– Crisna Coetzee
When the opportunity arose to travel to the tropical South East Asian country of Cambodia, I jumped at it without thinking twice. Living in Korea and having never had a white Christmas before, I took the opportunity to keep it a clean slate and celebrate a warm festive season in true South African style. Leaving Seoul, South Korea in the midst of a particularly snowy and cold winter mood, I travelled via Shanghai, China to eventually come to a balmy Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia
In the collective imagination Cambodia is synonymous with Angkor Wat and Lara Croft in her leather clad body swinging from branches and killing bad guys. Little do most of us know that this country has so much more to offer. It’s a true smorgasbord for the traveller in whatever price range or destination you wish to travel. As much as Cambodia is a country of amazing landmarks, untamed forest, cheap massages and manicures, and delicious and affordable food, it is a country of the people, where the faces and lives of the Cambodians often leave you with the most cherished memories.
To fully appreciate the country you need to know a little about its history. The Kingdom of Cambodia has a rich and fruitful history laced with a substantial amount of strife and truly heart breaking decades of violence and civil unrest. The fall of the Khmer empire signalled the change in the course of the country’s fate. Once a mighty nation that ruled parts of its neighbours including, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, the Khmer empire that brought us Angkor Wat and all the other jewels in this country’s crown came to an end due to plundering from its neighbours. Colonization by the French followed in the 19th century. In 1953, Cambodia received independence, but never truly embodied the concept. In the 1960’s, bombings by America during the Vietnam War ravaged great parts of the country causing countless casualties, starvation and displacement for many. All this led up to great socio-political change which prompted the formation of the communist Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for the genocide of roughly three million Cambodians during the 1970’s. Vietnam intervened in 1978 to stop the Khmer Rouge, they were successful in causing the Khmer Rouge to flee the country, but in the effort to prevent them from regaining control over Cambodia and returning to the country, landmines were set along the country’s borders and still unknown places, which were and still is responsible for many of the amputees and deaths in Cambodia by landmines. This renders Cambodia the nr.1 country in the world for amputees per capita. The Khmer Rouge officially came to an end in 1989 and Cambodia celebrated its first democratic election in 1993. Ever since then the country has not looked back and is becoming a tourist must-see.
For my trip I headed to the two main tourist attractions in the country. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Phnom Penh situated on the banks of the mighty Mekong River is fast becoming a must-see holiday vacation for travellers all around. Hosting an eclectic mix of architecture, sights, dining and accommodation options this relatively unknown jewel in Asia’s crown is changing and changing fast to compete with its more well-known neighbours in other countries. The city is easily accessible via, boat, car, or bus from Vietnam. A city filled with contradictions in its people, places and era’s. Phnom Penh is a thrill for the senses. The main source of transportation and income for many is a scooter or a tuk-tuk. The roads are over run with people trying to get to their destination. To see a family of four sitting comfortably on a single scooter is a sight to behold. Travelling via tuk-tuk in this city or anywhere in Cambodia makes for excellent sight-seeing and gives you a quick ticket to see many of the sights if
you are in a hurry. You feel connected to the energy of the city and people. Only having spent two days in Phnom Penh, on my arrival day and my last day in Cambodia I wish to return to explore more of the cities sights. Most notable of the sights are the following, to name a few. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Wat Phnom, a hill overlooking the city with a Buddhist temple on top. Go for a sunset cruise on the Mekong River, one of the world’s greatest waterways and see small floating communities built on the river. Enjoy a vast array of Khmer dishes or perfectly prepared Australian beef steaks at any number of restaurants in Sisowath Quay or enjoy a meal from one of the vendors in the Great Market, which is housed in a glamorous art deco style building. No visit to Cambodia will be complete without a sobering reminder of the great struggles that the people of the country had to overcome. Visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in town and the largest of the known ‘Killing Fields’ just outside of Phnom Penh to educate yourself about the atrocities which took place there. For many of us visiting these sites will serve as a healthy dose of perspective to our daily problems.
On my second day in Cambodia I departed for Siem Reap with a bus, for a six hour long journey across three province. In my personal opinion this is a must do. The same journey can be done by train or plane, but the sights that one sees by travelling by bus makes the discomfort and delays all the more worthwhile. Travelling over sparsely tarred roads with cows blocking the road and scooters whizzing past makes for great road side entertainment.
