When people think of Cambodia they immediately think of Angkor Wat and the Tomb Raiders movie. We were lucky enough to explore Angkor Wat (it was Neil’s second time lucky devil) as well as see what else the country had to offer. Here’s a summary of our Cambodia highlights and lowlights.
Our Cambodia highlights
The Angkor Wat complex, built during the reign of the Khmer Empire was truly magnificent. We really enjoyed wondering around the huge clusters of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, steeped with history, culture and ancient traditions. I have been itching to go ever since I had heard about this place, it was made more meaningful and exciting when my little sister Michelle and her boyfriend Dave accompanied us on their short holiday.
Cambodia’s history is marred by the bloody massacres and atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge on it’s own people during the 1970’s. Although one of the biggest crimes against humanity in recent history, it was really insightful to learn what had happened when we visited the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison and Choeung Ek – one of the many hundreds of ‘Killing fields’. It wasn’t easy to digest the facts, the horrors of torture and murder inflicted on innocent children and adults really turned my stomach but equally it made us realise how quickly the Cambodian people bounced back from that awful time to rebuild their lives. We also got a first-person account from our guesthouse owner of his memories of what had happened during the Khmer Rouge takeover and how he and his family narrowly escaped death. If you visited Cambodia now you wouldn’t notice that anything was amiss, or that such a history existed.
We found the Cambodian people to be generally very friendly, helpful and forthcoming. The little kids were adorable, especially in the very rural areas as every time they saw a foreigner would wave and shout “hello hello hello goodbyeeeeeeee” until they couldn’t see you anymore. Their big smiles and sheer excitement to see us were utterly charming.
We loved Cambodian cuisine which was quite similar to their Thai cousins, with tasty Khmer curries, fresh salads and fish grilled in banana leaf. When we were in Kampot and
Kep we sampled the famous Kampot Pepper Crab – absolutely delicious, fresh and my mouth is watering thinking of it again…
Phnom Penh was a developing city, and there weren’t a lot of activities to do there. One of the random things we did do and was definitely a highlight of our trip was visiting the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre which you couldn’t go to without a guide (it wasn’t a zoo). We went with Betelnut tours, a little company run by Adam, a Dutch fella and his Cambodian wife Vathana who cooked the most amazing Cambodian feast for lunch! It was such a fantastic day out, the animal sanctuary rescued mistreated animals, from elephants to tigers to otters! We got close and personal with most of the animals as the guides knew all of the animals by name and had a good rapport with them. This meant we could feed them and pet them, our favourite animals were the gibbons – especially the one who loved a back scratch!
Our Cambodia lowlights
I guess the most disturbing lowlight for us was the obvious sex tourism, which isn’t as regulated and organised like in Thailand we saw a lot of very young girls (who looked a lot younger than sixteen but that’s just my observation) with very old Foreign men. Apparently Thailand is trying to clamp down on the so-called ‘Sexpats’ so they all make a run to Cambodia. It was pretty rife in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and also down in Sihanoukville. We couldn’t go to a bar without sitting alongside the sexpats or surrounded by working girls – it was sad to see.
Serendipity Beach down in Sihanoukville was full of sexpats and the beach itself wasn’t particularly nice, it was dirty and covered in litter – not very well maintained at all and rather grotty. The hawkers were relentless, a constant stream of kids or strange ladies selling tacky souvenirs, fireworks or offering massages and ‘beauty treatments’ of which they had no clue how to do anyway! It wasn’t very relaxing at all. We had fun with Mich and Dave, went to some beach parties and danced the night away but we wouldn’t return to Sihanoukville. The nearby Otres Beach was much nicer, but to be honest there were much nicer beaches in Asia.
Poverty was very high in Cambodia and this was very obvious and very ‘in-your-face’. We gave money to beggars who clearly needed it, many farmers were injured when unexploded ordinance left over from the Vietnam war exploded whilst they were working the fields. This meant we saw a lot of amputees and those who had suffered debilitating birth defects from being exposed to Agent Orange and other nasty defoliants during the Vietnam war. However there were also many professional beggars, mainly using children to guilt-trip foreigners or scam them. The most common scam were young kids with babies strapped to them going around asking foreigners to buy baby milk formula which costs a whopping $20 or more a tin which they then re-sell back to the shop – similar scam to the ghee butter scam found in India. The professional child beggars were particularly rife in Siem Reap. The poverty really got to us, we passed through many ramshackle communities and poor villages and the divide between rich and poor was really huge. The rich were really rich, swanning around the city with their massive Land rovers and Lexus 4×4’s, whilst the poor lived in city squats or simple shacks in the countryside.
There was much more to see and discover than just Angkor Wat and Siem Reap and we thoroughly enjoyed our travels around Cambodia.
Places we visited: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Serendipity & Otres beaches, Kampot & Kep