Mystery and history: why is Cambodia worth visiting?
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Cambodia is like a scarred beauty. She is raw, wild, and untamed. The Khmer people are tough and proud, yet welcoming and friendly. Their fiery desire to live life to the fullest is matched only by their self-confidence and tenacity, despite the many issues pestering the country. The atrocities which took place during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and its savage leader Pol Pot, are still very much alive in the memory of the people. In the period from 1975 to 1979, the genocide committed among the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge claimed the lives of 1,5 - 2 million people, nearly 25% of the entire population at the time). Since it has been only 40 years since the end of their reign, many people still alive today have lived through the regime's oppression, which has scarred them for life. For a first-hand insight into life under the Khmer Rouge regime, I recommend the book "First they killed my father" by the genocide survivor Luong Un, who was a young girl at the time. If you're lazy, there is also a movie adaptation of the book.
Despite what happened, the survivors of the revolution and their descendants are determined to reconcile with their bloody history and are not trying to hide it. They have restarted their lives with a positive attitude and with a smile on their faces, resolute that they will not be prisoners of their past. They welcome foreigners with their seductive charm and are always prepared to help you or to just chat and explain all about their grand plans for the future and how corrupt their government is.
I gave myself two measly weeks to discover Cambodia, which is far, far less than it deserves. I sincerely hope I will be able to return one day and experience the rest of it.
The huge capital city of Cambodia is a maze of tiny narrow streets, intersected by wide flashy avenues. Streets are packed with cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and everything else. I thought traffic in Bangkok was hectic until I arrived to Phnom Penh. Ho-ly fucknut. Compared to this chaos, Bangkok seemed like Geneva. The majority of intersections (except for the largest ones) do not have traffic lights. Or signs. Pedestrian crossings? Forget it. Nobody walks, everyone is on a motorbike. If you are walking the streets, you are either a tourist or a beggar. The air is heavy with exhaust fumes and other "alluring" scents. At one point I was standing at the side of the road for 5 straight minutes just contemplating how the hell am I going to cross the street without getting run over. Assertiveness and decisiveness is key. You basically just have to wait for a small niche, a small "hole" in the otherwise endless flow of traffic. Then, you step forward into the river of incoming metal and rubber, keep an eye on them and trust that they will slow down or stop (if necessary) in order for you to pass. Stop if you have to, but never, ever take a step back. You never step back because the drivers pass within inches behind you and they expect you to move forward. They will stop and wait, and nobody honks. But they will pass immediately behind you, therefore stepping back is a suicidal maneuvre. Once you take two steps off the sidewalk, there is no retreat. You finish either on the other side of the road or in a hospital. Now that's commitment! You get used to it, of course, and it becomes natural, but the first couple of times it is quite intimidating.
In Phnom Penh you can really feel the desire of the Cambodian people to put their past behind and experience and enjoy everything that life has to offer. The constant strive for better life and commodities, the flashy cars, the partying, the fire in their eyes,...it is quite remarkable. Phnom Penh lives with a vibration that emanates raw energy and makes you feel excited, not knowing exactly what about. In terms of architecture and sights, Phnom Penh does not have too much to offer, but enough to keep you busy for a couple of days. I stayed in a small, centrally located boutique hotel, which was actually an old French colonial villa transformed into a hotel, with a lovely small atrium envisaging a pool, surrounded by bamboo trees and other plants. It was a safe haven of peace and tranquility, but each time I stepped out the front door on the street, it felt like stepping into a torrent of chaos, trying to sweep me away into the unknown and pull me into the city, push me into its depths; its secrets.
The two most known historic sights are the remnants of the Khmer Rouge rule (the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum). They are sobering and instill one with uneasy horror and despair. An excellent audio guide narrated by one of the former prisoners in Tuol Sleng prison, tells a blood-chilling story. Not something for gentle souls, but nonetheless, the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng museum are a must-see if you are visiting Cambodia's capital. At the time of my visit, one of the 7 adult survivors who were found still alive in Tuol Sleng when it was liberated by the Vietnamese army in 1979, was at the prison signing his book and chatting with people - I got close and listened to the conversation, but I could not get myself to actually ask him anything. What are you supposed to say? "Oh man, that must have been pretty bad. I know how you feel, I was in school detention once". It just doesn't work. Looking in his eyes, you see that, within these walls, he endured so much suffering your mind cannot even imagine it. And yet, he comes back to this place, which must instill him with plenty of dark memories. One can only do that if he made peace with his past, regardless of how horrific it was. And making peace with our past is something we all should, but often fail, to do.
Phnom Penh is dirty and chaotic, yet it has a certain charm. It has an air of deprivation but complements it with a feeling of hope and vitality. I liked it. You have to see it for yourself and decide.
Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Samloem
After the exhausting and intensive Phnom Penh, I decided I need a couple days' rest, so I set off to see the Cambodian islands - Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. It was a 4-hour drive from Phnom Penh in a van. The drive was pure suffering: I was crammed in the back row of seats (which looked more like a bench), with the ceiling too low for me to sit with my head straight, so I had to be slightly hunkered down the entire time. I couldn't move my legs even an inch since they were stuffed between the luggage and the seat in front of me. The driver's leg was superglued to the throttle and he was constantly using the slippery gravel surface next to the road to overtake buses and trucks, with other buses and trucks incoming the other way, usually escaping only by a slight margin. Honking and blinking are a constant companion, of course. A couple of close calls, at least for my standards. I was in the back seat, so I did not see much of what was going on in front - which was probably a good thing. If I wouldn't be so uncomfortable, I might even be scared. But at least the high speed meant we would get to our destination quicker and I could get the hell out of this blasted van.
