“ Country: Cambodia / World Region: Asia „
Out of a 5 month travelling trip, I spent 3 months in South East Asia, 3 weeks of which was spent in the beautiful country, Cambodia.
We had previously been visiting Vietnam, so got an over night coach from HCMC to Siem Riep, costing around 20 dollars, you can get this trip for around 15 dollars, but was well worth paying a little extra. Obviously you have to cross over the boarder which we had heard horror stories about, but our guide spoke brilliant English and the transition was smooth.
The main reason people visit Siem Riep is to visit the famous Angkor wat temples. The way it works is that you get yourself a tuk tuk driver who picks you up and takes you around all the temples, the cost of this can vary greatly depending on your bartering skills. The ticket for the temples cost 20 dollars each for a 24 hour period. If you can, you should arrive there for sunrise as this is beautiful, it is also worth doing the majority of the walking around before mid day as the sun is so hot.
There is also an option of doing a floating market tour which we did, its costs 15 dollars each , but in reality wasn't worth 5 dollars. You have to pay extra if you want to get off the boat and investigate. One thing that the guide books don't mention is the beautiful night market in Siemp riep, very pleasant to walk around. There is also a cinema there that you can catch showings of a mini film explaining the history of Cambodia and everything the country has been through - very interesting!
Sihnoukville is a beach town in Cambodia with some decent night life. The beach there is very nice, although it is worth paying for a tuk tuk to take you to a nearby quieter beach. The children sellers on the main beach can be very rude if they do not get what they want, on a couple of days we had to leave the beach earlier than we would have liked due to their constant pestering. In Sihnoukville you can get information re charities to help these children much much more than buying the products on the beach.
Before arriving in Cambodia we heard many bad things about frequent muggings etc, but actually we felt pretty safe wherever we were. If you don't make yourself a target then you will make life a lot easier for yourself.
In the developed world, we have the good fortune of experiencing history only through stagnating relics of the past. In Cambodia, however, history lives and breathes, manifesting itself in everything, including the people. This tragic country, situated to the east of the Gulf of Thailand, is an interactive museum to its past. The Cambodian past belongs to the Khmer Empire, a civilisation that dominated and epitomised Indochina for six hundred years - roughly from 800 to 1431 A.D. Society was agrarian, agriculture the lifeblood of the empire, but the Khmer legacy was cemented by the architecture which even today defines the national spirit of Cambodia. Angkor Wat, the monolithic temple symbolising this prized past, takes pride of place on the Cambodian flag.
Indeed, Cambodians have much to be proud of given their roots, but while their ancestors very much made them, they inadvertently broke them. One may question how an empire so long gone could have such an impact on its descendents, though the answer is simple. The Khmer Empire may have been lost to the jungle for five hundred years, but following its rediscovery by the French, its frugal, agrarian legacy acquired a 'Marxist' interpretation by some political dissidents who would come to be known as the Khmer Rouge. Their leader, Saloth Sar (a.k.a. Pol Pot), sought to purify post-colonial Cambodia of all external influences such that the nation could 'restart', becoming an autarkic utopia. In what was then a modernising, moderate Cambodia these ideas found little sympathy, but things changed in 1969. Intending to stem North Vietnamese insurgency into the south, the Nixon administration laid waste to the border of neutral Cambodia, killing up to 600,000 peasants in a year long bombing campaign. Additionally, two million people were made homeless, and fled to the capital, Phnom Penh, in search of shelter only to find none. Bitterness mounted; the king, Sihanouk, was deposed of by the incompetent government, and fearing a loss of their national identity, the pro-monarchic Khmer Rouge found some support. By 1975, Pol Pot was able to seize power: the cities were subsequently evacuated, social undesirables (intellectuals, ethnic minorities, political enemies) rounded up, marking the advent of the 'Year Zero'.
Two million Cambodians (in a population of eight) had died by the time of the Vietnamese liberation/occupation in 1979. One million had starved or fallen ill, while a further million had been led under false pretence to execution in murder sites known as the killing fields. Despite the liberation, however, the civil strife continued until the convenient death of Pol Pot in 1998 and the official dissolution of the Khmer Rouge in 1999. But it's only now that Cambodians are in a position to administer justice for the missing generation, the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders not being captured until 2007. They are, proportionately speaking, responsible for one of the most destructive genocides in history, the architects of the mass depopulation of Cambodia.
Today, Cambodia is picking up where it left off. In the last fifteen years there has been a population boom, numbering the country at fourteen million people, fifty percent of whom are under sixteen. Those that remain of the elderly are an unusual sight, but although most Cambodians can't remember the genocide, if even the 1990s, the new 'Khmer' legacy breathes a cancerous atmosphere. Don't let this be misunderstood; Cambodia is a country rebuilding itself on tourism and the general vibe is optimistic, but the country very much resembles the thousands of maimed, limbless invalids who wander the streets trying to make a living. More than being the tourist haven that is Thailand, Cambodia is a living testament to the brutality of human nature, and they, as well as the west, are complicit in why Cambodia is as it is. Young, naïve Cambodians may have made up the Khmer Rouge, their vulnerability exploited so as to pressure them into oppressing and killing their parents, but America, sharing Vietnam as a mutual enemy, approved this genocidal regime. Likewise, China, endorsing any communist government, supported Pol Pot. Cambodia, more than anything, is a unique eye opener, a deeply touching and disturbing place which has much to offer. One needn't feel guilty about going, increasing tourism contributing to the huge economic boom that Cambodia is experiencing.
And so rich is Cambodia in history, culture and personality that its recent rediscovery as a tourist destination is understandable. With any luck, stability will only increase. My own trip took me to Siem Reap, home to Angkor, before I took a bus three hundred kilometres down a single highway to Phnom Penh, a ten dollar journey which took six hours. This, however, was just a glance into the heartland of Cambodia, allowing the experience of the old and the new capital, as well as the fertile, rural landscape which forms the nation's spine. There is more besides this; though mostly made up of rural plains, Cambodia has two mountain ranges, Dangrek lying to the north, with Cardamom to the east. But agrarian 'empires' came about here for a reason, since the landscape is fed by an endless supply of life-giving water. The mighty Mekong River, a leviathan meandering lazily through the lush landscape, gives and takes before vanishing into Vietnam in search of the ocean. It shares dominance with the native Tonlé Sap Lake, a shallow, freshwater basin which seasonally grows and shrinks across the floodplains, taking up some 25,000 square kilometres at its height. Floating fishing villages are dotted along its tributaries, whilst sailing out onto this ominous lake reveals no land on the horizon, only vast expanses of brown. The gargantuan reach of Tonlé Sap underlies all the major Cambodian provinces, and serves as a skeleton for the country's geography.
