze made plentiful by competing bars and restaurants lined up on Serendipity Beach. Further south of town, sits gorgeous and relaxed Otres Beach which is also popular with other types of travelers.
– Party Boat
– Otres Beach
– Central Market
– Island Tours
Places to Eat
Olive & Olive
Koh Rong Island – 2 hours by slow boat from Sihanoukville is Koh Rong Island, a virtual backpacker and free-spirits’ paradise, where good vibes rain supreme, and anyone can be whoever they want to be. Cool beaches can be found here, perfect for diving, snorkeling or just chilling and spending the day floating about the clear waters. In the afternoon, hike up a 50 min trail through the island to get to Long Beach on the other undeveloped side, a great place to watch the sunset, then take a boat back just in time for Happy Hour. I should however mention that despite the best efforts of the “Friends of Koh Rong” organizations, there are still a few setbacks on the island such as littering, a primitive waste water system that flows directly to the sea, and a newly established law which prohibits all establishments from playing music after midnight, keeping the island a few steps short of becoming the next Koh Phi Phi.
Koh Rong Highlights
– Hike and Sunset Watching at Long Beach
– Night Swimming
– Phosphorescent Plankton Watching
– Beach Parties
Places to Stay
Tips and what to expect
People: Cambodians are friendly and generally seem to be honest. However their concept of time and math abilities seem a little warped, so keep that in mind the next time you’re booking a bus ticket, or when you’re heading somewhere by Tuk-Tuk and you need to be back by a certain time, and make sure you always count your change after any purchase.
Language: Most locals you’ll need to interact with such as vendors and tuk-tuk drivers have a basic level of English, so you should in most cases at least be able to fairly communicate. My advice though is to always triple-check whether or not you got your message across.
Bargaining: Incredibly I’ve found that that bargaining is unlikely to get you anywhere here. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to try, especially that over-charging, particularly for foreigners in general, seems to be a common phenomenon in Cambodia and you will encounter it almost everywhere.
Cash: ATMs and money exchange outlets are generally available everywhere in big cities and towns, but not on the islands, so make sure you have extra cash on you when possible.
Transportation: Tuk-Tuk is the transportation of choice here, and the locals’ leading option to make a living, so it’s available everywhere. In fact fighting off the constant hassling of drivers trying to offer you rides will become a part of your daily life in every minute you’re out in Cambodia.
Essentials: Make sure to pack anti-bacterial hand gel or wet wipes, a bar of soap if possible, with plenty of mosquito repellent and sun screen…