Siem Reap is if anything a tourist town, which accommodates the whims of tourists. Cambodia is known for its hospitality as tourism is its number one source of income, thus we received excellent service wherever we went. Note that everything takes a little longer in Cambodia, but this only added to the overall sense of relaxation that one feels in this country. Siem Reap has something for everyone. There is Pub Street, the centre for night life. Various day and night markets housing a myriad of wares all over town. These markets are a great place to purchase exquisite silks, silver items, bamboo containers, art work and beautiful souvenirs. In Siem Reap itself there are many Buddhist temples to visit. The Cambodian cultural village is also a place where you can see and experience many of the traditional trades of Cambodia. Streets are lined with open air massage parlours, where a manicure, pedicure and massage will cost you about 10 dollars. The famous Dr Fish is also everywhere to be seen, get a fish pedicure for 1 dollar after a long day of temple hopping. Spas are abundant and the employees are enthusiastic about attracting you to their establishment. If bar hopping is not your scene than you can find enjoyable entertainment at, Smile of Angkor, the Cambodian circus and all across town there are establishment which offer Apsara dancing shows, the traditional Cambodian dance form.
Cambodian food is flavourful and oh-so delicious. Due to its history of French colonization, you find the most exquisitely fresh baguettes and pastries in town served with the best coffee. Cambodian coffee is unlike any other I have ever tasted and it’s served with sweetened condensed milk and not milk and sugar. Just like the cuisine it’s a pleasurable adventure for your taste buds. Cambodian food is filled with rich flavours, similar to Thai food, but without the spiciness. Food to definitely try is Amok, its fish curry served in a bamboo leaf. Lok-Lak, seasoned beef in a pepper dipping sauce served with rice and then any of their delicious noodle soups and noodle dishes. Fresh fish, grilled, steamed or fried is definitely also a must-eat .The profound adventure that your taste buds will take is only rivalled by the beauty of this country and its people. No visit to Siem Reap will also be complete without grabbing a late night dessert banana chocolate pancake from a road side vendor. Nor will your visit to this country be complete without drinking your fair share of Angkor beer, proudly brewed in Sihanoukville on the West coast of Cambodia.
Siem Reap is most famously known for being the gateway to explore the wonders of the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park which is situated about 15 km out of town and is easily accessible by tuk-tuk, taxi or bike. We purchased a three day pass to visit all the temples that are fit for tourists to see and we utilised all of the days. The sheer beauty, size and age of these temples are enough to make even the most jaded of traveller stand in awe. Buried in the forest these testaments of a previous age bring to life the romance and glory of days past as well as the reminder of the power that the people of the country had. Many of the temples are a place for young children to sell their goods or just to beg and you frequently see an instrumental band of middle aged men, playing music at a temple entrance. These men are landmine victims, playing to earn some money. It is scenes like these that bring the reality of the people in this country home to every visitor. The Angkor Archaeological Park is a must-see for any visitor and I would recommend seeing as many temples as time will allow you. Travelling through the park on a tuk-tuk or bike would also be advisable as you can experience the forest and easily stop for pictures along the way. Another great experience to have is to arrive at Angkor to see the sunrise or sunset.
Cambodia is a great and affordable country to travel in. Road travel between the mayor towns is getting easier, but travelling to lesser known places will still be an adventure. Except for Phnom Penh and Siem Reap other notable towns to visit are Kampot, the pepper capitol of the world and home to the Bakor National Park. Sihanoukville, only about three hours away from Phnom Penh, which is Cambodia’s only deep sea port, sports lovely beaches, high end luxury accommodation and island hopping. Karong is even more undisturbed than Sihanoukville and its natural beauty and great beaches are something to behold. The last two towns deliver the beauty of Thailand’s beaches without the crowds.
Useful tips when travelling in Cambodia is the following. The dollar is the unofficial currency, it can be used anywhere, 4000 Khmer riel is roughly one dollar. When going over, take as much money in small denominations as possible. Visa’s can be acquired upon arrival, at all borders. We acquired E-Visa’s to skip the line and save time. The best time to visit is in December and January during the winter, when temperatures and humidity will be at a low and daily averages of 27 degrees Celsius can be expected. Tipping is encouraged as the majority of the population lives on less than 1 dollar a day. Woman would be advised to dress conservatively when visiting the country and men and women should wear long pants and shirts with sleeves when entering temples. Cambodian people are friendly and helpful and like to talk, when they have made your acquaintance. Begging children and mothers are a common sight, but it is advised not to give them money.
Unlike many of the other countries in Asia where efficiency and rigorous departure from the past seems to be the main theme for going into the future, Cambodia has remained true to its routes and maintained this unique feeling that I think can only be found in Asia, a controlled chaos where everything happens as it should in its own time. Cambodia, a country rich in history and culture, a country where you can’t leave without having been deeply affected by the people in it. Its magnificence and beauty together with the simplicity of how the people live is what makes this a great place to visit and I for one can’t wait to go back and experience more of this amazing place.