The country isn't big, its 181,000 kilometre area approximately the size of both England and Wales. Battambung, torn between Thailand and Cambodia, lies to the west of the Tonlé Sap, while Kampong Thum (the midway stop on the bus route) occupies one of the eastern tributaries. The only major town away from Tonlé Sap is Sihanoukville, Cambodia's main port and beach destination. Anywhere else untouched by the Tonlé Sap is less developed; the eastern provinces are completely rural, their only towns tiny. A northern most tributary extends to Siem Reap, a city which, given its relationship with Angkor, is probably the major tourist destination. Here is a modest town of largely unpaved roads, its palate a fusion of reds, oranges, browns and yellows, the development of the town riding very much on the coattails of the tourist trade, unlike Phnom Penh, for example. This is the town most in touch with its national identity, the atmosphere humbly optimistic, even though the destitution here can be quite severe. On the opposite of the spectrum, exclusive luxury hotels stand detached from the town, and indeed from reality. That said, besides Angkor, Siem Reap thrives on the catering and entertainment trades, the centre truly coming alive at night when weary tourists frequent the dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants. The clubs, alive with cheap but good quality alcohol (the local brew, Angkor, can be as little as fifty cents on draught), as well as a healthy mix of foreigners and locals, are a lot of fun and are the best way to experience the people. Modest, dry, hospitable and sociable, I find myself hard pressed to think of a people nicer than the Cambodians, who, especially for a developing country, are both easy and honest. Going to Cambodia and not mixing with the people would be an opportunity sorely missed as they're a chief factor in the country's appeal.
This isn't quite so much the case in Phnom Penh, a city situated on the southern most tributary of Tonlé Sap. Granted, the fact that it's a working city renders the locals somewhat reserved, but it's in the capital where memories of the genocide are most fresh. It festered following the evacuation, being left a post-colonial ghost town, inhabited only by 40,000 government administrators and soldiers, compared to the two million in 1975. Washed out by the grey of the Mekong, the capital is in stark contrast to Siem Reap, where, although it's more disorganised and the locals are more desperate, there appears to be more contentment. In Phnom Penh, the roads are better, infrastructure coming along (in some parts, the traffic lights are more advanced than in Europe), and the 'organisation' allows even many of the mine victims to make a living selling pirate DVDs. But the city is a time capsule, its numerous academic institutions curiously absent, and this feeling cannot be encapsulated more disturbingly than Tuol Sleng, the former high school utilised as the Khmer Rouge prison, S-21. Now a genocide museum, 20,000 prisoners passed through S-21 for interrogation and torture, each and every mug shot today in the facility. The killing field at Choung Ek (which today is also a genocide museum) would be their next stop. Fittingly, the latter was once a Chinese graveyard, and is the better known of the two museums, both of which are owned by the same French-Japanese company. Choung Ek, however, lying some fifteen kilometres outside of town, is oddly peaceful, the exhumation of eight thousand corpses somehow bringing it serenity. A glass stupa was erected - perhaps blasphemously given the revenue it generates - to house the eight thousand skulls. The blank-eyed skulls, their craniums cracked, are arranged by sex and age, a haunting sight but a powerful one that does justice to the victims. S-21 does no such justice. Though exhibited with the mug shots and, in one section of the prison, a comprehensive history, S-21 is untouched. Dried blood stains the tiled floors; bats loom silently; the same rusted iron beds and shackles are as the Vietnamese found them; and the same is true for the crude wooden and brick cells. Occupying floor two of building B, the wooden cells are sealed by now unlocked doors, and each one sways lazily in the stale air. Emerging then from the prison, numbed and drained, I came face to face with a beggar, holding out his hard cap, his face agelessly masked by disfigurement and mutilation. Everything around this place feels ghostly, S-21 the dark centre of Cambodia's modern history. The guides who are available to show the many tourists around aren't professionals; they're relatives and friends of the prisoners. History, Tuol Sleng and Chuong Ek tell us, is not to be a cycle.
It's difficult not to be affected by Phnom Penh. The educational value of the city, albeit bleak, is necessary and there are few other places where this education is so immediate: it extends beyond the genocide museums to the people themselves. Respite is possible. If you're feeling hypocritical, as we did (this being before seeing the museums, I hasten to add), there's a firing range on the outskirts, property of the Royal Cambodian Army. Financial inhibition is best dismissed here, magazines costing forty or fifty dollars, depending on the gun. Everywhere else is cheap, although don't underestimate the accumulative effect Cambodia can have on your wallet. In a typical family-run Khmer restaurant, it's possible to eat a substantial meal for about six dollars a head. For the three of us, three main courses and a starter, plus beer and water could come to as little as twenty dollars. Khmer cuisine itself is excellent, full of protein, blending Indian with Vietnamese, and, more recently, French. Fresh fish from the Tonlé Sap is barbequed or curried in a national dish called Amok, although beef is likewise plentiful. Wine, which, unusually for Asia, is popular, Khmer cellars filled with French Cabernets and Merlots. In bars, cocktail prices range between three and six dollars, depending on the venue and location. Phnom Penh on the riverside, for example, is full of elegant bars and bistros, but they are more expensive. A real blast from the past is the Foreign Correspondents Club, an atmospheric relic just as popular today as it was with the titular regulars then covering the effects of the bombings. Further into town it's generally cheaper, although be warned, the clubs in Phnom Penh aren't always safe, wealthy young Khmer, arrogant and aggressive, frequenting them. Accompanied by bodyguards and often armed with pistols, these unsavoury characters are best avoided. At night, it's not unusual to hear drunken gunfire in the distance.
As might be expected in a developing country, brutal petty crime can be an issue. The police are little more than gangsters themselves, their role to extort rather than assist. Because it's a working city, things are less intimate in Phnom Penh and as a general rule the people are more uptight, so when frequenting the streets caution is recommended. Motorcyclists are known to swoop by to snatch bags from gormless tourists so it's generally best to travel light. Road safety is also not of the highest standard, the main means of transport for most Cambodians being the motorbike. As a taxi driver quipped, some twenty percent of Cambodian drivers have licenses, the remaining eighty percent generally adolescent. Getting around is simple and cheap, but the roads are hectic, crammed with traffic and moreover, it's often questionable as to whether there is a specific side of the road to be driving on. For tourists trampling along in tuk-tuks, traffic is sometimes faced head-on, and on more neglected roads, potholes threaten to topple the vehicle. The corrupt Cambodian People's Party, their socialist government, are just about investing money into infrastructural improvement, but at the moment quality varies wildly.
Aside from the blue placards in the villages, government presence is minimal. The people sustain themselves, political philosophy inapplicable here, frugal survivalism the accepted way of life for Cambodians. Tourists will find themselves haggling for anything, be it a souvenir or a bottle of water. The children, who are most prevalent outside of Phnom Penh, pester tourists with photocopied history books, Lonely Planet guides, postcards, baguettes or, failing that, with their tenacious personalities. Amusing and warm as they are, they are professionals capitalising on their inherent charm, although their intentions are genuine. They're desperate to fund their educations (and are much better informed than many westerners), so buying is by no means naïve, but do expect to be accosted by others if you buy from or give alms to one. Hotspots for peddlers are around popular sites, Angkor Wat in particular, and it is to Cambodia's national symbol that I come to next.