After this fun ride, we arrived to Sihanoukville, the departure point for the islands. Until 10 years ago, Sihanoukville was a quiet fishing town. Then the Chinese started heavily investing into the town, transforming it into the appauling forest of towering blocks and monstrous casinos that it is today. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against casinos and skyscrapers, if they are built with some sense of style and urbanistic planning and design. Sihanoukville does not even have any paved roads. When we turned off the main intra-state road (which was not in the best condition to begin with), there was nothing but mud roads ahead. It was just mud road after mud road, leading past wooden shacks and huts. I remember thinking: "Where is this guy taking us?" The shacks and huts were slowly superseded by more concrete buildings, when all of a sudden, we arrived at the center of the cirty and its main roundabout (still all mud). He dropped us off. It was all construction sites, half run-down buildings and gravel avenues. I've never seen anyhting like it. Eventually, I managed to flag down a tuk tuk and went to the pier. We stopped at three ATMs on the way, all of which were out of order.
I had a problem because my boat was due in 15 minutes, I was short on cash and none of the ATMs nearby were working. There were no ATMs on the islands, either. The next boat was not until the next day, and I had no intention of staying in this shit-town overnight. Consequently, I decided to shorten my intended stay on the islands to 3 days and visit only Koh Rong Samloem.
Koh Rong Samloem does not have any roads to speak of, but sports a couple nice beaches. I literally did nothing for three days, just chilling out in a hammock in the middle of the water, enjoying the sunshine, drinking mojitos and listening to music, reading books, and partying in the evening with the rest of the crowd at my hostel. I haven't seen much of the island though - so I am not able to provide any sage advice. It is definitely worth a visit, and I've heard Koh Rong is very nice as well. A rough estimate would be that they are just as beautiful as the islands of Thailand, but less developed and less touristy (for now).
Siem Reap and Battambang
Siem Reap is Cambodia's celebrity, and for good reason. Millions of tourists flock here every year to visit the famous temples of Angkor Wat. The awe-inspiring and jaw dropping ancient buldings and statues adorn cover pages of many travel guides. Nature is running rampant in Angkor Wat, with the roots of trees twisting through and crumbling the centuries-old structures; while monkeys casually stroll in the surrounding forests. Angkor Wat is truly a must-see when in Cambodia.
There are several options to do it: whether on an organized tour with a guide or by yourself. Angkor Wat is a short ride away from Siem Reap, so you need either a taxi, tuk-tuk, motorbike, or bicycle to get there and also to cover the distance between individual temples (they may be up to a few kilometers apart, thus too time-consuming for walking). A friend I've met on Koh Rong Samloem and I joined forces and hired a tuk-tuk driver for the whole day. He picked us up in the morning, drove us to Angkor Wat and between all the temples we wanted to see, and brought us back at the end of the day. It is a convenient way to see Angkor Wat since you have the freedom to choose what you want to see and to stay at individual temples for as long as you want. The popular way to start the tour is at sunrise, so we woke up at 4:30 am, arrived at the temple still in darkness and witnessed a stunning sunrise over the lake in front of the first temple.
In one long day, you can visit all the main sights and honestly, I've had quite enough of it. Unless you are super-interested in history and details about each particular building and temple, I don't think it is necessary to purchase a multi-day ticket. I would not be particularly intrigued by another full day of looking at stones, as astounding as they are.
Apart from Angkor Wat, Siem Reap has a lively night scene which concentrates on one main street, named (obviously) the "Pub Street" and surrounding alleys, which boast a plethora of restarants, bars, night clubs, cocktail stands, fruit shake stands, rolled ice cream stands and insect stands (ok, there was only one of these). I also did a one-day motorbike trib to the nearby Tonle Sap lake and the Phnom Krom hill, driving amongst the seemingly endless rice fields all around, glistening in remarkably vivid green. I also bribed a policeman to allow me entrance to the remains of the Phnom Krom temple without a ticket; and almost got stuck in the mud on the lake shore, when the paved road came to an abrupt, unmarked end and just a narrow path led on. I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I imagined something like a nice promenade or at least a paved shoreline. I was wrong. I drove along the path with my motorbike for a hundred meters when the lake surreptitiously began forming underneath my wheels and suddenly I drove into a patch of wet mud, sinking a few inches deep. After a series of curses and a short struggle, I got out and decided this is as far as I go.
Battambang is a smallish town about three hours bus ride from Siem Reap. Apart from another historic site related to the Khmer Rouge, the "Killing Cave", Battambang has one of the most unusual and interesting attractions I have ever seen: the bat cave of Phnom Sampov. Every night at sunset, hundreds of thousands of bats simultaneously fly out of the cave to the jungle to hunt and feed. As they fly out all of a sudden, they form a steady phalanx against the sunset sky. The flock changes shape abruptly as the bats navigate left and right, but the stream of bats remains steady and uninterrupted for 15-20 minutes. The sound of fluttering of a million wings, accompanied with endless high-pitched sonar squeaks, is simply mesmerizing. It is a "wow" moment, but it is advisable to keep your mouth closed (and sunglasses on) since bats sometimes pee when they fly out of the cave.
Now, I realize bats have an extremely bad reputation at the moment, but nonetheless, I must admit it was one of the most curious and unusual experiences in Cambodia.