At home I had dreamt of Cambodia and what it would be like. I had read that it is still a very poor country. I guess I expected a basic way of living, with plenty of nature and forests. Upon arriving in Siem Reap I was surprised to see that actually, it’s nothing like that.
I understand that Siem Reap itself is not an accurate representation of Cambodia. The whole city leeches off the tourism produced by Angkor Wat. In fact, the whole country seems to be doing the same. Tourists flock to Siem Reap, spend a week seeing the temples and then another week heading to other parts of Cambodia. But whilst there are still some obvious signs of poverty on the outskirts of the city, many Cambodians in the city seemed to be doing quite well for themselves. As you would expect, the level of English in the city is extremely good (later I would find out that this is the same throughout the country).
On top of that, much to our annoyance, food is the most expensive it has been the whole trip! Cambodians deal in both riel and dollar as currencies, mostly in dollars though. For a meal you could expect to pay anywhere from $3-$25. Considering Thailand, a country far more developed, offers meals from as little as £1 this is quite a shock.
The people on the whole seemed friendly enough. Compared to other South East Asian countries they are far more confident, similar to Indians in that sense. They will actively seek your business, some see this as hounding but since we are quite used to it from India we didn’t mind. Plus, when they say ‘ok thank you’ and smile when you reject them, you really can’t get mad.
Also, there does seem to be less of a divide between the Cambodian people and the tourists. In Thailand this divide is very obvious, with areas only for tourists and areas only for locals. On Pub Street in Siem Reap I saw just as many Cambodian people getting drunk and having a laugh as I did foreigners, which was nice.
We did the mandatory trip to Angkor Wat in 1 day. Some do 3, some a week, but since we have already seen countless temples across Asia a day was enough.
We woke up at some ungodly hour, after only a couple of hours sleep, to reach the sunrise point. We opted for a private Khmer tuk tuk to take us around for the day, way more convenient and comfortable than cycling. Sunrise was beautiful for sure, though the usual peaceful atmosphere I enjoy at sunrises was missing. I’d say that the huge crowd all pushing to get a picture does dampen the mood a little. Nonetheless, I’m glad we forced ourselves to get there for sunrise.
To avoid the ‘Chinese invasion’, as we have been affectionately calling it, we did the small loop of temples counter-clockwise. First exploring Angkor Wat itself, then moving on to the others. I’d say our two favourites of the day were Angkor Thom (has a face on each side of the spire) and Ta Phrom (the ‘Lara Croft’ temple with lots of beautiful overgrown trees).
Kampong Phluk Floating Village
I was excited to visit this village since the photos looked amazing. Unfortunately it was a huge let down and a prime example of photos being utterly different to reality.
I already did expect a tourist trap and knew it would be busy. What got to us the most was the poor state the river has been left in. There was trash and filth everywhere, plus the river was so full of boats you could hardly meander through it. We were given a 15 year old boy, no adults, to drive our boat. He knew next to no English and so could not answer any questions or give us any information about the village. Once out onto Tonle Sap Lake (absolutely ginormous it just looks like an ocean when you emerge onto it), he just took us to a cafe. We weren’t interested in this and asked to move on thinking he would take us for a short trip on the lake, but no. We then sat in the lake, not moving for 15 minutes whilst we tried to communicate that we wanted to move.
On the way back we got off the boat to walk through the village. Another huge disappointment. The village is not authentic at all and just seems to have been turned into an attraction. I actually felt annoyed that we had come along and attributed to this exploitation. The tickets are not cheap for the boat tour ($25 each) and to be honest, it sucked. It is supposedly ‘ecotourism’ yet I saw no signs of anything to help minimise pollution or protect the local environment. Nor did I see any evidence of any money going back into the community to improve quality of life. The whole morning was a let down. Do not bother with this if you go to Cambodia.
We did spend one day in Battambang but this was also a complete fail from both our side and Mekong Express (worst company in Cambodia). We didn’t enjoy Battambang but know many people did, so I will leave this town out of the blog!