Built over a thirty-seven year period, Angkor Wat was completed in 1150 A.D and marks the pinnacle of imperial Khmer power and excellence. It was built as a shrine to the Hindu God Vishnu, Cambodia itself a melting pot of religions, made up of Hindus, Cham Muslims and Buddhists, of whom the latter make up the official religion today (jovial, orange-robed monks hit the streets in the afternoon). The Khmer Empire was not a literary one, but its history is engraved in the epic murals that define Angkor Wat. The temple itself was intended as a symbolic piece of art, the five domes representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, home to the Hindu Gods, and the surrounding moat representative of the oceans. Any of the freelance tour guides will explain this and more, though Angkor Wat is just the centre of Angkor itself. There are more temples, most of which are being restored, but the most impressive is one thrown further back into the jungle; Ta Prohm. Unlike the others, Ta Prohm's restoration has been largely withheld so as to maintain the authenticity of the place. Possibly the most mystical and enigmatic of the temples, Ta Prohm really is world class, and, famously, was a filming location for Tomb Raider. A trip to Cambodia is quite simply not complete without a day spent traversing Angkor. Yes, there are many tourists (Koreans and Japanese in particular), but Angkor provides a bigger picture for Cambodia. This ancient city is intimately intertwined with Khmer culture, the site full of locals, a rarity for tourist hotspots. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, however, is the opposite of Angkor, its cold austerity alienating, Cambodians seeming to care less about it. Not only that, but what interest the palace holds comes at a high price (sixteen dollars per person). Angkor may be more expensive, but the twenty dollars one pays lasts a whole day, unlike the short-lived experience the palace offers. Moreover, three day or weeklong packages are available for Angkor, which are the better value for money given the amount there is to see.
It's quick and easy to get to Angkor from Siem Reap, be it with taxi, tuk-tuk or alone by rented bike. Similarly, Cambodia is a relatively accessible country, its two international airports, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, modern, clean and organised. There are direct flights from Heathrow to both locations, although if you happen to be in Asia most budget airlines are a safe bet, Jetstar and Air Asia being the most popular. Return flights with said airlines shouldn't be more than two hundred pounds, while direct flights from Heathrow are going to be six hundred pounds if booked early enough with, say, Singapore Airlines. On arrival, visas are bought at customs, and cost twenty dollars per person, or twenty-two if you don't have a spare passport picture. There is also an exit tax of twenty-five dollars. As is probably now obvious, Cambodia's chief currency is the American dollar, but they also have Riel, the king's currency, of which there are four thousand to a dollar. Riel is used as change, next to no one using it for any substantial purchase, but it's still a good idea to have some spare. Accommodation is of a decent standard, mid-range hotels modestly priced (thirty dollars for a room). But the cheapest options are the local guest houses, which are clean, homely and full of friendly staff. Without air-con, a room can be as little as eight dollars a night, but the humid climate may render shelling out a few extra dollars a necessity for some. The climate itself is more or less constant, hovering around thirty degrees Celsius. The coolest and most popular time of year is the December-January period, whereas the hottest is April-May, when the rain is scarce. We were there during the rainy season, where morning and midday are brutalised by the sun, but come the afternoon the clouds gather and the temperature cools considerably. Rain tends to follow, cleaning the air to drown the earth.
It doesn't differ from the rest of Asia in this sense. But, besides this, Cambodia is not one with the rest of the South-East. The unworldly atmosphere and the people are unlike anything I've witnessed before, the profundity of this tragic, touching country subject to circumstance. A melting pot of cultures; a developing country in every sense of the word; a living museum to human nature, Cambodia is a gem, the surface of which has only been scratched here. It assaults the senses, the sensibilities, the intellect and the emotions, the silent ghost of the past forever omnipresent.
I came into Cambodia with my 2 friends while Backpacking via Thailand and i have no regrets going there at all, im sure there were a lots of other places that we could have gone to while we were in this country but opted to go to Angkor Wat as it is a must see place on anyones travel plans in Asia.
Travel companies in Thailand can organised buses to take you to towns near the temple and drop you off at hotels which are often reasonably priced. Be aware that this country has a two tiered payment system where you can pay for food in the local currency but for expensive items and hostels they often insist on dollars, on experience try to spend all the local currency before you leave or give it to a good cause as you can exchange it afterwards.
The hotel i stayed in was pretty good and having made a couple of good good buddies on the bus ride we hired a tuk tuk to explore the ruins for the day, good haggling can mean that for a cheap price you get your personal driver all day. At the end though we would always make sure we gave a good tip.
Angkor what may be the most visited but its well worth going to the outlying temples that arent often visited, we managed to find one that was the miniature version of Angkor and had the place pretty much t ourselves almost. seeing the sunset and sunrise at Angkor is well worth the effort as well and i must have filled up the entire memory card on my camera! we did not notice that sunrise seemed to be the most populor and was really busy but at sunsets the crowd are pretty ok and you wont struggle to find the best spots
Another must visit place it the landmine Museum or centre, whose owner still makes regular visits to clear them when found , he also takes in some landmine survivors who discuss their experience and i found them to be very brave individuals, it really did affect me and i not could help but donate whatever i could afford to help them, the place was a little hidden so you might have difficulty finding it, my advice it to take a tuk tuk as they would be able to get you there quicker.
be wary though when you are handing out money to child beggars as you can get quickly swarmed and get the words '1 dollare' repeated to you, one couple we saw made the mistake of trying to buy baby milk for this mother and child and where quickly overwhelmed with demands.
Giving them money may not even help them anyway as when we were having a meal we saw someone give money to a child only later see the same child give it to an adult who seemed to be the local 'fagin', so my best advice is that if you want to help donate to a reputable charity as they are these kids best chance.
So there you have it my short Cambodian travel experience, im sure ive only touched a small part of the country, but from what i saw i bet its amazing and beutiful!go visit Angkor if anything else
By far the biggest attraction in Cambodia is the Angkor ruins. And despite the crowds and package tours there it really is still a marvel to behold, much more than just another temple ruin which many people seem to envisage. Angkor is actually a whole forgotten fallen empire scattered over a 100 kilometre squared area of land north of the city of Siem eap in north-west Cambodia. It was only rediscovered by French explorers in the 1920's when they found bits of Angkor Wat (the most famous of the ruins) in the jungle. They then cleared the jungle and found an entire empire. It was probably one of the biggest archeological discoveries of all-time.
