By Kathleen Bomers
Photos by Joshua Zimmerman
Cambodia’s a country that some might find a little too easy to overlook. It’s sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, two countries with very distinct cultures and bustling tourist industries, so that people often pass through only to drop in on Angkor Wat. In terms of tourism infrastructure, as the saying goes, Vietnam is five years behind Thailand and Cambodia is five years behind Vietnam. Lodging can be rough, many of the roads are terrible, and street vendors and beggars are just a little more desperate and numerous. But Cambodia’s also cheap, friendly, culturally interesting, and in my opinion well worth at least a week’s visit.
In the first place, it’s one of the more historically fascinating countries to visit in Southeast Asia, having experienced such highly contrasting fortunes in its past. In the north, of course, you’ve got the stone temples of Angkor Wat, a relic of the Khmer empire at its most powerful and opulent, when it ruled almost the entire Indochinese Peninsula. The nearby town of Siem Reap has benefited a lot from tourism, and is one of the nicest towns I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.
Allow yourself enough time to explore it as well as Angkor – the night market, artisans’ workshop (which offers free tours), and horseback riding stables were some of our favourites. Just be sure to look through some of the backstreets a little farther from the town centre to find the best hotels (I highly recommend Babel Siem Reap Guest House, #738 Wat Bo Road). Also, a word to the wise: the markets are filled with gorgeous goods, but we found few things we bought lasted much longer than a week, so it’s good to be somewhat restrained with your shopping.
In the south, meanwhile, you’ve got the capital Phnom Penh (pronounced Pnom Pen). By no means a pretty city, and still filled with visibly scarred survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, it’s nevertheless worth a visit as the central place to educate yourself about the genocide committed under Pol Pot barely 30 years ago. I’m generally not the type of traveler who’s very interested in historical landmarks, but visiting the nearby Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was one of the most intense and important experiences of my life. It’s a good idea to watch the Oscar-winning movie The Killing Fields before you go; Sunday Guest House (#97 Street 141, Phnom Penh) holds free screenings of it every evening.
Aside from the interest of such historical contrasts, however, Cambodia’s also a great place to have fun with the locals. The Cambodians I met all had a great sense of humour, and seemed less wary of dealing with potentially obnoxious tourists than the inundated Thais. Try eating one of the roasted tarantulas or locusts often sold as street snacks – an interesting experience in itself, you’ll also likely get a crowd of local vendors, kids, and passersby all standing around, laughing and voicing their encouragement. Likewise, although tuk-tuk drivers and booksellers can be unspeakably exasperating at times, when we tried joking with them instead of becoming angry we had some great conversations as a result. Two of my friends even ended up getting the chance to try their hands at driving a tuk-tuk! On the other hand, don’t get too friendly or you may end up learning the hard way that Cambodian kids can be cheeky little hustlers at tic-tac-toe.
In fact, I’d say Cambodian children have to be my number one favourite thing about the country. Some of the most vibrant and precocious kids you’ll ever meet, it breaks your heart how many start working at an impossibly early age, and how quickly they learn to exploit their youth and charm to make a sale. There’s a danger that adults may collect most of any money you give them, so it’s better to try buying kids meals instead if you’d like to support them. One of the biggest regrets I have about my visit was not having had the time to volunteer at an orphanage, which would be my final and greatest recommendation if you plan to visit Cambodia. It may take some extra effort to arrange, but by missing out on such a chance to get to know these kids better and to contribute to a country that’s been through so much, I felt like there was something seriously lacking in my experience there.
Although I might not recommend Cambodia as a stand-alone trip, it’s definitely worth exploring beyond that one famous monument. It may be a little rough, but Cambodia provides a chance to escape the tourist bubble somewhat, and to investigate a culture and history that we don’t always learn enough about in the West.
Flights to Cambodia tend to be less frequent and relatively expensive, so it’s best to enter by bus or boat from a neighbouring country if your schedule permits. Taking a bus from Thailand is probably the cheapest overall option, though perhaps not the most comfortable, and you must beware of the many bus scams. I entered by boat via a Mekong Delta tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, which was fantastic.
The road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was paved recently, so a bus ride between the two is fairly comfortable and very cheap, though you can also take a boat for a higher price. As for the rest of the country, travel is mostly by bus on roads that are, unfortunately, notoriously bad. Within major cities the usual tuk-tuks or motorbike taxis are the most common means of transportation.
A local artisans’ workshop you can tour for free in Siem Reap.
Horse riding stables in Siem Reap. Great for exploring the surrounding area.
A fairly decent travel company I used for my Mekong Delta tour to Phnom Penh.
If you’re traveling to Siem Reap from Bangkok, Thailand, this is a must read! Beware of bus scams.
My e-mail address, in case you have any more questions about Cambodia!