When I meet other travelers on the banana pancake trail around South East Asia I ask for their highlights and lowlights. The majority favour Vietnam, occasionally someone prefers Laos – but almost everyone slates Cambodia. “Sure, you have to see the temples in Siem Reap, but then get out of there. The streets are dirty, food is pants, children begging everywhere and there’s no vibe”. Luckily, I was recommended a few cool towns to visit and decided to spend a few weeks rather than the minimum of Siem Reap.
Any visit to today’s Cambodia needs an understanding of the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge (KR). The Cambodian communist party, led by Pol Pot, took control of the country in 1975. Over their 4 year reign a quarter of Cambodia’s population died due to starvation, treatable diseases and the KR’s genocide of their own people. For those planning a visit, I highly recommend reading ‘First They Killed My Father’, written by Loung Ung and soon to be released as a film directed by Angelina Jolie, telling the story about Loung and her family during the relatively recent tragedy.
Lesson #14: although it might not be the relaxing holiday you were dreaming of, learning about tragic parts of history is an important life and travel experience
In Phnom Penh, you can visit the Killing Fields and learn about how men, women, infants and babies were killed, or walk around Prison S-21 (one of the best audio guided museums I’ve been to), a high school converted into a prison where 20,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and interrogated before being killed. In Battambang, the Killing Caves are piled with human bones from prisoners bludgeoned over the head then left to die in holes in the ground. Today, the countryside is still strewn with landmines laid by the KR against their own people, with many landmine charities in the country.
Recovering from this ordeal is one of the reasons that Cambodia is one of the poorest South East Asian countries, and not as chiseled a travel experience as its neighbours. Another factor is that for over 30 years the country has been led by a corrupt ex-KR prime minister who is said to use his extensive personal military to kill those who oppose him, although this doesn’t affect travelers in Cambodia.
But there is more to Cambodia than poverty and corruption.
In Kampot, you can spend countless days drinking and launching yourself into the river in the popular backpacker hangout of Arcadia, or you can explore the local caves and pepper farms. The idyllic islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem offer the bliss of the Thai islands decades ago, before the overcrowding and overdevelopment took over. Battambang is the perfect place to rent a scooter and fill your days with temples, bat caves and bamboo trains.
Lesson #15: when in Asia, never look in the box…
A highlight for me, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, was taking the 8-hour boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap. A long boat is loaded with tourists and locals, luggage and countless boxes, and sets off at 7am along the Sanger River. The boat progresses through mangroves, weaving its way between bushes growing out of the water until we come to a stilted village. Now it’s clear what all the boxes are for – these communities rely on this daily boat for their resources; locals paddle over on their canoe to pick-up a letter, we drop off boxes of supplies at small shops and at one point we even drop off a sleeping baby (I still have questions about that one).
The experience was slightly dampened as I’d been karaoke-ing with some locals the night before and only had one hour of sleep. Sitting at the locals end of the boat I fell asleep over my bag, waking to find a Cambodian lady with a large cool box between her legs sitting half on top of me (standard seating for Asian travel). Five minutes later, she lifted the lid to check on her cargo – countless entangled dead snakes of various colours and sizes… Needless to say, that didn’t help with my hangover.
Without a doubt, the most impressive sights are found in Siem Reap. The Khmer empire (ancient Cambodians) were once one of the most powerful forces in the world, building their empires from the 9th – 15th Century and ruling over parts of modern day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It’s incredible to think these ancient temples were lost to the majority of the world for many years, only cared for and maintained by Buddhist monks.
The experience of Siem Reap was made even more special as I shared it with my Dad, who joined my ramblings for a few weeks. I’m not sure when the silly things my Dad does went from hugely embarrassing to hilarious, but this trip highlighted it had happened. Within a day of being in Cambodia he was the true Japanese tourist, complete with poncho, guidebook, Chang beer t-shirt and taking 30 photos a minute. In Hong Kong, our next destination, we’d been walking around town for hours when I noticed he had a white splodge on his toes. We figured he’d dropped some toothpaste whilst brushing his teeth that morning, but he didn’t bother cleaning it off for the rest of the day, nonplussed to what anyone would think. Typical Dad on tour.
I’m pleased to share my drama from this post wasn’t completely of my own doing. We arrived into Hong Kong late at night and found our guesthouse deserted even though we’d notified them of our late arrival. After calling to no answer we knew we’d have to find other accommodation, but due to a Food & Drink festival in town no hotel had any availability. We ended up spending the night in McDonalds with only a McFlurry for comfort. I knew I’d probably end up homeless one night during my travels, but never thought it’d happen with my Dad #MatsunagaStreetLyf2016
So add on a few stops to Siem Reap – learn about the KR in Phnom Penh, catapult yourself into a river in Kampot, become a beach bum on the southern islands or explore the beautiful farmland scenery by bike.
Oh, and it’s cheap…. Why the hell didn’t I start with that?!
Thanks for reading x