But other than Angkor, Cambodia does have a few other attractions that make it worth a couple of weeks;
Phnom Penh is the capital and to be honest lacks any real sights other than S-21/Killing Fields and the Royal Palace. The former sites are a grim testamount to Cambodia's dark past as S-21 was a prison made out of a school during the evil Khmer Rogue years 1975-79.
The Khmer Rogue was a extremist 'Communist' tyranical regime that ended up wiping out a 1/3 of Cambodia's population (some figures put the death toll at 2 million) during only 4 years it was in control. It sent the entire population into work camps and S-21 was the place dissidents or victims of purges ended up to be tortured and then taken to the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh to be executed (often with clubs or plastic bags over there heads) and burried in mass graves.
A trip to either S-21 or the Killing fields (where mass graves are still being exhumed) is not for the faint hearted but is essential because people deserve to know what happened here. We owe it to the victims.
The Royal Palace is nothing at all special, it's small and the temples are average. The national museum next door is fairly small and has some okay angkor era displays but in the end is only average at best.
Phnom Penh is a dirty and very hectic city. You will get incredible amounts of hassle from moto drivers everywhere you go that don't take no for an answer. Lakeside is one place to avoid. Despite it being a backpacker haunt it does attract the wrong type of crowd and the mosquitos by the lake are horrific. The accommodation is cheap but in the end is it worth it? Drug selling moto drivers are also incredibly annoying and can be very aggressive. Lakeside is basically for people who like to get cheap dirty drugs and have a party for cheap. Though the resturants around here are good. It's worth visiting but I wouldn't stay here again for the above reasons.
Sihanoukville is a really nice beach area on the coast, 4 hours from Phnom Penh. Definitely worth a few days. The bars are good and budget options aplenty. Sea food BBQ are 3$ and delicious. Serendipity is the choice for backpackers and probably the overal best beach. Victory beach is full of prostitutes these days sleazy and not so nice.
Siem Reap is the jumping off point for the Angkor ruins. It's a quite nice city in itself, much more laid back than Phnom Penh. It has arguably better nightlife here than Phnom Penh. Pub Street is the place to be after dark with it's bars, clubs and resturants.
Visa is 30 days on arrival for 20$. Extendible once. You can get multiple entry 'business' visas valid for 6 months. They are infinitely extendible for 120-150$ once you are in the country on a 30 day business visa. Useful if you want to stay and teach English. There is no work visa requirement, not even an immigration system in place. If you have money to pay immigration , you can stay as long as you like.
The food is okay, much blander than neighbouring countries, but decent enough.
Budget: $20 a day. A bit more if you are a party freak.
The people aren't all that friendly. Definitely not the land of smiles...Moto drivers are especially aggressive.
So it was about time to escape the smoggy chaos of Phnom Penh and hit the beach for the weekend...
Sihanoukville was cut out of the jungle about 60 years ago and since then has served as Cambodia's only significant sea port and decent beach resort.
About 4 hours from Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville is actually a stretch of coastline compromising several beaches each with there own distinct atmosphere and flavour.
The first is Victory beach, the first backpacker beach that made Sihanoukvlle's name known to the budget traveler crowd. These days it tends to attract a lot of sleeze in the form of sex tourists and hard-drugs users. Add to this it's close proximity to the industrial port and perhaps it's unsurprising that Victory is rapidly losing popularity to Serendipity and Occheutal beach.
Serendipity and Occheutal are actually the same beach, Serendipity is just a nickname given to the small rocky part of Occheutal situated beneath a headland that is lined with cheap beach bars that all offer pretty much the same deal; 3$ for a BBQ fish meal and happy hours usually from about 9pm.
The further down Occheutal you go the quiter it gets. It's quite easy to leave the crowds behind if you are willing to walk ten minutes down the coast...
Then, a few kilometres further down the coast you reach another headland. Here the road dissapears as you leave behind Sihanoukville and there are no guetshouses and just one small resort on the headland and a small stretch of more upmarket beach resturants in an otherwise empty expanse of beach and pine/palm trees...
So our choice the two times we went to Sihanoukville was staying just off of Occheutal/Serendipity beach. We enjoyed the atmosphere there because although there are a lot of young people looking to get drunk and party there there is always the option of finding a chilled out beach bar and enjoying conversation, great seafood, a sky full of stars and the sound of the ocean instead...It's nice having the luxury to choose between them rather than having drunks falling all over the place...Not that there is anything wrong with that! Just makes a nice change from most of the Thai islands where that seems to be the case...
I really like Sihanoukville for this. It has something for everyone.
Where I went:-
I entered Cambodia from Laos, travelling south in a slow boat down the Mekong. I then took a bus to Phnom Penh. Later I travelled north by train to Siem Reap (for Ankor Wat).I then flew out of Cambodia to Thailand.
What I thought of the landscape:-
The one thing about Cambodian landscape that sticks in my mind is how wet it was. Everywhere has a lake, or a pond or a river. The Mekong is huge, and runs north to south. It's the life blood of Cambodia and is used to move everything from people to animals, even groceries. Tonle Sap is the other main body of water which is also huge. A lot of Cambodia is also quite flat, which can be nice but also a bit boring; although there are some hills in places.
What I thought of the people:-
The Cambodian people are great. Tourism isn't as big there as it is in neighbouring Thailand, so they really are glad to see you. There is far less tourist traps here, and the people seemed genuinely please to see you.
What I thought of the transport system:-
The Cambodian transport system is basic, to say the least. Having said that, it is cheap, so I didn't mind it being basic. The buses vary a lot, from modern to very old Taxi's are really cheap and ok quality and the trains have different classes, so you can choose what level of 'comfort' you want (don't go super-cheap bench class!!!!)
How much does it cost?
Cambodia is cheap. My budget per day was £5, and that went a long way. A hostel was around £2.30 per night, and a good evening meal was around 70p. Although that was in 2005. In 2010 Cambodia are going to be producing their own oil, drilled just off the coast; so expect prices to rise.
I loved this country, it was cheap and the people very welcoming. I would highly recommend going.
Towards the end of 2004, I decided to take a short break from the rat race in order to go travelling. I chose Asia as there were several countries I wanted to see, because I thought it would be fairly safe for a lone female traveller and because the weather was quite good that time of year, September to December. After a couple of months in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam, I headed for Cambodia
Getting there and getting around~~
I had travelled south through Vietnam, which meant it was a very quick (40 minute) flight from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Unfortunately you cannot fly directly to Cambodia from the UK at the moment but you can fly via Bangkok or Singapore amongst others and the flying time will be about 11 or 12 hours followed by another 1 or 2 hours depending on which particular route you chose.
A visa is required in advance. I applied for mine in person at the Cambodian Embassy in Vietnam. That was a relatively painless process but it looks to be even easier now as you can buy them on-line. Obviously I have not actually tried this method so cannot comment on how reliable or otherwise it is. The visa is valid for three months though so you could apply for it well in advance for added peace of mind.