So at the end of our first week we had very mixed feelings on Cambodia. Angkor was lovely and the people seemed to be very friendly, yet still we felt disappointed by what we had seen. Cambodia is highly polluted, plastic and trash is literally everywhere which does affect your enjoyment. Plus, up to this point we had not seen any beautiful countryside or what I would consider ‘real Cambodia’. With an open mind we headed to the North East of the country.
Our time in the North East completely changed our perceptions on Cambodia. There are still corners of the country that are beautiful and relatively undisturbed. Keeping the location secret in the hope of it staying that way. There were still tourists in the area but only a handful. On the day we went waterfall hopping (like bar hopping but way better) we had two waterfalls completely to ourselves. These waterfalls are perhaps some of the best we’ve seen all trip down to their serene, wild beauty.
There is a national park in the area home to creatures such as elephants, gibbons and clouded leopards! There are tours into the park which have reasonable reviews. We did intend on going on one but after reading you only are taken into the buffer zone, decided against it. I also read (and saw) that illegal logging is prevalent in the area. Though banned in the national park, loggers simply pay off the guards and are allowed to freely enter the park to chop trees down. The region has been devastated by actions like this, leaving only pockets of forest left. The main crops are rubber and cashew, for as far as the eye can see these plantations continue. If I took one lesson away from our time here it’s that we are incredibly disconnected to what we buy in the western world. Every time we buy something we create demand, that demand fuels deforestation in places like Cambodia so that the poor can earn money from our demand. We should all learn to buy less of everything. If the demand goes down, so will the damage to our planet.
I hope that some of the forest in this part of beautiful Cambodia is saved in time to keep the animals alive that currently live there.
To finish off this monster blog post on Cambodia I’ll just say a few words on Phnom Penh. By far the biggest city in Cambodia (Siem Reap is actually very small), Phnom Penh fuels the industry of the whole country whilst also harbouring a dark history.
Most people will remember or know of the Khmer Rouge. Although I knew of it, I didn’t know much about the Khmer Rouge. In school we learn of Nazi Germany but not of the horrors that took place in Asia, not even of the Vietnam war – that history lesson is still to come though. There are two unmissable spots in Phnom Penh: S21 Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields.
The killing fields are the first stop and every visitor is given a brilliant audio guide. The information is horrific but highly interesting. At times you feel incredibly emotional and physically sick at what you are hearing. At this one location an estimated 17,000 men, women and children were brutally murdered. Seeing no need to waste bullets, people were killed mostly with blows to the head and then having their throat cut. Children were picked up by their legs and bashed against the ‘killing tree’ before being thrown into one of the mass graves. To this day bones and pieces of clothing are brought to the surface with moving soil. Yet the location has been turned almost into a place of tranquility and remembrance. There are flowers and birds and a general tranquility which helps to appease the horrors of what happened here.
If you aren’t already balling your eyes out the next stop is S21 Genocide Museum. Again, the audio guide is brilliant and I would say necessary to appreciate the history. Once a school, these buildings were turned into prison cells and torture houses. Thousands of Cambodian (and a few foreigners that happened to be in the area) were brought here and tortured horrendously. I don’t actually want to go into details since what they did was so atrocious. When they were close to death, they would be forced to give false confessions so they could be sent to the killing fields and done away with. Most confessions had something to do with the CIA, an organisation most Cambodians would never have heard of.
All in all, in around 3 years, almost a quarter of countries population had been murdered. A devastating genocide fuelled by a madman who wanted to essentially turn Cambodia into a massive rice field. All of this just after Cambodia has been dragged into the Vietnam war and scattered with land mines.
To top it all off, many members of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy defected once they had started to lose their hold on the country. Some of these people are now a part of the current political government in Cambodia. HOW they were allowed to do this I really do not know.
I urge anyone that is interested to learn more about this period in history. It is truly shocking.
That ends what has actually been rather a grumbly account of Cambodia. The history may not be pretty but it is interesting and after an initial disappointment we did find ourselves enjoying Cambodia.
Now for some beach goodness!