Getting around Cambodia is quite an adventure but not necessarily in a good way. Trains are infrequent and not reliable and the roads are in very poor condition. I found there was not a bus service between two regions I wanted to visit meaning a shared taxi or minivan was the only way to get to the second location. But shared taxi drivers will try to cram six adults in one average saloon type car which I can only imagine to be very unpleasant for a six hour journey on potholed roads. Minivans have the same over-crowding issue. Transportation problems might be overcome by joining an organised tour, but I didn't want to do this.
The one place that is well served is Siem Reap and I chose to fly here from Phnom Penh. I used Siem Reap Airlines, I found their planes to be modern and the service good. The airport at Siem Reap is excellent for its size. There are several flights a day between the two locations, flight time is 50 minutes and the cost about US$50 one way. The true backpackers would of course choose to save a few pounds and spend six hours on an uncomfortable bus instead..
So partly due to the challenges of transportation, I only visited three places; Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. It was necessary to come back to Phnom Penh in between as there was no way of getting from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap or vice versa at that time. The other place I had wanted to visit was Kampot, but this would have meant yet another trip back to Phnom Penh which was totally the wrong direction. I believe it is more accessible by bus from other locations now though.
I found Phnom Penh to be a fairly compact city and I was able to walk to more or less everywhere that I wanted to visit. The heart of the city runs along the banks of the Tonle Sap river and the immediate riverbank area is picturesque.
I opted to stay in one of the many guesthouses situated along the riverbank, paying about $15 per night and I took most of my meals in one of the many lovely cafés and restaurants along here as well. The most famous of these is the Foreign Correspondence Club, which I can recommend very highly for the views, the atmosphere, the décor and the food is not too bad either. The FCC also has a few rooms available and I think this would be a fabulous place to stay, although as I was on a budget I sadly could not stretch to the $60 per night cost on this trip.
Nearby attraction include the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, both of which worth a visit. A slightly longer walk would take you to Wat Phnom, another temple and around it a small but thriving cluster of market stalls.
Not long before my trip I had watched the film "The Killing Fields" and I wanted to know more about these terrible times. One day I visited the Toul Sleng museum, which had been a school before being taken over and used as a prison and interrogation centre by young Khmer Rouge soldiers. It is estimated that up to 20,000 people were imprisoned here over a four year period but only twelve are known to have survived. Most were dead within a few months. Every prisoner was photographed passport style when they entered and many of these photographs are now on display. I was shocked at how young some of the prisoners were, there were even babies and children. The school / prison has been preserved in more or less the state it was found after the regime fell. Most people will guide themselves around. I found it horrifying but not in a gratuitous way. My guidebook had prepared me for even more gruesome displays than I saw but the worst horrors are left to the imagination.
Ten miles outside Phnom Penh is Choeng Ek also known as the Killing Fields. I took a taxi for my visit here. The fields are not big and after paying a small admittance fee most people wander around by themselves. I decided to hire a guide to show me around. I didn't understand him very well, but enough to know that his family were killed here during Pol Pot's regime and he was understandably still very angry and he wanted to show people what had happened. He walked around the fields with me and pointed out pieces of bone, teeth and clothing that still lay on the ground. In the middle of the site is a glass tower which has been filled with many of the skulls that have been recovered from the site. I did not want to take a photograph of this particular monument, however my guide wanted me to. Apparently nobody survived this prison, other than seven people who were found inside when the regime was overthrown.
After a few days in Phnom Penh, I made the four hour bus journey to Sihanoukville. The buses are always described as "luxury". They are not. They would probably not be allowed on the road in the UK so be prepared. The drive will be broken up by one or two comfort stops along the way. There will probably be a very loud TV or even worse karaoke machine blaring for the duration of your trip and you may find yourself sharing your seat with a chicken.
I spent about five or six days here in Cambodia's premier beach resort, it is pleasant but does not remotely match up to the beaches of Thailand. When I was there it was still relatively quiet and undiscovered and I found that most of my fellow visitors were backpackers, with plenty of time on their hands, but there were not many "normal" holidaymakers.
There are various different bars along the long beach providing the sun loungers and refreshments during the day. I had a couple of favourites that I went to most often. As it was not a very busy place, it was normal to see the same faces and there was quite a nice atmosphere. There was also a rather large crown of local teenagers who seemed to spend their days going to the beach talking to westerners and I spent many an hour chatting to small groups of them.
There are a few day trips to take from here and these can be organised via several of the guesthouses. A day's boat trip was popular and there was also a trip to Ream National Park, which I did. It was a nice enough outing and included a boat ride and a picnic, but nothing to write home about.
At the end of my visit, I had to take the bus back to Phnom Penh and planned to spend another full day there before flying to Siem Reap. When I arrived at the bus stop, a rather aggressive looking chap from Nottingham related to me the story of his troubles that morning with one of those taxi drivers who had wanted to cram a ridiculous number of adults into his taxi before setting off for Kampot. In the end the chap from Nottingham, decided he had had enough, got out of the taxi and decided to take the bus back to Phnom Penh instead. During the course of the next four hours and after he had calmed down a little, we discovered that Siem Reap was the next stop for us both and we decided that we would pool costs and explore the site together.
Sieam Reap / Angkor Wat~~
As I mentioned earlier, I decided to fly to Siem Reap but my new friend decided to take the bus so he set off the day before me. I arrived in the town at around midday, met up with new friend in the lovely Red Piano bar restaurant and we worked out a sight seeing plan. Most people would probably recognise the image of Ankor Wat, but there are hundreds more temples in the area, built over a period of 600 years by the Khmer empire. Tourist maps of the area are readily available so with that and a guidebook, it was fairly easy to come up with a plan of what we should see and in what order based on location.
Itinerary done and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Siem Reap. I thought it was a very attractive small town with a good range of shops and places to eat and drink. At about 5pm, we decided to go and buy a three day pass (US$60) to the Angkor site. Entry for the evening before is included as a bonus, so we went to the Angkor Wat site to watch the sunset. We took a tuk tuk down to the gates to buy the ticket and we arranged for the driver, Mr Peach, to be our guide for our second and third days. His fee was US$8 a day and we saw no reason to haggle over this.
On the first of three days, we decided to go and see the temples situated further afield, some a good 20 miles from the town and a bit too far to go in a tuk tuk. Instead we hired a car and chauffeur for the day costing US$30. We explored the temples to the east of the site including Banteay Srei and East Mebon which were my two favourites of the five we visited in the morning. In the afternoon, we started to head back to the more central area and managed to fit in another five visits. Of these Ta Keo and Ta Phrom were my favourites. Ta Keo was a quiet site and the pyramids were incredibly steep. We started to climb up one side but then turned back because it was so steep and tackled it from another side instead. When we did get to the top and look down, it was so steep you could not even see the steps, it looked vertical. Climbing back down was pretty scary as it is so steep and there is nothing to hold on to. I had to offer to go first and my offer was accepted!
Ta Phrom is an amazing site and was probably my favourite of all the temples. This is quite a large complex and a decision was made not to restore it so it has been left exactly as it was found, that is being totally over run by trees. The roots and trunks of the trees have grown over the temples and almost become one. The size of the trees is an indication of for just how long the temples had been here forgotten. This is one of the more well known sites and accordingly it was busier than some of the others. But there are many temples to see and they are sufficiently spread out for there to be no real problems with crowds.
We went to see Angkor Wat on our second day, this is the largest and best preserved of any of the temples. It is the one most commonly used in photographs and of course one of the most popular. I too thought it was fantastic, it was great to be able to climb to the highest levels and this time there were hand rails to assist with coming back down again. It is a must see, but definitely not my favourite.
On our final day we went to see the oldest temples, known as the Roulous temples and dating back to 890. These are smaller and made of red brick as opposed to the grey and brown stone used elsewhere.
I am extremely glad we had three full days and four nights in Siem Reap. So many people and most of the organised excursions that I have seen, only provide two full days and three nights. I don't think it is enough and if you are going to go all the way to Cambodia, this will surely be the highlight so don't rush it.
Cambodia has a troubled recent past from which I believe it is still struggling to recover from. Certainly to me they did not seem to have made the progress that their Vietnamese neighbours have after their own troubled past. Unfortunately this manifests as prolific and sometimes aggressive begging, which some may find quite disturbing. This was most apparent in Phnom Penh and I hated the all too common sight of children of about age 10 or less wandering the streets carrying their baby siblings. It was clear to me that these children were not truly fending for themselves, they were too well fed and healthy looking, but rather had been put to work in this way by parents or other adults.
Social problems aside and whilst I did enjoy this part of my travels thoroughly, I still don't think I could say that Cambodia was one of my favourite destinations. This is partly because I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the country but logistically I found this quite challenging. I would highly recommend a trip to Phnom Penh however and can see myself going back one day. I would hesitate to recommend Sihanoukville to anyone other than a backpacker or someone with a lot of time to spend in Cambodia.
As for Angkor, well that was truly remarkable and its position as Cambodia's top attraction is well deserved and unsurprising. It has to be up there as one of the best travel experiences in my life so far. I even ended up getting married to that grumpy chap from Nottingham who shared this experience with me..
In February 2003 I spend two weeks in Cambodia with my partner during a trip overland between Bangkok in Thailand and and Beijing in China. I was scared of going to Cambodia... scared of a country so recently torn apart by war, scared of landmines and malaria....I only agreed to go because Paul desperately wanted to.... However I can honestly say that I had a fabulous time. Despite its disruptive and shocking history Cambodia is a fascinating and altogether exceptionally hospitable country and I would love to return.
Facts about Cambodia
The Kingdom of Cambodia is a small country with an area of just 181,035 sq km and a population of approximately 14 million. It is situated in South East Asia bordering Thailand, Vietnam and Laos and its capital city is Phnom Penh. The country has just a small section of coastline to the South and is dominated by a central lake: the Tonle Sap and the Mekong river which runs across the North Eastern edge of Cambodia and into Vietnam. The country is mostly flat and dry, with the exception of the North which is steep jungle. The main languages spoken are Khmer, English and French and the main religions are Buddhist, Cham Muslim and Roman Catholic.
Cambodia has a horrific history and up until recent decades the country has been ravished by war. This history section is relatively long because I feel it is important that Cambodia's shocking past is understood in order to present an accurate representation of the country.
The French arrived in Cambodia in 1863 and ruled the country until 1941 in peace. French influence can be still observed throughout Cambodia especially in the Capital City. In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne and in the years following the country first became war-torn during the Franco-Viet Minh War which raged in neighbouring countries. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953 and King Norodom Sihanouk ruled for the next 15 years before being overthrown.
In 1969 the USA bombed Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. Troops invaded the country in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful. All they succeeded in doing was to push Cambodia's leftist guerillas (the Khmer Rouge) further into the country's interior. A bitter war ensued and eventually in 1975 Phnom Penh was overtaken by the Khmer Rouge.
Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership, executed over two million Cambodians, particularly the educated. They split up families and forced civilians into worker camps in order to turn the country into one based around communist principles. Currency was abolished, postal services were halted and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Vietnam eventually invaded Cambodia due to border conflicts in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge into the jungles along the Thai border. From the jungle they conducted a guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government until the 1980s.
In mid-1993 the UN helped towards the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king and the outlawing of the Khmer Rouge 1994. In the last two decades Cambodia has become stabilised, although thousands of un-detonated land mines line the countryside, there are shocking number of people with missing limbs and poverty is strife. The current Prime Minister is Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party who won the 2003 elections. Hopefully Cambodia has a brighter future ahead of it than it's destructive past.....
Getting there and Away
Cambodia isn't the easier destination to reach from the West by any stretch of the imagination as you cannot fly directly into the country. The best route in is via Bangkok in Thailand. A return flight will cost you around about £600-800 depending on the seaon and the carrier and will take approximately 12 hours. You may or may not have to change flights, again depending on the carrier, we had to change at Dubai but for doing this we paid less. From Bangkok you can easily connect to a smaller flight into the Capital or travel overland as we did from Thailand or also from Vietnam and Laos. But be warned the trip overland is cramped, hot, sweaty and very dusty. I would never have believed they could get that many people and their luggage on the minibus had I not seen it for myself.... border control is also something of an un-nerving experience, lots of guns, barbed wire and waiting around in the intense buring heat. I have had better days but thankfully things do get better.
Best time to Visit
The ideal months to be in Cambodia are December and January, when humidity is at it's lowest, temperatures are cooler and it's unlikely to rain. We almost picked the perfect time of year as we were there in February but believe me it is still absolutely sweltering with temperatures well up in the 30's. In the evenings the temperature will drop somewhat but it is still hot hot hot.
Cambodia is a really small and undeveloped country and thus there isn't alot of choice over where to go. We visited the three places here which are the most popular destinations overall and unless you go to Cambodia to volunteer I doubt you would go anywhere other.
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
Our first stop across the border from Thailand took us to the town of Siem Reap, gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. This is Cambodia's number one attraction and words cannot do it justice.
The temples were built between 879 - 1191AD by King Suryavarman II when the Khmer civilization was at it's peak. Somehow the site was abandoned and the temples were totally overtaken by jungle. They were rediscovered by French missionaries in 1860 who began restoration work soon afterwards and today the site is considered one of the Wonders of the World. There are 287 temples in total, spread over a 400 square kilometer radius most enclosed within the old boundaries. You'll need a good three days (at least) to explore the site, certainly on a motorbike and ideally also with a guide. Three day passes cost US$60 and are available at the park entrance. Passport photo's are required to prevent sharing.
The most spectacular of all the temples is Angkor Wat, after which the site is named. Dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, every inch of Angkor is covered with detailed and beautiful bas-relief carving and it is surrounded by a moat 570 feet wide and over four miles long. It is breathtaking beautiful and should be viewed at sunset or sunrise for prime viewing and stunning pictures.
In my opinion the overall best part of Angkor is the area known as Ta Prohm. This is because it has not been restored. It is left in it's original state so that a sense of time remain preserved. Gigantic trees have grown in, around and on top of the temples, tree roots envelope the whole area and toppled bricks scatter the area. It is amazing and truly makes you realise how old the temples are and for how long they were lost amongst the jungle.
Siem Reap itself is just an average town with everything your average tourist could possibly need; restaurants, hotels, hostels, bars etc. But one of the other highlights of our time here was a day-trip we took out of the city to the 'floating village' on the edge of the Tonle Sap Lake. The approach to the village along the river is the poorest place I have ever seen on Earth. The houses are built high on stilts to escape the floods when the monsoon comes, rubbish litters the streets and children play naked all over the place. Further down-stream there are floating shops and houses, a floating police station, restaurant school and zoo. This way the locals don't have to relocate every year when the lake floods, they literally just go with the flow. Our guide took us out on his boat, he was a local of the area, a really nice lad as I recall, very chatty as is the Cambodian temperament. He lived on his boat using it to make a living taking people like us out on it and to catch fish. He washed in lake and drank the lake water. This might seem ok until you see the rubbish and dead fish floating in it. He asked us if we would like to join him in a swim.... sensibly we refrained.... Our guide took us into a floating shops and I have an amazing picture of the inside of the shop. There are goods strung up from the ceiling and packed in everywhere. They offered to sell us packets of marijuana strung up on show just like everything else amongst the chilli peppers, the nails and the knick knacks, not hidden away. This day is one of the most shocking yet wonderful and bizarre of my entire life and I remember it vividly.
The Capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a fascinating bustling city with a clear French influence. We arrived in the City on a boat down the Tonle Sap river, a popular route for backpackers but a journey during which you should expect to get wet and be uncomfortable. We arrived on a beautiful day and checked into a hostel on the lakeside which is one of the nicer areas of the city. Here we found a couple of guides who showed us around during our time there.
We visited fabulous markets and the infamous Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia. This is a fabulous French influenced haven on the riverside, serving cold beers and great food. Much more pricey than the rest of the city but well worth a visit for a little luxury. We visited the national museum and some more temples (of course) and we were also driven past the Thai embassy which had been bombed several days prior to our arrival in Cambodia due to some dispute. Like I say you do have to be careful in this country.....
A day trip out of the city to us to 'The Killing Fields'. This sobering and haunting trip takes you to one of the places in which the Kymer Rouge murdered 1000's of innocent civilians. The site is now a memorial and a museum to the dead, including a glass tower in which hundreds of the victims skulls, rescued from mass graves are stacked up row upon row.... tribute to the terrors that occurred here....
One of the highlights of Phnom Penh for my partner was another trip outside of the city to one of the many shooting ranges in the area. Upon arrival you are offered a 'menu' from which you can select which of about 30-40 guns you would like to fire. My partner selected an AK-47 and he paid about US$20 to fire a round of ammunition into a target. Not my cup of tea personally but it was an interesting experience to watch....
***BE AWARE*** Phnom Penh does have a reputation for being dangerous. Tourists have been known to be threatened at gun or knife point for their belongings and you should exercise caution when venturing out at night. We generally stayed in our hostel during the evening where there was an attached restaurant and bar.
The town of Sihanoukville is situated in the South West of the country on Cambodia's short coastline. We spend a few days here, just relaxing on the beach and it was pleasant enough although the beaches are nothing like those that you'll find in Thailand. To get to Sihanoukville we caught a bus from Phenm Penh which took a few hours, it is worth a trip if you have time to play with but the Cambodian coast isn't anything particularly special...
Currency and Costs
The local currency is the Riel. To date one British pound gets you around about 75 Riel, there are almost no coins only notes. Because of the exchange rate the prices in Cambodia are exceptionally cheap and you can live exceptionally well for very little. For example a bottle of beer won't cost you any more than about 20 or 30p and you can eat well in restaurants for a few pounds or less . Bartering is encouraged in guidebooks but personally if things are so cheap that it makes your chin drop anyway then I don't see the point let them have the 4pence what different does it make to you . Alongside the Riel it is also wise to have a good supply of US dollars on you as well as these are also accepted and many locals prefer to deal in dollars, especially in places such as hostels and larger restaurants. ATM machines are a rarity and all money will have to be obtained from the banks, you have to be careful to ensure that you do not get stuck without any money and I would advise wearing a money belt particularly in the Capital where the mugging of Western folks (often with guns or knives) is relatively common. If it happens to you hand your stuff over and cut your losses. It isn't worth the risk....
The food is similar to Thai but with less spices. Coconut fish curry, cooked in the shell, is popular and this was one of my favourite dishes while we were away; It is simply divine. Rice comes with absolutely everything, breakfast, noon and night. The French influence can be seen in the abundance of bakeries and pastries which are sold in the larger towns across the country and an abundance of 'frog' on the menu. In both Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn you can take a visit to The Happy Pizza Place and if daring request your pizza 'extra happy'. Food is cheap everywhere and you shouldn't ever have to pay more than a few pounds or less for great food unless you frequent the very posh places.
Additionally don't drink the tap water anywhere in this country. Bottled water is cheap and available everywhere. It isn't worth the risk. We also cleaned our teeth using bottled water which is recommended.
We stayed in backpacker accommodation across the country, which is cheap and abundant in both Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn. You don't need to bother to book in advance, touts will flock to the buses as they arrive and fight for your buisness. Rooms include air con, there are usually shared bathroom facilities. Everywhere had basic onsite bar and restaurant facilities. All this will set you back £3 per person per night so you don't complain if it is a little basic! There are a range of good hotels in both Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap, although you will struggle to find good quality accommodation in the rest of the country.
The people were a highlight of the trip. Cambodians are exceptionally friendly and hospitable people and we found this everywhere we went. The children will swarm around you and ask you questions in fluent English "What is your name?" "Where do you live?" "Have you been to London?" Adults will wave at you in the street and shout hello. Once we were on motor bikes outside Siem Reap with local tour guides and one of our bikes broke down. We stopped at the road side and these local people invited us into their home, which was nothing more than a roadside hut. They didn't speak a word of English but were happy for us to take refuge from the sun and handed us a naked baby of about 6 months old to play with while they helped fix our bike purely out of the kindest of their hearts and using the most basic of tools and equipment . This was one of the most surreal and wonderful experiences of the trip... Sometimes it pays to do things on the cheap.
Things to Note
Cambodia is a poor country and the level of poverty in some places is shocking. This was particularly apparent on the edges of the Tonle Sap Lake, outside Siem Reap. Also remember that the country is covered in land minds don't wander off main roads on your own EVER.
A visa is required for all nationalities. A one-month visa can be obtained on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports for US$20.00. Or you can just get them at the border on the way in overland. Passport photo's are required.
Health risks include hepatitis, malaria, typhoid, rabies, Japanese B encephalitis. Inoculations are required before departure and malaria tablets need to be taken prior to, during and following the trip which isn't a great deal of fun. The mosquitoes are prevalent everywhere and you should try to ensure you don't get bitten by sleeping in mosquito nets, using coils and wearing repellent.
The roads are terribly bad: covered in potholes and a thick layer of dust. Motorbikes are the main form of transport throughout the country. Do not drive in Phnom Penh yourself, get a local guide as If there are traffic laws I couldn't figure them out. However, driving in quieter parts of the country should be fine.
Easily five stars for Cambodia. It is a wonderful country with much to offer and whose people are hospitable beyond words, despite the tragedy which still hangs over them. I really can't recommend it enough and words do not do it any justice, particularly the temples of Angkor; easily one of the most amazing places I have ever been fortunate enough to visit. True, Cambodia has a reputation as a backpacker destination and it is likely to remain this way until roads are paved, transport improves and crime deteriorates. Unfortunately it is likely to be a while before this has been achieved and therefore on the whole the country really only remains accessible to the very adventurous. But if there is any way at all you can make it there then please do before tourism changes Cambodia for ever....
This summer I managed to fulfil a dream and go to Angkor. My mother and I have always talked about going so getting there first was also a plus! Our trip started out from Khao San Road in Bangkok where we had bought a ticket for the journey over the Thai border to Siem Reap. We had decided to get our visas for Cambodia in advance from the consulate in Bangkok. This involved two sets of queuing as you have to leave your passport and details with them overnight to get the visa, which cost about 25 US dollars. We found that a number of people on our coach hadn’t bought the visa in advance and were able to do so on the border, but apparently this is not always possible. They also held those of us that had visas in a queue for about 4 hours in the sun. We got a minibus from the other side to Siem Reap, the whole journey taking about 8 hours. When we got there we found a hotel where for $4 between us we got a clean double room with a fan, bottled water and laundry included. It also had a reasonable restaurant attached. There are some fantastic deals like this to be had and dollars are accepted everywhere, though your change will usually be given in real. The sign on the back of the door asked us not to have drugs, weapons or explosives in our room which was a sobering reminder that this can be a dangerous place. The temples were everything I had ever dreamed of. They are truly magnificent and the Bayon in particular was the most beautiful place I have ever been. Some of the temples have been left as they were when they were found, so you can get the feel of being an explorer in the jungle. If you are going to go, though, go now. The numbers of tourists are ridiculously low, especially on the longer loop of the sights. We hired a motorbike and driver for $6 a day. You can hire a bike and do it yourself but there are rumours of bikes being hired out to you and then stolen back, and as you have to give them your passport to hire a bike you
are not in a position to argue. You are best off with a copy of the Lonely Planet to give you all the info you need, these can be bought for $1 in the covered market in Siem Reap, which will save you about £10 off buying one here! We then got a boat down the Tonle Sap River to Phnom Penh, which took about 5 hours in the sun so if I were you I would take a hat and plenty of sunscreen. We also found the cushions we had stolen off the flight on the way out useful, as the deck is quite hard. Don’t sit near the back of the boat, either, as the engine makes the deck extremely hot. Phnom Penh was a disappointment after waiting for it so long. The national museum had some good stuff in it but there’s no info up about the exhibits so you have to hire a guide. After Angkor it was a bit of a come down. Also if you come overland from Thailand have a look at the Thai Grand Palace and give the Cambodian one a miss. You pay more to get in at the front gate and cameras cost extra to take in. I don’t know where the money goes but the buildings aren’t in a great state of repair, the famous silver tiled floor is held together with sellotape and there was a curator clipping his toenails in the corner! We also visited the Tol Sleng Khmer Rouge torture prison and hired a guide to give us a tour round. This was well worth the $4 we paid as she had lived though the whole thing and it was quite a history lesson. This was the best way to try and learn about the sheer level of suffering that the Cambodian people have come through. Quite incredible. We also visited the Choeng Ek killing fields where thousands of Cambodians where massacred. It’s quite powerful, with bits of clothing and bone sticking out of the shallow graves. There is also a stupa containing 8000 excavated skulls. This is a good place to pick up books about the Khmer Rouge and their reign, in particular I would recommend ‘Stay alive my son’ as an incredibl
e true story and fascinating read. We travelled back to Thailand by boat from Sihanoukville. The crossing was rough during monsoon season and I would recommend going back by coach if the weather looks unsettled. All in all I’m very glad that I’ve been to Cambodia, although the trip had its ups and downs. If you’re in Bangkok I would recommend a four or five day trip into Siem Reap as a once in a lifetime experience. It is a wonderful country. P.S. Never, never stay in the Narin 1 hostel in Phnom Penh. You have been warned.
Cambodia is a beautiful country with some of the friendliest people you are ever likely to meet. While still largely undeveloped in comparison with the increasingly touristed Vietnam and over-touristed Thailand it rewards to effort required to get there. Most visitors tend to focus on the famous Angkor complex and the Killing Fields memorials in and around Phnom Penh. Travelling between the two by land, while challenging, is an adventure in itself and allows real contact with local people that is increasingly difficult to find elsewhere in the region. Many visitors are Western backpackers (virtually all of those travelling overland from Thailand or Vietnam) although improved air access to the country has seen an increase in 'traditional' tourism. Recent terrorist attacks around the capital have again brought Cambodia's violent legacy to the front of people's minds but the careful use of common sense still makes the trip worthwhile. It is only a matter of time before Cambodia moves towards increasingly commercialisation which may be no bad thing for the local people but which will inevitably change the atmosphere of an amazing country so I would urge any traveller with an itch for adventure to go and see it before the tourist buses descend Thai style.
"The Kingdom of Cambodia (Preăh Réachéanachâkr Kâmpŭchea) is a country in Southeast Asia with a population of almost 15 million people, with Phnom Penh being the capital city. Cambodia is the successor state of the once powerful Hindu and Buddhist Khmer Empire, which ruled most of the Indochinese Peninsula between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. The country shares a border with Thailand to its west and northwest, with Laos to its northeast, and with Vietnam to its east and southeast. In the south it faces the Gulf of Thailand. The geography of Cambodia is dominated by the Mekong river (colloquial Khmer: Tonle Thom or "the great river") and the Tonlé Sap ("the fresh water lake"), an important source of fish. The low geography of Cambodia's fertile areas means much of the country sits nearly below sea level, and consequently the Tonle Sap River reverses its water flow in the wet season, carrying water from the Mekong back into the Tonle Sap Lake and surrounding flood plain."